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A Greek artisan is commissioned to cast the cup of Christ in silver and sculpt around its rim the faces of the disciples and Jesus himself. He travels to Jerusalem and eventually to Rome to complete the task. Meanwhile, a nefarious interloper is trying to convince the crowds that he is the new Messiah by using nothing more than cheap parlor tricks. Written by
This film received a huge "premiere" in Saranac Lake, NY. The premiere was a "prize" to the town that sold the most "Christmas Seals" in a countrywide competition. The weekend consisted of a parade with the director and stars of the movie (with the exception of Paul Newman, who did not attend), and a gala premiere at the Pontiac Theatre in Saranac Lake hosted by Art Linkletter. See more »
(at around 1 min) Basil and Deborra enter the set from behind the cut, painted, and layered scenery, completely spoiling the intended trompe l'oeil effect of rooftop domes. See more »
[last lines, Peter is speaking about the Silver Chalice to Basil and Deborra, and he utters his lines in the tone of a heroic speech]
It will be restored, but for years and for hundreds of years, it will lie in darkness; where, I know not. When it is brought out into the light again there will be great cities, and mighty bridges and towers higher than the tower of Babel. It will be a world of evil and long bitter wars. In such a world as that the little cup will look very lonely. But it may be ...
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The historical epics which were so popular in the fifties and early sixties frequently had a religious theme. Some were based, not always faithfully, on stories from the Bible ("The Ten Commandments", "Solomon and Sheba", "Esther and the King"), while others tried to convey a Christian message indirectly. Thus the central character of "Spartacus" is treated as a metaphorical Christ-figure, and "The Egyptian" draws parallels between Christianity and the monotheistic religion of Atenism which briefly flourished under the heretical Pharaoh Akhnaten. "The Silver Chalice" is one of a number of films which deal with the early days of the Christian church and its persecution by the Roman emperors. The stories told by such films were normally fictitious, but were set against a background of historical fact. The most famous film of this type is "Ben Hur", but others include "The Robe" and its sequel "Demetrius and the Gladiators", "Quo Vadis?" and "The Fall of the Roman Empire".
The plot of "The Silver Chalice" is essentially similar to that of "The Robe", which was made the previous year. Both concerned a sacred relic of Christ which is being sought by the enemies of Christianity. In "The Robe" this relic is the robe which Christ wore at His crucifixion; in "The Silver Chalice" it is the cup which He used at the Last Supper. (This cup has become known as the Holy Grail, especially in the context of the Arthurian legends, but this name is not used in the film).
The central character is Basil, a young Greek craftsman from Antioch who is wrongly sold into slavery, rescued by Saint Luke, and commissioned by him to make a silver chalice to house the sacred cup. The chalice is to have the faces of the disciples and Jesus himself sculpted around its rim, and Basil travels to Jerusalem and to Rome to complete this task. The cup, however, is being sought by Simon Magus, the villain of the story, who hopes to found his own religion and who uses conjuring tricks in an attempt to convince people that he is the new Messiah. The film also deals with Basil's relationships with two women, the pagan prostitute Helena, who is also Simon's mistress, and the Christian convert Deborah, the granddaughter of Joseph of Arimathea.
"The Silver Chalice" was Paul Newman's first film, but seldom can someone who went on to become a major star have made so unpromising a debut. Newman is totally wooden and unconvincing; there is no hint here of the great actor he was to become only a few years later. He himself apparently loathed the film; when it was later broadcast on television in 1966, he is said to have taken out an advertisement in a Hollywood trade paper apologising for his performance, and asking people not to watch it. Predictably, this achieved precisely the opposite of what he was hoping for; his advertisement aroused interest in the film and the broadcast received unusually high ratings. He even allegedly called the film "the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s", even though this was the decade that brought us the likes of Ed Wood's "Plan 9 from Outer Space".
To be fair to him, his is by no means the only below par acting performance in the film. Probably the best comes from Jack Palance, a splendidly over-the-top villain as Simon, and the teenage Natalie Wood is charming as Helena in the days when she was still an innocent young slave-girl. Virginia Mayo, however, her good looks hidden behind some weird make-up, fails to make the older Helena sufficiently seductive or alluring. Pier Angeli looks lovely as Deborah, but her acting is hampered by her thick foreign accent.
The acting is not the only problem with the film. It is overlong, the plot is often confusing, and the dialogue frequently has the artificial, stilted flavour common to many Biblical epics. (The scriptwriters seem to have imagined that a film on a religious theme needed to be written in something resembling the language of the King James Bible). The stylised, minimalist set designs would be more suited to a modernist theatrical production than they would to a major feature film; this sort of Brechtian minimalism seems particularly inappropriate in an epic, a genre which has always relied on visual splendour.
One reviewer says that the film is "no worse than numerous other Biblical epics", but in my experience epics vary greatly in quality. "The Silver Chalice" is not only inferior to the classics of the genre ("The Ten Commandments", "Ben-Hur", "Spartacus") but also to second-division examples such as "The Egyptian" or "Demetrius and the Gladiators". I would even rank it lower than mediocre third-raters like "Samson and Delilah" or "Esther and the King". About the only one it can compare with is that dreadful John Wayne vehicle "The Conqueror". It is perhaps appropriate that the hero of this fourth-rate film is called Basil. "The Silver Chalice" is to epic movies what Fawlty Towers is to hotels. 4/10
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