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In the beginning there was The Robe. And The Robe was without shape or stars. But Hollywood said, "Let it have Spectacle and Romans. And let it have Cinemascope." And it was so. And the public said that it was good. And lo, 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 the epics were not always good, but they were extremely profitable.
The Robe was really not the first epic. Silent films and movies in the '30s and' 40s featured Romans, knights, and assorted swashbucklers – but it was the first of its kind, setting a trend that would continue for a decade. Why did the epic come about? And more important – what is it? A number of epics are now on tape, offering a good opportunity (in this selective and informal survey) to answer those questions and another one: how well do these widescreen extravaganzas hold up on tape?
The epic arose because of television. To retaliate against TV's studio-bound black & white dramas, which were drawing audiences away from the theaters, Hollywood mounted a series of brightly costumed adventures, shot in exotic locales in full color and widescreen (The Robe was the first major Cinemascope production). These epics usually had a high moral tone, which the most successful exploited to the fullest, allowing the viewer to experience sex and adventure vicariously while feeling it was all for a good cause. "You talk about the wages of sin, so you must show sin," Jesse Lasky Jr., one of Cecil B. DeMille's screenwriters, once explained. Indeed, the best epics appealed to morality – but were also good action films in which a virtuous hero, reluctantly joining a battle, overcomes tremendous odds to achieve some quest-like goal, often involving a romance. This was the pattern that most followed, and The Robe set the trend.
The Rise and Fall of the Epic
(1) The Robe (1953). Based on a book by doctor-turned-writer Lloyd C. Douglas (author of Magnificent Obsession), the story delineates the adventures of the Roman centurion Marcellus (Richard Burton) who, through Christ's teachings,' changes from a drunken playboy to a freedom-fighting Christian. Marcellus romances Diana (Jean Simmons) and has a couple of sword fights, but most of the movie deals with smiling Christians (who resemble modern-day "moonies") talking about "His" teachings.
Burton scowls throughout most of the story, and no wonder: it is heavy on irony and predictable soapy music. It is the sort of tale that jntroduces an eloquent Judas mournfully talking about how he betrayed Jesus, and offers a nervous Pontius Pilate constantly mumbling about how he must wash his hands. Burton and Simmons get to walk off into the clouds in the end in a kind of wonderful martyrdom; the rest of us aren't so lucky. The Robe was a huge success (it was followed by a sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators) butthe Cinemascope, costumes, and religious tone probably had more to do with that than the banal story and dreadful acting.
The transfer does justice to the quality of the movie. The print is poor, with colors beginning to lose their definition: the reds are vibrant, the blues are beginning to tum purple, and much of the movie looks (unintentionally) like an EI Greco painting. The scanning and panning are equally poor. At one point Burton addresses a soldier offscreen; a pan begins, but before it is complete a whole exchange has taken place and we have seen neither party. Because director Henry Koster employed many wide shots to take advantage of Cinemascope, there's also a cropping problem in many sequences. And Tape I ends abruptly in the middle of a sentence.
(2) The Ten Commandments (1956). The success of The Robe let loose a torrent of Biblical movies and inspired Cecil B. DeMille to remake his silent film, The Ten Commandments, a huge success showing how Moses freed the Jews.
It's hard to decide what's funnier in this camp classic: the inane dialogue, which often sounds as if it had been created in a
fortune-cookie factory ("Have the days-of darkness not made you see the light?"), or the ridiculously arch performances, led by Charlton Heston as Moses. DeMille had seen the actor in Dark City and reportedly liked the way he waved. Heston does his best, but the weight of the character ultimately brings him down. His Moses – initially an interesting character torn by love, ambition, and duty – finally becomes so clear-seeing and virtuous as God's prophet that he is a prig and a bore, uninterested in anything but communing with God. And no wonder: Heston did God's voice too.
The movie's fun lies in the first half, a sort of Dallas-in-Egypt, with the scheming pharaoh's son (Yul Brynner), sultry sexpot (Anne Baxter), evil overseer (Vincent Price), and traitorous Jew (Edward G. Robinson). For romantic interest, John Derek (later Bo's husband) plays Joshua, a headstrong slave in love with Lilia (Debra Paget), who is handy with his fists but pretty bad when it comes to delivering the lines.
The second half of the movie, the exodus, is action, action, action. DeMille knows his audience: when Moses becomes a virtuous party-poop, the special-effects boys take over. And Part II never lets up: there is the pillar of fire, the plague of death, the burning bush, the staff that turns into a snake, the Nile running red, and the famous parting of the Red Sea (which won the film an Oscar). There is also a racy orgy which takes place while Moses is on Sinai watching God write out the Ten Commandments with a pretty nifty finger of flame.
The Ten Commandments is a wild vaudevillian's movie with a little bit of everything except real characters, and it was wildly successful, becoming the second most popular movie of all time. "DeMille's movies are barnstormers," wrote critic David Thompson in 1975, "rooted in Victorian prestige, shamelessly stereotyped and sentimental, but eagerly courting 20th century permissiveness, if only solemnly to condemn it. The movies are simple ... but. .. the energy of his imagination seldom flags."
Nor does his attention to imagery – and The Ten Commandments has some striking visuals. Unfortunately, they suffer tremendously in this transfer. Colors vary between too bright or
washed out (as in The Robe), and sound is bad, decreasing steadily until God's voice sounds like a whisper. There is also dust on the print. Luckily, there is little problem with image ratio since DeMille shot in Vista-Vision, which is closer to the TVscreen aspect ratio than Cinemascope.
(3) Ben Hur (1959). The success of The Ten Commandments led to this film, the epitome of the epic form, which won 11 Oscars and has been called the "thinking man's epic." It's not hard to see why. A remake of a silent film based'on a book by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur is the story of friendship betrayed, of revenge sought and won. It is the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton 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 justly famed chariot race.
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, battles Messala, rescues his family from a leper colony, witnesses the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ. Jesus is a figure in the film (it opens with his birth), but He is subtly used, crossing Ben-Hur's path at key plot points (He gives Ben-Hur water; the favor is returned on Calvary).
The religious events are trimmings that help focus the story on its theme: the danger of becoming what you hate. The movie holds your interest because it keeps its attention centered on this idea – on the transforming effect of Ben-Hut's hatred of Messala – and on its converse. the forgiving power of love as epitomized by Christ. Heston justly won an Academy Award for his complex picture of a f1awed, driven man.
As for the transfer: the print's colors are washed out. with reds once again predominating. The end of Tape I is abrupt. but the pans and scans are fairly well-done and subtle, and the chariot race doesn't seem to suffer as much as it might have. But someone should have struck a new print. This movie would have been worth it.
(4) EI Cid (1961). As a follow-up to his triumph in -Ben-Hur, Charlton Heston starred in this l2th-century adventure story about Spain's nearly legendary hero EI Cid (The Lord), who successfully led the Spanish against an invasion by the Moors.
This movie was the beginning of the end of the epic form, taking the idea of honor and virtue to a ridiculous extreme. Get this: Heston is engaged to Sophia Loren and they love each other passionately. Loren's father calls Heston a traitor. Heston's father calls Loren's father a liar. Loren's father slaps Heston's father, who is now insulted. Honor being everything, Heston asks for an apology. When he doesn't get it, he kills Loren's father in a sword fight. Loren's father, with his dying breath, then asks Loren to avenge him. She does so by marrying Heston but hating him. This goes on for a good hour before the two make up. It's typical of the convoluted storyline that cripples the film.
El Cid tries to be a big epic like Ben Hur, but lacks that film's simplicity: Ben-Hur's driving need was revenge, which tied the whole thing together. In El Cid you really have to be a Spanish history major to follow most of the plot, involving Prince Alfonzo, AI Kadir, Don Diego, and other unknown notables. And Heston's EI Cid character is a concept, not a person: so noble, so perfect that he becomes dull after about 30 minutes, making the movie a series of meaningless battles.
The film is not helped by the transfer. El Cid was shot in widescreen and characters are constantly cropped out during conversations. The poorest moments occur during a dramatic joust: most of the tension is dissipated by confusing panning-and-scanning which makes it unclear who is who or what is going on. There also seem to be some registration problems: image and color fluctuate badly at the opening. Once again the colors are washed out or too bright, with reds predominating.
(5) Cleopatra (1963). El Cid may have been bad, but it made money. This turkey killed the epic form more or less permanently and nearly closet! its chief investor, Twentieth Century-Fox, as well.
The story behind the screen is actually more interesting than the one on it. Begun in 1958, the film was started and stopped four times. It had two different directors, two Caesars, two Antonys – but only one Cleopatra. She was, of course, Elizabeth Taylor, and she demanded $125,000 for 16 weeks' work, $50,000 for every week of work that went over schedule (that eventually amounted to about 104 weeks), $3,000 a week for expenses, and 10 percent of the gross. She got it all – and not only that: her third husband, Eddie Fisher, reportedly was paid $1,500 a day to see that she turned up for work.
All this is reflected on the screen. The movie is an opulent, irresponsible bores. dominated by Taylor's Cleopatra, a spoiled bitch fashion plate who wears about 15 different hairstyles in the course of the story. The film's only saving grace is Rex Harrison (who called the movie a "bizarre" experience) as Caesar. He is witty and charming, an oasis of sanity among the goings-on. When he disappears at the end of Part l, Burton's Marc Antony takes over, just as sour and self-pitying a character as his Marcellus in The Robe. It's hard to believe that Taylor and Burton began their off-screen romance here, since their on-screen affair is tepid.
Cleopatra is a pointless movie with no message except don't fall in love, and it is a near-total failure except in the transfer. The colors are rich and vivid and the panning and scanning done skillfully, usually corresponding well with the on-screen action. The wide screen ratio is well-handled, with actors only occasionally cropped out of a scene noticeably. Too bad the film is not worth the extra effort that apparently went into the tape.
(6) The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). This one suffered from the Cleopatra backlash and its failure destroyed the company that produced it. The Fall of the Roman Empire is a series of battles and intrigues only worth watching for some nice turns by Alec Guinness and James Mason as two thoughtful Romans. Stephen Boyd, in a role rejected by Charlton Heston, is dull as the hero, though Sophia Loren is as beautiful as ever. The movie details Guinness' and Boyd's attempts to deal with the barbarian hordes. They fail, naturally, but take nearly three hours to do it.
The transfer crops people out in conversations, scans obtrusively, and offers murky color. Overall, The Fall is one to avoid.
The Myth as Epic
(7) Jason and the Argonauts (1963). After Cleopatra, the successful epic was forced to take a new form, drawing its inspiration from classical antiquity and relying more on special effects than ever before. Jason, the best example of this new form, is the work of special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans). Following the adventures of Jason and his men in search of the magical golden fleece that will make him ruler of ancient Greece, the movie offers the 50-foot bronze giant Talos, the flying Harpies, the seven-headed Hydra, the gigantic Olympian gods (and Olympus itself), Poseidon holding apart the "clashing rocks," and the sword-wielding
living skeletons (the "Children of the Hydra's Teeth," to be more precise).
As with DeMille, the story and dialogue are pretty hokey – but the special effects are wonderful, skillfully achieved through the painstaking stop-motion process (the frame-by-frame animation of three-dimensional figures). The skeleton fight. for instance, is a frenetic, brilliantly choreographed (and tongue-in-cheek) battle that becomes even more wonderful when you realize that it is staged between six-foot-tall men and six-inch miniatures.
Jason and the Argonauts is the stuff of dreams, cleverly tapping into a childhood love of fairytales and an adult longing for the simplicity of myth. It is complemented by Bernard Herrmann's throbbing score and colorful Greek locations.
The transfer is excellent with fine color reproduction and only occasional problems with scratches and splices on the print. Scanning and panning are unobtrusive.
(8) Camelot (1967). Lerner & Loew's last Broadway musical, an adaptation of T.H. White's The Once and Future King, became this overblown film, directed by Joshua Logan as though he were doing a TV variety show. Richard Harris is Arthur, given to long speeches to himself, theorizing about the issues facing the world; Vanessa Redgrave is Guinevere ("Jenny" to her friends), a fairly no-nonsense sort who has a good voice; and Franco Nero is an Italian-accented Lancelot ("Lance"), who of course betrays Arthur by loving the queen and thus sows the seeds of destruction for the Round Table.
None of the mythic qualities of the Arthurian legend are captured, and the whole movie has the dried-out prepackaged look of a bad Broadway musical. It is justifiably one of the 40 biggest flops of all time, though the transfer is fine, with rich color and fairly smooth scanning (in some scenes, however, a simple crop would have been better-and clearer).
(9) Excalibur (1981). John (Deliverance) Boorman's retelling of the Arthurian story certainly 'has more meat than the tepid 1967 musical, but also has its own failings. The film is a sometimes mystical, mostly gory rendition of what Mallory tells us happened to the king and his cohorts in his Morte d'Arthur. Those familiar with the poem or the history might have better luck understanding some of the events. Others will at times find themselves wondering who is who, and why they are fighting so fiercely.
Nonetheless, the movie, which tries to cover too much, has its moments, most of them taken by Nicol Williamson's Merlin. He plays the character as a figure out of nightmare-sometimes friendly, sometimes creepy, but always there at the right time. His is the most vivid perfomance: everyone else is more or less a cipher, lost in the battles, spells, and speeches. (The worst comes from Arthur, when he decides how he will form the Round Table in a kind of You Are There monologue.) The transfer is fine, with no noticeable tracking or scanning problems.
The Epic Parodied
(lO) Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)/Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). With the epic dead (reborn as the mini-series on TV), the British Monty Python troupe resurrected the form and parodied it in these two films.
Brian is the better of the two, if only because it sticks more closely to a coherent plot, neatly spoofing conventions of the genre. (In fact, the pre-credits sequence is a direct takeoff of the opening of Ben-Hur, with three wise men following a star-but to the wrong baby.) Brian is constantly being mistaken for the .Messiah in the movie and in the process becomes involved with an inept jewish rebel group (the People's Liberation Front of Judea, bitterly opposed to a rival group, the Judean People's Front), a lisping Pontius Pilate (who sounds like Porky Pig and has a friend, Bigus Dickus, who "came all the way from Wome"), and a man who keeps getting crucified for a lark. The climax finds the cast on crosses singing a Camelot-style number called "Always Look on the Bright Side."
The Pythons' earlier Holy Grail mined the Arthurian vein, though less successfully. It is episodic, like Excalibur, featuring the quest, a pompous Arthur, and some hilarious sequences involving the Holy Hand Grenade, the killer rabbit, a knight who wants to keep fighting even after all his limbs have been cut off, and a balladeer who sings nobly about his master's cowardice. There's also a bouncy song-and-dance number called “Knights of the Round Table."
Both films are adequately transferred, though some of the colors are washed out. Nonetheless, both bring welcome relief from the weight and virtue of some of the epics, recalling the greatness – and the absurdities – of a once-proud form.