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Behold a Pale Horse

Behold a Pale Horse
1964 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 121 118 min. / Street Date February 22, 2005 / 19.94
Starring Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Mildred Dunnock, Raymond Pellegrin, Paolo Stoppa, Daniela Rocca, Christian Marquand, Marietto
Cinematography Jean Badal
Production Designer Alexander Trauner
Art Direction Auguste Capelier
Film Editor Walter Thompson
Original Music Maurice Jarre
Written by J.P. Miller from the novel Killing a Mouse on Sunday by Emeric Pressburger
Produced by Fred Zinnemann
Directed by Fred Zinnemann

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Critics trounced Fred Zinnemann's Behold a Pale Horse for being pretentious and dreary and to a certain degree they had a point. Not a great deal is done with Emeric Pressburger's source story of crime and punishment across a national frontier. A mortal feud between old enemies and a desperate but existential murder mission sounds like a can't-lose opportunity. But the realities of studio filmmaking mitigate against this atmospheric thriller, shot on location in France.


Embittered expatriate Spaniard Manuel Artiguez (Gregory Peck) has been carrying out various raids from across the French frontier for twenty years and is finally too old to keep up. But his mother Pilar (Mildred Dunnock) is dying and he feels he must see her again. Fascist police chief Vinolas (Anthony Quinn) rightly recognizes this as an opportunity to lay a trap for the cagey old man, and dispatches informer Carlos (Raymond Pelligrin) to tell Artiguez that the coast is clear. Young Paco Dages (Marietto) also makes the trip to see Artiguez, at first just to urge him to murder Vinolas, the killer of his father, but then to identify Carlos as an informer. Only a priest on his way to Lourdes, Father Francisco (Omar Sharif) can verify Paco's claim - but Manuel distrusts and despises priests.

Half of the fault in Behold a Pale Horse is the necessity for a studio film to court top marquee names. This truly international production has big name American stars in the leads with the rest of the cast split between Frenchmen and Italians; although the look of the picture says small-scale neorealism, there are almost no real Spaniards to be seen. Rossellini and De Sica knew that nobody would buy their intimate, street-level tales if they were stuffed with big stars and known faces. Gregory Peck is fine as the graying bandit Artiguez and Anthony Quinn is also convincingly low-key, but their very presence leads us to expect a more conventional storyline. And with various Spaniards portrayed by Englishmen, Egypians, Italians and the latest names in Paris movie circles, the film has a simple credibility problem.

Even if we had just climbed out of a cave and had never seen To Kill a Mockingbird, Behold a Pale Horse would still be lacking. Emeric Pressburger's tale is one of his enlarged short stories leavened with a dash of ironic espionage angst: the rebel makes a personal stand by challenging his arch enemy one last time, in a mission without a purpose except to reinforce his identity: I am not defeated.

The details raise several ideas worth investigating. Cagey fascist cop Quinn exercises plenty of power and gets to pretend he's the kind of rich man who can buy fancy horses. Vinolas keeps a stunning mistress (Daniela Rocca of Caltiki, the Immortal Monster) and doesn't bother to hide her from his long-suffering wife (Rosalie Crutchley). Ex-rebel Artiguez is a thorn in Vinolas' side. He wants to capture the old cutthroat but must put a calm face on the situation for the public; Franco's regime keeps the peace only by suppressing any hint of trouble. Vinolas can't afford to let Artiguez become a martyr to a cause that still simmers like an old feud; even though this is his life's key duel, Vinolas has to pretend that the bandit is only a common criminal.

Artiguez rots in a boarding house just across the border. He's too afraid of capture to risk visiting his sick mother Pilar, played by American Mildred Dunnock as if she were the same Pilar from For Whom the Bell Tolls, twenty-five years later. As can be expected, she and her son hate the Catholic clergy; Franco's reactionary counterrevolution was done in the name of the church. The script never gets deep into this, and without further explanation we can't be expected to understand why Peck's character mistrusts the priest played by Omar Sharif.  2 Peck's Artiguez warms up to the little kid Paco, who believes in him and wants him to avenge his father's death. There's kind of a negative father-son relationship there, with Artiguez buying Paco a new fútbol but telling him he has to fight his own battles with the neighborhood thugs if he wants to keep it.

Behold a Pale Horse never builds tension until the burst of action at its conclusion. Artiguez' tracking of the priest to Lourdes is a grim business. So is Vinolas' armed deathwatch on the mother forced to die in a lonely ward, surrounded by the priests and nuns she hates. Although he knows there is no longer a point in exposing himself to what is obviously going to be a trap, Artiguez can't help but recover his hidden arsenal and start out across the forbidding mountain pass, determined to outfox his rival.

The movie ends with ten very tense minutes of violence, followed by a slack downbeat ending that only reminds us that the basic story never really took hold. If the viewer is enamored of hopeless acts of defiance by political outcasts, this may be the ticket. We never get very deep into Manuel Artiguez' state of mind, something necessary to understand his suicidal pride. Alain Resnais' equally existential but more cerebral take on the same subject can be seen in the Yves Montand movie La guerre est finie.  1

Big names play in bit roles. Italian star Paolo Stoppa (Miracle in Milan) is a senile priest. Raymond Pellegrin is the informer. Martin Benson, director Claude Berri, Michael Lonsdale and Albert Rémy have even smaller roles. Christian Marquand is such a familiar face that we're surprised to see him only as Anthony Quinn's spear carrier. The above-mentioned Daniela Rocca has but one scene, and that's dominated by her revealing dressing gown.

The movie doesn't have a sense of humor; the most memorable character moment is when young Paco sees the aged Artiguez sleeping and assumes he's the guerrilla leader's father. The slow-moving story also wastes several minutes with a narrated montage about the Spanish Civil War by Frédéric Rossif, which looks like leftovers from his excellent documentary To Die in Madrid. Then we have a lame flashback to 1939, with Gregory Peck's character refusing to turn in his weapons with the other rebel losers at Franco's victory. He instead heads back to the mountains to keep up the good fight, like Quanah Parker or Geronimo. The simple look of idolatry in young Paco's eyes for the man who fought alongside his father much more effectively establishes Artiguez' status as the rebel who never surrendered.

Columbia's DVD of Behold a Pale Horse is a good transfer of a film that affects a slightly contrasty look. Framed wide and given an enhanced encoding, the drama is greatly improved by the compositional tightness: The final unglamorized hospital shoot-out is a winner. Maurice Jarre's music may attract some viewers - it isn't one of his standout scores and it certainly doesn't help define what the film is about.

There are no extras except for Columbia's usual string of action trailers. The confused copy on the back cover fumbles a plot synopsis even worse than the average Savant paragraph and makes no mention of the politics in the story. The average modern action viewer drawn to this picture by its cast (there's an image of an non-existent explosion on the cover) will not begin to understand the historical issues raised but not explained in the script. I have a feeling that this film began as a much more detailed autopsy of the Spanish Civil War, but was de-boned during filming. Take a story about politcal angst, strip away the politics, and you're left with a murky piece about existential angst.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Behold a Pale Horse rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 18, 2005


1. I'd have to say here that that was the big accomplishment of The Wild Bunch. Without ever directly addressing the issue, at the violent conclusion we know exactly why Pike Bishop and his bandits make their perversely honorable last stand.

2. Savant has always wondered about the double standard given churchmen in war movies. They're always eager to help the "side of God" - the English, the Americans - by using their supposedly apolitical position to hide fugitives, smuggle goods, etc. for the favored side. But when the "bad" enemies of freedom treat them as hostile antagonists, we're supposed to be outraged that such benign and "neutral" men of God could be so mistreated. I guess that's why I bristle at movies like The Sound of Music - I don't think our American occupying forces would look kindly on missionaries aiding and abetting insurgent enemies, no matter how cute and loveable they were. In Pale Horse, the inference is that the entire structure of the Catholic Church was on the side of the Franco loyalists, mainly because the Marxist government outlawed the Church.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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