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In the beginning (sort of) was The Robe. And Hollywood said, "Let it have stars and spectacle and Romans. Let it have CinemaScope." And so it was so. And the public said that it was good. And 10, Hollywood said, "Let there be The Ten Commandments." And The Ten Commandments begat Ben-Hur. And Ben-Hur begat El Cid. And Hollywood never rested. For though the epics were not always highbrow, they were extremely profitable.
Nothing is as reassuring as an epic, those large-scale tales of swords, sandals, and morality as practiced by ancient Jews, Christians, and Romans. When the form was born in the 1950s, American values were supposedly under attack by left-wingers and communists. The epics helped reinforce the belief that virtue in the face of adversity is rewarded and that love of God and family prevails.
The movies were astonishingly successful on many fronts: Ben-Hur (1959), for example, won critical praise and a record 11 Academy Awards, and The Ten Commandments took in $34.2 million in its initial 1956 release, about $170 million in 1990s dollars. Children dressed up as gladiators, teens watched the movies at drive-ins, and scholars cited the films' educational benefits.
Epics are worth seeing again today, not only because many are so arch that they have become delightfully campy, but also because the best are engaging movies about real people facing moral dilemmas. Fortunately, there's no shortage of epics, especially around Easter and Passover, when the films pop up constantly' on TV. In addition, FoxVideo recently released 13 movies in its "Films of Faith" series; MGM/UA has issued The Greatest Story Ever Told in a special letter box laser disc version; The Ten Commandments is out in a 35th anniversary remastered cassette and disc; Criterion just put out Jason and the Argonauts on laser disc; Video Yesteryear has released The Avenger, a rare Steve "Hercules" Reeves f'ilrn; and the Great Religious Epics Video Series is available from the Columbia House Video Library.
Tinseltown Versus Television
Sword and sandals epics initially got their start because of competition. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the movie industry grew concerned that television was drawing audiences away from theaters. To retaliate against TV's studio-bound black-andwhite dramas, Tinseltown mounted a series of brightly costumed, widescreen adventures, shot in full color. Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949) was the first tentative effort, but it wasn't until The Robe (1951) that epic-mania took off.
The Robe set the stage for future epics: Morality and immorality went hand in hand with violence, virtue, and visions of God. Based on a book by doctor-turned-writer Lloyd C. Douglas, the story relates the adventures of Roman centurion Marcellus (Richard Burton), who through Jesus' teachings changes from a drunken playboy to a freedom-fighting Christian. Along the way, he meets the Christlike' Michael Rennie as Saint Peter (Rennie played a similar role in The Day the Earth Stood Still, a 1951 science-fiction epic about a messiah).
Although Burton seems uncomfortable through most of the film, which includes such bizarre touches as an eloquent Judas mournfully talking about his betrayal of Jesus, audiences lapped it up. The sequels soon followed: guts-andglory Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), featuring Victor Mature as a slave who finds faith, loses it long enough to slaughter a platoon of people, and then finds it again; The Egyptian (1954), about an ancient doctor-hero (Edmund Purdom) with a vision of racial tolerance; and The Land of Darkness (1955), an Italian knockoff that features the Sons of Hercules, who, in the words of the title song, "roam the earth righting wrongs, helping the weak and oppressed, and seeking adventure" (translation: dumb action scenes, thoroughly inane plot).
Victor Mature was the crown prince of such second-strjng epics. Known for his hambone performances, the Kentucky-born actor made his debut in a 1939 comedy but found his true calling ten years later in DeMille's Samson and Delilah. As the hirsute Samson, he wrestles lions and brings the Philistine temple down around him, but he often earned more notice for his offscreen brawls. Silver Screen magazine related how he "thrashed the living daylights out of a celebrated playwright rash enough to call him an 'adenoidal Adonis."
Mature was matched in popularity by Steve Reeves. A former Mr. America and Mr. Universe, the Montana-born bodybuilder hit it big in Italy, where he appeared as the title character in Hercules (1957). When American producer Joseph Levine released a dubbed U.S. version in 1959, the movie made a fortune and Reeves became an international star. The muscle man appeared only once more as Hercules (in 1960's Hercules Unchained), but he was essentially the same character in The Trojan Horse (1962) and The Avenger (1962), among others. Although Reeves' dubbed voice was deep, rumors floated about that the big guy actually had an oddly high-pitched voice.
Of course, Mature and Reeves eventually took a backseat to Charlton Heston, who became the acknowledged king of the form in The Ten Commandments, which set new standards of opulence and corniness. It followed the basic DeMille epic formula, which usually involved a virtuous hero, incredible odds, a noble quest, fortune-cookie dialogue ("Have the days of darkness not made you see the light?"), romance, and a whole lot of carnage.
And then there was the film's collection of great ham actors (Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, Yul Brynner) and the rendering of the Bible as soap opera. Love triangles and sibling rivalry abound as the hero gives up fame, wealth, power, even the love of a sultry Egyptian princess ("Moses, Moses, you splendid, stubborn, adorable fool") to follow his God..
The Ten Commandments was a box-office smash, but it was Ben-Hur that gave respectability to the form. The movie is the tale of Judah BenHur (Heston) and his boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), who feud over the Romans' treatment of the Jews and eventually fight it out to the death in a chariot race. Like many epics, the movie is episodic: Ben-Hur is imprisoned, meets Jesus, spends three years as a galley slave, fights in a sea battle, becomes a Roman citizen, takes on Messala, rescues his family from a leper colony, and witnesses the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ.
But unlike more ponderous epics, the film's religious events are trimmings that help focus the story on its theme: the danger of becoming what you hate. The movie concentrates on two issues: the transforming effect of Ben-Hur's hatred of Messala, and the forgiving power of love, as epitomized by Christ. Heston justly won an Academy Award for his complex portrayal of a flawed, driven man. He went on to star in El Cid (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
Appropriately, Heston recently appeared in a cable TV series, "Charlton Heston Presents the Bible." But he has a rueful attitude about his reputation. "I met a woman who told me she had named her child after me," he once recalled. "I said, 'What a terrible thing, to be named Charlton.' She said, 'No, no, I named him Moses.' "
With the success of Ben-Hur, complexity soon became a feature of the best epics, with many filmmakers using them as a means to disguise social messages. In Spartacus (1960), screenwriter Dalton Trumbo promoted trade unionism (although most people prefer to remember Laurence Olivier's lecherous, decadent Roman commander). Of course, complexity could also be an albatross. In El Cid, the viewer has to be a Spanish-history major to folLow most of the plot, involving King Alfonso, Al Kadir, Don Diego, and other unknown notables.
Cleopatra (1963) was complex in a different way. Begun in 1958, the movie ceased production four times before it was finished. It had two different directors, two Caesars, two Anthonys, but only one Cleopatra: Elizabeth Taylor. She received $25,000 for every week work that went over schedule (104 weeks), $3,000 a week for expenses, and 10% of the gross. (Her third husband, Eddie Fisher, was also paid $1,500 a day to see that she showed up.) The result was a glitzy dud, dominated by the title Queen of Egypt, a spoiled fashion plate with 58 costumes.
Cleopatra nearly bankrupted its studio and was the beginning of the end for the traditional epic. The death blow came from The Greatest Story Ever Told, director George Stevens' dull-as-sandal-dust retelling of the life of Christ. Here, Jesus (Max Von Sydow) is a sensitive bore, and the only real miracle is the number of stars Stevens crammed into inappropriate bit parts (Pat Boone? Shelley Winters?). Even John Wayne turns up, drawling "Truly this man wuz the son of Gawd."
After that, the successful epic was forced to take on new forms. There were such delightful special-effects fantasies as Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which offered the 50- foot bronze giant Talos, flying Harpies, a seven-headed Hydra, and sword-wielding skeletons. There was also the excellent TV miniseries "I, Claudius" (1976), an intimate drama about intrigue in ancient Rome, and the not-quite-as-excellent Moses (1975), with Burt Lancaster.
Finally, providing the last word on epics, there was an amusing "Star Trek" episode from 1967 in which Captain Kirk et al. turn up on a planet that seems to be a 20th-century version of ancient Rome, complete with television broadcasts of gladiators locked in combat. Beam me up, Scotty.
MARCH 1994 • DIVERSION
VIDEOS OF EPIC PROPORTIONS
All you need for an epic screenfest is a VCR and some popcorn (and perhaps that old gladiator costume). Here are a few suggestions.
THE FIVE MOST STIRRING EPICS
Ben-Hur (MGM/uA Home Video)
The Egyptian (FoxVideo)
Jason and the Argonauts (RCA/Columbia)
The Ten Commandments (Paramount Home Video)
THE FIVE MOST CAMPY EPICS·
The Avenger (Video Yesteryear)
Erik the Viking (Orion)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (MGMlUA)
The Passover Plot (Cannon Video)