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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION


The Pride and the Passion
MGM Home Entertainment
1957 / Color / 1:66 flat / 125 min. / Street Date May 7. 2002 / $14.95
Starring Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Theodore Bikel, John Wengraf, Jay Novello
Cinematography Franz Planer
Production Designer Rudolph Sternad
Art Direction Fernando Carrere, Gil Parrondo
Film Editors Ellsworth Hoagland, Frederic Knudtson
Original Music George Antheil
Written by Edna Anhalt & Edward Anhalt from the novel The Gun by C.S. Forester
Produced and Directed by Stanley Kramer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Successful producer Stanley Kramer graduated to director in 1955; two years later he was helming this giant, rather ill-conceived epic in Spain. A controversial figure who championed liberal causes while enraging most of the creative people who worked with him, Kramer made tiny productions until he decided to take the star position as director. In almost every case, he would have done better hiring somebody with talent to direct instead, whether he fought with them or not.

Synopsis:

Spain, the Napoleonic Wars. English agent Anthony (Cary Grant) links up with guerilla rebels Miguel (Frank Sinatra) and Juana (Sophia Loren, pre - nose job) to retake the walled city of Avila, using an oversized cannon discarded halfway across Spain. Their only problem is how to smuggle the large weapon through hundreds of miles of French - controlled territory.

The Pride and the Passion was a cannily-packaged film by a producer who attacked the problem of making a hit movie as if it were a science: get two top stars, the hottest new European actress, a cast of thousands, throw in torrid romance (the Passion, get it) and giant battles of honor, and all that remains between your film and boxoffice millions is a good poster. Stanley Kramer did all of these things right, and his show was a big success. It still retains a basic, ummm ... watchability.

But it's also a simply awful picture, practically from top to bottom. Kramer's direction is as stiff as the hundreds of storyboards we had in the UCLA Kramer collection, and a big cannon is his story's only real source of interest. It, at least, has some mystery, as we want to know how it will get to Avila, to find out how potent a super-weapon it will be. Frank Sinatra is appallingly bad, and not only because he is miscast. As capable as Frank was at playing a regular guy (well, sort of regular), there's nothing remotely right about him as a period character. This hard-bitten rebel Miguel rarely if ever even smiles, and without a chance to have a personality, Frankie looks way out of place.

Cary Grant's saving grace was always his sense of irony and humor, but here he dutifully plays the English commander in his fancy uniform as straight and stiff as can possibly be done. I can see Kramer repeating to his actors how his vision for Pride is dependent on big doses of Noble and Serious. When these guys did good work, it was by playing against those qualities. Grant looks appropriately dapper in his jut-jaw poses, but might as well be a statue; Sinatra never comes across as the dedicated freedom fighter he's supposed to be - he just looks lost, like he wasn't even thinking about the character two seconds before the camera rolled.

Kramer gave Frank a plum role in the previous year's Not as a Stranger, which also miscast both him and Robert Mitchum as doctor interns. Maybe Pride was Frank's payback gesture. After this, however, Frank got into the producing business himself by maintaining a more controlling position in his movies, and for the most part made reasonably wise casting choices for himself.

For Sophia Loren, 1957 was a breakthrough year. Fox's Boy on a Dolphin raised temperatures everywhere with its provocative scenes, and UA's Legend of the Lost paired her with John Wayne in a highly-visible vehicle. Although Grant and Sinatra were definitely a step up, The Pride and the Passion was only par for her. Just standing like a goddess on the posters was enough to cement her stardom world-wide. But she was no more capable of appearing Spanish than was Frank; her 'torrid' flamenco dance is so Italian that you can almost see the Spanish extras laughing at her (and imagine hundreds of Spanish actresses fuming at the thought of such an opportunity going to an Italian upstart). Loren found her place in pictures immediately after this show, when she showed her skill as an engaging comedienne in light comedies. Besides not yet having her final, surgically augmented face, she hadn't yet developed her full acting abilities. She came back to play another Spaniard in El Cid four years later, and the improvement is remarkable.

All three stars would have come off much better, if only Stanley Kramer had a clue as to how to direct a picture like this. In scene after scene, the three leads stand in stiff poses, frequently against a backdrop of peasant onlookers; never has an epic about a mass struggle seemed more like a cheap soap-opera where significant stars get all the attention and the masses are completely disposable.

C.S. Forester's novel The Gun was a happy excuse to take a variation of his Captain Horatio Hornblower character onto dry land. Substitute Hornblower's efforts to sneak his ships past the French fleet to strike some vital target, and The Pride and the Passion becomes a basic Forester plot, without the nautical talk. You'd think some fish-out-of-water mileage could be gotten from the English officer's frustration at being saddled with a bunch of peasants for a crew, but things never get that interesting. Kramer reduces Forester's military strategies to a few pitiful tent scenes where Napoleonic commanders bumble in off-the-rack tricolor uniforms. Away from the three stars, it looks like Kramer directed the rest of the dialogue scenes in an afternoon or two.

Even worse than his handling of the cast, is Kramer's direction of the large-scale scenes. The rolling of the big cannon across the landscape was storyboarded in great detail, but the uninspired angles and repetitive setups don't stop it from becoming boring.  1 There are so many high-angled shots that most of the time the cannon seems like a toy. The landscape is mainly empty, so there's little evocation of the Napoleonic era. One major story point has the cannon being smuggled across a bridge. The day-for-night shooting and the pitiful pontoon structure (this movie has some pretty awful art direction) make the scene look like an ambitious TV show. The few minutes of Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits devoted to Napoleon have 50 times the atmosphere.

The film's has three setpieces that do work, up to a point. The cannon gets loose and rolls down a slope, crashing through a small wood and wiping a path like a blackboard eraser as it snaps dozens of trees like they were toothpicks. At least there we get a fairly unique demonstration of its size and mass. Later, to sneak by the French, the cannon is disguised as a parade float in a Catholic procession. Kramer and his composer George Anthiel Daughter of Horror work overtime telling us this is significant (a weapon is a holy thing too; the church is behind the people; God is the biggest arms smuggler of all) but still has no impact. Again, the graphic direction still manages to make the scale look small, and there's little emotional connection between the laboring peasant guerillas, and the movie.

The final battle has some very impressive moments, at least when the giant cannon fires. We've dragged it so far, that there is a release of tension in finally seeing it fire so mightily. Here finally is a real vista, with a mile or so of walled city in the distance. It's too big to be a miniature or a forced-perspective set. Kramer's gun very dramatically knocks down the wall bit by bit, as the cheering guerillas watch.

Then the charge takes place, and the movie staggers on to new levels of incompetence. Thousands of attackers are felled by the defending cannonade (lots of suspicious-looking black cork thrown into the air, here) but when they get inside, we see only a handful of French defenders. The sets are so bare and unreal, it looks like they've broken into the magic castle at Disneyland.

The mostly silent finale has Grant carrying his fallen comrade to the base of a statue of the Virgin Mary, as inspirational music plays. This was storyboarded as well, and the shots are graphically aligned and pat. But Kramer didn't have a poetic bone in his whole body, and the emotional sum is a big nothing.

After The Pride and the Passion, Stanley Kramer concentrated almost exclusively on liberal cause pablum, one crusade per film. He touched on race relations a couple of times with Sidney Poitier, the Nazi 'problem', the Scopes Monkey trial, etc. A couple of these were indeed socially meaningful. He finally fizzled when he tried to tackle the student revolution problem, way beyond the time when wishy-washy political correctness made a difference. Kramer's entertaining It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is so big and has so many beloved comedians, it gets by without being especially funny above Three Stooges level. His one great film as a director is On the Beach, where the subject matter matches the solemnity of his approach. The great cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno seems to have a lot of positive input there as well, as On the Beach's visual presence has a strange, almost radioactive morbidity about it.


The DVD of The Pride and the Passion is perhaps the least worthy of MGM's May epic releases, in this flat, matted version. The original VistaVision aspect ratio could have been anywhere between 1:66 and 1:85, but what we have here is rather loose top to bottom, and crops off well on a 16:9 television. During some scenes there is an intermittent squarish flaw directly right center. It doesn't look like film dirt because of its shape and the way it blips on and off. I'd have to think it was a flaw somewhere in the digitizing or encoding process, that should have been easy to catch. The audio is fine; George Antheil's score is fairly exciting outside the Church scene and tries to capture a Spanish atmosphere. The only extra is a trailer which turns out to be a teaser (...coming soon) that's designed by Saul Bass in the same style as the main titles ... which aren't very interesting. There's no live action at all, just squiggly line drawings of the stars and the gun (which look very much like the storyboards at UCLA). I almost expected a card touting the film as photographed in 'DoodleVision'!


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Pride and the Passion rates:
Movie: Fair +
Video: Fair +
Sound: Good
Supplements: Teaser Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 1, 2002


Footnote:

1. According to the UCLA materials, main credits designer Saul Bass worked on much of the storyboard planning as well. The resulting sterile and academic quality of the film may have been a result of second units following the storyboards too literally. There are few shots that aren't locked down like a storyboard frame. No attention is given to dressing the landscape for the path of the gun, so it looks like the shots are set up mainly to avoid modern buildings, power lines, etc. A particularly lame sequence shows the cannon being rolled quickly through the same Almería locations used in The Valley of Gwangi. Bass did much better when he stuck to his trend-setting and creative title sequences - ever see his sci-fi film Phase IV? In the same year, his contemporary designer-genius friend Ray Eames did much better live action work, on the building-an-airplane montages for Billy Wilder's underrated The Spirit of St. Louis.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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