Noah’s Ark (1928)

Need An Ark? I Noah Guy!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Noah’s Ark was Warner Bros’ attempt to create a Cecil B. DeMille picture and one with very odd results, to say the least. It was a common convention for silent epics to tell two or more concurrent stories, one set in modern times and the others set in the ancient world with these being tied together with the same thematic elements (even Buster Keaton parodied this format in his feature Three Ages). Noah’s Ark from 1928 is not a very good film but it can at least go down in the history books as a bizarrely interesting one.

Noah’s Ark begins with some striking images of the Tower of Babel of which the movie compares to modern day skyscrapers. This is followed by an appearance of the Golden Calf with the title card (*in a booming Charlton Heston voice) “And throughout the ages, the worship of the Golden Calf remains man’s religion”. Cut to images of frantic modern day stock brokers followed shortly by a ridiculous montage of gambling and partying to the dissolve of a statute of Jesus which sheds a tear. Oh boohoo! This moralising couldn’t get more over the top if they tried.

Noah’s Ark is a movie trying way too hard to be profound. It’s already used the Old Testament to try and decry capitalism; the remainder of the film tries to state an anti-war message through the story of the Ark. I’m not a theologian but the connection the film tries to make between Noah’s Ark and World War I isn’t even strenuous at best. The movie’s justification for this is that the war and the story of the Ark both resulted in vast destruction and death. Paul McAllister plays a minister who serves as the biblical counterpart for Noah and proclaims before the movie transitions to the biblical tale itself (*in a booming Charlton Heston voice):

 “The Flood – it was a deluge of water drowning a world of lust!”

“This war – it is a deluge of blood drowning a world of hate!”

“The flood and the war, God Almighty’s parallel of the ages”

Yeah, you tell yourself that Buddy.

I do quite like the basic, melodramatic war story which is charming and mildly engaging. George O’Brien and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams are two American friends by the names of Travis and Al. The two are residing in Europe and may have a sexual thing going on between them as through much of their interactions they remain physically close, are very touchy and even have a romantic look in their eyes. On top of that during the actual Noah’s Ark portion of the film their biblical counterparts Japheth and Ham are even more homoerotic with their exposed chests. Travis, however, is going to marry his German love interest Marie (Dolores Costello), however, war breaks out and not only is married to a woman from an enemy nation but he’s also initially avoiding conscription. – This is one of those films in which the plot if maximised for upmost melodramatic effect.

65 minutes into what is the longest existing version of Noah’s Ark and we finally get what we came for. The portion of the film about the creation of the ark and the proceeding flooding is the best part of the film. Right of the bat, it’s very dreamlike – I just notice that Dolores Costello’s hairstyle is a few millennia off. It also has the most bizarre representation of God trying to communicate with mere mortals, by carving a giant book into the side of a mountain via lightning. If the film was only comprised of this it would be a really good short film. The movie’s much-touted flooding sequence if a spectacular sight with its huge sets, extras galore and water; lots and lots of water. However what’s made Noah’s Ark most infamous in the history books are the sources which say that several extras drowned during the making of the flood and reportedly 35 ambulances were called out to treat the wounded. You only have to watch the sequence itself to see the extras on screen do appear to be in real danger.

Noah’s Ark was a part-talkie and as a result, you have some very stilted acting during the talking scenes but you can’t blame them. The direction of the film is fine but that distinctive Michael Curtiz style is not as apparent as his later talkies. The obvious model train seen early in the film is cute but in comparison to the flood sequence, if realism was their goal then they failed. Also, can a lightning strike destroy a bridge made out of stone?

Myrna Loy is billed at the bottom of the main players screen at the beginning but only appears in one scene, in which she gets to speak and her first time to do so on screen. Sources do state, however, she also appears in the flooding sequence as a golden-winged dancer before the sacrificial altar but this viewer failed to spot her among the carnage. It does seem odd that for a rather high billing that she appears only very briefly in the film. I can only speculate that perhaps she appeared in more scenes in which were removed for re-releases of Noah’s Ark and have since become lost.

Once the story of Noah comes to a close we are brought back to the present and lo and behold, the war has ended and the armistice is signed. The Minister then makes a proclamation to echo Woodrow Wilson’s  famous statement “The war to end all wars” (* once more in a booming Charlton Heston voice):

“I mean that war is now an outlaw, and will be hunted from the face of the earth. Those ten million men have not died in vain.”

Yeah, you tell yourself that Buddy.

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Dances with Wolves (1990)

Writes With a Keyboard

It’s more than apparent that Kevin Costner has such love and reverence for the western, continuing the long tradition of epic Hollywood filmmaking with Dances with Wolves. In this revisionist western the Indians are the good guys and white men are the villains with Costner playing a character that likely would have been played by Gary Cooper 40 years earlier. The white man is shown killing mass amounts of Buffalo only for their horns, throwing their trash on the ground and polluting the water. The Native American mentality conflicts with the white man’s use of resources much like America’s carbon footprint today. I can’t say if Dances with Wolves is a movie intended to carry an environmental message but that is an impression I get from it. John Dunbar’s desire to see the western frontier before it disappears is comparable to the Arctic and Antarctica being the last great frontiers today which are apparently on the risk of eventually disappearing. John Dunbar doesn’t want to take advantage of the land but to admire and bask in it.

I find it refreshing to see westerns which include the Indian point of view. The insight in Dances with Wolves into the Sioux culture and lifestyle as well as hearing a not often heard language is fascinating. The Indians in Dances with Wolves are humanised with moments such as when Dunbar sees Kicking Bird having sex in the tipi, a relatable awkward moment or with the Indian children of the tribe having the desire to be grown up and act older than they are. The Indians, however, are not saintified ether; some members of the tribe are vicious killers and display prejudice against the white man. The movie presents both douches and more noble individuals on both sides. The passage of time in which Dunbar very slowly over the course of a four-hour movie becomes assimilated into this culture and learns the language represents an astounding piece of storytelling. Unfortunately, social justice warriors will look upon a movie like Dances with Wolves and decry it as offensive for its display of so-called “cultural appropriation” because apparently, the embracing of other cultures doesn’t represent unity between races but thievery of one culture’s ways by another.

Although not many people share the fondness I have for Kevin Costner dismissing him as a dull, monotone actor. I point to Dances with Wolves as a showcase that the man is a great screen presence; a four-hour long movie which he carries on his shoulders with no dialogue for long spaces of time while at other times he is exuberating his commanding narration voice. The scene in which Dunbar is being held by US soldiers as they assault him, denying him to return to his new found way of life as well as killing Two Socks and using his diary as toilet paper is so painful to watch. I’ve become so attached to the character at this point that I can’t bear to watch everything he has worked towards being destroyed.

Who needs CGI when there’s a world of scenic and natural beauty out there to capture on film? Simply look at the majestic landscapes of the badlands accompanied by John Barry’s score evokes a real sense of wonder. “Why go out to a location when you can just create it on a computer. Isn’t that so much easier?” Sigh. Likewise, the famous buffalo hunt scene is the real deal. How do you recreate a buffalo hunt? Why get huge herds of buffalo of course. Like the chariot race in Ben-Hur, history is brought back to life with buffalo as far as the eye can see with stuntmen on horseback right in the middle of it all; pulling off something as huge as this and retaining continuity is astounding.

Dances with Wolves doesn’t come off as cold, callous Oscar bait but sadly it is another movie in which its Best Picture win has hurt its reputation; “Dances with Wolves is just that movie which beat Goodfellas”.

Ben-Hur (1959)

When In Rome…

Metro Goldwyn Mayer hadn’t created a production this big since Gone with The Wind some twenty years earlier. Ben-Hur was created with the intent of lifting the studio out of financial trouble, yet somehow along the way art managed to be created. With the gloriously pompous opening credits set to the backdrop of The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo and the booming horns of Miklos Rozsa’s score, the stage is set. During the early scenes of Ben-Hur, I get the satisfaction of knowing that everything in front of the camera is real and had to be assembled, such as every single extra in those trails of Roman soldiers which go back as far as the eye can see. Ben-Hur was William Wyler’s Cecil B. DeMille picture, well certainly thematically. Technologically Ben-Hur is an incredibly different film to those made by DeMille. The films of DeMille’s where largely staged despite their epic scope which does work in its own way and while I’m not trying to dismiss The Ten Commandments (it is my favourite biblical epic) it can’t be denied Wyler is a far superior craftsman and that comes through in Ben-Hur; his filling of the frame is more rich and vibrant with a great sense of depth of field. At nearly four hours long, Ben-Hur is the perfect example of how to pace a movie of long length; it feels shorter than it is.

Ben-Hur was only one of a handful of movies shot using the MGM Camera 65; an extremely wide aspect ratio. The wide lens is not just for grand sweeping shots, it helps make the intimate, close up moments more immense and make the actors more godlike. Any close up of only one actor in the middle of the frame with an out of focus background looks majestic. Ben-Hur seems to be a movie largely remembered for just its spectacle, which is a shame. It is also a movie of rich layered vibrancy, evoking the senses and full of emotion.

The story also includes that age-old idea of one’s destiny being by a seemingly insignificant event. If that tile didn’t fall off the roof during the Roman parade and killed the governor then things may have turned out very differently. I also love Jack Hawkins’ words of “You have the spirit to fight back, but a good sense to control it”, and “[hate] That’s good, hate keeps a man alive; it gives him strength”; two more additions to my book of life advice from movie quotes.

People will be quick to dismiss Charlton Heston as a ham actor. He’s a classically trained actor, over the top and boisterous at times (in a good way) but so was Laurence Oliver yet everyone gives him a free pass; I guess when you’re the star of mainstream, blockbuster films then you don’t garner as much respect. The style of acting is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I relish in it.

One of the reasons why the famous chariot race is so great is because the action is real; people were actually put in danger’s way for the creation of art. There is no music during the race; just primarily the sound effects of the chariots and horses storming across the ground with the cheers from the immense crowd of spectators nor was any rear screen projections used; it’s all the real deal. The filmmakers brought 2,000 years ago back to life; nine minutes of cinema history in which your eyes are truly glued to the screen; the chariot race is one of the reasons why the 1959 film version of Ben-Hur will always be the definitive version. If anyone thinks they can do a chariot race which is better then they are fooling themselves. Imagine if Hollywood remade Ben-Hur with a CGI chariot race, that would be really awful, wouldn’t it? Oh wait, never mind. The ship battle sequence on the other hand, while superb I do feel the battle in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur is more effective in which lifeboats full of extras were used rather than the remake’s use of miniatures and rear projection shots. Not to mention the 1925 sequence is more brutal, with people being tied to the front of ships and snakes are catapulted into enemy boats.

Even as someone who is not religious I can’t deny the power of the film’s religious moments such as the scene of Jesus giving Judah water and the Roman guard being unable to whip him, and even the birth of Jesus appears very dreamlike. Even the use of miracles as a device to resolve plot points doesn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film such as the section of the movie at the Leper colony; a powerful and disturbing pair of sequences in which people segregated from the rest of society with a debilitating illness. Yet is it not an easy way out when the leprosy of Judah’s mother and sister are cured instantly via a miracle? Regardless, such use of Deus Ex Machina does not hurt my enjoyment of Ben-Hur.

The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

The Show Must Go On

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The DVD release for The Greatest Show On Earth plays down its Academy Award win for Best Picture. Hang on, isn’t this supposed to be the highest accolade in the film world? Why would you downplay that your film won the award?  I guess Paramount are fully aware of the film’s reputation as one of the “worst Best Picture winners”. I normally have a rule when reviewing movies not to mention the Oscars because I feel it is so redundant to do so. “How did this beat ‘x’ picture?”, “Why didn’t ‘x’ get an Oscar nomination?” – such tiring statements. I believe Best Picture winners attract viewers to a film which they would unlikely watch otherwise and because of this many films get a bad reputation as “the film which beat such and such for Best Picture”.

The Greatest Show On Earth is one such film, made out to be worse than it is due to attracting an audience who would otherwise never watch it if it wasn’t for its Best Picture win. The Greatest Show On Earth is tons of fun; at times I had a carefree feeling that I was at an actual circus (minus the smell of elephant dung) with actual circus equipment being used for the movie’s filming. The Greatest Show On Earth beautifully captures this un-PC relic of another age (“you mean we all got to play in blackface?”) full of clowns, animals in captivity and human freaks. There is even an appearance of performers wearing costumes of Disney characters; good luck trying to put that in a non-Disney film nowadays! Likewise, the acrobatic scenes are suspenseful and you really get a sense of the scope and awe; the whole thing even feels like it has weight to it so I can forgive the odd jumpy edit. – The film packs a lot of material and dramatics into its runtime and I felt like I got my money’s worth.

You could look at The Greatest Show On Earth cynically and say it’s a commercial for Barnum and Bailey, well it’s a very entertaining commercial at that and a very informative one offering a documentary-like look at how the circus operates with the guidance of DeMille’s passionate narration. This was a change of pace to DeMille’s usual fare of historical and biblical epics but he still manages to throw some Christianity in there with the scene in which a priest and his Alter boys bless the circus train before it begins its season.

Tasked with Herculean effort of running a circus, you couldn’t get a more commanding choice than Charlton Heston in the Clark Gable type role as a man under great pressure to keep the operation running and pull the strings behind the scenes; not even a train crash or near-death deter him from putting on a show. However, when your movie stars James Stewart (albeit a supporting performance), isn’t any surprise he’s the best aspect of the film. I believe his role of Buttons the Clown is an underrated performance of his and one of his most tragic. He has a permanent smile on his face (really, his makeup never comes off at any point), yet has a dark, troubled past. Yep, it’s obvious symbolism but you can feel his pain throughout thanks to his quiet, subtle performance. As the movie progresses it takes a surprisingly dark turn, not only with the shockingly intense train wreck sequence (which really set a standard for special effects) but also the implication that Buttons, a former doctor had assisted his wife to kill herself. It’s very subtly implied but it’s still surprising that a mainstream blockbuster would have an assisted suicide subplot in an era dictated by the censorship of the Hay’s Code.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Old Testament, Real Wrath of God Type Stuff

Upon viewing with my own eyes Cecil B DeMille’s motion picture production of The Ten Commandments, I can only conclude that is cinematic entertainment worthy of the almighty himself and one of which I can wholeheartedly recommend to my fellow man. For man shall be entertained by the will of great cinema, not be the will of inferior productions, for cinema is cinema.

Ok, I won’t talk like that for the entire review but yes, I love old Hollywood epics. The sheer scope, the bombastic music scores, the rich storytelling, everyone talking like they’re Laurence Olivier with everything they say being an epic monologue of well, biblical proportions. You can’t get films like this made anymore. No studio would be willing to finance such a project nor would moviegoers be willing to watch a film four hours long; they would run for the hills if you even suggest it to them.

From the films I’ve seen or have tried to watch from Cecil B. DeMille (aside from The Greatest Show on Earth which I also enjoyed) his work comes off to me as dull, turgid experiences. The Ten Commandments is an unashamedly old-fashioned, stagey and creaky film even for its time but that was DeMille’s Victorian style. Yet with the Ten Commandments, all these DeMillen elements work; perhaps his entire career was leading up to this one film. The Ten Commandments is one of the most classic of old Hollywood epics tapping in with the public’s fascination with Egyptology. No scene during all fours hours of The Ten Commandments feels unneeded, something interesting is always going on with special effects and sets which get better with age; fake but in a good way. Moses parting the sea is one of the greatest and most awe-inspiring special effects shots in cinema history; I can never take my eyes off the screen when it as it occurs.

Only a handful of scenes in The Ten Commandments were filmed on location with the majority being filmed within the confines of studio sets. Yet it is impressive how DeMille is able to create such a vast world in spite of this, beaming with life and personality; a lavish ancient Egyptian fantasy land that you can lose yourself in and one which feels lived in. The cuts between location and the Hollywood sets are seamless while the widespread use of blue screen, matte paintings and miniatures help create scenes which look like beautiful paintings. Also keeping with DeMille’s Victorian sensibilities, the contemporaneous composer Elmer Bernstein is a surprising choice to compose music for The Ten Commandments but delivers an appropriate, bombastic score complete with horns galore.

Everything Charlton Heston says has so much weight to it; his Moses is a superman of whom you would happily follow in a heartbeat and the humanitarian saving grace to the Hebrews when he is still in line to the throne. Yul Brynner, however, is the actor who steals the show; one of the coolest looking stars of the big screen with his distinctive bald look. With his broad and toned figure, no one could look better or strut wearing that Egyptian headdress and attire. Rames is so evil, suave, chauvinistic and charming; at times you love to hate him, at other times you can’t help to just love him. This is a man who would do just about anything to attain power and even no has no problem telling his potential future wife she’s no better than a dog. Heston and Brynner are opposing forces of masculine badassery with every line of dialogue they utter raising the hairs on my back. – There’s no method acting here, it’s completely old school theatrics.

The Ten Commandments boasts one of the most impressive ensembles casts ever to grace a Hollywood production in which every role feels significant from Edward G Robinson as slimy, cocky, shameless snitch Dathan (no one could pull these traits better than him) to the devilish Vincent Price. The other surprisingly entertaining, campy and sultry performance in the film is Anne Baxter as Nefertiti, of whom I swear has to be a nymphomaniac in the way she swoons and gets excited over the thought of Moses and even getting off on Ramses’ insults, not to mention to odd line of innuendo thrown in there (“The very dirty one there. He may serve my purpose”). Likewise, the film’s constant use of the word bondage will get some laughs for the more immature viewer.

A friend of mine once told me that what prevented him from enjoying The Ten Commandments was that Moses got the easy way out by relying on God’s miracles in order to free his people from slavery in instead of political intervention. In reality, without divine intervention, would Moses’ best option be to keep his identity a secret and free the slaves once he becomes Pharaoh? Then there’s the age-old question, if God is all-powerful, then why does he let bad things happen? Moses asks the film’s fire and brimstone representation of God this when he encounters the burning bush but gets no answer. Regardless, such Deus Ex Machina doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of The Ten Commandments.

I am past the militant atheist phase of my life in which I would have to proclaim my lack of religiosity at any given point and thought I knew better. Regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof, stories such as that of the Book of Exodus helped to create the Judeo-Christian values of which define western civilization, in this, a prime variation of the hero’s journey. Prior to the opening credits of The Ten Commandments, DeMille gives an opening prologue in which he speaks to the audience in person of how the upcoming story is about “the birth of freedom” in which the theme of this picture is “whether men are to be ruled of God’s law, or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses? Are men property of the state or are they free souls under God?” DeMille concludes stating “This same battle continues throughout the world today”. Surely it’s no coincidence that the final line spoken in The Ten Commandments is Moses proclaiming, “Go. Proclaim liberty throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof”. This was in 1956 when the communist, centralized state society of the USSR was engaged in a cold war with the USA, a country which inalienable rights are endowed by a Creator which government can’t supersede. – Yet, this battle of Moses vs. Ramses still continues on the world stage into the 21st century.