This post is my entry to the Sword and Sandal Blogathon hosted by @DebbieVee of the Moon in Gemini blog
In 1955 would-be makers of epic films faced a dilemma. On the one hand biblical films had suddenly become popular and the studios, desperate to cash in, were trying to make all they could out of the new trend. The new, wider, screens called for more eye-catching images and post-war, the public was ready to move on from film noir's cheap sets and low budgets.
Yet on the other hand, the depiction of Jesus, the Bible's biggest "star", was very much frowned upon. You could show one or two of his limbs (as The Robe and Salome had done two years previously) or have him speak through a boy and a blinding light (as in 1951's Quo Vadis?), but such approaches were rapidly running out of road.
MGM's solution to this dilemma was that instead of trying to tell a story around the margins of Jesus' life, was to focus instead on a story that Jesus told - the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus was, after all, famed as a story teller and this would enable MGM to appeal to the market for biblical stories without even needing to show Jesus himself.
It wasn't the first time the parable had been adapted for the silver screen. Silent portrayals of the story went as far back as Ferdinand Zecca's 1902 version for Pathé and four more adaptations would follow in the next ten years. The parable's short, punchy style was ideally suited to the shorter running times and the imagery of money being wasted on parties and of a loving father running down the road to embrace a wayward son worked well for an art form that was still finding its feet with dialogue.
But as films got longer it presumably became harder to stretch the material out to cover the relevant length and a sub-genre was, to all intents and purposes, lost. As almost forty five years passed, with those early, French, silents seemingly forgotten, MGM must have been pleased with their novel solution. Not only did they spend roughly the same budget as 20th Century Fox spent on The Robe, their advertising for the film boasted how it was "The Biggest Picture Ever Filmed in Hollywood" and how it cost "A fortune to produce!"1
Without the possibility of Jesus as a leading man, MGM opted to boost the movie's star power by giving the headline role to its own star, Lana Turner. The move was not without precedent. Two years earlier Columbia had used another star of film noir, Rita Hayworth, to front Salome; similarly taking advantage of the way the genre/change of cultural context enabled them to display their leading ladies in more revealing costumes without the characters losing respectability. However, whereas Hayworth was backed up by Charles Laughton and Stewart Granger, Turner was cast opposite Louis Calhern and the relatively unknown Edmund Purdom. Furthermore, as the prodigal son of the title, it was Purdom who had the greater screen time and around whom the story was based.
Purdom plays Micah, a Jewish son living in Joppa, who, in the very first scene, clashes with a prominent member of Damascus's pagan religious hierarchy by liberating one of his slaves (James Mitchell's Asham). Returning to Joppa shortly afterwards he instantly falls for Astarte's high priestess, Samarra (Turner). Micah returns home determined to "have" Samarra for himself and persuades his reluctant father to give him a quarter of his wealth.
Whilst this first part of the story drops in a couple of references from the Bible ("For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb...her feet go down to death" Prov 5:3 and, rather more crassly, "I'm hungry enough to devour a whole fatted calf") it also makes critical changes to the story. Micah's rescue of Asham, for example, establishes his exceptional, high sense of morality if also illustrating his carefree attitude to money. Micah is unlikely to prove his respectful enough to make his father ashamed of him. True enough whilst his father is unhappy initially, he quickly accepts his son's decision and reassures him that he'll love him "no matter what". Nevertheless the loss of much of Micah's part of the fortune is due to him being exploited by one of the money lenders from Damascus, the high priest of Baal (Louise Calhern) and perhaps even his new found love.
The effect of all this is does rather cheapen the grace which is the heart and soul of the original story. The son is transformed from one seemingly beyond redemption in the original parable, to someone who is basically a good, if naïaut;ve, person who simply happens to hold some different opinions to his father. It's hard to find anything here that would cause a significant rift between father and son, and indeed there isn't.
From there on things take a turn towards what some see as the ridiculous and others as untrammelled entertainment. It gradually become apparent that Micah is the stereotypical, slightly spoilt, rich, boy; arrogant yet unaware of how he's upsetting people, and clearly having more money than sense. If his behaviour in the opening scene quickly gets his audience on side, such support dissipates scene by scene as the movie progresses, not helped by Purdom's lack of warmth, charisma or chemistry with Turner.
Incensed by how he has been treated Micah begins to lead a rebellion, but its beset by the kind of problems which increasingly feel like the kind of thing that only a rather desperate screenwriter could come up with. So in relatively short succession we get a sacrificial victim willingly diving into a fire pit, a series of people throwing knives which somehow stick awkwardly into their victim's necks, Micah's mute slave being magically restored to life, an play performed by characters wearing bizarre animal headed costumes and a man wrestling with an actual vulture.
The last of those moments certainly deserves to be more famous and not as the surprising missing link between DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949) and Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). I struggle to think of more than one or two films where someone tussles with an avian opponent, let alone where he had to choke a full-sized feathered assassin to death using a recently discarded bone. Director Richard Thorpe had been fired by both Esther Williams and the producers of The Wizard of Oz for being unimaginative. One can only imagine that, stung by the criticism, he determined never to guilty of that particular cinematic crime again.
By the man-vs.-bird's standards, the finale seems rather tame, though it's undoubtedly over the top in its own way. Micah decides to overthrow the leaders of the religions of Baal and Astarte and musters a group of Damascene rebels to help him in his task. They storm Samarra's temple, and throw rocks at her until she dives headlong into the sacrificial fire pit.
Were it not for its over-the-topness it might have been a more shocking moment. Fifties epics had their fill of stories where a Judeo-Christian women meets, and eventually converts, a pagan man (usually Roman) to her faith. Here the roles are reversed and yet whilst Micah manages to get Samarra to compromise her own faith enough to sleep with him, it is not enough to convert to his Judaism.
Why did the filmmakers decide not to give Samarra the redemption the rest of the film points towards? Is it just that Micah's own compromised faith is not strong enough to transform her belief? Or might it be that because his faith was Jewish (i.e. not fully Christian) that they decided it was not powerful enough to convert her? Maybe it was that as a sexually impure women they judged her beyond redemption despite the (presumably) sexually experienced male leads of Quo Vadis? and The Robe being reached by the sexual purity of the women they loved? Whatever their reason it rather mutes Micah's overthrow of the oppressive Baalan/Astartean regime and sees him return to his father with his tail between his legs despite what would be, in other biblical epics, a significant victory.
In some ways this is probably just as well - after all, had Micah ridden home triumphant on the back of the grateful Damascans the "father I have sinned against you and against God" speech might have sounded a little hollow. Yet ultimately the film has two endings, neither of which is really particularly satisfactory: the victory in Damascus is shorn of the triumph over adversity that seeing Samarra rescued (and on the film's terms, converted) would have provided; the shocking forgiveness and redemption of the biblical ending is stunted by the lack of a truly wayward son. Ultimately his father's unconditional acceptance ends up being merely more or less normal behaviour rather than an outrageous and unexpected act of forgiveness by an ever-loving father.
Growing up in a church home I knew about the prodigal years before I knew what being prodigal actually was. Even today its rare to hear the word in a context unrelated to Jesus' story. And it's hard to escape the feeling that a director like DeMille might have made rather more entertaining and satisfying film out of his lead's infamous prodigality and subsequent repentance than Thorpe does here. Perhaps The Prodigal's biggest failure is that it took the "Son" out of the film's title, but the "Prodigal" out of the actual movie.