Saturday, April 3, 2010


At Easter time I always like to look at "bible" movies. It's good to define the term loosely, since many such films aren't adapted directly from the Old or New Testament. Once upon a time novels set during the time of scripture made up a popular genre of fiction, with Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur setting the template and Lloyd C. Douglas's The Robe probably being the twentieth-century champion. I see at the library that such books are still written, but you don't see them on the best seller lists as often as you used to. When The Robe was used to roll out Cinemascope and became a sort of Avatar of its time in 1953, Hollywood started grabbing other bible novels to make into widescreen showcases. Warner Bros. snapped up Thomas B. Costain's 1952 best seller about the making of the Holy Grail and set it up to launch Paul Newman as a new star. It was a famous flop that nearly killed Newman's career in the cradle, but it fascinated me when I saw bits of it as a kid. It looked profoundly different from the other epics I enjoyed, and as far as I was concerned Jack Palance was the star. He played Simon the Magician (aka Simon Magus), the nearest thing I could see to a villain of the piece, but in such a soft-spoken, almost reasonable way that he was easily the most interesting thing on screen.

Above, the first shot of Paul Newman's movie career. Below, Jack Palance performs on what is, believe it or not, a major studio set.

This weekend I decided to give The Silver Chalice a fresh look. It's a gravely problematic movie visually, actually quite ambitious in its own way. It was such a way, however, that made it look unambitious to many contemporary observers. Producer-director Victor Saville (who also held the rights to Mike Hammer and produced Kiss Me Deadly the following year) and his design team decided against building big free-standing sets and against realism of any kind as a rule. They opted for a sometimes minimalist, sometimes abstract production design that emphasized clean lines and open spaces when it wasn't obviously self-indulgent or utterly incompetent. To call the results hit-or-miss is to understate the extremes. Sometimes they succeed brilliantly and manage stunning images. Sometimes they look like amateurs. It's the inconsistency rather than the experiment itself that handicaps this film.

While the movie is pictorially erratic, the story and most of the acting are fatal. We're following the adventures of Basil, a poor boy adopted by an old, wealthy and childless merchant (E.G. Marshall) against the wishes of his brother. When the old man dies, the brother bribes Antioch officials and a witness to the adoption into denouncing Basil as a slave, not the heir to the estate. Basil is promptly sold to a family that puts him to work as a sculptor and silversmith. In servitude he encounters an old friend, Helena (first Natalie Wood, then Virginia Mayo), a slave who ran away from the old merchant's household and is now hanging out with Simon the Magician. Helena will be torn between Basil and Simon for the rest of the picture, while Basil will be torn between her and Deborra (Pier Angeli), the granddaughter of Joseph of Arimathea. Using Luke the Evangelist as his agent, Joseph buys Basil's freedom and brings him to Jerusalem to craft a silver chalice that will house the drinking cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Helena ends up in the holy city when the Sicarii, a Jewish insurgent group, recruit Simon to be their spokesman and messiah.

The Sicarii are a promising but underutilized element of the story. I don't know if they're meant to represent the People's Front of Judea or the Judean People's Front, but as they're shown in the movie the question is really whether they're stand-ins for fascists or communists. Since the year is 1954, let's opt for commies. They're obsessed with violent revolution, but Simon, a fellow-traveller in the parlance of the time (the 1950s, that is), instructs them in the need to project a benevolent front of freedom and spirituality. This movie really needs a band of black-clad sword-wielding thugs to liven up things, but Saville never thinks to stage any anti-Roman mayhem. This film is hopelessly short on action, though things could be worse. At 135 minutes, Chalice is relatively brief by epic standards.

Pier Angeli is so holy, she sort of has a halo already.

Virginia Mayo has to choose between Newman's youthful ardor and Palance's magic fruit. What would you do?

Anyway, the story loses interest in the Sicarii after a while, and the scene shifts from Jerusalem to Rome. Basil goes there to meet the Apostle Peter (Lorne Greene) and make a study of his face for the Chalice. Simon and Helena head there because the Magician has a grudge against Peter (documented in the Acts of the Apostles and other early Christian sources) and wants to discredit Christianity as an act of spite. He convinces the Sicarii to let him go on the premise that news of Peter's expected humiliation will disabuse Judeans of their silly new religion of peace and love and make them receptive to the Sicarii war cry. Helena steers him toward Rome because she knows that Basil's going there with the Chalice.

Nero's palace is one of the film's more successful sets. Within it, Palance adds snake-handling to his wonder-working repertoire.

Simon wants to destroy the Chalice as part of his revenge on Peter, but he's also starting to believe his own propaganda. Believing himself a true miracle worker as well as a magician, he convinces the Emperor Nero to let him prove his superior spirituality by doing one thing neither Peter nor Jesus ever did: leap off a tall tower and fly.

Close up, Palance's final costume change makes him look like an unmentionably virile superhero. From afar, it's more like an ancient Acme Bat-Man Outfit.

I hope I don't seem to be boasting if I say that my description is more interesting than the film itself. The screenplay by Lesser Samuels is quite literally lesser work. The dialogue is clunky in the bad-epic manner without rising to the memorable word-jazz weirdness of something like The Ten Commandments. Newman is as bad as legend claims, as he often conceded himself. In his defense, Basil is a hopeless part. He has no chemistry at all with Mayo, who seems dreadfully out of place here, but fares better with the younger, more modern looking Angeli. Jack Palance steals the film with ease, coasting along a character arc that takes him from amiable cynicism to rapturous delusions of grandeur. If the visuals don't attract you, he may be the one reason to give this film a look. Seeing him as Simon after so many years vindicates my memory that he was the best thing about the movie. Overall, The Silver Chalice deserves a little extra credit for its pictorial ambition, and it's worth noting that it isn't even the worst religious epic of its release year -- that's The Egyptian by a good margin. If you want real sword-&-sandal entertainment from 1954, go with Delmer Daves's Demetrius and the Gladiators. But if you want a genuinely eccentric effort from Hollywood's epic era, then Chalice is on TCM on Easter afternoon for you to judge for yourselves.

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