Sunday, April 5, 2009

HEROD THE GREAT (Erode Il Grande, 1959)

Despite my disappointing dips into Mill Creek Entertainment's Warriors DVD collection, I endeavored to persevere in search of Italian costume epics of possible interest. Because I've been mulling over doing a Holy Week theme of Biblically inspired films, I decided to try out Viktor Tourjansky's film about King Herod, the man who supposedly ordered the massacre of the innocents following reports of Jesus's birth. Right away I wondered what they were going to do with the story of an undisputed villain. As it turned out, Erode il Grande is much more dramatically ambitious than the other films I've seen in the set so far, and is blessed with an inspired performance from an unexpected source in the title role.

The film is a drastically telescoped account of the last years of Herod's reign. It starts with his reaction to the defeat of his allies Antony and Cleopatra at Actium and ends with his death. Historians say that Herod died around 4 BC, so we're talking about more than 25 years historically, but a matter of weeks at most in the movie.

The film does not make a good first impression. It opens with two men being crucified (or "hung on stakes" as a town crier puts it), allegedly for publicly criticizing King Herod. We get a mawkish and pointless scene in which the mother of one of the condemned weeps at his feet and helpfully goes to get him a drink of water, only to have a guard knock it out of her hands. We soon move to the palace, where Herod proposes to save his skin by going to the victorious Octavian and swearing his loyalty. He should worry about the loyalty of his household. Seemingly happily married to Miriam, he's burdened with a hateful mother-in-law, Alexandra, who seems to favor her own younger son, Herod's brother-in-law David. Herod's also troubled by his own weaselly son from an earlier marriage, Antipater (not to be confused with his son Antipas, who finally succeeds the historic king). The king has one trusted lieutenant, Aaron, whom he entrusts with a grave mission: should Herod not return from his mission to Octavian, Aaron is to kill Miriam so that she can be with her king in death. We'll learn later that Herod had vowed to kill himself if Miriam had died from an earlier illness. As far as he's concerned, turnabout is fair play.

But when a rumor spreads that Octavian has executed Herod, Aaron can't bring himself to obey orders. He's happily married himself, so lust has nothing to do with it. Meanwhile, Alexandra hurries to have David recognized as King while Antipater schemes for the best position, first asking to join with Alexandra's faction, then fleeing from their intent to kill him. Just as David is about to be crowned and proclaimed king, Herod reappears with a Roman escort, reconfirmed in his rights by Octavian Augustus. He doesn't like what he sees, and before long David drowns under mysterious circumstances. When he learns that everyone thought him dead, yet Aaron didn't kill Miriam for him, he likes that less. Antipater fuels his dad's suspicions of anyone who stands between him and the succession. His long range goal is to get Herod's baby son by Miriam out of the way, so he drops hints of adultery which Miriam refuses out of pride to even answer. Despite assurances from an astrologer that a comet in the sky promises good fortune to him rather than the advent of the Messiah, Herod seems to be losing his grip on reality.

An ominous moment from HEROD THE GREAT, an imaginative prequel
to the Gospels.

Here's where the story gets a nasty twist. Herod has grown suspicious that Miriam's baby may be a bastard. Fearing the consequences for her son, Miriam has the child taken from the capital and hidden in Bethlehem. She is soon arrested, convicted of adultery and condemned to death by stoning. Now a shepherd from Bethlehem is brought to court claiming that a Messiah was indeed born under the star or comet and was worshipped by a multitude. Herod gives the legendary order to kill all the firstborn in Bethlehem, and while the apparently truncated Mill Creek edition never gives us the full payoff, we may safely assume that the king has condemned his own child to death.

Perhaps such a missing revelation explains the mad scene that climaxes the film. Herod has never really felt certain about Miriam's guilt, but can't except her refusal to say yes or no, or worse yet, her refusal to beg for clemency and forgiveness. Now that she's dead, he's feeling guilty about it, but projects that guilt on Antipater, suddenly deducing that the boy had set Miriam up. Herod snaps and strangles Antipater, crying out, "Die, die, you jackal!" He staggers into the throne room and freaks out at the sight of his own shadow on the throne itself. He orders the "usurper" arrested and executed, then hallucinates the chamber flooded with blood. Rising in an awful apoplexy, he falls down dead, and we hear Miriam's voice saying there has to be room for love in the world. The end.

It's a pretty strong finish, and what's unexpected and thus more impressive about it is that it's all performed by Edmund Purdom, one of the great Hollywood washouts. He had a big chance for stardom when 20th Century Fox hired him to replace a recalcitrant Marlon Brando in one of their biggest productions of 1954, The Egyptian. Brando's reluctance to do the film displayed a wisdom not often repeated in his later career, for the film about a heroic physician in the time of Akhenaten is dead on arrival. Purdom had more opportunities than this, but by 1956 he was finished in Hollywood. On the evidence of The Egyptian Purdom's problem seemed to be that he was unemotive. But as Herod he lets rip with a mountingly nutso performance culminating in that roaring, laughing, gibbering mad scene.

Purdom is attractively supported by the beautiful but unfortunate Sylvia Lopez as Miriam, who had only Hercules Unchained left to do before leukemia took her at age 28.

Even accounting for dubbing, the ensemble is a strong one that makes the most of all the opportunities for hysterical recriminations and backstabbing. The story is partly the work of Damiano Damiani, who would do good work later as writer and director of films like A Bullet for the General and Confessions of a Police Captain. It's tempting to credit him with the good things of this film, but the story and script were the work of four others beside Damiani, including Tourjansky himself.

Herod has what look like better-than-average production values, though the inconsistent letterboxing and the battered state of the print used by Mill Creek may obscure the fact. The film was made in "Totalscope," and the wider letterboxing of the titles slightly clips the names on the top of the credit cards. The letterboxing of the film itself isn't wide enough, as some crude pan-and-scanning and cuts within shots prove. The true ratio is somewhere between the extremes show on this disc. Mill Creek's copy is also five minutes short of the advertised running time of 97 minutes. It may be missing not just a scene of Herod learning that his son was killed in Bethlehem, but also the resolution of Aaron's story, after this edition leaves him riding too late to Miriam's rescue and learning of her death. But there's enough of the lurid tragedy and more than enough of Purdom's raving to make the film worthwhile -- especially at the estimated Mill Creek rate of 40 cents per film. Score one so far for the Warriors set, with many more left to see.


The Vicar of VHS said...

What a coincidence! I was just reading in the latest issue of National Geographic all the angry letters the editors got for suggesting that the historical Herod might not have *actually* ordered all the babies in his kingdom killed, pointing to the lack of historical evidence for such a purge except for the text of Matthew (it's not mentioned in any of the other gospels). For a sampling of the can o' worms *that* opened, check out some of the comments here:

The movie sounds interesting, and I'm a fan of Edmund Purdom's, but probably not for the reason his spirit would like...yes, I'm talking about his directing/star turn in Don't Open Till Christmas. :)

Samuel Wilson said...

I've got Don't Open in one of my box sets. Have to see it before the year is out, I suppose. As for Herod, I always assumed that Matthew was just plagiarizing Exodus to make his story more dramatic, or at least more Mosaic.

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