An Artist’s Life for Me — Ten Motion Pictures That Ask the Question: ‘Does Life Imitate Art?’ (Part One)

“The Agony and the Ecstasy” poster art

Artists and their works …. These have been much on our mind of late. In fact, how often have we heard the phrase “Artists are such temperamental creatures?” Perhaps you may have said it yourself — at one time or another — to a friend, to a colleague, or to no one in particular. To me, the natural follow-up question would be: How true is this statement? With the next logical query being: Do all artists suffer that much for their art?

There’s only one way to find out, though, and that’s by looking at various film depictions of artists and the artistic life — mostly painters in general, but a few other dedicated “craftsmen” set aside for this purpose.

Let’s try to establish, once and for all, if their suffering has impacted their work to any noticeable degree — noticeable, that is, to us film buffs. Maybe then, and only then, can the above questions be answered.

So let’s proceed chronologically, if that’s all right with you?

 The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

Bramante (Harry Andrews), Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) & the artist Michelangelo (Charlton Heston)

Based on the 1961 novel by Irving Stone, who wrote the earlier Lust for Life, The Agony and the Ecstasy is the story of Michelangelo Buonarrotti, the high-minded High-Renaissance artist, poet, and sculptor par excellence; his lively battles with the obstinate Pope Julius II; and his long-term commission to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The novel was turned into a dryly verbose, dramatically inert but effective enough motion picture.

With a sonorous film score by Alex North and Jerry Goldsmith, and superb wide-screen photography by Leon Shamroy (it was shot simultaneously in Todd-AO and CinemaScope), the film version, released in 1965, starred the finely-chiseled American Charlton Heston (The Ten Commandments, El Cid) as Michelangelo and a veddy British Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, Dr. Doolittle) as the so-called “Warrior” Pope Julius, with Diane Cilento as the Countess de’ Medici, Harry Andrews as Bramante, Alberto Lupo as the Duke of Urbino, and Adolfo Celi as Giovanni de’ Medici.

The movie’s pace is somewhat static. And the main argument, based on the artistic principle that an artist — even one of Michelangelo’s rarefied caliber — may not show Adam and Eve without their clothes, may go over the heads of most of laypeople. Another, equally telling aspect was Michelangelo’s unwillingness to dabble in paint. He insisted, quite rightly, that sculpture was his true calling, and struggled valiantly to come to terms with his desire to do justice to the Sistine Chapel assignment.

Michelangelo chisels away at one of his sculptures

As the actor personifying the artist, Heston was known for his voracious reading habits and assiduous background research into the lives of the historical individuals he was portraying. Not only did he study the methods used by Michelangelo to achieve his main purpose (i.e. the wielding of a hammer and chisel), but he practiced lying on his back for hours in order to master the art of fresco painting. All of which, it must be said, amounted to a believable if somewhat trite representation of the all-suffering artist.

However, one of the key scenes, if not THE key scene, in the picture is the moment when Heston’s quest for a viable theme for the project manifests itself atop a mountain overlooking the marble quarry where Michelangelo is at work. According to author Jeff Rovin, in The Films of Charlton Heston, “It is sunset, and as day wanes the sky becomes the ceiling and the clouds form God, Adam, and the other focal points of the mural while Heston recites [the Creation of Adam section from] Genesis.” Corny, yes, but quite inspiring! The music provides just the right emotional counterpoint to this episode.

The Creation of Adam sequence from “The Agony and the Ecstasy”

Produced and directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man), the film does have its moments — especially when Heston and Harrison go at it tooth and nail (they feuded in real life on and off the movie set). Still, there’s that excellent score by North and picturesque location scenery (it was filmed in and around Italy, but not in the actual Sistine Chapel, which was recreated at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome).

An ersatz feminine “love interest” (the Diane Cilento character) is pure fiction. As history has recorded for us, the unpredictable Michelangelo (much like his contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, as well as several other artists around that time) was homosexually inclined.

Andrei Rublev (1966)

Written and directed by the Russian-born Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev (pronounced “Roo-blyov”) concerns the ambiguous fifteenth-century icon painter and the mysterious workings of the Middle Ages and the Russian Orthodox Church, among other matters.

A scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” (1966)

Filmed in glorious back and white — except for the epilogue, which was photographed in stunningly vivid color — and divided into seven parts, this is a ponderously labored, winding and winnowing, difficult to grasp feature. In general, Tarkovsky’s films are a hard slog to wade through. Irrespective of standard movie lengths or plot lines, the writer-director’s body of work relies more on mood and tone; sounds are employed and magnified not so much for aesthetic merit but for their narrative value.

Tarkovksy also eschews his compatriot Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory of cinema. Instead, he provides the viewer with a multiplicity of images, many of them painstakingly staged and lasting many minutes of screen time. The term “texture” has often been cited to describe his unique visual style.

“Andrei Rublev” courtesy of Dutch artist Pieter Brueghel

A true original, Tarkovsky took great pains to avoid emulating any of his predecessors. If anything, he would modify his carefully constructed scenes so as not to call attention to the work of others. (Note: Tarkovsky DID learn the value of silence and extended takes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with the release of his sci-fi drama Solaris in 1972; incidentally, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki used many of Tarkovsky’s continuous-motion techniques in both Birdman and The Revenant).

With Andrei Rublev (only his second picture), Tarkovsky reached what might be termed his full maturity. This close to four-hour production, then, is an unmatched introduction to his cinematic universe. It is technically proficient, as are all his films, and visually compelling as well. The lead character (played by a morose Anatoly Solonitsyn) is moodiness personified. Rublev goes through as much inner turmoil as mental and physical deprivations. As a matter of fact, so do all of the individuals in the story.

Actor Anatoly Solonitsyn as Andrei Rublev

The theme of the artist as both participant and observer in the drama of life is carried through from beginning to ending. It starts off with a seemingly unrelated prologue of a man flying in hot-air balloon fashion over a church and open field — symbolic, of course, of the artist trying to take flight but crash-landing moments later despite his efforts. Episodic and sadistic, gritty and grim, with scenes of mayhem, rape and animal torture, along with eye-gouging and similar wartime atrocities, the violence quotient in Rublev’s world remains high, as one would expect from a tale that takes place in medieval times.

Curiously, for a film about a painter of religious icons, the artist Rublev is rarely caught in the act of painting. There’s a point, too, in the drama where he ceases talking altogether (a vow of silence in penance for murdering a man), which only infuriates his friend Kirill (Ivan Lapikov). Another remarkable incident occurs near the end with the casting of a church bell by the novice bell-maker Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev). Will the bell ring out or not? If it doesn’t, then the Grand Prince (Yuriy Nazarov) who commissioned the casting will kill them all. Although he later admits that he knew nothing about casting bells, Boriska represents the artisan who lacks confidence in his own abilities, yet nevertheless manages to complete a given task — either by his mastery of the field or by sheer dumb luck!

End of Part One

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Four): The Changing of the Avant-Garde

Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games: Opening Ceremony

We Love a Parade

Brazil came out last. Not last in the competition, mind you, but as the last nation to present its eager group of athletes.

In all, the city of Rio had put on a spectacular showcase, an opening ceremony to end all opening ceremonies. Impressive and exhilarating, nationalistic and fervent, the coordinators did it the Brazilian way: in the biggest Carnival pageant on Earth, as they had envisioned. The mood was joyous, the celebration spontaneous. Brazil, perpetually on the cusp of greatness but never actually achieving it — to repeat an old dictum, always the bridesmaid but never the bride — had reached the summit of its abilities. Would that joyous mood last?

After the parade of athletes, there followed dull, interminable speeches by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee President Carlos Arthur Nuzman, by the International Olympic Committee’s President Thomas Bach, and by two-time Olympic marathon champion, Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino. Although he was neither acknowledged nor introduced, Brazil’s Acting President Michel Temer rose from his spot in the stands and curtly declared the Rio 2016 games to be officially open. It was an astonishing lapse in Olympic protocol. A moment to remember, one to relish for what remained of one’s active life, had whizzed by in a twinkling of an eye. For his effort, Temer was greeted with a round of boos.

Brazil’s Acting President Michel Temer announces the official opening of the games

Next, the solemn procession and physical raising of the Olympic flag took place, followed immediately by the singing of that banal Olympic Anthem and the taking of the Olympic Oath.

The ceremony closed with a tribute to Brazilian composer Ary Barroso, a prolific purveyor of Carnival dance tunes and sambas from the first half of the twentieth century. His song, “Sandália de Prata” (“Silver Sandal”) from 1942, was introduced by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. The two old-timers were joined atop another of those circular platforms by carioca singer-songwriter Anitta.

Amid the goings-on, viewers caught a glimpse of Rio’s twelve samba schools (the lost tribes of native Brazil?) decked out, in their “official” regalia, in costumes of red, yellow, gold, blue, violet, and black. Their rhythmic back-and-forth beating of pandeiros and cuícas, the tireless blowing of ear-shattering whistles, and the ceaseless smacking of snare and bass drums culminated in a shower of colorful confetti, a parade of scantily-clad dancers, and a brilliant burst of fireworks.

Parade of Rio’s Twelve Samba Schools at Rio 2016

At the conclusion of the number, Caetano and Gil ceremoniously kissed Anitta on the cheek. The two male artists then gingerly departed the stage with their arms wrapped around each other’s wastes. I imagined that audiences around the world let out collective sighs of nostalgia and relief. I know I did, but more for how Caetano and Gil have aged, especially Gil. Whether knowingly or not, we were witnesses to the changing of the avant-garde: old song warriors, near the end of their respective careers, giving it their all, that final “hurrah” for old times’ sake. They have been close companions and musical partners for well over half a century, and for most of their adult lives.

With a degree of wistfulness for a lifetime of creative and personal achievement, and with the words as valid today as when he first wrote them, Caetano called to mind, in his autobiographical Tropical Truth (first published, in Portuguese, in 1997), his initial encounter with the Bahian-born Gil between the years 1962 and 1963:

“Gil seemed as happy to meet me as I was to meet him. One could have said that he had been seeing me on some transcendental television and was expecting that meeting as much as I was …. At times, through the years, I have heard Gil say, and been deeply moved by it, that when he met me he felt as though he were leaving behind a great loneliness: when he saw me he was sure that he had found a true companion. I think that to prize in me a vision of the world that encompassed music, in which he was so gifted, […] a vision that seemed like an enlargement of his own, he created an image of me as the master and, much as the great see greatness in those they admire, he dismissed my shortcomings. Better yet: he interpreted them in such a way as to give them a finer meaning. He therefore saw qualities in my music then that no other musician of equal talent would have seen, and in this way he not only encouraged me, he also taught me everything that I could possibly learn, becoming himself truly my master.” [i]

Caetano Veloso, Anitta & Gilberto Gil at the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics

What a pleasant surprise it was to have seen two such old friends — the master and the pupil — back together on the world stage, performing and sharing the stadium lights with younger aspirants, in recognition of their past accomplishments. The promise of youth fulfilled at last, their careers have spanned two generations. Gil and Caetano have jointly shared the good and bad times, as colleagues and performers, and as respective cellmates. Their ups and downs, both politically and artistically, have risen and fallen, and have risen again, with the times — so much like the country itself.

Obviously, they are more weather-beaten today than they were in their glorious youth. Who wouldn’t be, given what they went through? But, to paraphrase a line from that old stadium rocker, Elton John, “They’re still standin’.” A might shakily, if “tropical truth” be told, with a puffy-eyed Gil tottering a bit on the edge of the stage platform, his voice frail and thin, his gait slow and measured, yet still game and willing; and still capturing the imagination of that younger generation of performers, as he and Caetano had done in their earlier excursions.

Not bad for two septuagenarians!

(End of Part Four)

To be continued…..

Copyright (c) 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

[I]  Veloso, Caetano. “Tropical Truth,” Companhia das Letras, Sao Paulo, 1997, p. 178

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

‘Monsters, John! Monsters from the Id’ — The Brave New World of ‘Forbidden Planet’ (Part Three): The End of All Things

Portion of lobby poster for Forbidden Planet (1956)

Casting About for Excuses

Back on board the space cruiser, Doc Ostrow hauls over a heavy plaster cast of one of the footprints found outside the grounds. Commander Adams takes one look at the gruesome object and cannot believe his eyes. If THIS is what did Chief Quinn in, Adams posits, well, then, it’s highly conceivable, in his rational skipper’s mind, that he could have beaten this creature to a pulp with a club, or certainly killed it with one of their blasters.

Not feasible, replies Doc. In his view, the plaster footprint “runs counter to every law of adaptive evolution.” He indicates the varying structural components, which point to a four-footed animal. However, the thing that attacked Quinn left tracks of a biped (that is, a two-legged beastie). And that disgusting-looking claw that sticks out? Why, it’s got to belong to a burrowing creature of some kind, “some impossible tree sloth” or other. No rational explanation exists for this thing — at least, not yet. Doc is perplexed, and so is the commander. Surely, somebody would have noticed this walking nightmare.

Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) & Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens) inspect the plaster cast

Lt. Farman ushers in the cook, who, contrary to the skipper’s belief and conviction, provides Robby the Robot with an airtight alibi: the mechanical being was with the besotted Cookie the entire time he was imbibing. Great! That leaves only one prime suspect left, the same one that they (and any reasonably intelligent viewer) have suspected all along, namely Professor Morbius.

Adams hints that he and Doc should swing by that old Krell lab and take the test of their IQ abilities for themselves, damn the consequences. The commander’s eagerness to do so, which would betray a trust, no doubt was fueled by: (a) his desire to complete his mission; but more importantly, (b) to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this Forbidden Planet.

In the succeeding scene, Morbius and Altaira observe the burial detail of Quinn’s funeral from afar. Even out here in space, a million or more miles from home, the C-57D’s crew keeps their earthly observances intact with a brief bible reading by the officer in charge (in keeping to their religious affiliation, of course, the last vestige of humanity in a so-called “civilized” society).

The Professor warns Adams of more deaths to come. But how does he know this? What is it that gives the philologist such insight into the unknown? Morbius pauses before he answers. He calls it a “premonition” of disaster. But to the skipper, it smacks of an ultimatum, i.e., the same kind of provocation that Morbius issued upon their approach to Altair IV. Only this time, it is spoken with purpose and deliberation.

That night, the skipper and his anxious crew make preparations for a possible attack. They test their alarm system by activating the main batteries. In the midst of the test, the commander calls Lt. Farman over to say that he’s sorry to have been so hard on him. Farman stops him in his tracks by admitting that Alta “picked the right man” after all. In other words, let bygones be bygones. All’s fair in love and war, right? The two rivals smile knowingly at each other. Good thing, too! For brother, these guys are in for a REAL battle!

No sooner have the men mended their frazzled friendship, when word comes that radar has picked up something on the horizon. A huge blip on the screen, “Big as a house,” now materializes. The skipper has his batteries fire full blast into the arroyo, and for a moment there’s a deathly silence, except for those electronic tonalities that mimic the Id monster’s footsteps. Suddenly, and without warning, the Id monster attacks, a dazzling showcase animated by Joshua Lawrence Meador, one of Disney Studios’ best effects men. At nearly four minutes’ duration, this is the film’s centerpiece and main action sequence.

The Id Monster attacks while it appears visible between the beams of the force field

The Id monster’s outline emits an eerie blue light when it first crosses the beams. When confronting the crew, however, its blue glow turns bright red with fiery rage — an irate fiend (much like the Bengal tiger before it) that roars and hollers its lust for vengeance to the winds. Doc yells out the obvious: “The blasted thing’s invisible!” That’s right! Now they know how it gained access to their ship.

The Id’s loathsome mouth is agape. It would seem that the jaws of Hell itself have been pried open, standing ready to maim and destroy — a horrifying apparition of dread and foreboding.

Original concept art for the Id monster gave it an insect-like appearance. The bug idea transmogrified into “a bulky, creeping mass … meant to be a literal nightmare, the physical equivalent of the warped, primal urges of Morbius’ subconscious mind from which the Id monster sprang” (Clarke and Rubin, “Making ‘Forbidden Planet’,” Cinefantastique, p. 35, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1979). When that too was rejected, the producers turned to Meador, who hired freelance animator Ken Hultgren, someone outside MGM and Disney, “to get a fresh approach on the problem. Hultgren, whose only assignment was to come up with a workable Id concept, developed the image of a roaring beast’s head with piercing eyes” (Ibid., Cinefantastique, p. 35).

The resemblance of the Id monster to MGM’s Leo the Lion trademark has been noted and accounted for. In our estimation, however, there is an uncanny likeness to Morbius himself (down to the hairs on his chinny-chin-chin). This makes perfect sense through purely psychological terms. After all, we are dealing with the Professor’s internal state of mind, one he has kept under wraps for almost the entirety of the picture. Moreover, Morbius will soon be revealed as the “man behind the curtain,” the manipulator of the act that led to the death of so many of his former shipmates — and possibly the demise of the C-57D.

Speaking of which, the space crew’s handheld blasters have no effect on the beast. One crewman gets crushed by the Id monster’s giant claw. Another crewman gets swatted to the side like an annoying fly. Seeing his hearty shipmates go down all about him, Farman bravely (or recklessly, depending on one’s perspective) steps before the thing and takes dead aim at its evil eyes. Adams shouts for his crew to hold their fire. Unfortunately, the Id monster grabs hold of Farman in its vice-like grip and casually hurls him aloft to his death.

Adams gives the order to continue firing at the target. The monster is still enraged, its menace unabated. But it makes no further attempts at mayhem.

The Sleep of Reason

Professor Morbius, asleep at the wheel of the Krell Laboratory

Morbius, asleep in the Krell laboratory, fidgets in agitated slumber, with the gauges of the Krell’s plastic educator machine blinking on-and-off and at full tilt. In direct imitation and remembrance of Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s famously suggestive lithograph, “The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters,” Morbius is roused from his nap by daughter Alta’s piercing screams. She bursts into the lab, relaying to Morbius her terrifying vision of the creature as it attacked the space camp.

Francisco Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters”

As Morbius awakens, the Id monster mercifully disappears. Alta continues to relate her dream to her consoling father. “Now, now,” Morbius reassures her. “You know a dream can’t hurt you.” Alta tries her best to exact a promise from Morbius that he will protect her lover Adams from any harm. But the crafty philologist can give no such guarantee. “I’m completely helpless,” he wrongly tells her, “as long as he remains here so willfully.”

Back at the camp, Adams tries to lift his men’s spirits with a pronouncement that the ship’s main battery stopped the monster’s forward motion. Doc shoots down his statement with a terse, “You believe that?” Not really, is Adams’ comeback. He knows it will be back. But he turns to Doc for an adequate explanation of what they witnessed before them: Is it possible an invisible being can survive a blast of atomic fission, and not get disintegrated in the process? A scientific impossibility is Doc’s reply.

“Hypnotic illusions don’t’ tear people apart!” Adams retorts. But then we have Doc’s educated estimation of the situation: “Any organism dense enough to survive three billion volts would have to be made of solid nuclear material. It would sink of its own weight to the center of this planet.” He goes on to press his case by insisting the beast “must have been renewing its molecular structure from one microsecond to the next.” Meaning, it cannot be destroyed by either conventional or advanced means. Something else must be propelling it.

Adams calls for the tractor and tells Doc that they will take Alta and Morbius back with them by force, if necessary, citing regulations. However, Doc throws another wrench into the works by reminding his commanding officer of what happened to the Bellerophon when it tried to escape the planet. Adams has a snappy rejoinder to that one, too: “Which makes it a gilt-edged priority that one of us [meaning himself, naturally] gets into that Krell lab and takes that brain boost.”

Adams gives the order to abandon the planet the second their force field starts to short circuit. The bosun (George Wallace) relays his order to the crew as Adams and Doc take off. Upon their arrival at Morbius’ home, Adams insists to Doc that HE will be the one to take the Krell mind test, no questions asked. Doc plays it dumb for the time being (clearly, the audience is on to the ploy that Ostrow will be the one who gets the jump on Commander Adams — a bit of foreshadowing of events).

Finding their way barred by Robby the Robot, the duo manages to sneak back into the house with Alta’s interference. While the skipper tries to alert the girl to the dangers of staying put, Doc sneaks off to take the mind boost. Barely alive, he is brought in by Robby (we can perceive the “invisible” strings that hold him up). Robby deposits the doctor onto the living room couch. Egged on by the skipper, Doc boasts of his “new mind. Up there in lights. Bigger than his now.” Adams admonishes him to take it easy, but Doc knows he is done for.

Robby carries Doc to the couch, while Alta & Adams observe

Ostrow blurts out that the big machine was the Krell’s crowning glory: “A true creation.” However, that all-but divine race forgot one key factor. Giving his last order, Adams forces the truth out of his wounded comrade: “Monsters, John, monsters from the Id!” With those words, Doc dies in the commander’s arms. Adams is clueless as to what the doctor meant, so he will solicit Morbius’ views for clarification.

Just then, Morbius bursts in. He sees the couple entwined in a tender embrace. But his only reaction is to the man who defied his orders not to toy around with the Krell machinery. “The fool, the meddling idiot! As though his ape’s brain could contain the secrets of the Krell.” Way to go, Prof! Alta tries to reason with the old man by pointing out that Doc is dead. Have a little sympathy for the deceased, will you? But his only consideration is that Doc was warned. He paid the price for (chuckle, chuckle) tampering in God’s domain, something Adams himself will echo in the last line of the story. “Let him be buried with the other victims of human greed and folly,” Morbius declares.

For the first time in her short life, Alta sees her “loving and caring” father for what he is: a malicious, unfeeling being. She reminds him that Morbius wanted her to make a choice (this is a snippet of dialog that refers to an earlier excised scene in the original script). Alta has chosen to runaway with the handsome commander, come what may. She darts off to get her things. But Morbius is on a different wavelength altogether. “My daughter is planning a very foolish action, and she’ll be terribly punished,” he solemnly invokes.

In the middle of this family feud, Adams presses the Professor for the meaning of the term “Id.” Morbius, obviously perturbed, rattles off an explanation which the commander repeats to himself: “Monsters from the subconscious. Of course!” Though the skipper’s intellect is nowhere near the philologist’s capacity for knowledge and understanding (as we learned from early on in the feature), nor is it close to the late doctor’s “bigger than his” brainwaves, Adams is able to reason out the facts from the limited number of possibilities.

He applies the principles of critical thinking in order to arrive at the only logical conclusion to their and the Krell’s dilemma: “Creation from mere thought,” which Morbius picks up on as well: “The beast, the mindless primitive!” So that’s what killed the Krell. According to Adams, they had “access to a machine that could never be shut down. The secret devil of every soul on the planet, all set free at once to loot and maim, and take revenge and kill!” Yikes!!!

Morbius is impressed but unmoved by this line of reasoning, due mostly to his observation that too many centuries have passed since the last Krell kicked the planetary bucket. Yet there is still a living, breathing monster on the prowl. How does one explain that? Adams starts to lose patience with the Professor.

We Interrupt This Program

Adams argues with Professor Morbius, as Alta watches and Robby stands guard

Robby interrupts their colloquy with a grave warning that something is approaching. “It is quite near.” Morbius charges Robby to stop the menace that this way comes, but the robot is unable to carry out his instructions. “That thing out there,” Adams insists. “It’s you.” But isn’t the fair Altaira immune to its power? Not a chance! “She’s joined herself to me!” Body and soul, we reckon!

Morbius hurls his frustrations at the pair. “Say it’s a lie. Let it hear you! Tell it you don’t love this man!” Altaira remains defiant. Alert viewers may also have picked up on the incestuous implications of a father-daughter-lover triangle, another jab at the analyst’s couch. This nod to 1950s pop psychology was one of several indicated in the script. In fact, you could say that Freud’s oedipal complex enjoyed free reign in this production.

“Stop it, Robby!” Morbius cries. “Don’t let it in! Kill it!” Regrettably, Robby’s circuits give out and shut down. (This was previously indicated in the scene where Morbius instructs Robby to fire Adams’ blaster between his eyes.) You see, Morbius himself is outside the door. And, by the Three Laws of Robotics (as established by visionary science-fiction author Isaac Asimov) Robby is prevented from harming another human being — in this instance, the hapless Professor. The robot knows that his evil self is out there.

The trio manages to flee into the Krell lab (the wrong spot to seek shelter at a time like this), with the Id monster in literal hot pursuit. Adams jumbles the combination to the entranceway so as to thwart the approaching brute. With the two men wrestling for control of the situation, the disclosures come fast and furious: that Morbius had inadvertently sent the Id monster out to seek and destroy his crewmates. Worst of all, he’s “whistled up the monster again” to punish Alta “for her disloyalty and disobedience.”

As if to illustrate his point, Adams tells Morbius to look at the gauges supplying the Id monster with whatever power it needs to reach its target. Next, he motions to the red-hot Krell-metal door that separates the pursuer from the pursued (a gesture that visionary filmmaker George Lucas paid homage to in Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace). The door starts to melt away, allowing the monster access to the laboratory from whence it hailed.

Who’s that knocking at my door? The Id Monster arrives at the Krell Lab

In the riveting climax to the drama, Morbius realizes that he is the guilty party; that he was complicit in the murder of his shipmates; and that his evil self is tapping (to quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven) at their chamber door. But what can he do to prevent that evil from entering? Not much, I’m afraid! Even though the beast is supposed to be unseen, according to the Cinefantastique article, “it was always planned to make the Id visible eventually because … you can’t tease an audience forever. The original screenplay also called for the Id to become visible … after it breaks through the Lab door.”

This is patently nonsensical. The monster can’t possibly be seen at this juncture because that would require the presence of a force field (as proven in the Id monster’s nighttime attack). Fortunately, saner heads prevailed and the idea was abandoned, since “the screenplay provides no real explanation for [the Id monster’s] visibility,” even though “its appearance at this point makes the scene much more dramatic and less confusing.”

Well, “confusing” to some individuals incapable of following along with the plot, but not to those who have been paying attention. The fact that it was brought up at all as a viable option shows how even experienced writers such as Irving Block and Allen Adler could be on the wrong side of storytelling.

In order to save his daughter and her lover from the same fate, Morbius confronts the terrible presence and shouts his defiance at it: “Stop! No further! I deny you! I give you up!” Without delay, the big machine comes to a noisy halt as the evil menace is thwarted. The lab falls silent.

“I deny you! I give you up!”

Alta turns away from the spectacle of a parent wrestling with his demons. The battle won, Morbius lies helpless on the floor. Alta cradles him in her lap (repeating the same image as before of Adams with Doc Ostrow in his arms). With his last breath, the Professor charges Adams with throwing the switch. The couple must be a million miles in space before the Krell’s blast furnaces set off a chain reaction — an irreversible course that will consume what’s left of the planet and the Krell’s advanced technology. With that, Morbius expires, his daughter’s name on his lips.

Once United Planets Space Cruiser C-57D has attained the mandatory safe distance, a blinding light envelops the scope that Alta and Adams are viewing, signaling that the brave new world of Altair IV is no more. On board the ship, Robby the Robot has been brought back to working life (with the same soothing tones of actor Marvin Miller), indicative of man’s ability to repair his machines for future implementation.

The scene of Alta and Commander Adams’ wedding, which was part of a working print and is of instructional interest to film historians, scholars, and students of sci-fi, was edited out of the release print. We can assume the lovebirds have joined hands in outer space. As Alta buries her head in Adams’ arms, the wise commander delivers a fitting epitaph to the memory of the late Professor Morbius. He reminds her, and the audience as well, that we are not the Creator.

One might add that we are only His stewards, safeguarding the planet from outside forces, and from our own destructive natures. In Forbidden Planet, the brave new world our intrepid adventurers had discovered on Altair IV was doomed to extinction long before they or Morbius, or the crew of the Bellerophon, set foot on its surface.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Three): Cry, the Beloved Mother Country

Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony: Grass Huts by Native Performers, August 5, 2016

Honor Thy National Anthem

Discerning viewers should bear in mind that London’s 2012 Summer Olympics Games closed with the same “Aquele abraço” theme song. While retaining the original’s lyrics, the vastly pared-down number, as it was presented at Rio 2016, lacked the stridency and gruffness of songwriter Gilberto Gil’s 1969 extended play recording (which this author once owned and can safely vouch for).

Produced by Manoel Barenbein for the Philips label and arranged by Rogério Duprat and Chiquinho de Moraes, the number’s rasping power and jarring orchestration contrasted with Luiz Melodia’s more contemplative, down-to-Google-earth interpretation — Gil Unplugged!

At that same London 2012 closing ceremony, one of Brazil’s top-rated performers was carried aloft by giant pale-blue flower petals. With arms outstretched and dressed in a flowing white gown, the raven-haired vocalist regaled London’s Olympic Stadium audience with her haunting delivery of the opening melody to Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.

The tune was one of many such efforts by the inexhaustible carioca composer to blur the lines between classical and popular compositions. But who was this ravishing starlet, this improvised Brazilian Fat Lady?  It was none other than Marisa Monte, and Villa-Lobos’ melody played perfectly into her hands (or, should I say, her voice). Little did viewers suspect that the teenaged Marisa had once spent a year studying opera in Italy before returning to her home in Rio.

Adding to the list of headliners, top model Alessandra Ambrósio also participated in the closing ceremony, as did singer-turned-actor Seu Jorge and rapper B-Negão. Former soccer great and ex-minister of sport Pelé was on hand, too, in a surprise visit, as “Aquele abraço” reached its peak. Amid a stream of dancers in typical Oba-Oba formation, the plan was to build anticipation for an Olympic-style Carnival to come, an all-out celebration to include drum-corps pounding, samba dancing, colorful outfits, and that ebulliently festive atmosphere.

Returning to Rio 2016, I made note of some shockingly slipshod attempts by English-speaking announcers to pronounce the many indigenous names that abound in Brazilian Portuguese. I realize, as most native speakers do, that the language is not the easiest one to enunciate. However, when reporting on events from the actual physical sites newscasters should have at least tried to master the correct manner of articulation before airtime.

For instance, the name Maracanã (pronounced Mah-rah-cah-NÃ), a word with a nasally-produced final syllable that resonates in back of the throat, became Mara-CAHN-a in the mouths of reporters. And instead of futebol, the Brazilian-Portuguese literation of “soccer,” the word futbol (in the Spanish-language spelling) scrolled across viewers’ screens. In the same league as the spelling and pronunciation issues, the redundant phrase “Carnival capital of the world,” used to describe Brazil’s party-hearty host city, quickly became an overworked cliché.

Just the same, the Maracanã stadium’s field resembled a visual map of Brazil. Onto this digitally-enhanced encampment, carioca native Paulinho da Viola (né Paulo César Batista de Faria) materialized, strumming a solo guitar and seconded by an eight-piece string orchestra. This is where the creative directors’ plans for the Rio 2016 opening ceremony came into their own.

Brazilian national anthem performed by Paulinho da Viola and orchestra during Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony, August 5, 2016. (Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

After all the pomp and majesty of military bands and symphony orchestras; after so many pretentious arrangements for grand piano and choirs of fifty thousand or more voices; and after the circumstance surrounding the pointless chest-beating at the 2014 World Cup, listeners were held spellbound by the hushed elegance of Paulinho’s intimate take on the country’s Hino Nacional.

This was no time for posturing or empty-headed braggadocio on the soccer field of shattered dreams. Instead, Brazil laid bare her musical soul. With reverence and retrospection, the coordinators of the opening program opted to look inward, to go back to the country’s pop-music beginnings: to samba and bossa nova.

It was as if João Gilberto himself, who slowed down samba’s rhythmic impulses to barely whispered cadences, were physically present that August evening. We know that wasn’t the case. Still, Joãozinho’s essence was carried forward in Paulinho da Viola’s gorgeously understated, two-minute-and-twenty-two-second presentation that set the tone for the sixteen-day event.

Forcing viewers to lean forward in their seats, it commanded their attention by urging them to follow along with the words. This was a multi-part conversation that brought people nearer to today’s Brazilian reality, as well as an invitation to take part in a national ritual. The producers exceeded expectations by toning down the bombast to a mild trickle. The mood was surprisingly stirring. And there was no question of defamation or lack of respect. This was hallowed ground.

As Paulinho continued to enthrall listeners, a group of young people, wrapped in the country’s colors, mounted a circular platform where the flag-raising ceremony would be observed. The platform was inspired by the spherical discs flanking the modernistic structures of the capital Brasília’s National Congress. The group gathered at the flagpole’s base to pay homage to the Brazilian flag. A jet of air, pumped through the flagpole’s core from its base below ground, gave the impression of a banner waving in the night.

Brazilian flag-raising ceremony, Rio 2016 Olympics

Brazil sang, and the world sang with her. A sense of pride swelled up in the audience and in our household; a pride that, frankly, hasn’t always been felt considering what the country has been going through these past few years.

In all probability, the idea for this smaller-scaled treatment may have begun with London 2012’s closing ceremony. During the handing over of the Olympic flag portion, the tradition of playing the new host-country’s national anthem was followed. It was carried out by a recording of a military band intoning Brazil’s Hino Nacional over the Olympic Stadium’s loudspeaker system, in a controversial “shortened edition” that eliminated an entire verse.

Now imagine if you will a scenario of patriotic American baseball or football fans, hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a stadium in the U.S. After the section, “Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight / o’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?” they realize that the bridge, “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,” had been edited out. This glaring omission would be taken as an insult to the host nation, and would no doubt have sparked an international incident. Summon the secretary of state! On the double, pronto!

Mercifully, when Brazilians in Brazil hear their Hino Nacional played, it is given complete. At least, the first stanza is complete. As we know, there are several other stanzas to confront, as there are with America’s “Star Spangled Banner” and numerous other hymns of the nations. These are normally omitted in order to save time.

Besides all that, how many people memorize all of the stanzas to their country’s national anthem? Not many, I’d be willing to bet.

Birth of the Brazilian Nation

The next section introduced the story of the founding of the land we call Brazil (named after the Brazilwood, or Paubrasilia that once thrived there), of the indigenous native population that abounded, of the birds and beasts that inhabited the densely forested continent: Terra Brasilis. Land ho!

In an intricately choreographed segment, performers in native costume (actual descendants, in fact) danced around the arena creating images of grass huts with gigantic ribbon strands. Then, the first Europeans, the Portuguese, arrived in their fast-moving caravels. The bouncing prows of the highly maneuverable ships carrying the bearded and longhaired Portuguese inspired awe and curiosity among the natives. The Portuguese carved a trail through the Brazilian landscape, leaving their mark behind.

Arrival of the Portuguese – Opening Ceremony of Rio 2016 Olympics (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

This was followed by the African slaves, towing their plows, laden down by their shackles and chains, tearing up the land with massive paddlewheels, and working the sugar plantations. The analogy to the Hebrew slaves of Egypt was inescapable. This marked the exploitation of the races in the Portuguese conquest of Brazil.

Little by little, subtly at first, the landscape began to change (through the modern technology of projection mapping). The African slaves were followed in turn by the Arabic contingent, then the Orientals, and still more arrivals from other nations. Japanese immigrants settled in the region of São Paulo. After five generations, the Japanese are completely assimilated into Brazilian life, as were other nationalities, including the Italians, the Poles, the Germans, Czechs, Spanish, Syrian-Lebanese, and various subordinate groups.

A patchwork quilt design emerged, representing the varied and assorted nature of the population as the country approached the modern era — the early twentieth century. The building of contemporary Brazil incorporated rising platforms from under the stadium so as to visualize the growth of buildings, apartment complexes, businesses, and living quarters.

The concrete jungles that dot the horizon led to the burgeoning of major cities. Alongside these, the rise of the slums, or favelas, that cropped up simultaneously along the peripheries. Modern edifices and high-rise dwellings compete for space, with tenants scaling the dizzying heights. Like monkeys swinging from the jungle canopy, individuals try to get a leg up, jumping and climbing from rooftop to rooftop, inching ever higher, and swaying from the parapets in a mad scramble to see who would be first in line to achieve their goals.

From the white Plexiglas squares placed together by the performers there appeared a replica of the 14-Bis (Quatorze Bis), an actual working model, we believe, of a canard biplane, with an actor filling in for that little-known homegrown genius, the eccentric inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont. This biplane flew the friendly Brazilian skies out of the stadium and around the Lapa Arches and over Guanabara Bay (or so it was made to seem to viewers). This portion of the show perplexed many of the foreign reporters covering the event, who had difficulty grasping the message that in Brazil, France, and other countries Santos-Dumont is considered the Father of Modern Air Flight, not the Wright Brothers. So be it.

2016 Rio Olympics – Santos-Dumont, flight of the 14-Bis (Photo: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

Cue back to the big city — digitally and physically enhanced in the wide-open spaces of Maracanã Stadium. Floating through the airspace, the harmonious sounds of a piano accompanied the voice of Daniel Canneti Jobim, composer Tom Jobim’s grandson, who took center stage. Dressed in a white wide-brimmed hat, he sang and played his grandpa’s singular sensational tune, “The Girl from Ipanema,” with lyrics by poet Vinicius de Moraes.

Gliding down the digital runway, and strutting her stuff as only a super-model of her caliber could, stood Gisele Bündchen — a sixth-generation German descendant — in a stunning silver-lamé gown. Jobim’s image was projected thirty-or-more-feet onto the side of a makeshift apartment complex, as the assemblage sang along with the composer’s grandson. Gisele, all smiles, captivated the crowd as she took her sweet time crossing the open field. “When she walks, she’s like a samba / That swings so cool and sways so gentle that / When she passes, each one she passes goes ‘Ah’!”

Gisele Bundchen strutting her stuff at Rio 2016

Switching over to the pop arena, the succeeding segment emphasized the evolution in tastes and Brazilian musical development with the rise of hip-hop, baile funk, axé, forró, frevo, etc. Popular culture took precedent, with the wailing voices of slum residents. Elza Soares, one of the last surviving grandes dames of variety and theater, sang a brief snippet of Vinicius and Baden Powell’s “Canto de Ossanha.”

Along with capoeira, the heavy sound of a cuica pervaded, along with Zeca Pagodinho and rapper Marcelo D2, delivering Zeca’s patented ode to better living, the song “Deixa a vida me levar” (“Let life take me along”). The clash of musical styles, represented by rap and pop (and contemporary artists Karol Conká and twelve-year-old MC Sofia), continued to duke it out in a syncopated slugfest.

Next up, actress and singer Regina Casé interrupted the proceedings to state her case that we need to “bring people together and celebrate their differences.” “Here’s to diversity,” she shouted. Joined by the forever youthful Jorge Ben Jor (“Mas, Que Nada”), both artists sang one his signature hits, “País Tropical.” This brought out the warring factions of different colors, strokes, and folks into one patchwork design, as at the beginning of the ceremony. With fireworks exploding and lights blazing, the theme struck up anew: “Looking for similarities, celebrating differences.” That’s something we, here, in the United States have been striving to come to terms with for, oh, two hundred and fifty years, or more.

Pause for Reflection: A Reading from “Nausea and the Flower”

The Boy and the Plant: Concerns for the Environment, Rio 2016

The concluding portions of the ceremony explored the alarming rise in CO2 emissions on the planet, the dangers of unchecked global warming, of climate change, the melting of the polar icecaps, and the rising sea levels, all of them “challenges to the coastline cities.”

A lone boy in shorts and sneakers, with a backpack and form-fitting cap, discovers a single green object growing in the street. It’s a plant. Thus begins a recitation of the final stanzas of the poem, “A Flor e a Náusea” (“Nausea and the Flower”), by mineiro author and modernist poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. It would be spoken by two of the world’s greatest actresses, Fernanda Montenegro (in the original Portuguese) and Dame Judi Dench (in English translation). The accompanying music score by Antonio Pinto and Jaques Morelenbaum was taken from the multi-award-winning film Central do Brasil (Central Station):

 

Uma flor nasceu na rua!

A flower has sprouted in the street!

Passem de longe, bondes, ônibus, rio de aço do tráfego.

Buses, streetcars, steel stream of traffic, steer clear.

Uma flor ainda desbotada

ilude a polícia, rompe o asfalto.

 

A flower, still pale,

Has fooled the police, it’s breaking through the asphalt.

Façam completo silêncio, paralisem os negócios,

garanto que uma flor nasceu.

Sua cor não se percebe.

Suas pétalas não se abrem.

Seu nome não está nos livros.

É feia. Mas é realmente uma flor.

 

Let’s have complete silence, hold all business,

I swear that a flower has been born.

Its color is uncertain.

It’s not showing its petals.

Its name isn’t in the books.

It’s ugly. But it really is a flower.

 

Sento-me no chão da capital do país às cinco horas da tarde
e lentamente passo a mão nessa forma insegura.

I sit down on the ground of the nation’s capital at five in the afternoon

And fondle with my fingers this precarious form.

 

É feia.

It’s ugly.

Mas é uma flor.

But it’s a flower.

Furou o asfalto,

It broke through the asphalt,

o tédio,

Tedium,

o nojo

Disgust and hate.

e o ódio.


The boy takes the plant and places it gently into a waiting receptacle. Rising from the ground, he holds the object aloft, and silently walks off the stage.

Time for the parade of athletes.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued…..

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Two): Brazil Rises to the Occasion with a Lavish Opening Ceremony

Opening Ceremonies at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics on Aug. 5, 2016, at Maracana Stadium (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

Countdown to Show Time

Winning and losing. That’s life in the Olympic fast lane. They are also part of every Brazilian’s daily grind.

For Brazil, becoming the Top Dog — whether in soccer or beach volleyball, in Formula One racing or the fast-paced world of international athletics — has proven to be a self-deluding pipe dream.

You may recall that the country had stumbled mightily (or, should we say, crashed and burned?) at the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament. But for two full weeks in August 2016, Brazil would be given the opportunity to redeem itself — a do-over, such as it was, where it could enjoy the rapt attention of sports fans, along with a fair share of global viewership and a complement of positive press coverage, for its lavish opening ceremony.

Many in the world media would describe a country’s opening ceremony as its first line of defense — its premier showcase — to prove to inquisitive viewers (and incredulous skeptics) that Brazil, or any other nation, was made of sterner stuff.

Several individuals were involved as creative directors in the planning and execution of this Olympic pool-sized project: Fernando Meirelles, a noted filmmaker and director/producer of City of God and The Constant Gardener; and set designer Daniela Thomas, a screenwriter, stage actor, and ex-wife of writer-producer and theater director Gerald Thomas. Two additional collaborators were also employed: director, producer, and screenwriter Andrucha Waddington (The House of Sand) and choreographer Deborah Colker, known for her work with Cirque du Soleil, as well as hundreds if not thousands of eager volunteers.

Catchphrases for the opening ceremony, which commenced on the evening of August 5, 2016, included such hyperbolic assertions that audiences were in for “a sixteen-day Carnival,” and that “Rio 2016 [was] going to be entertaining.” No need to downplay it, fellas!

As show time neared, a beaming Cristo Redentor (or Christ the Redeemer) statue, the reinforced-concrete symbol of a hospitable host city, stood imposingly upon its base at Mount Corcovado (“The Hunchback”). The towering ninety-eight-foot-tall-figure glowed with a bright green, yellow, and blue light — the colors of the Brazilian flag, calling the world’s athletes to attention in the sporting event of the season.

Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Paradoxically, since the seasons are reversed below the Equator, the quadrennial summer competition took place during Brazil’s winter of political discontent (see the following link to Part One of my piece: (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/09/03/flames-over-rio-2016-brazils-president-burns-as-the-world-watches-the-summer-olympic-games-part-one/). Even though disgraced Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was suspended from office in early May, she declined an invitation by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to attend the opening ceremony. Her former vice president and soon-to-be-interim president, Michel Temer, had been pegged to represent Brazil in her stead.

Immobile and stone-faced, with bribery scandals of his own to agonize over, Temer sat in stern silence in the grandstand area, unintentionally mimicking the stoical gaze of Rio’s Redeemer (or perhaps needing a savior of his own).

Our Country, ‘Tis of Thee We Sing

Music, theater, and dance, in as much as they could be viewed or heard in a stadium of the massive proportions of the two-hundred-thousand-seat-capacity Maracanã, started the 2016 opening ceremony off with the unassuming, nondescript vocals of a veteran sambista, the Rio-born singer, actor, and songwriter Luiz Melodia (Luiz Carlos dos Santos, who sadly passed away on August 4, 2017, almost a year to the day of the opening festivities).

Sambista, singer, and songwriter Luiz Melodia (Photo: Daryan Dornelles)

Waves hugging the city’s shoreline, swimmers approaching the water and diving headlong into the tide; surfers riding the crest of the ocean current; men playing soccer atop a building’s roof; a skateboarder on a deserted street, a golfer swinging his five iron, a biker winding down a treacherous path; rock-climbing, roof-hopping, jogging, and volleyball;  and, of course, the thrill of hang-gliding and wind-surfing, and strolling along Rio’s characteristic mosaic-laden streets — all to the strains of a Gilberto Gil song, “Aquele abraço” (“That Big Embrace”), and breathtaking overhead shots of Marvelous City.

“That Rio de Janeiro is still gorgeous,” went the lyrics. “That Rio de Janeiro continues on, / That Rio de Janeiro during February and March, / Hello, hello, Realengo, that big embrace. / Hello you fans of Flamengo, that big embrace.”

O Rio de Janeiro continua lindo,

O Rio de Janeiro continua sendo,
O Rio de Janeiro, fevereiro e março,
Alô, alô, Realengo, aquele abraço.
Alô torcida do Flamengo, aquele abraço.

 

Chacrinha continua balançando a pança,
E buzinando a moça e comandando a massa,
E continua dando as ordens do terreiro.
Alô, alô, seu Chacrinha, velho guerreiro.
Alô, alô, Teresinha, Rio de Janeiro.

 

Alô, alô, seu Chacrinha, velho palhaço.
Alô, alô, Teresinha, aquele abraço.
Alô moça da favela, aquele abraço.
Todo mundo da Portela, aquele abraço.
Todo mês de fevereiro, aquele passo.

 

Alô Banda de Ipanema, aquele abraço.
Meu caminho pelo mundo, eu mesmo traço.
A Bahia já me deu régua e compasso.
Quem sabe de mim sou eu, aquele abraço.

 

Pra você que me esqueceu, aquele abraço.
Alô Rio de Janeiro, aquele abraço.
Todo povo brasileiro, aquele abraço

Clearly, Rio “abides.” The song played out as a salute to Cidade Maravilhosa, a tourist’s paradise, and a city that, much like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, never truly sleeps. Alive with activity, Rio de Janeiro (translated as the “River of January”) is a place with style and purpose, and a reason for being.

The old adage that São Paulo, the hemisphere’s most populous (and prosperous) state, carries Brazil on its back has a basis in economic fact. That may well be, but what gives the country its rhythm and pulse is Rio, the heartbeat of a nation.

But to insist this pleasant-sounding number was little more than an easygoing sambinha, addressed to unwary international listeners, is to deny the Brazilian producers the profound depth of knowledge they possessed apropos of Brazil’s tumultuous past.

With regard to that past, Tropicália co-founder and songwriter Gilberto Gil (born Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira) wrote “Aquele abraço” in 1969, during Brazil’s most repressive period and close to the eve of his forced departure from his native soil to a two-and-a-half-year exile in Merry Olde England.

After seventy days in prison, Gil had just been released (along with close friend and fellow Bahian, musician and songwriter Caetano Veloso) from a military detention center in the district of Realengo, which Luiz Melodia mentions above.

Gilberto Gil & Caetano Veloso in London, where they were exiled from 1969-1972

Gil stepped outside to freedom. His lungs took in Rio’s air and warmth. Upon seeing the still-festooned city, he resolved to express both relief and indignation at his forced captivity in the wistful, bittersweet manner familiar to all Brazilians: in words and song. The date was February 19, 1969. Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday), which marked the end of Carnival and the beginning of the Lenten season — a time of reaffirmation and renewal.

He and Caetano had paid the price (so they believed) for their supposed “transgressions,” which, according to Brazilian authorities, involved so-called subversive activities such as outright protests, civil disobedience, and criticism of the military. They were placed under house arrest and taken to Salvador da Bahia, where they were required to report daily to the chief of the federal police. Four months later, they received an “invitation” to leave the country, an offer neither artist could refuse.

Both men had been part of a growing artistic trend that incorporated music, words, images, and sounds, even nonsense syllables, into their work, in an attempt to convey one’s hostility, or whatever emotion they felt compelled to exhibit, toward the current state of affairs — an anything-goes, kitchen-sink-style approach to protesting.

This trend (or movement, if you prefer) acquired the exotic-sounding label of tropicalismo, itself derived from “Tropicália,” a term originally used to describe an installation piece by the carioca visual artist, Hélio Oiticica. Caetano appropriated “Tropicália” (a name he much admired) for the title of a song, a raucous blend of verbal representations invoking the modern capital of Brasília, the French Nouvelle Vague, Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, birdsong, Carmen Miranda, Dadaism, concrete poetry, Che Guevara, indigenous forenames, the films of Glauber Rocha, and so on.

Visual artist Helio Oiticica, at an installation in Pittsburgh, PA

Unfortunately, rumors had been circulating that the tropicalistas had defamed Brazil’s national anthem in this musically-dishonored manner (the rumors proved to be false). Despite their denials, the accusations served as the flimsy justification for Caetano and Gil’s arrest and their being whisked off to Europe, comparable to riding backwards on a donkey while wearing an ill-fitting dunce cap.

Other pop culture references alluded to in “Aquele abraço” paid respect to two polemic TV personalities of the era (the “clown” Chacrinha and the fictional Teresinha), the city’s largest and most influential soccer team (Flamengo), a girl from the slums of Rio (moça da favela), one of its local samba schools (Portela), and the month of February (o mês de fevereiro), in that order.

Gil concludes the number with a few short phrases: saying goodbye to the samba band from Ipanema — a Guarani word with the distasteful connotation of “bad water” (which, if the Olympic rowers and swimmers had advance knowledge of, may have elected not to participate in those events); and, with his middle-finger raised in the direction of the ruling regime, statements about his personal philosophy of life:

I’ll make my own way in the world

Bahia provided me with slide-rule and compass

Who better than I know what’s best for me?

 

For those who don’t remember me, that big embrace

Hello, Rio de Janeiro, that big embrace

To the people of Brazil, that big embrace

 

And with that parting shot at Brazil’s brass, Gil bid a fond farewell. But don’t think for a moment that he had lowered his head in shame and penance. Not long after “Aquele abraço” was recorded and performed (in a show, given at Teatro Castro Alves in Bahia, to raise money for their “trip” abroad) Caetano and Gil left their old haunt, not knowing whether they would ever see the country again.

Obviously, the number meant more to Gil and Caetano than a hello-and-how-do-you-do. “Aquele abraço” became the expression, in Caetano’s words, of “its wound of love and loss, and above all the direct address to Rio de Janeiro, the city to which I feel so intimately connected … The irony of this song — which seemed a kind of valediction to Brazil (represented, according to tradition, by Rio) but without the least rancor — is that it made us all feel up to the difficulties that lay ahead” (Caetano Veloso, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil, pp. 266-267).

Caetano (center right) & Gil (far right), with Os Mutantes, Gal Costa & Jorge Ben, performing the song, “Divino Maravilhoso” (1968)

His companion-in-exile Gil was far less circumspect. Turning down the prestigious Golden Dolphin (Golfinho de Ouro) Prize, from the Museum of Image and Sound, for the best-selling record of the year, Gil wrote an incendiary piece, “Recuso + Aceito = Receito” (“Refuse + Accept = Acquiesce,” a less-than-veiled play on words), in the Brazilian periodical O Pasquim, explaining his reasons for declining the dubious honor:

“If the MIS [Museum of Image and Sound] thinks that with ‘Aquele abraço’ I was going to beg forgiveness for what I had done, they were mistaken. And let it be clear to those who thought my mind had changed with ‘Aquele abraço,’ that it does not mean I have been ‘regenerated,’ that I have become ‘a good black samba-player,’ as they want all blacks to become who seem to ‘know their place.’ I do not know what place that is and I am no place at the moment. Even far away I can understand what’s going on. Even in England, the Brazilian Embassy has declared to news agencies that I am persona non grata. No prize will make this situation disappear.”

So this was the background to that simple little samba. And yet, this was but the opening salvo, the first of several Olympic broadsides that, through intricacy and nuance, accomplished what tropicalismo had tried to do, but in a less vulgar, less crass, and certainly less overt way. To these ears, the playing of “Aquele abraço” could only have meant one thing: as a reminder to their fellow citizens, by the producers and creative directors of the opening ceremony, that they should be mindful of their country’s past and present ills.

Their subtlety may have gone over the heads of everyone else who was watching the Olympic program. But it could not have escaped the notice of those Brazilians whose lives were irrevocably transformed during the harrowing military-dictatorship years.

(End of Part Two)

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