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The energetic and dynamic director Robert Aldrich found his Hollywood career at an impasse in 1957, when an irate Harry Cohn forced him to work in TV or leave the country to continue his career. Although the critics have always found something to champion in any Aldrich film, his subsequent Ten Seconds to Hell, The Angry Hills and The Last Sunset weren't positive additions to his career filmography. Aldrich's last film-in-exile was the enormously expensive The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (usually just called Sodom and Gomorrah), filmed in Italy and Morocco with an all-star European cast. The Biblical epic surely appealed to Aldrich's interest in characters under extreme stress in apocalyptic times. In this case the fire and brimstone come from the hand of God himself.
Released by Fox but produced by a partnership of deep pocket interests that included Joseph E. Levine and Italy's Titanus Films, Sodom and Gomorrah doesn't lack for production value. Vast sets designed by Ken Adam were built in Morocco 1, English effects experts were brought in, Maurice Binder did the titles and the legendary Miklos Rozsa composed the impressive music score, his fourth straight for a Biblical epic. Although Aldrich was a director for hire he spent several months in preproduction, lining up key members of his crew. These included frequent screenwriter and collaborator Hugo Butler (World for Ransom, Autumn Leaves, The Legend of Lylah Clare), a major victim of the blacklist.
Unlike most other Biblical epics of the time, the film made from Butler's script doesn't serve as an allegory about contemporary politics -- i.e., the plight of modern Israel, the Communist threat. More in line with Aldrich's violent view of human nature, it instead preaches that peaceful coexistence among nations may be impossible. Way back in the Book of Genesis, Hebrew chieftain Lot (Stewart Granger) leads his tribe to settle in a new land not far from the wicked cities of Sodom & Gomorrah, ruled by an evil queen called simply, "The Evil Queen" (Anouk Aimée). She gives her chief handmaiden slave Ildith (Pier Angeli) to Lot, who wastes no time making the unhappy woman his wife: Ildith would rather be a pampered slave than a free peasant. Negotiating an uneasy agreement with the Queen, Lot feels that his tribe may be a good influence on her people. The depraved queen and her loathsome, rapacious brother Astaroth (Stanley Baker) cannot wait to see the Hebrews corrupted. Seeking to overthrow his sister, Astaroth makes a traitorous deal with the nomadic, warring Helamites. But Lot has promised the Queen military support. When the Helamites attack, the Hebrew counterattack destroys them, at the cost of the dam the tribe labored so long and hard to build. Worse, the water from the broken dam has washed salt across the Hebrew farms, making them barren. The Queen 'graciously' invites the Hebrews to live within the walls of the twin cities, and Lot agrees. He prides himself on his ability to make an honest living without becoming corrupted, even though (to Ildith's delight) they no longer live like paupers. But Astaroth seduces Lot's own daughter Shuah (Rossana Podestà). Only after he avenges his family pride does Lot realize that he's fallen into The Queen's ultimate trap. He's both a sinner and a fool, as The Queen has used him to remove the only threat to her rule.
Commonly considered a disaster in an already undervalued genre, Sodom and Gomorrah has an added snicker value built into its title. 2 The citizens of these Twin Cities often wear sneers on their faces, but they don't seem all that much more depraved than average rich folk in other ancient epics. In the aftermath of presumed orgies, scores of women lay about the palace floor, strategically covered by white garments. The bored and besotted Astaroth tiptoes out to do some plotting for his ongoing conspiracy against his sister. Aldrich derives considerable star-power from key cast members. Stanley Baker's face is ideal for projecting malice and perversion, and the already-regal Anouk Aimèe is deliciously imperious as the Queen. Forever sporting a self-satisfied smile, The Queen shoots salacious glances at Orphea (Mitsuko Takara), who we assume is her favorite bedmate.
As evil potentates come a dime a dozen in Biblical epics and sword 'n' sandal pictures, Sodom and Gomorrah must put forth extra effort in the torture and cruelty department. The prologue shows the capture of Tamar (exotic favorite Scilla Gabel), Astaroth's spy. To keep her silent she's murdered in a bizarre fashion, 'hugged to death' by a man wearing spiked armor.
Lot only tentatively wins over his formerly pampered wife, who is repulsed by the coarse Hebrew garments she must wear. But after the move to the Big City, Ildith becomes a woman of property committed to her hubby's career. She is quick to build up her husband's sense of (sinful) pride and personal accomplishment. Older tribesmen notice the change in Lot, and shake their heads disapprovingly.
Lot and Ildith also experience problems that any responsible parents would understand, as their kids are tempted by the glamorous nasty folk across the bull rushes. The fair and blonde Shuah apparently loved the experience of a near-rape by Astaroth, back in their tent city. With daddy now so busy getting rich, she succumbs to Astaroth's perverse but irresistible lovemaking techniques. Whatever they're doing, it must be plenty nasty, as Shuah shrinks with shame when the truth comes out. All of the forbidden content stays frustratingly non-specific, but the movie encourages the audience to use its imagination.
Sodom and Gomorrah is an aberrant Biblical epic in that it's not a family picture per se... which was probably a commercial mistake. The movie's most prominent torture device is a giant Wheel of Death, on which are tied a dozen or so unhappy victims, arranged like buckets on a Ferris Wheel. As the wheel slowly turns, its lower part dips into an oven pit, which chokes, scorches and finally roasts the men, much like chickens on display at El Pollo Loco. It's a sick display but a credible one in a society ruled by a bored autocrat. What's to stop a dictator like The Queen from turning her enemies into a source of entertainment?
Only Stanley Baker, Anouk Aimée and Pier Angeli have roles that allow them to create fully interesting characters. Stewart Granger is a cardboard tribal leader who bargains for security over virtue and then fails miserably in a "Father Knows Best" situation. Granger just doesn't have the force of character to convince us that his people would follow him everywhere. Still known as the title character in Robert Wise's Helen of Troy (another guilty pleasure), Rossanna Podestà comes across as a more elegant Sandra Dee, a girl who just wants to have fun and then becomes convinced that she's damaged goods. Handsome he-men Rik Battaglia, Giacomo Rossi Stuart & Gabriele Tinti round out the cast; Tinti would return for one of Robert Aldrich's very best pictures, The Flight of the Phoenix.
Also of note are some rather good dance scenes choreographed by Archie Savage, a black actor who worked for Aldrich in his breakthrough political western Vera Cruz. Although Savage had directed dances in Vicente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky he found only a few opportunities in America and eventually relocated to Italy, where he continued to act, dance, and arrange the occasional dance scene. Working in one number are the statuesque, blonde Kessler twins Alice and Ellen, who fans will remember as the stars of Mario Bava's Viking opus Erik the Conqueror.
Many Aldrich pictures end with a bang, and the atomic threat informs his films from World for Ransom to Twilight's Last Gleaming. Even his What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has an apocalyptic flavor, as Joan Crawford & Bette Davis' grim final scene on the beach takes place in full view of the Ground Zero Malibu house of his earlier Kiss Me Deadly.
In both The Holy Book and this semi-exploitative movie The Lord smites the evil cities. In Sodom and Gomorrah the heavenly onslaught takes the form of hot winds followed by an earthquake and lightning bolts. The topper looks like an honest-to-Oppenheimer nuclear blast. The special effects are mostly just adequate but Aldrich's final stroke is a killer. Disobeying Lot, Ildith is compelled to look back, which mandates an Old Testament penalty totally out of proportion to any reasonable scale of justice. Women, never but never ignore your husband's instructions or there'll be Hell to pay. Ildith didn't even get a chance to say, "When It Rains It Pours".
Cruel though it may be, I've always thought that the ignominious demise of Lot's wife is a wickedly apt, poetic fable about the curse of materialism. Salt is the currency of wealth in Canaan, and the worship of riches (consumer goods?) is as close as one can get to the modern reality of the human condition. The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah ends on a powerful note, with Stewart Granger communicating a heartbreaking wail of remorse. 3
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD of The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah is a sorry disappointment. As with many other Fox Cinema Archives releases, it is a pan-scan of an originally 1:85 widescreen picture, and appears to be the exact same transfer source as that used for a Fox laserdisc from over twenty years ago. The main titles are window-boxed and the film itself so tightly cropped that we'd think the show had been filmed in a 'scope format, which is apparently not the case.
Normally for a 1:85 picture, a TV adapted scan will just open up to show the entire 35mm frame. I'm assuming that Sodom and Gomorrah was filmed flat but with a hard matte in the camera. This was the case with Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix, which never looked correct until Fox put out an enhanced widescreen DVD. In this case "full frame" is a slice taken out of the already matted image area, so what we're seeing is a scan of a frame not 35mm wide, but 20 or 25. In other words, it's a mess.
It's an old transfer so color and granularity are only so-so. Miklos Rosza's lush and dynamic music score comes across well.
Rumors have persisted about a longer and more salacious cut of Sodom and Gomorrah. That is of course possible, as I believe I once saw some racier images in a French Erotisme au cinema photo book. If so, they could be from deleted scenes, but also possibly from photo shoots not connected with actual scenes in the movie. According to Alain Silver and James Ursini, 4 the Italian producers wanted to shorten the director's cut, but Aldrich appealed under Italian law which (at that time, anyway) gave some directors the right to final say. The 154-minute version present here may or may not be Aldrich's cut, but it is the longest I know of.
Robert Aldrich's The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah is not one of his best but it is a spectacular and arresting experience, and surely one of the more interesting of the wave of costume epics that were in vogue for about ten years. The fact that Sergio Leone and Aldrich didn't see eye to eye had an ironic payoff. Leone would inaugurate the "next big thing" genre-wise in international cinema, injecting the cynicism of Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz into a story purloined from Akira Kurosawa.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Some of the sets designed by Ken Adam, appear to be built in forced perspective. I'm not so sure one of them is an impressive earthen city on a hill, usually seen only in the background. Is it full-sized or not? Unless there are dozen like it, the impressive city reappears as a location for many later films, including The Man Who Would Be King and Gladiator.
2. In more than one screening I've attended, audiences received one of the first dialogue lines with hysterical laughter. It's dubbed into the mouth of the Helamite leader as a warning to Scilla Gabel: "Watch out for Sodomite patrols!"
3. In some reference sources, Italian Sergio Leone was erroneously listed as a co-director of The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to interviewer Pierre Sauvage's account in Alain Silver and James Ursini's book What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich? Leone was an assistant director only briefly. Aldrich visited the second unit, found nothing happening and Leone "loafing", and fired him on the spot. Although Leone was known to embellish his accomplishments to interviewers, so did most everyone else in movies...
4. Silver and Ursini, ibid.
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T'was Ever Thus.