Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Big Fisherman

The Big Fisherman. Please double click to enlarge the image.

Suuri kalastaja / Den heliga eden. US © 1959 Centurion Films. For Buena Vista Distribution. P: Rowland C. Lee. D: Frank Borzage. SC: Howard Estabrook, Rowland C. Lee – based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas (1948). DP: Lee Garmes – Eastmancolor / Technicolor – Ultra Panavision 70 mm. PD: John DeCuir, Julia Heron. Costumes: Renie, Wesley Jeffries. M: Albert Hay Malotte.
    C: Howard Keel (Simon Peter), Susan Kohner (Esther/Fara), John Saxon (Prince Voldi), Herbert Lom (Herod Antipas), Martha Hyer (Herodias), Alexander Scourby (David Ben-Zadok, Simon's neighbour), Beulah Bondi (Hannah, Simon's wife), Jay Barney (John the Baptist), Henry Brandon (Menicus), Brian Hutton (John), Jonathan Harris (Lysias). 180 min.
    A 149 min print, with brilliant colour definition, from Walt Disney Company (Burbank). Viewed at Orion, Helsinki, Easter Sunday, 27 March 2005.

Disney's contribution to the Biblical epic, the final film of Borzage, Lee (Zoo in Budapest) and Malotte (composer of The Lord's Prayer and Silly Symphonies).

Based on Lloyd C. Douglas's follow-up novel to The Robe, both about the Christ. Neither film based on these novels shows the Christ, or, more precisely, here his face is not shown. Good! But his voice is heard, unfortunately, as it lacks charisma. Wyler did the Sermon on the Mount better in Ben-Hur as he only showed its impact on the people who had heard it.

Strong points:

– Lee Garmes: brilliant cinematography with Ben Hur's MGM Camera 65 cameras

– John DeCuir and Julia Heron: magnificent production design made in California

– Renie: exquisite costume design

– Susan Kohner: at her best as Esther/Fara, soon to leave acting in order to raise Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz

– Herbert Lom: the tragedy of the tyrant Herod, pussy-whipped by Herodias

– Martha Hyer: relishing her role as one of the most evil women in history

– Alexander Scourby: dignified as Simon's best friend

– Jonathan Harris: already memorable as Herod's right hand man, before fame in Lost in Space

A big story based on big words: You are Peter. Upon this rock I will build my church. To you I will entrust the keys to the kingdom of heaven. I will be with you always.

This is also a study in the tragic relationships between Jews, Arabs, and Romans. Esther/Fara incarnates them: the Jewish/Roman girl raised as an Arab princess.

Both protagonists are dual: Simon Peter, Esther Fara. It's about the emergence of the divine from the profane.

The holy men are the least convincing: the dull and boring voice of the Nazarene, Simon Peter (Howard Keel is only adequate here), John the Baptist, John (incarnated by Brian Hutton, the future director of Where Eagles Dare).

Interesting touch: the dance of the seven veils and the execution of John the Baptist is performed as a silhouette as seen by Esther/Fara.

This was the only historical spectacle of Borzage, whose strength was in intimacy and romance. The film is visually magnificent, totally different from his other films. One may sense his personal touch in the sensitive direction of Susan Kohner and in the figure of Simon Peter, Borzage's final incarnation of Sarastro. As for spirituality, Strange Cargo is certainly more personal.

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