Many Thrills Are Here, Although There Is No Great Differentiation Between Those Films Coming From Heaven And Those Rising From A Hollywood Hell.
This documentary's length is two hours, evenly allotted to Old and New Testament-based cinema. It is the initial effort by writer/director/compiler Phillip Dye and a great deal of merit must be accorded him for his choice of clips despite an at times flippantly written narration that is apt to be disconcerting at times to those serious aficionados of film who might prefer a more purposeful approach, one that would provide information rather than banal attempts at humour. By discounting sporadic politically correct commentary that infests the film from its first frame, a viewer will gain increased enjoyment from footage of such as Charlton Heston being interviewed and discussing his experiences while appearing in Biblical epics (The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur), additionally from insightful remarks delivered by narrator Henry Stephens averring that the Bible's essential value to Hollywood springs from its absorbing stories and plot lines, and since these tales are considered to be in the public domain and therefore necessitate no linking royalty payments, studio minions have had no difficulty in locating plot themes within the Good Book that supply those elements that have become Hollywood staples: sex, violence, torture, and murder. As Cecil B. De Mille, in one his segments as interviewee, states: his own Biblically inspired productions provide ample amounts of sin before redemption follows. The first hour-long segment, that concerning the Old Testament, presents filmed fables off Scriptural pages in concert with their sequence as printed (Genesis followed directly by Exodus, etc.). This method results in the filmed excerpts shifting back and forth between silent and sound movie clips. Interpretations of individual stories from either silent or sound pictures are culturally consistent. Also consistent is the importance by producers placed upon large-scale battles for survival waged between the Forces of Good and of Evil. A chronological method will not be effective, following the four Gospels, for the second part (New Testament) that consists of productions from those chapters that make up Biblical epics during the 1960s (Ben-Hur, The Robe, Quo Vadis,? et Al). There is a raft of Doomsday films, many only modestly budgeted studio offerings,that nonetheless feature ongoing dualistic conflicts between powers stemming from Heaven and Hell. The earliest work sampled is within the Old Testament section of the compilation, the 1907 version of Ben Hur (here labelled "Wounding of the Procurator"), while many others from the silent era are also represented, from both United States and Italian sources. Striking Betty Blythe, lead of the 1921 Queen of Sheba, is seen through stills only, as no copies of the original print are known to exist. However, silent classics from DeMille (Ten Commandments) and D. W. Griffith (Intolerance, Judith of Bethulia) are seen, in addition to performances by such notable silent period players as Theda Bara, Blanche Sweet, H.B. Warner, and Dolores Costello, followed in turn by ample segments showcasing sound era stars Heston, Victor Mature, Hedy LaMarr, Susan Hayward, Richard Gere, Rita Hayworth, Yul Brynner, Gina Lollobrigida, and many others. All of which serve to segue from part I into part II. During that portion, religious transcendence often seems to also include renunciation, but aspects of theology placed aside, there is a goodly amount of cinematic pleasure here to warrant a close watch for film enthusiasts. Highlights include Jay Robinson's insights into the making of The Robe and also its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators; a plethora of New Testament flavoured pictures from both the silent and sound periods; a clip of Emil Jannings performing as Nero in the 1925 Quo Vadis?; a revealing comparison between the 1925 and 1959 productions of Ben-Hur; a description of how some major studios were financially rescued by box office receipts from Biblical epics; the pressure placed upon Griffith to replace the Jewish Pharisees with Roman soldiers as those responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ; use of these films to hopefully counter inroads made in the West by Soviet Communism during the Cold War; the extreme disparity between opinions of most critics with those of audiences for many of these movies; along with many additional and informative subjects. Included are many filmed interviews with veterans of Biblical epics, such as De Mille, Heston, Francis X. Bushman, Ramón Novarro, Robinson, Stephen Boyd, Virginia Mayo, Peter Ustinov and Arnold Schwarzengger. Viewers may call into question the exactitude of the scripted narration, not solely for the mentioned political correctness, but as well for several inaccurate statements, such as a claim that Victor Mature was selected for his role in The Robe as a result of his popularity following his performance in the Abe Polonsky directed Force of Evil. However, Mature did not play in that John Garfield starring work. The writer is obviously alluding to Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death. A general impression gathered from all of the footage other than the interviews might be that studios created a surfeit of religious themed films, most having smart surface mechanics camouflaging weak storytelling. If a theme should relegated to the entire documentary, it would probably refer to the clear bowdlerization that is widespread throughout the range of films on view here, yet it is not difficult to overlook this, as nearly each amendment to its Biblical original is graced with first-class production values. Heston, who is interviewed on screen throughout the film, wraps up the affair by stressing that the 1959 Ben-Hur was made for 14.7 million dollars and that it could not possibly be produced at present because its expense would be overmuch greater. He also reminds viewers that many motion pictures are deemed "classics" because they ensured that actors "played great men", and were based upon outstanding "source material". Those viewers who do not weary of watching brief clips from older films will be saddened when this compendium reaches its end. It is surely a treasure trove of cinematic history.
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