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Cult Camp Classics Volume 4: Historical Epics
The Cult Camp Classics Volume 4: Historical Epics set contains a trio of high-end costume dramas, each given an excellent widescreen transfer and each accompanied by an expert commentary. The ancient costume epic was one of the first genres to slip into the black hole of 'Camp' sarcasm, probably because of the kitschy excesses of Cecil B. De Mille, a great silent film director whose sound-era reputation was based on a number of undeniably entertaining but increasingly tacky Biblical spectacles: The Sign of the Cross, Cleopatra, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments. Each made tons of money. The success of these and MGM's 1951 Quo Vadis? spurred a constant flow of costume tales, either exaggerating history and the Bible or just making up stories when the scriptures weren't specific. The Robe was the first CinemaScope film, and a giant remake of Ben-Hur and Spartacus were produced at the height of the 70mm Road Show craze.
The first two films in the set, The Prodigal and Land of the Pharaohs were produced in the wake of The Robe and in the first couple of years of CinemaScope. Although released by MGM, The Colossus of Rhodes represents Italy at the height of its own epic renaissance that followed the smash international success of Hercules and Hercules Unchained a couple of years later.
All three epics are highly entertaining as Camp, although I review them in a mostly non-Camp context. I make an enthusiastic case for Land of the Pharaohs as a superior picture on its own merit. It's one of the best epics ever.
Ah, yes, The Prodigal. MGM was already on the financial ropes in 1955; studio head Dore Schary's slate of new productions contained too many box office flops, including this supremely bland attempt to re-ignite the sexpot torch of Lana Turner. With most of its contractee 'galaxy of stars' already being booted off the lot, MGM had to negotiate for talent. That accounts for a cast that includes players associated with other studios (Edmund Purdom, Audrey Dalton, Joseph Wiseman), wandering freebooters (Cecil Kellaway, Henry Daniell), TV and B-Movie comers (Neville Brand, John Dehner) as well as ex-MGM contractees ( James Mitchell).
The movie's selling point is sex with a capital S, as in Sin; it's a De Mille clone all the way. Hanah Burner, oops, Lana Turner slinks about in a costume made mostly from beaded pearls. She reportedly snipped away at it in an effort to make it more revealing. That bejeweled-macramé outfit is the only point of interest in the belabored story, which grossly elaborates on the Biblical tale of The Prodigal Son. Micah (Edmund Purdom, just off the Fox flop The Egyptian -- actually a rather good epic) is betrothed to Ruth (the beautiful Audrey Dalton of the 1953 Titanic) but turns his back on his family to pursue Samarra (Turner) the sultry high priestess of Astarte. When Micah's upset father really wants to say that his boy has gone bonkers for a pagan skirt up in Damascus, the stilted script inserts the ponderous line, "It is written that every young man thinks that his life is the first new page in the book of experience." Say, what?
The Bible covers Micah's delinquency with a couple of remarks about frittering away his inheritance on wine, women and song. The Prodigal inflates that into a ludicrous plotline that gives Micah a high time in a Sin Town. Besides spending his money foolishly and being cheated by nasty pagan baddies Nahreeb (Louis Calhern) and Bosra (Francis L. Sullivan), Micah doesn't do much wrong. He does succumb once to Samarra's charms in her opulent bedchamber, hot cha. Samarrah's works her hips overtime to entice Micah to ditch Jehovah and bow to Astarte and Baal, but he never gives in. Instead, Micah leads a popular revolt, helped by a street rascal (Joseph Wiseman, who steals every scene he's in) and a trusty mute partner Asham (James Mitchell of Oklahoma!). Perhaps to ape the cheap miracles in The Robe, in one scene Asham appears to be raised from the dead.
The later The Story of Ruth had its good points, among them an interesting look at the cruel life of a pagan 'temple maiden.' Turner's Samarra is already the top kick Priestess of Astarte, an office that appears to consist of marching up and down the temple steps of a black pagan statue. Samarra's eventual successor is little Yasmin, played by Sandra (Sandy) Descher, who made a major impact screaming into the camera in the previous year's Them! I don't know why Samarra is teaching Yasmin geography, for what she really needs to know is good old Minsky hip-swinging sexy walks, or perhaps the Kama Sutra to aid her future workdays as a 'goddess of love.' The most solemn secret of a pagan sex concubine that Yasmin is taught is ... eye makeup!
Lana Turner was undeniably a major Hollywood sex goddess, and even the detractors of The Prodigal note how fetching she is. Samarra's self-satisfied come-hither glances are so blatantly obvious that I've always wondered what the appeal was. She hasn't the curves, the dancing talent or the mocking wit of Rita Hayworth, and in her Samarra costume she looks plump and pampered. Maybe it's the platinum blonde hair. Maybe I'd fall in a faint if I met Lana in person. On film, I don't get it and therefore recuse myself from further criticism. Yet I have to comment that Audrey Dalton's Ruth, seen for just a few seconds and barely given one close-up, is twice as appealing. Micah seems to have been sold a bill of goods based on Samarra's carnal advertising. What a bozo.
The Prodigal only serves to aggravate the story of The Prodigal Son, which was always a tough sell. The idea in the story is that Micah returns home and is welcomed by his father, without a word of reproach. His brother Jaram is upset that the wayward son is getting the reward, when he's been faithful and has received nothing. The parable's point seems to be that blood ties are everything, and that Micah's return is reason enough to rejoice. Although the verbage in the story doesn't spell it out, perhaps Micah is also humbled and contrite. In The Prodigal, Micah comes back penniless but also practically the proud Hebrew conqueror of a pagan city, negating the story's point. The humiliated Ruth trots right back to his side, ready to pick up where they left off before -- even though Micah would no longer seem a suitable matrimonial prospect, having frittered away his entire inheritance. We even hear that brother Jaram will inherit the family farm.
Come to think of it, the reason The Prodigal doesn't work is that Micah is never the slightest bit likeable. He turns his back on his family to chase after a pagan siren, and for most of the picture thinks of nothing but his own selfish desires. A secondary lesson is that birds of a feather, or faith, should stick to their own kind, and never allow their good orthodox beards to be shaven off.
The movie's idea of a pagan ritual is for one of Samarra's willing lovers to take a swan dive into a flaming pit of oil, an idea that reminds of the oft-retold tale of She, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Remember, "A high priestess cries the day she is born, never again in her lifetime." The film's production is mostly a bore, with off-the rack costumes and sets familiar from Jupiter's Darling, a musical farce. The mostly flat lighting has little or no character and Richard Thorpe's non-directing adds to the snooze factor. The movie even lacks a dynamic angle or two to show off Lana in her fancy costume.
The pagan idol, cast member Jay Novello and Louis Calhern's costume appear to have been recycled for George Pal's weak Atlantis, the Lost Continent in 1961. Finnish import Taina Elg has a thankless part as Asham's doomed girlfriend. The beautiful Jarma Lewis has a brief bit as a party girl named Uba. John Dehner plays the 'prodigal's' brother, but was more compelling in an identical role in Anthony Mann's twisted take on the same fable, Man of the West.
The Prodigal's Barnum & Bailey color scheme looks good in Warner's handsome enhanced transfer. The music isn't all that memorable but the track has been formatted in Dolby surround. The only language is English and subtitles in English and French are included, along with a trailer.
Drew Casper's dramatic and impassioned commentary often seems to be talking about some other movie, one with with 'magic moments', supremely erotic scenes and a profound relationship to religion. Because Nahreeb's white cap looks like something a Klan wizard might wear, Casper also decides that the movie is deeply influenced by the Civil Rights movement. Casper gushes over Turner's sex appeal and finds great things in the utterly artless photography and direction -- wait until you see Edmund Purdom fighting for 60 seconds with a prop buzzard.
Casper's bios of various actors and personnel are quite good, as is his idea that The Prodigal is actually a remake of a 1926 Raoul Walsh picture called The Wanderer. That was certainly news to me. If the silent version has survived, comparing the two might tell us what parts of The Prodigal were indeed cobbled from other more recent Biblical epics.
Howard Hawks' epic Land of the Pharaohs looks especially good following The Prodigal, but it got passed over in the Auteur Rush of the 1960s. English critics like Robin Wood were quick to discard it in favor of the cinematic riches of pictures like Hawks' Scarface (1932) and Only Angels Have Wings. The movie eventually drew interest as a Camp classic for the simple reason that it features Joan Collins, the 70s and 80s TV miniseries star noted for overblown performances and constant appearances in tabloid trash gossip news.
Few epics can compare with Land of the Pharaohs for pure spectacle and a sense of wonder about the ancient world. Hawks is clearly fascinated by the building of the pyramids, and also by the nature of the 'absolute power' wielded by a man like Cheops (Jack Hawkins). Pharaoh is a living god with an entire kingdom at his disposal. He can also direct the energies of an entire people to his personal wishes, which in the Egyptian society revolve around Death and the Afterlife. The whole nation will spend fifteen years or so building a theft-proof crypt to safeguard Cheops' corpse -- and his riches -- on their way to the next life. These are grand and universal themes -- power, greed and the desire to attain immortality.
The movie is terrific in all production aspects -- just compare the imaginative, rich costumes with the off-the-rack robes and togas in The Prodigal. The pre-CGI recreation of the process of pyramid building is astounding. A series of giant vistas show thousands of men gathering to work, digging stone from quarries and dragging them across the desert. These scenes are living museum tableaus, beautifully designed. One very long pan in a quarry is actually two shots joined in the middle by a moving match-matte on a stone. In a single shot, specific construction actions are coordinated from the foreground to at least a mile away, as the camera pans 180° and even farther. The accuracy of these scenes was such that in the late 1950s they were excerpted to make an educational short subject.
All that effort to carry out one man's 'vision' ... Land of the Pharaohs is a lot like making a movie. Pharaoh (the producer) has need of an architect (technicians) to build his pyramid. In the kind of professional standoff Hawks must have frequently faced in Hollywood, the slave architect Vashtar (James Robertson Justice) is able to face down a master of the world:
Vashtar: "But you have need of my talent."
What could be more central to the Howard Hawks ethos? The men of Land of the Pharaohs are all pros. Pharaoh is a dedicated conqueror addicted to the acquisition of gold. High priest Hamar (Alexis Minotis) is also a pro, supporting his sovereign and guiding his decisions. He watches Pharaoh's back for treachery just like one of John Wayne's gunslinger helpers in Rio Bravo. Hamar immediately recognizes Vashtar's engineering skills as nothing less than miraculous. The enormous stone-moving mechanisms proposed to make Pharaoh's tomb impregnable are sheer fantasy, or close to it: the kind of wondrous gimmick Steven Spielberg would place in an Incan treasure crypt in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
This epic is structured identically to Howard Hawks' Red River, right down to the midpoint montage that bridges ten years. Tom Dunson builds up a massive herd of cattle while a kid grows up to be Montgomery Clift, and Vashtar builds his pyramid while another kid grows up to be Senta (Dewey Martin). The 'cattle drive' in this picture is finding a way to free an enslaved people -- are Vashtar's clan supposed to be Jews? Phoenicians? The big migration is delayed until the 'The End' credit comes up. A female shows up in the second half of each story, to confuse the obsessed leading man.
Land of the Pharaohs even has a Hawks sing-a-long, albeit chanted by an entire nation when working happily to build their leader's tomb. Like the cattle drive, the mission sours only later, when Pharaoh places other concerns like his firebrand second wife Nellifer (Joan Collins) ahead of his people's happiness.
The Pharaoh has a dutiful wife in Nailla (Kerima of Carol Reed's Outcast of the Islands) and Senta has a dutiful slave-wife in Kyra (Luisella Boni). But Joan Collins' Nellifer is far from an approved Hawks woman. The ads barked, "Her Treachery Stained Every Stone of the Pyramids" and Nellifer is a woman-hater's dream. She uses sex as a bargaining chip to wrap Cheops around her bejeweled fingers. Their foreplay consists of arguing, fighting, slapping, whipping and biting. Nellifer has an obedient muscleman as a personal slave and turns Treneh, the head of Pharoah's guard (Sydney Chaplin, Barbra Streisand's costar in the stage Funny Girl) into her pawn as well. She brings down 2/3 of the royal family before falling into her own greedy trap. The awesome, richly deserved finale is one of the most satisfying expressions of anti-female hatred ever. Did Hawks have any ex-wives he resented?
Joan Collins' performance is indeed a ripe one, with her pronunciation of 'enmity' and 'mutual' matching James Robertson's terrific work with the word 'piddimid.' Nellifer has the right stuff to make Cheops come apart at the seams and spends most of her time slinking around in killer costumes. Yes, the 1950s were indeed an important film decade because femme fatales were finally allowed to have navels! Collins may be camp, but her grossly perfidious sexuality didn't have to be discovered by latter-day critics. Hawks and Collins make Nellifer so nasty, we expect to see a Surgeon General's health warning tattooed on her stomach.
Land of the Pharaohs presents one impressive scene after another, many backed by one of Dimitri Tiomkin's brassiest, most dynamic scores. The opening march speaks to Pharaoh's power and majesty as he enters on a large man-carried throne. It in turn is held aloft by an even bigger man-powered throne-carrier. The presentation of Vashtar's self-sealing tomb is brilliant; when we see it function at the end with all those massive stones sealing into place, the movie gives off a chilling sense of absolute Doom. Even the all-powerful Pharaoh must play his part in a culture designed as a Death Pact with the gods.
The DVD of Land of the Pharaohs is a vast improvement on the old laserdisc, athough the WarnerColor tends toward ruddy hues. Alexander Trauner's excellent production design comes across beautifully in the 'Scope compositions. Note that objects and people tend to get 'skinny' near the extreme left and right of the image, as the pre-1957 'Scope lenses didn't have a very flat field. The sound effects and Tiomkin's superb score have great separation in the Dolby surround soundtrack ... listen for the 'Wilhelm scream' when an unlucky deserter is thrown to the crocodiles (well, alligators). The sound of those brass, or bronze swords slashing is also extremely well done. Again, the only language is English but subtitles in English and French are included along with a trailer.
A slow-paced commentary by Peter Bogdanovich is accompanied by some of his great interview recordings of director Howard Hawks, who expresses his dissatisfaction with the film. Bogdanovich's sparse and unenthusiastic comments laud Hawks while dismissing Pharaohs as a pro directing job on material that 'just wasn't there'. Bogdaonvich condemns 'Hawks' weakest film' for being unlike Hawks' other work, which seems unfair to Hawks. The epic genre doesn't deserve the elitist put-down. A number of big Hollywood directors did well by it, especially William Wyler.
Since Hawks also produced, it is a bit odd for Bogdanovich to act like the director had no control over the material. The fact is that Pharaohs is exactly the movie Hawks wanted to make. I appreciate this intelligent picture a lot more than faux-religious DeMille movies that treat the audience like Sunday School tots. If I were to guess what might have helped the movie at the box office, I'd say that it needed more conventional action. It's not good when a character verbally describes an exciting battle that happens off-screen.
The Colossus of Rhodes jumps ahead about five years, beyond Hercules and Ben-Hur when Rome's Cinecittà was the center of European production. Big money went into fancy pictures like The Last Days of Pompeii and The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah, drawing money and stars from all over Europe and across the Atlantic. Dozens of much cheaper productions would soon clog the market, but The Colossus of Rhodes was an expensive proposition all the way. It's a hot ticket now because it's the first directing credit for Sergio Leone, who had made a name as an assistant director on many Hollywood shows filmed in Italy, from Quo Vadis? to The Nun's Story. The Colossus of Rhodes is more of a high-budget sword-and-sandal tale but it benefits from clean direction and some clever action scenes below, inside and clinging to the gigantic statue of the title.
As Dario, an Athenian on vacation in Rhodes, American star Rory Calhoun wears an incongruous smile through most of the show. In the first half he stumbles repeatedly into key meetings and events in a three-way struggle for power. It's all generic stuff. A fat pig of a king doesn't realize that his prime minister (Conrado San Martin) is smuggling in Phoenician warriors for a coup d'etat, while the lowly Rhodian freedom fighters hope that Dario will throw in with their lot. The architect of the giant colossus (Félix Fernández) regrets that his technological marvel will be put to evil purposes, even though he's rigged it to drop boiling oil on passing boats. A tireme carrying some freedom fighters parks itself under the statue, to demonstrate the statue's effectiveness.
The movie is a handsomely directed but rather slack series of secret meetings, double-crosses and narrow escapes. Lea Massari (L'Avventura) isn't much as a duplicitous lover, while Argentinian Mabel Karr steps in as a replacement love interest. Ángel Aranda (of Planet of the Vampires) is a jolly freedom fighter who likes to throw a knife. Dario sneaks around an underground labyrinth, witnesses some nasty Rhodian tortures and interrupts some grisly arena death games. In the film's best scene, he fights a duel on the arms of the towering statue, after crawling out a trap door in the giant bronze's ear.
The fitfully exciting The Colossus of Rhodes has a big cast of extras and some okay fighting scenes, and the mechanical interior of the statue is a novel setting. It's too bad that the script is content to settle for peplum clichés for most everything else.
The disc of The Colossus of Rhodes presents the SuperTotalScope production in its proper widescreen format. At 128 minutes, it's about a reel short of the Italian version (said to be available as an import disc), which may have a couple of extended torture scenes. The film seems long enough as it is. Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's score is somewhat subdued except for an opening series of sharp notes on the main theme. The track is in English with English and French subs; a trailer is included as well.
Sir Christopher Frayling provides a terrific commentary that places The Colossus of Rhodes in context with the later westerns of Sergio Leone , finding parallel themes and action even though this show is nowhere near as tightly directed. Frayling also promotes Leone's notion that the film is a parody of Alfred Hitchcock's movies, particularly North by NorthWest and Saboteur with its similarly hollow Statue of Liberty. The author and scholar misses few details, although fans of Ray Harryhausen will immediately recognize the rebel camp as placed in the middle of the weird rock formations featured in The Valley of Gwangi. Best of all, Frayling's interest in finding merit in the film contrasts strongly with commentaries from Peter Bogdanovich and the special effects experts on The Giant Behemoth. Although Frayling clicks off the sword and sandal clichés one after another -- pointy bearded villain, evil lady with an opulent boudoir, rag-tag freedom fighters -- he bears an affection and respect for non-elitist genres that the other commentators lack. As has been proven many times before, there's plenty of art to be found in popular genres, along with lessons that could benefit many more prestigious pictures.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cult Camp Classics Volume 4: Historical Epics rates:
Movies: Prodigal: Good ---; Pharaohs: Excellent; Colossus: Very Good
Video: all Excellent
Sound: all Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, Commentaries by Dr. Drew Casper, Peter Bogdanovich and Sir Christopher Frayling
Packaging: Three keep cases in card sleeve
Reviewed: June 23, 2007
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