Movie Roundup: Four DeMilles and a Lang Edition

Samson and Delilah – Victor Mature plays Samson and Hedy Lamarr Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s way way way overblown biblical epic.  Samson is the popular Jewish judge from the tribe of Dan who is engaged to a pretty young Philistine (played by Angela Lansbury).  But he attracts the eye of Lansbury’s sister, Delilah, a vicious, lusty girl who sets a riot in motion at their wedding feast which leads to Samson killing a bunch of people and Lansbury herself getting killed.  Samson becomes an anti-Philistine revolutionary cutting down bad guys left and right armed with a jawbone.  The local ruler, played by George Sanders, of course, conspires with Delilah to capture Samson.  She seduces him and gives him a haircut.  Brought to the Philistine temple in chains, Samson is tortured until he brings the whole thing crashing down in a spectacular finale.  The whole thing is pretty ridiculous, yet the sheer perversity of the Samson/Delilah relationship is fascinating.  Unfortunately, it all has to be sold by Lamarr, who is certainly up to the task, but Mature, in trying to portray Samson as the ultimate square, sacrifices the seediness he brought to another twisted relationship, that between him and Gene Tierney in Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture.  It’s important, of course, that Samson be virtuous and upstanding, but without the spark of illicit uncontrollable desire for Delilah, his actions come off as just plain stupid, rather than tragic.  It’s probably my least favorite DeMille film, feeling more like a dry run for the corny greatness of The Ten Commandments, and a far cry from the potent mix of religion and sex of his thirties bible movies.  The #24 film of 1949.

The Sign of the Cross – This is much more like it.  Not technically a bible movie, as it takes place during the early years of Christianity, when the small cult was trying to grow within the Roman Empire under Nero.  Frederic March plays a Roman prefect who becomes enamored with a young Christian girl named Mercia (really), despite his long-standing relationship with Nero’s wife Poppaea.  When March releases a couple of accused Christians on the girl’s behalf, Poppaea (played by Claudette Colbert at her most amorally luscious) arranges with a rival prefect to have the girl and the other Christians attacked and arrested.  March saves the girl, barely (the sequence of the soldiers descending on the large Christian prayer meeting is all the more terrifying for the very real feeling of persecuted brotherhood we get right before the arrows start to fly), and proposes to her, but she accuses him of just wanting her for sex.  Somehow they all end up at an orgy, which has some creepy and intense dance sequences as March tries and fails either to get Mercia to loosen up or face his own evil lusts and convert to her religion.  In the end, Nero, played by Charles Laughton as an imbecilic lunatic, has the Christians fed to the lions (and various other animals) in another spectacular finale.  This is probably DeMille’s greatest blend of the sacred and the profane, as sequences like a lesbian orgy dance and Claudette Colbert nude in a milk bath are balanced by scenes of genuine Christian belief and piety.  The mixture is as self-contradictory as it gets, at least if you happen to belong to the particularly prim version of Christianity that got the film banned and censored for years and years.  For the rest of us, it’s a whole lot of fun, and might reasonably be seen as an attempt to resolve the tension between body and spirit that has been so fundamental to the religion for two thousand years.  That, or DeMille is just a huge hypocrite: he wants us to root for both the Christians and the lions.  The #5 film of 1932.
Cleopatra – A less successful DeMille/Colbert collaboration tells the familiar story of the Egyptian queen and her two Roman lovers.  From the first meeting with Julius Caesar (smuggling herself in a carpet), to his assassination, to her affair with Marc Antony, the film offers few surprises, other than making Cleopatra a much bigger part of the story than she really was (it’s her who has a vision of Caesar’s impending death, for example).  Colbert is fine, but Warren William (as Caesar) and Henry Wilcoxon (as Antony) are pretty dull.  Actually, I’m having trouble remembering any real differences between this version and the Joseph L. Mankiewicz version with Elizabeth Taylor, other than that one is more than twice as long.  For once, someone topped DeMille in the overblowing department.  The #14 film of 1934.
The King of Kings – This film though is much different from its early 60s remake, which was directed by Nicholas Ray with Jesus as a Martin Luther King-style non-violent revolutionary.  HB Warner plays Jesus here, and DeMille plays the Passion story absolutely straight, except for a little prologue where we see Mary Magdalene being all whorey (kind of like in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, except more flapperish).  Other than that, the film follows the various events pretty closely (many of the intertitles are direct quotes from the Gospels): Jesus performs some miracles, enters Jerusalem, gives some speeches, gets betrayed by Judas (who in this version is a monarchist who hopes to make Jesus King and conspires with Caiaphas and the Romans to have him arrested), meets with Pontius Pilate (always a great sequence, and here is no exception as Jesus calmly freaks Pilate out) is crucified and rises again (in Technicolor!).  It’s a heartfelt, moving and reasonable telling of the story, DeMille reportedly went out of his way to tone down the anti-Semitism that had been a fundamental part of Passion stories for centuries.  Though Caiaphas and the rest of the evil Jews are shown to be largely to blame for Jesus’s execution, DeMille makes sure to show that they were not representative of the Jews as a whole.  HB Warner, who played the druggist in It’s a Wonderful Life 20 years later, brings a real otherworldly quality to Jesus, which, along with DeMille giving him a heavenly glow in every scene, manages to be both ridiculous and totally convincing.  The #6 film of 1927.
The Indian Epic – In the late 50s and early 60s, massive costume epics by great old directors like William Wyler (Ben-Hur), Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments), Howard Hawks (The Land of the Pharaohs), Nicholas Ray (The King of Kings), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Cleopatra), Anthony Mann (Spartacus, until he got fired), etc were all the rage.  The trend even spread to Germany, where Fritz Lang returned after almost three decades in Hollywood and managed to top them all with this film, a totally different kind of epic from a totally different kind of filmmaker from the DeMille films I’ve been discussing.  This two-part film (The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are the two titles, based on a novel by his ex-wife Thea von Harbou that had been previously filmed way back in 1921 by director Joe May from a Lang and von Harbou script) is about a German architect who is hired to build a temple for the local maharaja. On the way, he meets a dancer and saves her from a tiger.  He and the dancer, played by Debra Paget, fall in love, but she belongs to a religious order and will be given to the maharaja.  After various intrigues and setup and a sexy dance sequence, the two escape and are recaptured in the desert.  Brought back to the palace, they’re imprisoned just as the architect’s sister and her husband show up.  They in turn try to solve the mystery of her missing brother.  More intrigue, some mazes, another, sexier dance and wild animal attacks follow.  It’s a fantastic film, in the sense that all kinds of crazy things happen (at one point the lovers are saved by a helpful spider) and in that it’s just a tremendous amount of fun.  It’s the ultimate expression of Fritz Lang’s comic book side (and I don’t just mean the cartoonish version of India that probably should never be taken to have any relation to reality), where evil geniuses develop elaborate schemes for power and revenge, while young lovers struggle not merely to understand the nature of the trap they’re in, but that they’re even trapped at all.  The #9 film of 1959.

One thought on “Movie Roundup: Four DeMilles and a Lang Edition

  1. Lang's Indian Films have all the gossamer charm of a Mughal painting. They are greatly under seen, under appreciated movies which should be re-evaluated in light of contemporary filmmakers like Baz Luhrmann who frankly don't hide their patent falsities. Lang always ran the gamut between pulp Expressionism and German Neo-Realism. The Indian movies show that his ex-wife Von Harbou's extremism followed him to his very end. -Joel Silverstein


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