Delivered in Pain: The Birth of Nations — Operas, Musicals and Movies with Patriotic Themes (Part Two): History Blends with Drama

Battle of Wills and Wonts

Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) gives Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) an ultimatum in “The Buccaneer” (1958)

It is instructive, at this point, to compare two of producer-director Cecil B. DeMille’s historical epics, both dealing with the pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte under the title The Buccaneer. Taking place in and around New Orleans, and along the bayous and waterways of early 19th century Louisiana known as Barataria, the two films (the first, from 1938, in black-and-white; and the other from 1958, in glorious Technicolor and eye-catching VistaVision) feature, as a minor protagonist, the equally colorful and charismatic Major General Andrew Jackson.

Known to history as  “Old Hickory,” Jackson served as our seventh U.S. president from March 1829 to March 1837, but the films concentrated instead on the prior events of the War of 1812 as well as the lead-up to the Battle of New Orleans of 1814.

The War of 1812 was considered a “do-over” for the defeated British army of King George III. The forces of His Royal Majesty that came back to fight in America — that is, to pick up where their colleagues had left off during the Revolutionary War — were, in essence, battle-hardened veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns. No pushovers as far as trained combatants were concerned, the Red Coats were met by a raggedy bunch of volunteers, misfits, Native Americans, poorly equipped Creoles, and African American slaves.

Joining them were bands of desperados governed, to put it mildly, by French-born adventure seeker Jean Lafitte (his actual surname is spelled Laffite, with two “fs” and only one “t”). Fabulously wealthy due to their plundering of Spanish ships off the Caribbean Coast and near the Gulf of Mexico, Lafitte and his followers, to include his brothers Pierre and Alexandre (who is called, in both film versions, by the bogus moniker Dominique You), opted to fight for the American side.

History records that Lafitte’s brother, Pierre, had been captured and arrested for piracy by the Americans. Their idea was to use Pierre as a bargaining chip in order to obtain Lafitte’s loyalty to their cause. Yet, frère Pierre is neither mentioned nor found in either screen production. Logically, the screenwriters may have felt that one brigand named Lafitte was one too many for viewers to handle.

Franciska Gaal, Fredric March & Akim Tamiroff in the 1938 version of “The Buccaneer,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Nevertheless, both films capitalized on the involvement of Maj. Gen. Jackson, who took command of a seemingly hopeless situation by spearheading the defense of New Orleans. What Jackson found when he got there was a city without means, i.e., one lacking in even the basic necessities regarding supplies and munitions so as to put up a spirited resistance. Jackson was forced to contend with Lafitte and his cutthroats, whom he despised for their thieving ways (in the films, Lafitte offers his services in return for a pardon for his offenses).

The American Governor, William Claiborne, however, took a harder line. He had previously refused to deal with Lafitte. Instead, he ordered that his base be attacked by U.S. warships harbored nearby. This led to Lafitte’s retreat into the bayous and the capture of some of his followers, including Dominique You. Interestingly, “General” You and his compatriots had once served in Napoleon’s Grand Army as cannon and artillery men. Their expertise in that department would eventually prove useful to Jackson and his buckskinned squirrel shooters. He would need them, as well as their ample supply of arms and ammunition, for the coming confrontation with the British.

Born in the State of Kansas, actor Hugh Sothern, who played Maj. Gen. Jackson in the 1938 version of The Buccaneer, was a supporting player (usually uncredited) in flicks from the 1930s and 40s. A distant relative of Jackson’s (Sean Wilentz, Professor of History at Princeton University, labeled him a “collateral descendant”), Sothern conveys his kinsman’s volatile personality, hair-trigger temper, and the capricious, mercurial nature of a future U.S. president and Creek Indian War hero.

Be that as it may Jackson’s appearance in the picture is rather inconsequential. As was the norm with DeMille, there were a plethora of character vignettes by a who’s who of veteran scene stealers, each scrambling to top the other. Among the players were Akim Tamiroff as Dominique You, Walter Brennan as the cantankerous Ezra Peavey, Ian Keith as Senator Crawford, Franciska Gaal as Gretchen, Margot Graham as Annette de Rémy, Douglass Dumbrille as Governor Claiborne, Beulah Bondi as Aunt Charlotte, Robert Barrat as the duplicitous Captain Brown, Fred Kohler as Gramby, and Stanley Andrews, Paul Fix, Luana Walters, John Rodgers, and, in cameo roles, Spring Byington as Dolly Madison, Montagu Love as Admiral Cockburn, and literally dozens of familiar faces.

One of those faces belonged to that of DeMille’s son-in-law, the Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn, as Beluche. He’s the fellow with the faux Creole accent and thin black mustache. Oh, wait! They ALL had faux accents and thin black mustaches — in particular, the titular buccaneer himself, performed by Wisconsin-born Fredric March. DeMille had earlier cast him as Marcus Vinitius in The Sign of the Cross (1932), one of those Romans vs. Christians toga epics. March portrayed Lafitte in typically flamboyant fashion, what with the florid dialog he was forced to speak. Incredibly, March’s impersonation rang true to history. He even bore a resemblance to the real Lafitte, at least as far as the few surviving portraits of the scoundrel had showed.

Anthony Quinn (far left), with Fredric March as Jean Lafitte (far right)

Incidentally, one of the reasons for the capture of Lafitte’s brother Pierre was to thwart his illegal operation of converting the vast plunder they had acquired into hard cash. In shutting down Pierre’s operation, Lafitte was deprived of his livelihood and, consequently, whatever creature comforts his nefarious lifestyle had provided. Survival, then, not patriotic fervor, was central to Lafitte’s participation in the American effort to thwart the British invaders. Still, Professor Wilentz attests to Lafitte’s bravery under fire, not only earning a pardon for him and his men from then-President James Madison, but the “warm public thanks from an admiring Jackson.”

DeMille’s writers, Jeanie Macpherson, Edwin Justus Mayer, C. Gardner Sullivan, and historian and biographer Harold Lamb, took sufficient liberties with the story to provide a fairly decent box office return on Paramount Studios’ investment. Of course, they had to invent several romantic interests to hold the audiences’ attention (recalling the mantra of the period, in that you had to have a woman in there to soften the rough edges).

Two decades later, DeMille decided to revisit his earlier take on the matter, much as he had done with the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments. With the worldwide success of The Ten Commandments remake in 1956, DeMille intended to make an even splashier musical version, believe it or not, of Lafitte’s participation in defeating the British. However, after suffering a heart attack while filming the strenuous Exodus sequence in the Sinai desert, DeMille was forced to curtail his activities. Taking the title of executive producer instead, C.B. assigned the directing chores to Anthony Quinn (his one and only effort behind the cameras), with DeMille’s production duties being taken over by longtime friend and associate, Henry Wilcoxon.

Sadly, the remake of The Buccaneer turned out to be “a disastrous flop,” according to John Douglas Eames in The Paramount Story, who blamed the lack of DeMille’s formidable “creative drive” and the “unexciting account of the pirate Lafitte” on the producer-director’s waning health.

To give the 1958 version its due, the picture is beautifully photographed by veteran cinematographer Loyal Griggs (The Ten Commandments, 1956), with the addition of three-strip Technicolor providing a feast for the eyes. The $5 million budget allocated toward it was well spent on period costumes, and suitable props and paraphernalia, a DeMille trademark. Unfortunately, the film is dead on arrival as drama, with the fabricated love triangle between Lafitte (an uncomfortably bewigged Yul Brynner), Gov. Claiborne’s nubile daughter Annette (the lovely Inger Stevens), and the roguish Bonnie Brown straining credibility to the breaking point.

Poster art for “The Buccaneer” (1958)

Much of the casting, too, was well below par for a purported DeMille epic. For instance, the newly invented character of Bonnie Brown (Claire Bloom), the Creole offspring of the renegade Capt. Brown (Robert F. Simon), struck few onscreen sparks. And the normally reassuring presence of such movie heavies as Ted de Corsia, Bruce Gordon, and John Dierkes (their familiar mugs hidden behind false beards and whiskers), along with E.G. Marshall as Gov. Claiborne, and Lorne Greene as the excitable Mercier, verged on egregious miscasting, especially in the flowery wardrobe, oversized pirate hats, and ersatz “period” dialog they were burdened with. Even the hulking Woody Strode made little impact.

At least the magnetic Charles Boyer was capable of bringing some authentic French flair, along with a decent accent, to Dominique You (in addition to his requisite Continental charm), while the querulous Henry Hull took over for Walter Brennan as an annoyingly persistent Mr. Ezra Peavey (“Don’t forget to drink your milk, Andy!”).

Birds of a Feather Rarely Flock Together

The whole studio-bound affair should have been scrapped from its inception. So why did DeMille (or rather, those who were laboring in his stead) insist on the remake being made at all? For one, the wily producer-director had a nose for box office receipts, despite the dreary results and poor reviews. For another, he likely wanted to capitalize on the crackling screen chemistry generated by Yul Brynner, the “sexy bald guy you love to hate,” and the latest hunky male attraction, Charlton Heston. Their initial teaming in The Ten Commandments (as Pharaoh Rameses and the Deliverer Moses, respectively) proved most lucrative for Paramount Studios’ coffers, offering viewers a fascinating glimpse of divergent acting styles.

In between these two assignments, both Heston and Brynner were kept busy with movie work. In Heston’s case, he appeared in three back-to-back productions for three different studios: Three Violent People (1956) for Paramount, which reunited him with Anne Baxter, another alumnus from The Ten Commandments; Touch of Evil (1958) for Universal, with maverick movie director Orson Welles and Janet Leigh; and The Big Country (1958) for United Artists, directed by William Wyler, and starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, and Burl Ives. This was followed by his biggest part yet, in Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) for MGM, another widescreen remake of a silent classic.

Old Hickory (Heston) with Mr. Peavey (Henry Hull) in defense of New Orleans

As for Brynner, he fulfilled two contracts for Twentieth Century-Fox in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (1956) with Deborah Kerr, and Anastasia (1956) with Ingrid Bergman; and for MGM’s The Brothers Karamazov (1957), with Maria Schell and Claire Bloom, his costar in The Buccaneer.

In analyzing the two versions of The Buccaneer, we can determine that both films followed a similar scene-for-scene path. The latter feature included some slight alterations from the earlier flick, in that the refurbished script (by Jesse Lasky Jr., son of Jesse Lasky, one of DeMille’s fellow Hollywood pioneers; and Bernice Mosk) substituted the boy Miggs (Jerry Hartleben) as the lone survivor of the downed fictional ship, the Corinthian. In the original, the person confronted with the news of the Corinthian’s sinking was Gretchen (Franciska Gaal).

The climax and dénouement are along similar lines. One of the major differences, though, lies in the approach to Lafitte’s personality. Yul Brynner adopted a pensive, brooding mien, quite apart from Fredric March’s self-confident air and lack of diffidence. Brynner also took to sitting in an armchair, a makeshift “throne” (à la Rameses II) in his bayou stronghold — with one leg over the armchair’s side. Hardly regal behavior, but one more appropriate for a pirate. Brynner’s pose may remind audiences of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker.

In addition, there’s a 1950s allure to the two love interests: that is, the blonde and blue-eyed, playing hard-to-get New Orleans belle Annette, portrayed by a young Inger Stevens; contrasted with the bayou wildcat, an untamed, dark-haired, and purposely darker-skinned Bonnie, played by Claire Bloom, a tomboy in petticoats and fancy ball gowns. This is reflective of the general change in attitude towards women of the time, the gathering storm of the coming sexual revolution. Annette Claiborne is the highborn daughter of Lousiana’s governor, a trophy bride over-and-above Lafitte’s social station and class; whereas the plain-Jane Bonnie Brown (she apparently wears her name on her sleeve) represents the forbidden other-side-of-town gal, an easier mark for Lafitte, so he may think, but a huge step down in rank.

Inger Stevens as Annette Claiborne, speaking to Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner)

In both films, Lafitte accepts the blame for the sinking of the Corinthian and the death of all on board. And in both, he and his cohorts are run out of town, so to speak, with Maj. Gen. Jackson giving them an hour’s head start. The disparities, as they were, between these two features are in the setup and execution. The 1958 remake leans more toward the “dramatic” if heavy-handed side, and was obviously influenced by the theater (a remnant of DeMille’s silent movie days). Although DeMille remained on the sidelines for this one, his unseen hand is everywhere, most convincingly with the last-minute entrance of Heston’s Moses-like Andy Jackson, spouting fire and brimstone in an otherwise strained situation.

As Lafitte is about to be dragged bodily to his own hanging by the outraged citizens of New Orleans, Old Hickory fires a pistol into the air upon bursting into the salon, with Mr. Peavey by his side and trusty squirrel rifle in hand.

“By the Lord God,” Jackson thunders, “I’ll kill the next man who moves!” Immediately, all eyes are upon Heston’s towering six-foot, four-inch frame. Who writes scenes like this anymore? One has to experience this sequence to believe it.

“I think I admired Andrew Jackson more than any of the other men of that [historical] genre I’ve played,” Heston went on the record as saying. Curiously, Heston had his first opportunity at portraying Old Hickory in Twentieth Century- Fox’s production of The President’s Lady (1953), a film more preoccupied with soap-opera hysterics than actual facts. Still, it led to his approaching DeMille for background information.

“DeMille had let me see his 1938 version of The Buccaneer to study the character. He also let me look at some research material. He was very kind about it … Five years later DeMille was planning to remake The Buccaneer. At the time I don’t think it was settled to what extent he was planning to involve himself in the production. I still had one picture left on the contract that Paramount had purchased from Hal Wallis. I asked to play Jackson in a cameo role to use up the remaining commitment. [Wallis] thought it was a fine idea. The intended cameo role, however, blossomed into a considerable part as the script developed.”

Indeed, Heston’s eccentric if slightly offbeat assignment saves the picture from permanent ruin. His makeup job was certainly convincing. And, as Prof. Wilentz points out, Heston seemed to have “just stepped off a twenty-dollar bill.” Well, not exactly. His Jackson moves stiffly and decrepitly, seeming much older than he would have been, historically speaking (in fact, Jackson was in his mid-40s, while Heston was 34). His counterpart, Sothern, in the 1938 release, though missing Heston’s imposing height and build, moves more naturally.

Who made the better Andrew Jackson? The choice is strictly to taste, but my vote goes to Heston for his physical presence, and that unmistakable voice.

In yet another connection to The Ten Commandments, the choice of composer for the film’s score turned out to be Elmer Bernstein, whose music for the earlier feature was much admired. Bernstein wrote a similarly-themed score for The Buccaneer. Listen closely to the title music played over the opening credits, and you will hear hints of leading motifs reminiscent of the 1956 epic.

End of Part Two

(To be continued …..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera, Act III (Part Seven)

Act Three: The Death of Margherita

Mefistofele (Ildar Abdrazakov) coaxes Margherita (Patricia Racette) to flee in the Prison Scene from Boito’s Mefistofele (Photo: San Francisco Opera)

Although relatively short, this strongly emotional act is one of Italian opera’s finest examples of drama made more potent through words and song. Margherita’s pathetic opening solo harkens back to the early days of bel canto, i.e., to the so-called Mad Scenes in such masterworks as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena, along with Bellini’s La Sonnambula and I Puritani and Meyerbeer’s Dinorah among other examples.

Verdi himself hinted at it in Act IV of his penultimate opera Otello, with Desdemona’s delicate Canzone del Salice (“Willow Song”) and “Ave Maria.” As well he should, for Verdi’s learned colleague and librettist was the poet Arrigo Boito, the composer and lyricist of Mefistofele.

The scene is a prison cell at night. Margherita is alone, lying on a cot or bed of straw, or on the bare floor (with many permutations in between, especially in today’s director-driven theater). She is awaiting her execution. The mournful-sounding prelude to the scene is dominated by the lower strings, the clarinet, and characteristically the flute — the unofficial instrument of lunacy. The girl has gone completely insane, her mental faculties unraveling as a result of her actions. And what actions could those be?

She awakens, as if from a dream. Beginning with the words, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” Margherita re-enacts for herself (and for the audience’s awareness) the heinous crimes with which she has been charged:

L’altra notte in fondo al mare

Il mio bimbo hanno gittato,

Or per farmi delirare dicon ch’io

L’abbia affogato.

L’aura è fredda,

Il carcer fosco,

E la mesta anima mia

Come il passero del bosco

Vola, vola, vola via.

Ah! Pietà di me!

 

The other night they threw my child

Into the bottom of the sea

And now, to drive me crazy,

They say that I drowned it.

The air is cold

The cell is dark

And my soul is saddened

Like the wood sparrow

It flies, flies, flies away.

Ah! Take pity on me!

Margherita is accused of murdering the child she conceived with Faust. Continuing with the second couplet, she recalls leaving her mother in a deep slumber, only to find to her horror that she has been accused of poisoning her, or so “they” have informed her. Margherita does not realize (or remember) that it was Faust who gave her the vial of sleeping potion, which turned out to be a strong slow-acting poison. She ends her reminiscence with an entreaty to God to have mercy on her soul.

The acknowledged classic rendition of this melancholy showpiece has been Claudia Muzio’s heart-rending reading. Conducted by Lorenzo Molajoli, who led many an early gramophone, acoustic and/or electric performance on 78 rpm, this 1920 version captures the Italian soprano at her most personal. While she did not possess the most powerful of vocal apparatuses, Muzio was blessed with an incredible directness and intensity that influenced a plethora of budding voice students. One could readily associate Maria Callas or Renata Scotto with Muzio’s ability to move listeners with her sweeping passion and care for word values.

Italian soprano Claudia Muzio

Other notable recordings, for those who are interested, were those made by Frances Alda, Geraldine Farrar, Magda Olivero, Régine Crespin, and Maria Chiara, in addition to Renata Tebaldi, Mirella Freni, and Eva Marton in their complete albums. The Barcelona-born soprano Montserrat Caballé, in the EMI/Angel version under Julius Rudel, offers the most devastating modern interpretation. That peculiar catch in the throat that Caballé employs is particularly poignant (she does this with the subsequent aria, “Spunta, l’aurora pallida”). She also boasts the softest of pianissimos as well as unmatched coloratura agility that add another dimension to the tragic bleakness of the piece.

Exhausted from the effort at recollection, Margherita faints in her cell. Faust appears behind the jail cell’s gate, with Mefistofele glaring over his shoulder. It’s at this point that we make note of a change in the Devil’s demeanor vis-à-vis that of his reputed “master,” the philosopher Faust. Who is the servant now, we may ask?

Desperate to save Margherita from death on the gallows (or the block), Faust charges the demon to rescue her. “And who was it who pushed her over the edge?” the Devil inquires, “You or me?” Still, he will do what he can. Tossing the keys of the cell to Faust, Mefistofele blares out that the jailers are sound asleep and the magical horses are ready to fly off. In other words, be quick about your business or you will be left in the lurch.

As Faust approaches the condemned girl, Margherita awakens to delirium. She even mistakes him for her executioner. But Faust briefly rekindles her memory with thoughts of their initial encounter in the garden. He implores her to go with him— right now, at this moment — while there is still time; and to cease with this childish prattle. But Margherita cannot be silenced. Instead, she experiences an epiphany: confessing her crimes to her former lover, the aggrieved woman explains in detail how she wants Faust to treat the graves of her deceased mother and child.

The Prison Scene, with soprano Elisabetta Sepe

For her own final resting place, she instructs Faust to place her tiny baby on her breast as she lies in the ground. Faust can hardly bear this talk, pleading instead for her to flee. Just as she did in the garden sequence of Act II, scene i, Margherita cannot comprehend this stranger’s thoughts. She states that she cannot follow him. “Hell stands at that gate,” she declares (her feminine intuition tells her that Satan is watching and waiting); that life for her is nothing but sorrow.

At this point, Faust, too, has an inspiration. “Hear love’s voice entreating you. Come, let us fly away together.” Repeating his appeal, Margherita is already dreaming of a faraway haven where they may live forever in peace. The wistful duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Away, far away, far away”), full of longing and nostalgia for better times, brings the two despondent individuals together for the last time. They embrace each other tenderly as they sing:

Lontano, lontano, lontano

Sui flutti d’un ampio oceano

Frai i rovidi effluvi del mar,

Fra  l’alghe, fra i fior, fra le palme

Le porto dell’intime calme

L’azzurra isoletta m’appar

 

Away, far away, far away

On the waves of a broad ocean current

Amid the dewy mists of the sea

Amid the seaweed, the flowers, the palms,

The port of intimate calm

The blue islet appears to me

The harp accompanies the lovers in this tranquil section as they blend their voices in unison. Listeners will make note that the main melody is in the same vein as the Enzo-Laura duet from Act II of La Gioconda (previously discussed in Part Six).  A splendid memento of the artistry of tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini and his wife, soprano Pia Tassinari, can be heard in their lovely Cetra-Soria recording of the duet from 1947. The intimacy of the situation and the lovers’ brief moment of repose are vividly captured in this meltingly realized addition to Mefistofele’s recorded legacy.

Ferruccio Tagliavini & his soprano wife, Pia Tassinari

Just when you thought things might work out in the end, the Devil bursts in to announce (rather crudely if not loudly) that dawn is about to break. Immediately, the mood changes to one of extreme anxiety. The similarity to this scene with Gounod’s Act V is no coincidence. According to researchers, both Gounod and Boito based their visions on Goethe’s poetic theater piece. Gounod and his librettists preferred to stay within the scope of the Marguerite-Faust love story, while Boito (serving up his own text) wanted more of a sweep to his epic-filled adventure, one that took Faust further along his journey of self-discovery. If over-ambition killed Boito’s chances for a ready-made hit, blame the composer. It’s what he wanted all along.

Returning to the prison scene, not for nothing was Margherita deemed a good judge of character. She points to the demonic figure and asserts that Satan is roaring before her. This leads to a fiery (though brief) trio where Margherita asks the Almighty to deliver her from temptation; meanwhile, the Devil admonishes her to cease her empty threats and move on, the horses are waiting and ready to go. Faust, the odd man out (and supposed man of “reason”), tries to convince Margherita to stay calm (how could she amongst all the tumult?). Margherita envisions the executioner’s axe hovering above her head, its blade flashing brightly and ominously.

At the trio’s climax, Faust can no longer restrain his despair. “Oh, would that I had never been born!” he cries out. To that, Mefistofele has but one response: “Ebben?” – “Well?” which can also be translated as “Indeed” or “Is that a fact?” Having heard so many different recordings of this work, and having seen numerous live performances as well, I can vouch with absolute certainty that the most bone-chilling version ever delivered by a singer of this one line came from Norman Treigle’s EMI/Angel release from 1974. Treigle doesn’t so much as hurl the word at Faust; he roars it to high heaven. It pours out from his gut as “EB-BENNNN????” A real stomach churner!

Bass-baritone Norman Treigle (Photo: Opera News)

Undeterred, Margherita confronts the chomping beast that is Mefistofele (Chaliapin would be the perfect physical embodiment at this stage). “Who is this who is looming out of the ground? It is the Evil One himself! Have mercy! Chase him away! Get thee behind me! Perhaps it is me that he seeks!” Faust continues his empty entreaties, but the Devil slinks away to keep watch over the gate.

It is time for Margherita’s tragic cabaletta — or rather, in this instance, her follow-up to “L’altra notte,” i.e., the prayer of a condemned woman, “Spunta l’aurora pallida” (“It is breaking, the pale dawn of morning”).

Traditionally, and in a different era, the slow starting-section of a Mad Scene would be succeeded by a faster and livelier coloratura run, as in the aforementioned Lucia. In Mefistofele, however, Boito (and, by implication, his contemporary Ponchielli) altered the sequence somewhat. In the generally-accepted notion that Mad Scenes needed to bring down the house, Boito hit upon a novel approach that paved the way for verismo. The “reality” of the dramatic situation, not the demand to show-off one’s vocal abilities, began to take precedent. In sum, these were to become a “truer” representation of everyday life as they knew it.

In La Gioconda, for instance, the title character goes “mad” in Act IV, in that she has saved her lover Enzo’s life by giving up her own (Gioconda stabs herself to death before the spy Barnaba is about to ravish her). Her coloratura runs indicate her unraveling. Similarly (or maybe not), Margherita dies after her supplication to the Lord to deliver her soul to Heaven. Her words here have a particular sting for ex-lover Faust: “Tell no one that you once loved Margherita and that I gave you my heart. Forgive this dying woman. Forgive her, Lord. Holy Father, save me! And you, heavenly voices, protect this supplicant who turns her eyes to you.”

Looking on the scene with distaste and bemusement, Mefisto pronounces judgment: “She is condemned!” And lost to Faust, we presume. Disillusioned by what he as witnessed, Faust vents his frustrations at his tempter: “O strazio!” – “Oh, torment!” In defiance, with her dying breath Margherita whispers a final rebuke to Faust: “Enrico …. mi fai ribrezzo…” – “Heinrich (the name she knew him under), you fill me with disgust.”

At the last, the Celestial Host intones a hushed, prayerful “E salva” (“She is saved”) from on high, thus sealing Margherita’s fate for all eternity. Thwarted, the Devil is prevented from claiming his victim’s soul. He senses that his wager with the Lord is in peril. Clinging to Faust for dear life, he envelops the philosopher in his embrace and brings down the curtain on the act with the phrase “A me, Faust!” – “Follow me, Faust!” (Sometimes given as “Away with me,” or “Come to me”). Even though the opera has not “officially” ended, audiences can look forward to the next act with anticipation for what is to come.

Most bassos conclude this powerful episode with Boito’s written notations. However, in my experience only one artist has attempted to raise the bar for ending this scene on a highly theatrical note: in the mid-1980s, Puerto Rican bass-baritone Justino Díaz created his own Norman Treigle-moment at New York City Opera — not by singing or shouting, but by reaching deep down into his belly and rasping out the phrase, “Aaaah, ME, Faust!” in rising cadences.

Puerto Rican bass-baritone Justino Diaz

The quaint Victorian-era notion that only good girls go to Heaven, while bad girls get their just desserts, is carried to the extreme in Gounod’s Faust. In Boito (and in Goethe), Faust is a tireless seeker of knowledge: that is, what is available to man and what is forbidden to him; the sacred as well as the profane. In many ways, Faust is comparable to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, in that only the male of the species can partake of the fruit of the vine. If women try to do the same, they are chastised and ostracized by society.

On the one hand, Gounod’s Marguerite paid dearly for her tryst with Faust. On the other, Margherita is forgiven (as Marguerite also was) after having confessed her sins and pleaded her case to the Lord of Hosts.

In Giancarlo Del Monaco’s modern-esque 2008 production of Mefistofele for the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, the producer-director introduces a ladder into the third act prison scene. During the “Spunta l’aurora pallida” sequence, Del Monaco has the singer playing Margherita, Dimitra Theodossiou, climb the ladder until she expires from sheer exhaustion — an aborted shot at reaching that stairway to heaven? Now that’s taking opera a bit too literally!

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

The View from the Chair — Walk of Life: An Analysis of Two Scenes from William Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959), Part Two

The chariot race from William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959)

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

What adventures await Judah Ben-Hur! When last we left him, Judah had been condemned to a living death as a slave aboard a Roman warship. For three years he nursed his revenge, waiting for the day when he would mete out justice to former boyhood friend Messala, the man who falsely accused him of trying to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. What was it that kept Judah focused during those harsh times? Was it the life-giving water? Was it Christ’s tender touch? Was it Judah’s renewed faith in his fellow man? Hardly!

When the hardened Roman commander Quintus Arrius (steely-jawed Jack Hawkins) comes upon Judah for the first time, he decides to test his resolve. Flinging a flesh-ripping whip across Judah’s back, Arrius is impressed with his ability to restrain himself. “You have the spirit to fight back, but the good sense to control it,” he observes. He also notices the angry flame that courses through Judah’s veins: “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”

Hate is what will dominate Judah’s life for the remainder of the picture. However, it’s the degree to which he uses that hate that will allow him to overcome the challenges he still needs to face. Arrius perfectly summarizes Judah’s situation, and those of his fellow galley slaves, by imparting the following advice: “Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well … and live.”

Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is tested by Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) aboard a Roman galley

Through a strange quirk of fate (or act of God, if you prefer), Judah Ben-Hur saves the Roman commander’s life. As a reward for his action, Arrius takes him to Rome to train as a charioteer. Then, over the years, he adopts Judah as a son and legal heir to his wealth and property. But the grateful Judah has other plans. He returns to Judea to search for his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), as well as fulfill his oath to seek retribution against the detestable Messala.

Most viewers and critics agree that the fabled chariot race is the high point of this epic story. Taking nothing away from one of the all-time most thrilling action sequences ever filmed (staged by second unit director Andrew Marton), the chariot race climaxes with Judah’s victory in the Circus Maximus and Messala’s brutal demise.

But prior to the tribune’s passing, Messala makes him aware that his mother and sister did not perish, as Judah had previously imagined. In fact, they are very much alive, if that’s what you call it. “Look for them,” Messala viciously blurts out as he lies dying, “in the Valley of the Lepers … if you can recognize them. It goes on, Judah … it goes on … The race … is not over.”

If Judah had not been radicalized before this point, he most certainly would be by now — and more than willing to take up arms against his Roman oppressors.

The Way of the Cross

Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) washes his hands of Jesus (Claude Heater) at his trial

From the spectacle of the Circus Maximus we move on to the public trial and personal turmoil of Christ at the Crucifixion. Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) is washing his hands of the matter. We see Jesus in long shot, moving from the center of the film frame to the right.

Similarly, we cut to Judah entering, also from mid-center. He carries his sister Tirzah, who along with his mother have contracted leprosy after their time in prison. Roman soldiers on horseback mount the steps which will take them to the scene of the Crucifixion. Next, Jesus is perceived, again in long shot, as he carries his cross. Cut back to Judah at left with Esther (Haya Harareet), the woman he has fallen in love with, and Judah’s mother and sister.

In the next scene, they are all gathered near the steps that lead to a public square. The shadow of Christ’s cross appears against a stone wall — the wall that separates man from God; from the Creator of all things (as He was pictured at the start of the drama) and from those who have turned their backs on His only begotten son, the Savior of the world. Christ has taken on man’s sins in this moving episode.

There is a quick cut to Judah at center frame, his chiseled features facing to his right and to our left. Judah’s words cut to the bone: “I know this man!” he confides in a voice wracked with astonishment. The camera moves over to the three women, Tirzah at left on the lowest level of the steps, Miriam in the center position (both with faces covered by their wraps), and Esther at middle right, her own face a study in disbelief at what is being done to this humble carpenter before them. Her arms are placed on the stone steps in support of her weight. Esther is powerless to help the poor wretch who carries his own cross. Christ’s shadow momentarily falls on her face as he staggers by.

Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), Miriam (Martha Scott) & Esther (Haya Harareet) witness Jesus’s walk to the Crucifixion

In the next instant, Christ stumbles (the first of several falls). The soldiers respond by whipping him into submission. Judah moves in to assist the fallen Jesus. Interestingly, the cross’s beam intersects the film’s frame; it looms larger than any of the women present, or Ben-Hur for that matter. The soldiers also traverse the frame, larger than life and just as threatening. At the soldiers’ crack of the whip, Tirzah cries out, “Easy on him!” But her cry gets no response. Jesus continues the long trek up the steps to his eventual death.

The camera pans to the other bystanders bearing witness to this painful display, Christ’s Via Crucis. Some of the onlookers express remorse and dismay; others mock the forsaken victim; still others can only watch, emotionless and uncomprehending as to the momentous events taking shape before them.

The camera movement continues, panning to the right, following the crowd as they move forward, ever forward. The camera then cuts to Christ’s footsteps. They are heavy and beleaguered by the burden of carrying that enormous wooden cross. The object’s heaviest section scrapes against the stone masonry as he slowly inches his way upward and onward. The music intones a mournful theme.

Christ carries his cross past Judah and his family

At that moment, Jesus stumbles anew. His left arm, bloodied and battered from the beating he received from the scornful Roman soldiers, prevents him from falling altogether. Sensing the urgency of the situation, Judah takes off his robe and charges Esther with watching over his family. He resolves to follow the crowd up the steps in pursuit of the figure, the man he claimed to “know,” but from where? Under what circumstances could he have met such a pitiable creature as this?

Judah pushes his way through the armed guard, his movements going from left to center, and from center to right — just as it was in the desert sequence earlier on (see the following link to my description of this scene: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/the-view-from-the-chair-walk-of-life-an-analysis-of-two-scenes-from-william-wylers-ben-hur-1959-scene-one-the-water-of-life/). Here, in the “Procession to Calvary” sequence, that doleful theme music (by composer Miklós Rózsa) becomes, in actuality, a minor-key inversion of the manly four-note “Ben-Hur” motif heard at the beginning of and throughout the film. It implies that Jesus and Judah’s situations have been reversed.

The women depart towards the center of the frame. They can no longer be of any assistance, nor can they seek assistance for that matter. Esther berates herself for dragging Tirzah and Miriam to witness such a tragedy. But Miriam is more consoling. “You haven’t failed,” she informs her. It’s not Esther’s fault that men continue to treat each other so cruelly. Why, look at Judah and Messala. Once they were bosom companions, as close as brothers, sharing an unbroken bond of fealty and love. Then, they turned on one another: Messala for needing Judah’s help in fingering the Jewish resistance leaders; and Judah for refusing to betray his own people. Their clash was over politics and religion, ideology over practicality.

The Center of Attention

We come to the center of the square. One observer shouts, with his hand raised mockingly in the air, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Between the crosses of the other two prisoners we can spot Judah, still mingling with the crowd, looking for an opportunity to come to this man’s aid, but why? What does Judah owe this miserable human being? He keeps moving forward, as Christ, who is at the extreme left of the screen, also does.

It’s at this point that Jesus’ burden begins to take a toll on his broken body. He stumbles badly, with the cross falling directly on top of him. He is on the ground, his arms splayed in a posture that will be replicated at the Crucifixion, with Christ hanging from this same cross. Judah is finally able to break through the crowd. He’s about to reach the fallen victim when a foot soldier sideswipes him back into the crowd. Judah crashes into a well (which resembles an ancient water trough).

Simon the Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross to the Crucifixion, as Judah (in the background) crashes into a well

Meanwhile, one of the soldiers coaxes a passerby — Simon the Cyrene — into carrying Jesus’ cross so that the procession can continue on its dolorous way. As Christ struggles to get back to his feet, Judah quickly snatches a ladle and, filling it with fresh water, tries to deliver its contents. They are both in the exact center of the screen: Christ positioned at center-left and Judah at center-right; a complete turnaround from their previous encounter where Judah was in Christ’s position on the ground and Christ came to his rescue from the right.

As Judah bends down to offer him a thirst-quenching drink, he suddenly remembers their former meeting. The expression on Judah’s face changes from compassion to utter shock and recognition. The music also recalls their initial encounter, with the Christ theme gently stirring on the soundtrack. How their situations have changed; how their circumstances over the years have conspired to reverse their fortunes. Just as Jesus is about to drink, a soldier interrupts their reunion (without the need for the phrase, “No water for him!”) by kicking the ladle from Judah’s outstretched arms, thus spilling the refreshment onto the street.

Judah recognizes the fallen Christ as the one who saved his life

Throughout this continuous sequence, director William Wyler has positioned both Judah and Jesus in long view, that is, until the camera crouches down to eye level, just as the two men confront each other in close up. Intruding on the pair, the soldiers manhandle Judah out of their way. Both men stumble to the ground, the symbolism here being unmistakable: each has stooped so low in life — Judah, a prince of his people, turned a slave aboard a Roman galley, now restored to his former station; Jesus, a simple carpenter’s son, hailed as the long-awaited Messiah, now about to be crucified between two criminals.

From this personal abyss, there comes a reaffirmation. In Christ’s case, his death and glorious resurrection; in Judah’s, a reassessment of his life’s work, one dedicated to family and charity toward others. Deprived of the merest hint of sustenance (the screenplay ignores Christ’s injunction to his disciples at the Last Supper: that he would not eat or drink until his task was complete), Jesus marches wearily to his fate.

Similarly, Judah stands at the center of the storm. As he did in the earlier sequence, Judah rises to his full height at far left — the opposite of where Christ Jesus had stood upon quenching Judah’s thirst. In Judah’s right hand we see that he holds the ladle, emblematic of the one that revived him the last time the two men had met. Their positions are mirror images of where they once stood so many years before. Only here, Jesus does not look back, as Judah had done. Christ has left his past behind. He can only march solemnly ahead to a future he knows he must confront.

The sequence ends with the shadow of a Roman soldier cast across Judah’s backside. Two soldiers enter the scene, each on opposite sides of the frame, wearing flowing red capes (the blood of Christ on their shoulders?). Judah is obstructed from view, whereas Jesus is dressed all in white; he remains visible at the center, the image getting progressively smaller and smaller with each step, trudging incessantly to his end.

The next scene takes us to Calvary; a short while later, Christ is no more. A terrible rainstorm breaks out, but in a cave nearby a miracle has occurred: Tirzah and Miriam are cured of their leprosy. Esther is overjoyed. As rain begins to fall, we switch back to the cross where Christ’s limp body hangs. His blood flows down from the cross to a stream below. The stream then becomes a raging torrent, as Christ’s blood, mixed with the water and rain, washes man’s sins away.

Rain falls on the crucified Christ

In the final scene, Judah returns to his ancestral home. He confesses to an expectant Esther that Jesus’ last words were of forgiveness for mankind. Those same words, a comfort in our own hard times, took the sword of vengeance from his hand. A lifetime of rage and hatred has been replaced with absolution and understanding.

Judah is reunited with his newfound family (he marvels at their smoothened complexions). They embrace. The bonds of love and faith have been reaffirmed. In the end, the Christ theme blazes forth, blending with Judah’s theme as well as his and Esther’s love music.

Close-up of the “Creation of Adam” panel, used in Ben-Hur

A heavenly choir proclaims the “Alleluia,” as a portion of the “Creation of Adam” panel reappears. Only Adam’s hand and God’s life-giving touch are visible, a reaffirmation in kind of the bond that exists between man and his maker.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Four): ‘JFK’ and the Acts of His Apostles

Liz (Cissy Spacek) & Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in their living room, in JFK (1991)

“Quo Vadis, Domine?”

Liz Garrison (Cissy Spacek), District Attorney Jim Garrison’s devoted and long-suffering spouse, begins to feel the negative effects of the adverse publicity heaped on her husband’s investigation into Kennedy’s death.

“You care more about John Kennedy than your own family!” she tearfully confides. With good reason, Liz knows that as the wife of a fact-finding D.A., she will be in for a grueling endurance test of missed family gatherings and empty chairs at Easter Sunday luncheons.

As a counter to Garrison’s accusations, Clay Shaw mounts a campaign against the ensuing investigation into his alleged involvement in JFK’s death. Almost immediately, scandal erupts over Garrison’s use of public funds to pay for his office’s inquiries.

In the meantime, David Ferrie (the fellow with the painted-on eyebrows and ill-fitting blond wig) freaks out in a paranoid screed, lashing out at the U.S. Government, the Mob, the Cubans, anybody and everybody he can think of.

“I’m a dead man!” Ferrie blurts out, in a steady, X-rated stream-of-consciousness rant directed at the D.A. and his two assistants Bill Broussard and Lou Ivon, in relation to Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, among others — none of which make a bit of sense. They’re the rabid ravings of a lunatic.

David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) wigs out big time in JFK

The attorneys meet again, behind closed doors of course, where they size up Ferrie’s actions and “arguments” as untenable to their cause. Office assistant Numa Bertel (Wayne Knight) bursts in on the meeting to notify Garrison that they’ve been bugged. This explains how the press is always aware of their every move, what they say, where they go, and who they plan to use to mount their case. In a dramatic moment, the fatal phone call comes in that Ferrie is dead.

In a search of the deceased’s ransacked apartment, evidence of thyroid medication is found (too much of it, in fact, indicating foul play); and then, just as dramatically, Assistant D.A. Susie Cox enters to announce that Ferrie’s Cuban associate, Eladio del Valle, has also met with foul play: he’s been hacked to death. Suspicious deaths begin to pile up, more than you can shake a fist at. Outside the office, someone (perchance an FBI informant?) approaches another assistant, Bill Broussard, to get him to switch his allegiance to the other side. Bill is the previously mentioned Judas Iscariot figure, and he’s about to get plucked.

Amid all the turmoil, Garrison decides to go to Washington, D.C., to meet with “X” (Donald Sutherland), who tells him somewhat surreptitiously a lot more than the District Attorney (or anyone else, for that matter) should “know” about Oswald, Kennedy, and a whole host of other names; about “X” being reassigned to the North Pole to get him out of the way, while two weeks later the president was shot to death. Right on cue, we are shown a snippet of Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film, along with obviously fake archival footage.

The enigmatic “X” (Donald Sutherland) tells all to a disbelieving Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner, left) during his trip to D.C.

“X” makes his case, and then summarizes his findings by posing the following questions: Ruby, Oswald, Cuba and such were nothing more than red herrings, dupes and pawns of a much bigger, much more insidious plot. He counts them off one by one: “Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefitted? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?”

He answers his own queries: The generals, the so-called military-industrial complex that Eisenhower, in the beginning of the film and at the end of his two terms as president, warned against. “The call is made, the contract is put out. No one said, ‘He must die.’ No vote. Nothing’s on paper. There’s no one to blame. It’s as old as the crucifixion. Or the military firing squad …”

After JFK’s death, LBJ signs a document, National Security Action Memorandum No. 273. “Just get me elected,” comments an actor made up to look like President Johnson, “I’ll give you your damn war.” Crisis, betrayal, murder, retribution. Listening to this, Garrison is in shock and disbelief at these revelations. How can he find the will to go on? He’s St. Peter leaving Rome to the Romans (remember, he’s in D.C. at the moment, our modern-day Roma). “X” urges him on, and coaxes Garrison to do what’s right. He charges the D.A. to “Stir the shit storm.” The hope is to start a chain reaction of people coming forward. Then the government will crack.

“The truth is on your side, bubba. I just hope you get a break.” With the Washington Monument and the symbolic dome of the Capitol Building in the background (a nice analogy to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City), the mysterious “X” walks off into the distance and in the direction of those very monuments.

At this crucial juncture, “X” becomes Christ returning to Rome. In one of the excluded books of the Apocrypha, known as the Acts of Peter, tradition dictates that Saint Peter had seen a vision of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, walking in the direction of the Eternal City, back to where Peter had just left to escape possible torture and death.

“Quo vadis, Domine?” Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way by Annibale Carracci (1601-2) Photo: Copyright © The National Gallery, London

“Quo vadis, Domine?” — “Whither thou goest, Lord?” Peter asked of Christ. And Christ answered him: “I am going to Rome to be crucified all over again.” At that, Peter turned swiftly around and, with his life in jeopardy, took up Christ’s challenge and returned to the city en route to becoming a martyr to the cause.

Garrison remains seated. He is alone on the bench. We next see him at President Kennedy’s gravesite, with the eternal flame burning in the foreground. He is deep in thought, pondering what his next move will be.

As he gazes wistfully at the flame, an older African American gentleman appears alongside him, with his young grandson in hand. All of a sudden, Garrison’s downcast expression changes into a newfound determination to arrest Clay Shaw for conspiracy and acting with others to commit the murder of President John F. Kennedy.

Dramatic music is cued up.

Logic is the Beginning of Wisdom

Switching gears, we find Chief Justice Earl Warren (shot from below so as to give his immense height its full quotient) as he speaks to a reporter. Warren dismisses the charge against Shaw as spurious, claiming it is not credible.

Back in “Big Easy” New Orleans (and back down to Earth), Garrison responds to journalists’ queries about Justice Warren’s comment. Garrison mounts the steps and overlooks the mob of newshounds. He has taken up Christ’s cause and, by default, His cross. And who should be by his side? Why, his Judas, of course, in the person of discredited Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard. He will betray Garrison and his team, just as Christ was, for their seeking out of the truth.

“And what is truth?” Garrison poses, as Pilate had done to Jesus — a more or less rhetorical query to which no answer is proffered or expected. “It’s become a dangerous country,” he continues, “when you cannot trust anyone, anymore; when you cannot tell the truth. I say let justice be done, though the heavens fall!”

Broussard (Michael Rooker), Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) & Numa Bertel (Wayne Knight, far right) in the press conference scene

He might as well have spoken Julius Caesar’s famous aside, “Let the die be cast,” as he crossed the Rubicon River with his army into Rome. For both men, there was no turning back.

There are angry recriminations from Garrison’s wife Liz. Domestic problems continue to resurface and intrude on matters going forward. The attorneys meet yet again to discuss the avenues they need to take with regard to Oswald. After throwing theories and suppositions hither and yon — in particular, one about the “missing” FBI telex, warning their office of a possible assassination attempt on November 22 — Judas rises to his feet in the FBI’s defense. This leads to the other assistant D.A., Lou, to resign on the spot.

Using unmistakable language that clearly identifies the group as Apostles, Broussard tosses out his personal credo: “How the hell you gonna keep a conspiracy going on between the Mob, CIA, FBI, Army Intelligence and who the hell knows what …. When you know for a fact [that] you can’t keep a secret in this room between 12 people? We got leaks everywhere!” The deadly germ of David Ferrie’s paranoia has infected one of their own.

Broussard can’t believe the government (or Church, or other established institution) can be responsible for such a heinous act. He’d rather believe the Mob is capable of carrying out the crime, but not our government. Garrison proceeds to tear his theory apart, even bringing up the idea of LBJ as a conspirator. As critic Gerardo Valero aptly put it, in a June 2012 article “Should JFK Have Even Been Made?” on the Roger Ebert website, “Perhaps it was hard for a man like [journalist and anchorman Walter] Cronkite [and, by implication, the average viewer] to consider the possibility that such nefarious acts (and their cover up) came from respectable sources.”

Garrison (Costner) presiding over the Kennedy “Apostles” late in JFK

“All it takes is one Judas. People on the inside.” The analogies are apparent. From here on, the Apostles will be faced with an insurmountable brick wall of a flimsy case. In history, Garrison’s theories collapsed like a house of cards. Much of what was presented in court turned out to be half-baked, crackpot theories that led nowhere. Basically, Garrison had his people running down bogus leads which made them run in ever-widening circles.

The remainder of the film tries to come together, to tie all of these disparate elements into a coherent bow — or as coherent as possible in a kangaroo court-like atmosphere.

(End of Part Four)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Gods, Devils, Sinners and Saints — Visions of Heaven and Hell in the Movies (Part Two): Battle for the Soul

Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) bargains with Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) in William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

The Wages of Sin

Selling one’s soul for material gain, of course, is an age-old and thrice familiar routine. Derived primarily from myths and legends, one can go back to medieval times to its roots — to the story of the real life Dr. Johannes Georg Faust selling his soul to Satan for fame, fortune and youth. (Let’s not forget sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, but not necessarily in that order.)

This so-called “Doktor” Faust lived and died in-and-around old Württemberg in Lutheran-era Germany. He was known variously and throughout the realm as a magus, an alchemist, a practical joker, and “a conjurer of cheap tricks” (as well as a bugger of young boys). These activities gave rise to the notion that Faust had made a blasphemous deal with the Devil in exchange for his “magical” abilities.

Indeed, the personage of Faust and his diabolical pact have been a recurring theme in literature and folklore long before it dawned on playwrights and poets to devote full-length stage treatments to the matter. Consequently, the film and opera worlds were no strangers to the tale, for Faust was the protagonist in any number of lyric and/or cinematic ventures almost as frequent as that of Orpheus and his myth.

In point of fact, we can trace the development of the Faust legend (and its resultant tragic consequences) to the Biblical Book of Genesis — specifically, to the cautionary example of Adam and Eve.

In this early telling, the first Man and Woman share a communal lifestyle in the bountiful Garden of Eden (or Paradise, to use the more descriptive term). Naked and unafraid, the couple roams the primeval forest, blissfully unaware of their nakedness yet profoundly cognizant of their pleasurable surroundings.

Adam & Eve and the Expulsion from the Garden – Michelangelo’s panels from the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City

Tempted by the Serpent (the Devil in reptilian guise), they partake of the Forbidden Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the first recorded evidence of a quid pro quo: you do something for me, and I’ll do something for you (I’ll bet!).

As a result of her indulgence, Eve gets a tantalizing taste of the “good life” — not that it wasn’t good beforehand, mind you, but her act of defiance against God’s orders can be summed up in one apocryphal phrase: the Devil made her do it.

Eve shares the apple (or whatever fruit it happened to be) with her mate, Adam. Before long their eyes are opened to their own nude forms. They were ashamed, or so the Bible tells us, and thus sin came into the world.

One of the few motion-picture illustrations of this passage comes from the John Huston-directed, Dino De Laurentiis-produced three-hour extravaganza The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), with an athletically sculpted Michael Parks as Adam and Swedish actress Ulla Bergryd as Eve. The screenplay was credited to British author and playwright Christopher Fry, as if the poetry and high-mindedness of the King James Version needed further padding.

Eve (Ulla Bergryd) offers Adam (Michael Parks) a tasty treat in John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning (1966)

Blond, bland and bashful to a fault, both Parks (a dead ringer for Robert Redford) and Bergryd are oh-so-beautiful to look at, but were no match for the slimy, sinuous Serpent — voiced, to an insinuatingly deceitful degree, by that old ham Huston.

It should be noted that character and voiceover actor Sterling Holloway did similar vocal duties (to comparable if less successful effect) as Kaa the Snake in Disney’s animated feature Jungle Book from 1967. Only from Kaa’s part, it was mostly to engorge himself on the boy Mowgli’s flesh.

Faustian Bargains

The sale of one’s soul for untold riches and indescribable pleasures is explored in several film adaptations, among them F.W. Murnau’s silent version of Faust: A German Folktale (1926), which featured an international array of artists headed by Swedish actor Gösta Ekman as Faust, American Camilla Horn as Gretchen (Marguerite in Charles Gounod’s opera), and Swiss-born thespian Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel) as the highly effective Mephistopheles.

Cineaste magazine described Jannings’ “glowing-eyed demon” as a “malevolent conniver with a touch of Benito Mussolini in his burly face.” Evviva Il Duce! To my eyes, he resembles a Teutonic version of Charles Laughton.

The film exists in many versions and in several foreign languages (uh, the intertitles, that is), as was the custom in the silent era and in the early days of sound cinema. A compilation of Goethe’s dramatic play in two parts, Faust also encapsulates portions of Gounod’s operatic treatment, which concentrates on the alleged love story between Faust and the beautiful country girl Gretchen (or Marguerite, in the opera).

Mephisto (Emil Jannings) watches over Faust (Gosta Ekman) woo Gretchen (Camilla Horn) in F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926)

In one derided ending to Murnau’s picture, Gretchen is burned alive at the stake for deliberately drowning her illegitimate daughter, fathered by the lustful Faust. Reverting to his actual old-man guise, Faust joins Gretchen in the hellish flames, only to be lifted upward, body and soul, to heaven in what has been termed “a visual effect of truly awesome tackiness.”

William Dieterle, who appeared as Gretchen’s warlike brother Valentin in Murnau’s flick, went on to direct a Faustian feature of his own. Known by various titles as The Devil and Daniel Webster, Daniel and the Devil, All That Money Can Buy, Mr. Scratch and Here Is a Man, this 1941 fantasy noir epic, adapted by poet and author Stephen Vincent Benét with screenwriter Dan Totheroh from Benét’s short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster, tells of a dirt poor New Hampshire farmer named Jabez Stone (James Craig).

Down on his luck and faced with foreclosure on his farm’s mortgage, Stone, as most fellows in his shoes would do in such dramatic circumstances, swears to sell his soul to the devil for a mere two cents’ worth of aid. No sooner does he say this when who should appear but Beelzebub himself, who answers to the name of Mr. Scratch. He’s played by a lanky Walter Huston, father of director John Huston and a notable stage and screen actor in his own right (Thomas Mitchell was originally tapped to be the devil, but withdrew due to ill health).

With an impish twinkle in his eye and equally wicked grin, Scratch sports some bristly chin whiskers and a fine rustic cap that give him the appearance of an iniquitous Robin Hood on the wrong side of the law. Scratch lures the unsuspecting Stone into his snare with gold coins that mysteriously materialize from his basement. After seven years of good fortune and several instances of deteriorating behavior on the part of Stone’s character — helped, in large measure, by the feminine wiles of alluring servant girl Simone Simon — Scratch comes back to make good on his pact.

At the end of his rope, the desperate Stone turns to the renowned orator and politician, Daniel Webster (excellently portrayed by character actor Edward Arnold), to plead his case to an infernal jury of his peers. And what a jury it is, comprised of the worst traitors and evil-doers this side of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins: “Americans all,” according to the jocular Scratch. In order to defend Stone against this deliberately stacked deck, Webster is forced to put up his own soul in exchange for his client’s release.

Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch (Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS)

In the grand finale, the great orator manages to sway the jury to Stone’s side, thus cementing Webster’s reputation as a literal man of his word. The picture concludes with a typically Brechtian twist worthy of Pirandello: Scratch looks straight into the camera (and out into the audience) for potential future candidates to corrupt. KER-CHING!

To counteract the feelings of déjà vu that either of these features may have engendered in viewers, we bring you 1967’s Bedazzled, a satiric Swinging Sixties twist on the Faustian fable that takes place in a very Merry Ole England.

Directed and produced by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain), the movie stars the hapless Dudley Moore (Arthur) as a British Mod-era Faust named Stanley Moon, Peter Cook as his tempter George Spiggott (a “dirty, rotten, double-crossing devil”), Eleanor Bron as airhead waitress Margaret Spencer, and shapely Raquel Welch as one of the Seven Deadly Sins (we’ll leave it to readers to figure out which one).

This pre-Monty Pythonesque exercise in raunchiness, sex, vulgarity and double and triple entendres was written by its two stars, Cook and Moore. It positively reeks of psychedelic pop art, Beatle haircuts and micro-miniskirts, along with granny glasses, Edwardian-style suits and a typical soundtrack of the period, also co-written by Cook and Moore.

Dudley Moore & Peter Cook in Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967)

In this one, George grants Stanley seven wishes before he comes to claim his prize. Henceforth, let it be known that the Devil drives a hard bargain indeed: woe befalls the individual who takes Satan — or George, in this case — at his word.

Evil intent and perfidious arrangements with satanic forces, or the Heavenly Host, are part and parcel of the genre. But never was a bargain more passionate (and, therefore, more battered and bloodied) than Prince Vlad’s renunciation of God after the premature death of his wife Elizabeta (Winona Ryder), in the prologue to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (whose Dracula movie was this, anyway?).

This powerful sequence, which got the otherwise plodding production off to a rollicking, riveting start, was actually filmed by Coppola’s son Roman, who was in charge of the in-camera special effects. It was narrated by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing in the main section, as well as one of the Eastern Orthodox priests in this tidbit.

Hopkins relates a back story concerning the Moslem Turks’ invasion of Vlad’s homeland in the Carpathian Mountains; how Prince Vlad (Gary Oldman) repelled the invaders through his own bloodthirsty methods (not for nothing did he become known to history as “Vlad the Impaler”); and who, upon his return to his fortress castle, was told of his beloved’s suicide through the spreading of false rumors of his demise.

Prince Vlad (Gary Oldman) weeps over Elizabeta (Winona Ryder), as the orthodox priest (Anthony Hopkins) looks on, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Angry at what he perceived to be the Lord’s betrayal of his most steadfast defender, the devastated prince renounces God and vows to rise from the ashes of his death by feasting on the blood of his enemies. Vlad wields his huge broadsword aloft and stabs the Christian cross with it, out of which blood gushes forth into a cup. Vlad drinks the blood while intoning a mighty roar upon the words: “The blood is the life,” a sacrilegious reversal of the ceremony of the Holy Eucharist.

The religious symbolism and deliberate association with the crucified Christ return as the film draws to a bloody conclusion. With a large Bowie knife sticking out of his chest, Dracula makes his way back into the castle — to the exact spot where he made his original unholy vow.

Asking why God has forsaken him, Dracula begs Minna Harker (Ryder in a dual role), the wife of one of his victims, to put an end to his suffering and give him peace. Minna complies with his request by plunging the knife deeper into his chest, out his back and into the floor.

At the words, “It is finished,” Dracula draws his last breath, as an unseen heavenly choir intones a mournful sigh of relief. Cue end credits!

(End of Part Two – To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Three): ‘JFK’ and the Gospel According to Oliver Stone

President Kennedy & First Lady Jackie in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963 (Photo: AP)

So Let It Be Rewritten

Returning to the topic of history on film — and specifically to the three-hour+ director’s cut of JFK (1991), written and directed by filmmaker, author and lecturer Oliver Stone — let’s look at several scenes from the movie that highlight a particular point I have lately uncovered.

That point happens to be the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent investigation into his untimely death not only by the Warren Commission, which issued their findings in a detailed and largely discredited report (in the film that is, not in real life), but also by the sham conspiracy trial of a shifty New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw.

In the movie, this forlorn, effeminate soul (portrayed on screen by Tommy Lee Jones in a short curly-blond wig) is the central figure in an elaborately conceived, highly convoluted plot to kill the president for an untold and ever-expanding number of reasons. It juxtaposes the slippery personality of Shaw with the upright, upstanding district attorney Earling Carothers “Jim” Garrison (Kevin Costner), also of New Orleans — a classic Hollywood setup, the confrontation of “good” versus “evil”: the advocate for “truth, justice and the American way” against the perpetrator of sinister plots.

What struck me, while watching the film again after so many years removed from its original viewing date, was Stone’s allegorical representation of the dedicated D.A. Garrison as a firebrand, a modern-day St. Peter or St. Paul (he could go either way , really), working alongside his “crack” team of investigators embodying the eleven remaining Apostles.

The same could be said of the other participants in the drama, including the secretive “X” (Donald Sutherland), a character based, according to Stone, on several real-life military figures, specifically Col. L. Fletcher Prouty or a composite of the same. There’s New Orleans Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker) who slowly but surely loses faith in what Garrison is preaching. And Garrison’s long-suffering wife, Liz (Sissy Spacek), who basically whines about her husband’s neglect of her and their children throughout the entirety of the picture.

The real Jim Garrison — stoic, cold and tall of stature — makes for a ghostly cameo as Chief Justice Earl Warren when he interviews a sweaty, tension-filled Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray), in prison for the slaying of Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). In the film, and in real life, Ruby died of complications shortly after being granted a retrial for the assassin’s murder.

Chief Justice Earl Warren (Jim Garrison) grilling Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray) in Oliver Stone’s JFK

In the extended scenes tacked on to the film, Stone allows for fearful interpretations by Jack Lemmon as gumshoe Jack Martin and a vicious Ed Asner as Guy Bannister, a key member of the team that conspiracy theorists claim included government officials at the highest conceivable level (all the way up to then-Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, if my reading of their theory is correct). This, along with numerous unexplained deaths of various and sundry participants, discredited witnesses, muddled motivations, etc., and so forth, form the backbone of what turns out to be a paranoid’s worst nightmare.

Indeed, there is a veritable narrative mess at Garrison’s summation. The conclusions he draws at trial have no basis in verifiable fact and are hinged purely on conjecture. The case against Shaw and the deceased David Ferrie (a super-hyper Joe Pesci), who died under “suspicious” circumstances, we are shown, is dismissed and a mistrial is declared. The real villains are set free, to be let loose on unsuspecting and freedom-loving citizens, their “crimes” against the public trust going unpunished.

The Christ Connection

As strange as it may seem, Stone took as his model not so much history as hagiography. His main sources for JFK remain Garrison’s book, On the Trail of the Assassins, as well as Crossfire: The Plot that Killed President Kennedy by Jim Marrs. But the source that has gone unmentioned in most movie reviews is the Holy Bible. Stone based his fictional account of the investigation into Kennedy’s death on the Acts of the Apostles, notably the follow-up to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the subsequent fate of His Disciples as seen through Garrison’s eyes.

Indeed, all the characters have their corresponding associations with personages from the New Testament, i.e. the various gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. In addition to which, the movie asks audiences to take a giant leap of faith as the crusading lawyer and champion of righteous causes, Jim Garrison, confronts the villainous cretins in court.

One of the prosecutors, Broussard, is called “Judas” for his desertion to the other side. It’s every man for himself in the end, with Kennedy (the Christ-like figure par excellence) dying so that others might believe that he was pursuing the “good work” in preventing the military-industrial complex from taking over the U.S. government.

President Kennedy is treated as the elusive Messiah — and despite his reputation with the ladies, a basically good and decent man undone by his political adversaries whose agenda ran counter to his own. That agenda, in the screenplay according to Mr. Stone, involved Kennedy’s plan to scale back the American military’s commitment to wage war wherever and whenever it felt the need. In the movie, the commitment was to Vietnam.

In today’s world, what with all the turbulence the Trump Administration has been experiencing of late and with ever-escalating theories about collusion with the Russians and such, perhaps Stone’s crackpot viewpoint is not so farfetched after all.

Still, the very notions JFK interjected into the conversation and espoused when the film was originally released — and onto which historians have poured their most extensive research into debunking — practically beg to be reconsidered anew in light of current situations. The very thought of a mass conspiracy on an unprecedented scale was unthinkable then, and remains so to this day. Yet, the idea that LBJ, the FBI, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in cahoots in a plot to assassinate the president of the United States can only be the stuff of Shakespearean drama.

To reiterate, District Attorney Garrison, by default, was either Peter or Paul, depending on the filmmaker’s whim and as dictated by the needs of the screenplay. He is a defender of the faith as well as a detractor of the faithless (down to his own wife), an apologist and an instigator, but ultimately a true believer. However, Garrison and his team must operate behind closed doors, much as the Apostles did when they went into hiding after Christ’s demise. Their mission: to prove that Kennedy/Christ was killed for the wrong reasons; that his memory will be preserved in their work and in the work of others; and that the Kennedy/Christ legacy can live on in the “retelling” of the story — that is, in the newly formed Gospel of JFK, as told by Oliver Stone — for generations to come.

Oliver Stone writing JFK (Photo: Elizabeth Stone)

One thing the movie got right was its use of the complete 8mm Zapruder film, which was shown for the first time at Clay Shaw’s 1969 trial for conspiracy and murder (with LBJ and company cited as “accessories after the fact”). The film all-but embraces, with good reason, what critic David Thomson emphasized as “rampant paranoia.” It attempts to connect Dwight D. Eisenhower’s historic warning about the “military-industrial complex” with Kennedy’s death, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the rising Communist threat in Southeast Asia, along with JFK’s arrival in Dallas (an allegorical allusion to Christ’s “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday).

Actual newsreel footage is shown of the young president in his prime with his alluring First Lady Jackie, who carries a bouquet of red roses (flowers associated with the Virgin Mary) on that fateful November 22nd day in 1963; this is juxtaposed with black-and-white recreations of alleged incidents in the JFK narrative, credited to director Stone and journalist and teacher Zachary Sklar. We then see a brief portion of the Zapruder film and hear broadcaster Walter Cronkite’s breathless reporting of the assassination.

Cut to Garrison in his office and Cronkite’s teary-eyed pronouncement of Kennedy’s passing. Flashes of Lee Harvey Oswald’s face attach him to the murder. Garrison and his staff are gathered in the office, surrounded by law books — i.e., the Apostles, none of whom were present at Christ’s crucifixion, at the first gathering after His death, among the books of the Old Testament which attest to their authority on the matter.

Jim Garrison & his team of lawyers (Wayne Knight in foreground) in the law library

The law library stands as an equivalent monument to the rule of law, the symbol of our government, of the courageous men and women dedicated to the unvarnished truth and the ways of attaining that truth, no matter the cost to their reputation or personal integrity. They are “witnesses” after the fact of Kennedy’s death; they see Oswald’s execution by Jack Ruby, as Kennedy’s funeral procession flashes by before them (and us).

Next, there is the announcement of the Warren Commission. Three years later, in November 1966, we flash forward to where LBJ “seeks $9 billion in extra war funds,” as seen in the headlines of the Washington Post. Little tidbits of information are intercut into the narrative, raising suspicions about minor events, those so-called “unusual occurrences” that “don’t add up,” such as the clean-cut, clean-shaven vagrants arrested the day of the assassination.

The three lawyers, Garrison, Broussard and Lou Ivon (Jay O. Sanders), meet in Lafayette Square in New Orleans. They remark on the proximity to one another of several government office buildings: the Office of Naval Affairs (which is now the U.S.P.O.), the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service — all in one plaza and inviting comparisons to Biblical claims of propinquity with regard to Pontius Pilate’s palace, King Herod’s abode, the Council of the San Hedrin, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Calvary.

Broussard (Michael Rooker), Garrison (Kevin Costner) & Lou (Jay O. Sanders) meet at Lafayette Square, New Orleans, in JFK

The Greatest Story Never Told

During the first third of Stone’s Passion Play, people come forward and state their case — they give testimony, to put it plainly, about what they saw and heard, adding to the available source material as hearsay evidence, or supposed “eyewitness testimony.” The sweaty, porcine physiognomy of shady lawyer Dean Andrews Jr. (comic John Candy in dark shades, naturally) discusses his refusal to act as Oswald’s defense counsel over dinner with a skeptical Garrison.

After further inquiries, Garrison and his group unite with two or three other colleagues over a noontime meal to talk among themselves about the hoboes that were arrested. Assistant D.A. Susie Cox (Laura Metcalf) joins the boys. She is the official record keeper of events, the Mary Magdalene model and transcriber of the spoken word. It is here that Oswald is talked about as the prime suspect by default due to the plethora of contradictory information swirling about him.

This extended restaurant sequence serves the purpose of questioning whether Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in carrying out his crime (the notorious “Lone Gunman” theory) or in conjunction with other co-conspirators.

In the next scene, we are privy to a recreation of eyewitness accounts of what several individuals claim to have seen at Dealy Plaza — i.e., Calgary, or Golgotha (“the place of the Skull”), where our Kennedy/Christ personage died. Smoke rises from the grassy knoll; a man with an umbrella is spotted; there are shadowy figures behind a fence; a pickup truck is mysteriously provided by the Secret Service; and the man behind the wheel of that truck is none other than low-level mobster Jack Ruby before he killed Oswald.

Kennedy & Jackie, with Texas Governor John Connelly at Dealy Plaza

Four to six shots ring out from behind a picket fence. It is here, after these tragic events take place, that a grim-faced Chief Justice Warren (ironically, the real-life Jim Garrison) interrogates jailbird Jack Ruby behind bars, a soon-to-be-martyred victim to the “cause.”

All these pop culture references have been interspersed throughout the picture in order to plant myriad seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind as to what actually transpired before, during and after Kennedy’s death. These and similar scenes will recur at preordained junctures.

We are then taken to the Texas Book Depository building that overlooks Dealy Plaza (the proverbial “scene of the crime”). Ivon and Garrison will attempt to recreate Oswald’s dastardly deed with the use of a replica of the infamous 6.5mm caliber Carcano Model 91/38 rifle. Their conclusion: it would be impossible, even for an experienced marksman, to accurately fire off three consecutive shots in the 5.3 seconds it took to kill Kennedy. And the manual loading Carcano had a defective scope at that! But the plain fact remains that Kennedy was killed. There is speculation as well as to the actual number of teams (three, to be exact) it would take to be able to execute the crime at strategic vantage points.

Assistant D.A. Lou Ivon looks on as Garrison aims the Carcano rifle

After another meeting of the faithful, this time in D.A. Garrison’s spacious living room, Susie Cox/Mary Magdalene reports the news of a bogus “Oswald” pretending to test drive an automobile, when his wife, the Russian-born Marina Nikolayevna, had previously testified to the Warren Commission that her husband did not have a driver’s license. During Susie’s account, another “Oswald” is caught practicing at a firing range, while a third “Oswald” happens to be spotted in Mexico. What are we to make of these sightings?

Next, the viewer is treated to the LIFE magazine cover which highlights the purportedly doctored photograph of Oswald holding aloft his Carcano rifle. The real (or “reel”) Oswald complains that the man in the photograph isn’t him at all, but an imposter. Deceit piles upon deceit. Garrison begins to believe that Guy Bannister (Ed Asner) created “Oswald” for the sole purpose of using him as a patsy to cover up their real intentions: the planned execution of JFK. This is the second meeting of the group (the Apostles) before the Via Dolorosa, leading up to the Via Crucis or the Way of the Cross.

To further the religious connotations, Garrison goes to interview the mysterious “Clay Bertrand,” in actuality local businessman Clay Shaw. The interview takes place in Garrison’s office on Easter Sunday — resurrection day in Christian theology, telegraphing the death and eventual resurrection of the Kennedy case. Clay denies any and all knowledge of the event and the “sordid cast of characters” Garrison associates him with, to include the oddball David Ferrie, the gay hustler Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), the Cuban ex-military types, et al.

Bill Broussard steps between Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) & D.A. Jim Garrison in JFK

Garrison confronts Shaw and accuses him of having gotten away with Kennedy’s murder, a statement that profoundly offends the businessman. Garrison’s assistant Broussard gets between the combatants before either man comes to blows.

Bemused yet nonplussed, Shaw wishes everyone a Happy Easter and departs in a characteristically lighthearted mood. In response, Garrison quotes a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” The next move is Garrison’s.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Gods, Devils, Sinners and Saints — Visions of Heaven and Hell in the Movies

The Devil Himself! Darkness (Tim Curry) in Ridley Scott’s Legend

It’s the Time of the Season!

The Easter-Passover season has drawn upon us. And, as such, we make note of this moment as a time for reflection.

Whether at a church or a temple, a synagogue or a mosque, or wherever one goes in order to be alone with one’s thoughts; to pray for a loved one or to ask forgiveness for one’s transgressions; whether you’re attending a wedding ceremony, a funeral for a friend, or a baptism for a newborn babe — all these activities are a requisite part of the daily cycles of life we humans are regularly asked to participate in. And most of them tend to follow a religious practice of some sort.

That being the case, obtaining spiritual sustenance is something we’re all called upon to do in one form or another. In point of fact, religion comprises a large portion of who we are as individuals, which also reflects how we were raised as children. Henceforth, it becomes difficult to separate our faith (or its lack) from our inner selves, whether we’re fervent practitioners or doubting Thomases.

Whatever name one chooses to call these beliefs, or whatever faith we decide to adhere to and follow, in the movies religion is most often characterized by a fascinating mix of the familiar with the foreboding, and the ridiculous with the sublime.

We know there is good in the world. But oftentimes the good cannot co-exist without the presence of its opposite number, evil, as writer-director M. Night Shyamalan forthrightly pointed out in his film Unbreakable (2000), a cinematic ode to comic-book lore. Here, the presence of evil is portrayed by the least likeliest character, an individual so fragile and accident prone it’s amazing he can get out of bed without crushing himself to death. He is pitted against the forces of good by a clueless stadium guard in a green hoodie and baseball cap.

This singular battle for the soul — for either the dark or the light side of life to prevail — is the basis for most films about religious faith or that use religion in some way, shape or form, as their underlying theme or tone.

Good guys vs. bad guys: Unbreakable with Samuel L. Jackson & Bruce Willis

Let it be known, however, that “evil” as such is not always depicted in so-called traditional forms, nor is it nearly so obvious to the untrained eye as the presence of a pointy-tailed, horned-and-hoofed fiend would tend to be. Nevertheless, the Evil One’s multiple manifestations and head-on clashes with the Almighty and His followers are what make up the stuff of movie legend.

Considering the importance of religion in people’s lives, let me offer this brief overview of scenes and descriptions from a variety of motion-picture appearances of gods, devils, sinners and saints, in addition to cinematic treatments of Jesus and our old pal Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, or whatever moniker may strike your fancy, and his celluloid cohorts, as they’ve been portrayed on the silver screen throughout the years.

Physical and Not-So-Physical Manifestations

All right, then, we know who or what Satan is. He’s so easy to spot, isn’t he? Why, he’s the guy with that evil glint in his eye, right? But beyond that, he tends to sport those ignominious horns atop his shiny forehead as well as that prominently spiked tail. Correct?

Oh, how wrong we are!

Sometimes the Devil is shown as an innocent six-year old child. He’s called Damien in Richard Donner’s creepy The Omen from 1976 (and in John Moore’s 2005 remake), a serious little boy not even his mother could love. There’s mischief afoot (and that portentous-sounding soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith) whenever the tiny tyke is caught traipsing about the household. The simplest of childhood toys — a tricycle, for instance — can become a deadly weapon in Damien’s hands.

In the sequel, Damien: Omen II (directed by Don Taylor and Mike Hodges), he’s just turned thirteen and attends a military academy. Nothing so ominous about that. It’s the actions that swirl around and about him that make this moody teenager a powerful antagonist in the long run. The boy’s agents can be a Rottweiler dog or a surly maidservant, at other times an innocuous black crow.

Mean widdle kid: Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) in Richard Donner’s The Omen

He can change shape and transform himself into a bat, mist, or fog, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, with the vampire as a main stand-in for Satan; or even as a deviled-ham icon of himself.

In Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), he’s a big, badass dude, aptly named Darkness, with stereotypically long black nails, along with standard-issue hooves, horns, and tail to match, topped off with a huge cleft in his pointy chin and that blood-red body suit, under makeup artist Rob Bottin’s layers upon layers of latex. Played to the robust hilt by the ever-so-charming Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) on two-foot-high stilts, this “devil of a fellow” is far livelier (and far, far sexier) than the wet-behind-the-ears Tom Cruise, a goody-two-shoes groundskeeper with the garden-hose appellation of Jack Sprout (or shall we say “the little green giant”?).

On the positive side of the ledger, Jesus Christ, the saints, and other lesser mortals are viewed in slightly more humdrum fashion, which is befitting of their, shall we say, more human aspirations.

Whether they’re played by a young Jeffrey Hunter who is tempted for forty days and forty nights by an unseen voice in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), or the more gaunt-looking Max von Sydow in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) who converses with a beady-eyed and nervously twitchy Donald Pleasence in the vast, open plains of Monument Valley, Utah, the Messiah has traditionally been envisioned as having Westernized European features, i.e. tall, blond and blue-eyed looks — in other words, your above-average, all-American kind of guy.

The Devil (Donald Pleasence) in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told

Where did this representation come from, if the historical Jesus himself was purported to have been a denizen of the Middle East? Chalk it up to the middle-aged H.B. Warner in movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version of The King of Kings (1927). Although the first recognizable images of Christ appeared in ancient artifacts as far back as the Byzantine period, producer-director DeMille has been credited, for good or for bad, as having laid his hands on a project where his leading man was forbidden from reaching out for the sauce (Warner was a confirmed alcoholic) under threat of expulsion from Hollywood Paradise.

In one of the most extraordinary sequences of all religious films, DeMille combines the Devil’s temptation of Christ with the age-old story of the woman caught in adultery, followed closely by the expulsion of the moneychangers from the Jewish temple. It’s a masterly episode, told in purely visual terms, with Jesus bending down and writing in the spilled temple salt (salt of the earth?) words that implicate the woman’s accusers with their own sins. No casting of stones here!

Jesus (H.B. Warner) rescues the adulteress from the mob in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings

Later the Devil, dressed in black to Jesus’ all-white robe, offers him the kingdoms of the world if he would only fall down and worship him. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Christ intones, after repeatedly striking his chest. “It is written: ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord, thy God — and Him only shalt thou serve’.” The Devil beats a hasty retreat. The iconographic image that DeMille has conjured up recalls his early upbringing in the Presbyterian church, as well as the influence of art history (with reference to such figures as William Blake and Henry Fuseli). Note the Devil’s positioning vis-à-vis Christ, similar in many respects to painterly representations of Virgil guiding the poet Dante to the Inferno.

Sometimes Christ is not really seen at all (at least, not in full frontal view) but merely hinted at, as in Twentieth Century-Fox’s overly reverential The Robe (1953) or in M-G-M’s Ben-Hur (1959). In the former, the Messiah is voiced by actor Cameron Mitchell who forgives the populace for crucifying him, while the heavy-lidded Victor Mature as the slave Demetrius looks on in anguish; in the latter opus he’s performed by opera tenor Claude Heater. No singing was involved, although we do get a good look at Heater’s backside, along with his broken body during the dolorous Crucifixion sequence, thus giving credence to the film’s subtitle, A Tale of the Christ.

Switching to the top dog, God as the Burning Bush speaks to Moses (Charlton Heston) in respectfully hushed tones in DeMille’s spectacular Technicolor wide-screen remake of The Ten Commandments (1956). At the giving of said Commandments, His portentous voice booms forth loudly after reciting each of the ten rules for life and good. In the Burning Bush sequence, Heston provided the reverent voice of the Lord — slowed down, of course, to a somber snail’s pace. But in the later Commandments scene, the task of uttering God’s lines was handed over (so rumor tells us) to DeMille’s publicist and biographer, actor Donald Hayne.

Moses (Charlton Heston) hears the Voice of God in The Ten Commandments

While never fully substantiated or revealed at the time of the film’s release, DeMille felt he had plenty of justification for his use of Heston’s baritonal timbre by citing the Biblical passage where Moses insisted the Lord spoke to his mind. It would have scared Moses out of his headgear if he had been forced to listen to someone else’s voice (we now quote the classic Bill Cosby routine where Noah is called on by the Lord to build Him an ark: “Riiiiiiiight …. Who is this, really?”).

A Matter of Life and Death

In Terry Jones’ monstrously irreverent, politically incorrect feature Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), Death and its finality are represented by a rather fearsome, sickle-carrying Grim Reaper, interrupting a happy gathering of typically jolly British country types (“Hello Grim!”) as they become privy to the startling news that they will succumb to food poisoning that very night, and that this will be their last supper together.

The Grim Reaper points to a tasteless treat in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

The Swedish-born Max von Sydow reappears as a disillusioned medieval knight returned from the shock of the Crusades, playing chess opposite a black-cowled Bengt Ekerot as Death (the Devil, you say!) in the Oscar-winning drama The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman. The game is over at last when the knight deliberately knocks down one of the pieces, to which Death takes full advantage of. He comes to claim his prize as the knight is about to enjoy his own “last meal,” in a scene reminiscent of Monty Python.

Fifteen years later, Von Sydow stopped by the doorstep again to play the aged Catholic priest Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s 1972 supernatural classic The Exorcist, with Jason Miller as the sympathetic and troubled Father Damien (there’s that name again) Karras. Both are tempted by the demon (or devil or spirit, or what-have-you) that has buried itself deep inside the possessed twelve-year-old body of the girl Regan (Linda Blair).

In the exhausting exorcism scene towards the end, Father Merrin suffers a fatal heart attack. Taking over for the dead priest, Father Damien makes the ultimate sacrifice by offering himself to the demon, thereby rescuing Regan from the Evil One’s clutches.

Max von Sydow as the Tracker in What Dreams May Come, 1998 (Photo: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

Expanding his range of colorful film characters, Von Sydow was also the avuncular ferryman known as the Tracker in Vincent Ward’s surrealistic What Dreams May Come (1998). A New Age Charon for the Nineties, the Tracker paddles borderline delusional Robin Williams and charismatic Cuba Gooding Jr. (as his reincarnated son) over the gruesomely grisly Faces of the Damned (in other words, the River Styx in Greek mythology) in order to rescue Williams’ wife from perpetual purgatory.

(End of Part One – To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes