• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, April 27, 2007

    The Silver Chalice

    I've always been in two minds about whether to watch his film debut The Silver Chalice. On the one hand it's a combination of two of my strongest three film passions – Paul Newman and biblical epics. Yet on the other, the famous story of Newman offering a full page apology for the film in the New York Times1 weighed heavily on my mind.

    Despite Newman dubbing it "the worst film of the fifties", I recently decided to ignore his advice and get hold of a copy.

    Technically The Silver Chalice isn't a bible film at all. It doesn't even contain enough incident from the New Testament to class as a Jesus Cameo film such as Ben Hur or The Robe. It was, however, clearly inspired by (perhaps the financial success of) that latter film. Both productions are sword and sandal epics based on successful novels about a young man becoming a Christian as a result of his pursuit of an early Christian relic. In this case, rather than the robe of Jesus, it is the cup from the Last Supper, and rather than trying to destroy the relic, Basil (Newman) is actually trying to protect it.

    The film was widely panned on its release, and continues to be ridiculed today. Yet I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't quite as bad as I'd been led to believe. Perhaps my expectations had been lowered so greatly that nothing could have been so bad. Perhaps I just find any film in this genre hard to hate. Perhaps I've just seen a lot of films that make it look like a masterpiece. It is undoubtedly poor, but, that said, I can think of a glut of films that I would be keen to avoid ahead of this one.

    Aside from the usual Roman-Christian-film plot of pagan-finds-faith falling for beautiful-Christian-girl, the film also features a couple of notable sub-plots. Basil's travels are supposedly driven by his quest to find the third witness to his adoption (after the other two attempt to disinherit him), but the story fizzles out as the film progresses. Likewise, when Basil is reunited with his childhood sweetheart Helena (Virginia Mayo) a love-triangle plot begins to emerge, but again, it's never really followed through.

    However, worse than this is the way in which the writers seem to just abandon the main plot. Basil's commission to craft a chalice to protect the holy cup is set against the efforts of Simon the Magician's quest to destroy it. Their respective tasks take them both to Rome, home of Simon Peter.

    Eventually the Magician's followers find Peter's house and steal the chalice. Yet anyone thinking this might lead to a thrilling climax will be sorely disappointed. Basil gives up his half hearted chase all too easily, yet Peter doesn't even seem the least bit concerned. Instead the film closes with a ridiculous speech where he prophecies the return of the cup in what is clearly meant to be the twentieth century:
    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 in that age when man holds lightning in his hands and rides the sky as Simon the Magician strove to do it will be needed more than it is needed now.
    This is probably the worst piece of dialogue ever recorded in a bible film, and that is up against some pretty tough competition. It's a terrible, ill-considered manner in which to end the film, managing to leave the audience feeling cheated even despite the very poor quality of the film up to that point.

    Whilst there's no appearance from Jesus himself, a number of other New Testament characters are used in the story. The chief of which is Simon the Magician from Acts 8:9-24. This story is recounted by Simon himself. It has made him bitter and drives him to want to destroy all Christians and crush the holy cup in Peter's presence. Simon (played by Jack Palance) never gets to confront Peter. He dies after convincing himself that he can fly unaided and falls to his death from the top of a tower. This incident recalls a similar incident in the (non-biblical) Acts of Peter, only with significant variations. In that version of events Simon can fly, but he is brought crashing to the ground after a prayer from Peter.

    The events of the last supper are also recounted. There are also fleeting appearances by Luke, Nero and Joseph of Arimathea, who is the grandfather of Basil's love interest Deborra (Pier Angelini).

    At least some of the criticisms of the film are unfair. For all Newman's self-deprecating remarks about his performance it's not that bad – although certainly not up to the standard of his work elsewhere. The sets are also often criticised, but they actually have a certain charm. Unlike most roman epics this one does not occur in palaces and temples. The drabness of the sets is, in some ways, fitting, and there are a few interesting choices from time to time.

    Finally there are some agreeable moments in Franz Waxman's score. Whilst it doesn't compare to the score he wrote for Rear Window earlier that same year, it's certainly one of the strongest aspects of the film.

    So all in all, Ed Wood fans can rest easy. Silver Chalice doesn't quite live up to its hype.

    Edit 7/1/18 - Richard Lindsay has written a piece on this film at the Pop Theology blog.

    1 – This has also been attributed to the Hollywood Reporter, Variety and just the "trade ads" in general".



    • At 7:12 pm, January 26, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Watching the movie now on TMC.... thanks for the well-written review

    • At 3:59 am, June 09, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      I think the reason they ended it like that, is because the real Chalice has been lost, and has not been found to this day. I think it was significant. The sets were cheesy, but other than that, I found the film enjoyable.


    • At 1:39 am, January 28, 2016, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      The sets are terrible, but other than that there is a lot I like about the film and watch it whenever it comes on TCM.

    • At 6:52 pm, October 24, 2023, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Honestly it is completely unlikely that there is a "silver chalice." At best the last supper was thrown together and the wine cups were probably earthenware.

    • At 8:48 am, November 06, 2023, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Ha! Yes I totally agree. Biblical epics loved a good hokey relic story though (and I guess lots of other people before and since!).


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