• 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


    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Jean Simmons (1929-2010)

    I was sorry to hear of the death of Jean Simmons, the actress who had as good a claim as any to the title of "queen of the epic film". Her most famous role is perhaps playing Mrs Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick's pre-Christ Roman epic, but she also featured in two other Roman-Christian films Androcles and the Lion and The Robe. But aside from these forays into ancient history she often seemed to find herself playing pious women. In Guys and Dolls she played a Salvation Army missionary, in Elmer Gantry she starred as revivalist Sister Sharon Falconer, and whilst her role in Big Country is not explicitly religious, her morality, would certainly have been interpreted as such at the time. I've not yet seen Black Narcissus, but it too centres on religious women (though Simmons is not one of them, initially at least).

    Babington and Evans make some interesting remarks about Simmons. In their view, at the heart of the biblical epic is a tension between morality and sexuality - hence why they consider Victor Mature, and not Heston, the name "indelibly linked with the Biblical Epic", Heston is just too pure - and Simmons was a particularly strong example of this tension.1 Whilst her attractiveness and sexuality were always apparent, an undoubtedly strong morality seemed to run through the majority of her roles.

    For all her biblical movies, the film of hers I hold dearest is Big Country - the only time she ever teamed up with Charlton Heston (who had starred in a Bible film or two himself). It's one of my favourite westerns. The magnificent landscapes live up to the billing (even if the script's self-referential nods to the title get a bit much), and the story and the performances are magnificent. And that fight scene...

    Ultimately, it seems to me at least, Simmons suffered a little for her similarity to Audrey Hepburn. Simmons was there first of course - Black Narcissus was 1947 and it was already her tenth film - but somehow Hepburn had more star appeal. The result however was that Simmons continued to have a successful career even as she got older. She starred on stage in Sondheim's A Little Night Music, and in a steady flow of TV roles. She was still working in 2004 (aged 75) when she provided the voice of Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle - a role significant enough to mean that many news outlets reporting her death have described her as Howl's Moving Castle actress Jean Simmons.

    Simmons was married twice (to Stewart Granger and director Richard Brooks) and had two daughters - Tracy Granger (b.1957) and Kate Brooks (b.1961). She was awarded an OBE in 2003.

    1 - Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, "Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema", Manchester University Press ND, 1993, p.227


    • At 2:12 am, May 30, 2011, Anonymous beverly said…

      i am looking for the title of one of jean simmons' movies where she played a maid or nurse who murdered her lover's wife by poisoning her. he later killed himself by accident with the same poison....there was a timeline...she was to return to save him but was taken by the police for questioning. it was set in the 1800's i think.

    • At 12:40 am, June 15, 2011, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for your comment and apologies for the slow reply. I'm afraid I don't know. I hope someone else was able to help you.



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