An Easter parade of religious-themed movies on disc
by Tony Dayoub
The upswing in catalogue titles (meaning everything that is not a new theatrical release) finally making it onto Blu-ray may be one indicator of the improving economy. While Warner Home Video has been the least reluctant to wade into these less commercial waters, most of the other labels have heretofore neglected a considerable backlog of older, but significant, films. Late [in 2010], Paramount Home Entertainment, the stingiest of the labels in this regard, finally released a restored version of 1951’s The African Queen, which had been missing on home video since the days of VHS tapes (!). This was a sure sign that any of the oft-quoted “consumer obstacles” frequently blamed for such notable absences had become less important.
Done right, the restored versions of classic films often look better, sharper, and truer to their original film elements than they may have ever looked before, particularly on something with the deep and wide visual range of a Blu-ray disc. More specifically, the movies that look best are the larger formatted blockbusters of the 1950s and ’60s — shot on CinemaScope, VistaVision and other rival formats to compete with the growing popularity of television.
Of these, the most popular and critically acclaimed were often the biblical epics. They had proven to be quite successful during the silent era, making the name of directors like the one most closely associated with the genre, Cecil B. DeMille. It was he who famously responded when asked why he liked to make such films, “Why should I let 2,000 years of publicity go to waste?” So when studios began developing large-scale films to compete with TV, the biblical epics were among the first to be mounted for production.
The prototype for this type of film was Quo Vadis (1951, Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Warner Home Video). It starred Robert Taylor as Roman legionnaire Marcus Vinicius. Marcus falls for the slave girl, Lygia (Deborah Kerr), who is Christian. After much reluctance from the soldier — and some chance meetings with apostles Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer) — Lygia converts Marcus, but not before he must save her from being thrown to the lions by the mad Nero (Peter Ustinov).
Though Quo Vadis created the mold, the formula wouldn’t be perfected until the release of The Robe (1953, Dir. Henry Koster, Fox Home Entertainment), the first film to ever be released in the wide-angle CinemaScope. Here we began to see some of the tropes that came to characterize the genre. For instance: A non-believing warrior who occasionally indulges in some sensuous vices slowly comes around to believing in the Judeo-Christian god. Often he is forced to defend his beliefs in a fashion that causes him to regress to the barbarous ways of his past. In this case, it is Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), a young Roman centurion ordered to crucify Jesus Christ. Overwhelming feelings of guilt manifest themselves as a burning sensation whenever Gallio touches Christ’s discarded robe, a souvenir he won while gambling with his soldiers at the foot of the cross. Gallio’s former slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), introduces him to the apostle Peter (Michael Rennie), who teaches the centurion of Christ’s ways. This brings Gallio into conflict with his fellow patricians, primarily his paramour, Diana (Jean Simmons) and the depraved emperor, Caligula (Jay Robinson). Along the way, we are exposed to wondrous sights and locations of a scale too grand to be contained in the Academy ratio that typified movies up until that time.
When married to the sword-and-sandals subgenre with its decadent Romans, the biblical epic had everything one could want in an entertainment: stolid heroes, beautiful women, orgiastic sensuality, opulent costumes and sets. Anything controversial depicted in the first half of the film could usually be excused by the fact that the second half of the film condemned such ideas. And given the Shakespearean scale of emotions included in these stories, it was easy for a project to attract some of the finest actors of stage and screen.
Little wonder, then, that these movies are leading the charge as Blu-ray releases of classic films accelerate. With this week’s confluence of Passover and Good Friday, what better time to look at a few new Blu-rays that pay homage to both the Jewish and Christian interpretations of God.
The Ten Commandments
1956, Dir. Cecil B. DeMille, Paramount Home Entertainment
Though the Old Testament skips over 30 years of Moses’ life, DeMille fills in the blanks by sticking pretty closely to The Robe’s template, replacing the Romans with the equally glamorous Egyptians. Moses starts off as a noble Egyptian warrior, favored by Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke) over the pharaoh’s own son, the envious Rameses (Yul Brynner). When Moses’ lover, Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), discovers that he is really a Jew, Moses is compelled to abandon the family he’s been a part of and champion the rights of the Jewish slave class. Honestly, the movie is kind of a slog while it’s in this quasi-fictional mode. But once Moses goes into the desert and sees the burning bush, The Ten Commandments (sticking pretty closely to the Book of Exodus from that point on) is spectacular, culminating in one of American cinema’s inarguably classic moments, the parting of the Red Sea.
DeMille’s film is the apotheosis of the Bible movie genre. Originally shot in VistaVision, the film’s 6K transfer (spread over two discs) makes for the very best looking Blu-ray of any classic movie to date. The colors are rich and gorgeous. The detail in the jewelry and costuming is extraordinary. And the sound, newly converted to DTS-HD 5.1, is stunning.
Although the two-disc edition is fine, including the requisite commentary, trailers, etc., it is worth getting the special-edition gift set, limited to 100,000 copies. Besides a treasure trove of documents reproducing the film’s souvenir program, costume sketches, and the like, this set includes a new hour-long documentary on the making of the film, multiple photo galleries, and the original 1923 silent version of the film (also by DeMille).
King of Kings
1961, Dir. Nicholas Ray, Warner Home Entertainment
Ray, the iconoclastic auteur behind Rebel Without a Cause, offers us Jesus Christ (Jeffrey Hunter) as nonviolent revolutionary. Since the title character of the film is basically constant in his beliefs — that is, Jesus is born the son of god, preaches the Lord’s word and dies — the archetypal nonbeliever part is transferred to costar Harry Guardino as Barabbas. The viewer’s point of identification is Judas (Rip Torn), whose loyalties are divided between his rabbi, Jesus, and Barabbas, his former compatriot. By tying Jesus to Barabbas — depicted here as a violent activist whom Jesus replaces at the cross — Ray anticipates a debate that would become significant later in the civil rights movement of the tumultuous late ’60s.
Hunter seems a bit intimidated by his role as the Messiah, stiffly offering platitudes instead of really inhabiting the character. But strangely, this has little impact on the film since Ray is sidelining Jesus, using him more as a catalyst in the plot arc that follows Barabbas’ transformation from secular killer into believer. Two of Ray’s repertory actors, Viveca Lindfors (Run for Cover) and Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground) make a strong impression in small parts, especially Ryan as the evangelical John the Baptist.
The digital transfer for King of Kings looks nearly as good as the one for The Ten Commandments. This should only enhance the experience for fans (like me) of the popular director who lensed the film in 70mm Super Technirama Technicolor. If you’ve ever experienced any of Ray’s later films, you know he takes full advantage of the 2.4:1 frame and has an eye for color, both displayed to fine effect in this film. Extras are light, with the disc only including a trailer and some vintage featurettes.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
1965, Dir. George Stevens, Fox Home Entertainment
Max von Sydow plays Jesus of Nazareth in this introspective, elliptical, and philosophical version of the Christ story. Von Sydow’s range suits the character, as the actor is able to move from placid to rage-filled in moments. Too bad that, in almost every other way, the film is a major misstep.
The problem is that Stevens’ approach is reverential to a fault. Impeccably framed, each shot resembles a painting. Though gorgeous to look at, the beautiful backlight often keeps important characters shrouded in shadow, creating an eerie distance between them and the viewer. Alfred Newman’s score, based on Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” from the sound of it, is as dreary as his score for The Robe was enticing.
And the epic’s all-star cast is distracting. Was it really necessary to cast John Wayne as a Roman soldier with just one line of dialogue? Or waste the talents of Roddy McDowall on the part of an apostle who rarely speaks? Even Jamie Farr (M*A*S*H) plays an apostle. I thought the slow-moving film would pick up speed after the intermission, placed right before the Last Supper. But the film’s cast, playing everything in a weird stupor of predestination (a shifty-eyed David McCallum is particularly weak as Judas, telegraphing his betrayal at every opportunity), actually slows things down even further, strangely reflecting the lengthy production of the film itself (which started shooting in late 1962 and wrapped principal photography in August of 1963).
Photographed in Ultra Panavision 70, this is one of the widest aspect ratios I have ever seen on home video, 2.75:1. The good news is that Blu-ray finally allows you to see the actors’ expressions, despite their smallness within the frame, in a way that the previous DVD’s resolution never could. The bad news is that, at times, the movie is a shimmering storm of film grain, unintended in this case, as acknowledged by Fox’s title card before the start of the film, “We have brought this film to Blu-ray using the best elements available.” The 5.1 DTS-HD audio doesn’t ever really feel necessary, given the movie’s relatively flat center-speaker sound.
The Bible: In the Beginning...
1966, Dir. John Huston, Fox Home Entertainment
Not surprisingly, this ambitious film — meant to be the first in a series — reflects the ego of its larger-than-life auteur. Huston not only directs; he plays Noah, God, and Eden’s serpent in this, an adaptation of Genesis 1-22. Here the protagonist’s typical arc in a biblical epic – from agnostic to deeply religious – is spread over the lineage of man, from Adam (Michael Parks) through to Abraham (George C. Scott); inevitably, the film has an uneven, episodic feel. The comic angle to the story of Noah’s Ark feels particularly out of place. The Bible: In the Beginning... is at its best when it mimics the darker, edgier, erotic aspects of the Old Testament. The brief foray into the sinful streets of Sodom and Gomorrah (with Peter O’Toole playing three angels sent to destroy the cities) is a creep-fest from which Tinto Brass’s Caligula looks ready to spring at any moment.
I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for The Bible. There is a unity to much of the film after the intermission (which comes right after Noah’s story). The film is shot beautifully by famed cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (The Leopard), whose framing resembles that of The Greatest Story Ever Told, without falling prey to that film’s static tableaus. Performances are superb, particularly those of Scott, Gabriele Ferzetti as Lot, Ava Gardner as Sarah, and Richard Harris as the first murderer, Cain.
Interestingly, The Bible was the first of only two films (the other was Patton) shot in Dimension 150. Most of it looks excellent, except for the Adam and Eve sequence, which looks too dark (a way to censor some of the nudity, perhaps?). The 5.1 DTS-HD audio serves the film well, especially when Huston’s voice booms over the soundtrack as God. Only one extra is included, an unrestored trailer to the film.
This retrospective was first published on 4/20/2011 in Nomad Editions: Wide Screen.