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STUDIO: Warner Home
RATED: Not rated
In 1953, The Robe, the first feature film shot in Cinemascope, was released. Its enormous success inspired over ten years’ worth of widescreen ‘sword-and-sandal’ epics. They varied widely in quality and ambition, from Steve Reeves’ silly Hercules films to masterpieces like Spartacus and Ben-Hur. This box set from Warners, part of their new Cult Camp Classics series*, represents the middle range, more or less.
“Camp” is a deceptively complex word. We all know what it means, but can we articulate what we know? By the simplest contemporary definition, something becomes ‘camp’ (adj) when it outlives the context from which it arose: clothes and hairstyles become dated, social norms are reevaluated as chauvinistic or racist, et cetera. However, the word appears to have originated specifically as a gay term: a ‘camper’ (n, from the French) was a person given to flamboyant, theatrical posturing. The two interpretations share a common thread: irony. But as Susan Sontag noted, one is naïve, the other deliberate.
Bringing this back to the topic at hand, I personally think it’s short-sighted and, well, rude to ridicule old movies just for being old. Nevertheless, when confronted (as I am here) with evidence of an entire genre of mainstream movies in which the men wore shorter skirts than the women, I have to ask: What were they thinking?
The discs are packaged in full-size Amaray cases, and are also available individually.
Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice), Edmond Purdom (Ator, the Fighting Eagle), Louis Calhern (Duck Soup), James Mitchell (Oklahoma!), Taina Elg (Les Girls)
The New Testament tale of the Prodigal Son serves here as the springboard for a creepily unapologetic celebration of religious intolerance. Young Hebrew doctor Micah (Purdom) travels to the big city, shacks up with a pretty pagan priestess (Turner) and gets a lot of people killed. But his father still welcomes him home so it’s okay.
"I don’t care if it is the Olympics. I’m not running in this thing."
This is the best-looking film in the set, and not just because Ms. Turner chose to expose as much of her creamy flesh as the censors would allow: Technicolor always wins over Warnercolor. The fact that journeyman director Richard Thorpe achieved cinematic results comparable to those of the more gifted directors represented in this set reveals just how hard it is to bring an individual vision to projects of this scale.
On Track 2, Dr. Casper reasserts himself as my least favorite professional DVD commentator. I don’t know what it is, but the guy just bugs hell out of me. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s clearly reading from prepared text; maybe it’s the way he constantly ends up talking about subjects unrelated to the movie while important things are going on; maybe it’s just that he’s been miked too close and I can hear his lips smacking as he talks. Boo.
The first Condor Breeding Program could have used some ground rules.
4 out of 10
Jack Hawkins (No Highway In the Sky), Joan Collins (The Bitch), Dewey Martin (The Thing From Another World), Sydney Chaplin (Satan’s Cheerleaders)
2560 BC. The Egyptian monarch Khufu (Hawkins), his battles behind him, devotes his remaining years —and the resources of his empire— to the construction of the massive pyramid that will contain his tomb. As for his fortune, the loot from his many campaigns? He’s taking it with him, to the consternation of his predatory trophy wife Nellifer (Collins).
"Going to the Stones concert?"
By the mid-1950s, director Howard Hawks (Scarface, His Girl Friday, Red River) had been making movies —great ones— for over thirty years. Perhaps it was thoughts regarding his own legacy that drew him to this uncharacteristic project? Or did he intend the increasingly paranoid Pharaoh to reflect his onetime producer and friend, Howard Hughes? Certainly, the businessman in him saw the current popularity of historical spectacles as a trend worth jumping on.
The result was one of his rare box-office flops, and it’s easy to see why: What fun is a film where everyone spends their lives working towards their own deaths? Philosophically, it’s provocative, and the theoretical logistics of pyramid construction are intriguing, but is this entertainment? Not so much. Hawks took the next three years off from filmmaking, then rebounded with Rio Bravo, perhaps the perfect monument to his life’s work, in 1959.
“Khuf me? No, my friend. Khuf U.”
Bogdanovich augments his commentary with vintage tape of his own interviews with Hawks, but the content is still pretty thin: he repeats certain observations several times. Film Nerd Drinking Game, anyone?
Girl-watchers, please note: Ms. Collins, spray-painted brown, doesn’t show up ‘til halfway through the movie. Guy-watchers: Mr. Chaplin (Charlie’s son) is surprisingly effective as Collins’ conspiring lover.
6 out of 10
Rory Calhoun (Hell Comes to Frogtown), Lea Massari (L’Avventura), Georges Marchal (Belle de Jour)
The Great Pyramid of Giza was the First Wonder of the Ancient World. We now jump ahead to the Sixth: In 280 BC, a vacationing Athenian (Calhoun) finds himself entangled in a violent revolution on a Greek island with a really big statue.
The Italians are no strangers to spectacle: indeed, they had produced one of the first epic films, Cabiria, way back in 1914. It was natural for them to get in on the ’50s epic boom, and to bring extraordinary enthusiasm and inventiveness with them.
This movie is notable for exactly two things: the full-scale set representing the upper portion of the Colossus itself, and the professional debut of a young director named Sergio Leone. The story is incomprehensible (the film was originally 12 minutes longer), but with a fight every ten minutes it’s never boring. Fans of Spaghetti Westerns won’t find much evidence of Leone’s later brilliance, aside from some clever camerawork in an underground labyrinth. Ray Harryhausen enthusiasts may recognize some of the Spanish locations.
Leone biographer Frayling does an excellent job of setting the scene and identifying significant aspects of the production, even pointing out notable actors as they appear onscreen. One of the better yak tracks I’ve heard lately.
The trailer includes footage from at least one deleted sequence.
*Wait. Cult Camp? Where I come from, that means something else. Just so long as they don’t serve grape Flavor-Aid at lunch…