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
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:
Video: Very Good
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
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