• 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


    Sunday, October 28, 2018

    Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

    I wanted to jot a few notes down on Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) while they were still fresh in my mind as I think I may want to reference them at some point. Obviously Hedy has long been someone I've been interested in due to her role as Delilah in DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949), so I've known for quite a while about her role in the invention of channel hopping - the pivotal technology behind secure communications technology such as wi-fi, bluetooth and a host of military technology.

    Lamarr's invention came about during the early 1940s. Born in Austria to a Jewish family the documentary tells us that her father died from a heart attack due to the stress of the way Hitler was treating Jewish people. Lamarr herself was married to a munitions magnate at this point and whilst Hitler was apparently never a guest at her and her husband's Austrian mansion - supposedly due to Lamarr's race - they did host Mussolini. However, the marriage was loveless and Lamarr, sensing the change in the air hatched a plot where she hired a look-a-like maid, sewed her best jewels into her overcoat and one evening disappeared into the night in order to flee to London. This almost sounds like a movie plot in and of itself.

    At that point in time Louis B. Meyer was securing potential actor talent and just so happened to be in London. Lamarr already had acting experience - having already gained notoriety for her performed in Ekstase (1933) which featured both nude scenes and an implied orgasm scene. Lamarr turned down his initial offer, but quickly booked herself on the same boat to New York as Meyer and made sure she caught his eye. He signed her up for £500 per week.

    However, despite having signed her up he then refused to give her any decent parts, supposedly because he still judged her for her role in Ekstase despite he protestations that he had been duped. Eventually though she begged her way into a relatively small role in Boom Town (1940) and her career suddenly took off. Not only was she working crazily hard as an actress she was causing a revolution over partings which saw a number of other prominent movie stars adopting a Hedy-style centre parting.

    At this stage America had still not joined the Second World War, but Hedy's mum was desperately trying to escape from the growing Holocaust back in Austria. A combination of her mother's plight, and the sinking of ship carrying numerous allied children, made her decide to do something about it. Her father had already encouraged her mental skills development, by explaining to her how various devices worked. Lamarr had her greatest success after she met composer George Antheil and the two of them formed a strong, and indeed productive, friendship. Around this time she was also friendly with Howard Hughes and claimed to have helped with his inventions too.

    The documentary suggests that Lamarr and Antheil's breakthrough with channel hopping (wifi had two sources of inspiration. The first was the invention (by someone else) of a new remote control that enabled people to skip from one channel to another. The other was the player piano which played music by recognising the holes in a piece of paper. Lamar realised that if both the emitter and the receiver of the radio signal had a pre-determined pattern of when to switch channel then they could use radio signals to remote control the missile right up to the point of contact. Whilst the invention was patented and adopted by the Inventor's Council, the navy rejected the technology and it sat unloved in a drawer for several years. Instead Hedy was recruited to entertain the troops and to sell Bonds. There was a strong sense in the documentary that Lamarr wanted to be judged based on her ability and intellect, but she found that people (men mainly) could not get past people judging her solely for her good looks.

    Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the documentary was the way it largely skipped over his success with DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949), The film was the second highest grossing film of the entire 1940s, only losing out to Gone With the Wind (1939). Today it's the film that Lamarr is best remembered for. Perhaps her children and other relatives, whose contributions make a significant to the documentary in question, did not recall anything about it. Nevertheless it seems a little odd that it was largely overlooked.

    The success of Samson and Delilah enabled Lamarr to produce her own independent film. This was certainly not something her studio was happy with, and the box-office failure of the epic film she made gave her significant financial problems. She married again (it's implied it was for the money) and moved to Texas and then to Colorado where she also designed a ski resort. (Aspen) in line with those she knew from Austria. Her final claim to innovation came in the field of plastic surgery. She first had surgery in her 40s and made numerous suggestions to her surgeons, some of which had not been done in quite the same way before, yet went on to become popular. Sadly later facial surgeries left her (relatively) disfigured and she became something of a recluse. Fortunately she did give an interview late in life with reporter Fleming Meeks, who did nothing with the tapes for a long time. Both the tapes and Meeks' comments comprise a significant chunk of the film which ends by talking about how she began to get a small amount of recognition for her frequency hopping invention in the 1990s - the decade leading leading to her death in 2000. The film more or less ends with Lamaar reading out the words of Kent M. Keith's Paradoxical Commandments.

    Overall the documentary was pretty good, with plenty for those who have only a brief understanding of Lamarr's even if it's a shame it doesn't given more time to Samson and Delilah.

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    Sunday, October 14, 2018

    Jésus de Nazareth (1942)

    Having posted a week or two ago about the earliest remaining Jesus film I thought this would be as good a time as any to review a film I've been wanting to cover for some time, the earliest Mexican Jesus film Jésus de Nazareth (1942)

    The film was made in the aftermath of Mexico's Cristerio War - a Catholic uprising against the anti-Catholic restrictions brought in President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-1928). Whilst the war ended in 1929, the year after Calles left office, the restrictions on public expressions of faith were not really relaxed until the late 1930s. In 1940 a professed Catholic President Manuel Ávila Camacho came to power and called for filmmakers to deal with religious subjects in their work (Bermea). The film's director José Díaz Morales had worked as screenwriter and director in Spain before fleeing the civil war and emigrating to Mexico (Perez).

    Read through this lens, the film's selection of material and portrayal of the religious and political establishments Jesus faces is fascinating. For a start the film omits the stories of Jesus' birth and resurrection. The film both starts and ends accompanied by the tune of the Hallelujah chorus, which supplies a religiosity when the script does not dare. Jesus arrives as a man - initially seen only as a poor reflection on the water rather than a sold figure - in the presence of John the Baptist and when the "voice from Heaven" is heard affirming Jesus after his baptism the camera is in close up such that it's impossible to judge if this is a public pronouncement heard by everyone, or just a voice in Jesus' head. Similarly the film's final shot, following straight after the crucifixion is a medium shot of Jesus. Whilst this Jesus is alive and certainly not the dust-covered peasant who has been wandering round the countryside, it's unclear if this more pristine Jesus is a resurrected Jesus, an ascended Jesus, or just Jesus as portrayed by the church.

    Equally ambiguous is the portrayal of the miracles. There are but two, but then this is a relatively short film. It's 85 minutes include several minutes of introduction by an official church figure leaving just 80 minutes for Jesus birth, ministry and death. These two, the healing of a blind man and the raising of Lazarus reflect the film's preference for John's gospel (which is the only one to include the raising of Lazarus and also contains healing of a blind man amongst its few signs). Even more significant, perhaps, is a moment when Jesus, surrounded by the lame and the blind turns his attention instead to the woman caught in adultery. As he does so the disciples move in so that Jesus is physically separated from the sick in order to deal with the issue of injustice before him.

    The films portrayal of the political and religious figures is also interesting. Initially Jesus' ministry is not particularly public  there are lots of interiors or scenes in quiet village squares, but only when Jesus moves to Jerusalem and his polemics become more large scale do the authorities become uncomfortable. Even today in Mexico outdoor worship is only permitted in exceptional circumstances and with governmental permission. At first it is the Jewish religious authorities that are concerned by him - and there is a certain anti-clericalism about them. Only when they have already tried Jesus and found him guilty do the secular Roman authorities get involved.

    The portrayal of the Jewish leaders is, sadly, fairly anti-Semitic. In addition to them being blamed for Jesus' death, Caiaphas the chief priest is also depicted with a hat resembling a devil-like pair of horns. This matches the similarly troubling portrayal of Judas, visually resembling stereotypical negative images of Jewish people than any of Jesus' other disciples, most notably as he rubs his hands in glee at the prospect of selling his master off for 30 pieces of silver. The scene where he objects to a woman anointing Jesus also shows him voicing his objection not publicly as in the text, but in a whisper to a Pharisee - again linking his betrayal with his greed.

    However, that scene is one of a number that have a positive role for women. Indeed whilst the film only contains three miracles, it does display a strong preference for the episodes from the gospels that involving female characters. This is notable even from the credits where Adriana Lamar gets top billing as Mary Magdalene, even ahead of the Argentine actor José Cibrián who was playing the role of Jesus. Lamar's Magdalene does not feature particularly prominently, but it is notable that she is a wealthy woman and significantly not the woman caught in adultery. When she witnesses Jesus letting the little children come to him she is converted and, as with DeMille's film fifteen years earlier Mary's conversion results in her immediately covering herself up.

    In addition to the scenes involving Magdalene, there is a lengthy scene of the woman at the Samaritan well, as well as separate roles for Mary and Martha, Veronica, an unnamed courtesan, and the woman caught in adultery. Furthermore, whilst most of the stations on the road to the cross are omitted, Jesus does stop to deliver the warning to the woman of Jerusalem from Luke 23 and his mother and Magdalene are shown prominently at his crucifixion.

    What none of this captures is the beauty of the compositions, the startling black and white imagery and the film's quietly stripped down sincerity. The woman at the well scene is particularly striking with its graceful establishing shot and its combination of close-ups and a variety of shots as the conversation develops. And the film's numerous close-ups are all the more engaging thanks to  Cibrián sensitive but restrained performance. He is not the classically good looking hero that has typified in so many of the American Jesus' that have followed. Instead there's compassion and a deep mournfulness in the eyes of this introverted Jesus. The clearing of the temple scene is another gem: an opening tracking shot that captures four or five brief stories in a wordless thirty seconds; a patient pacing that focuses on the sounds of the animals rather than the human activity; and the moment that Cibrián's Jesus goes from tenderly stroking a tethered lamb to transforming the rope that bound him into a whip to scatter its abusers.

    In a way much of Morales' film draws on DeMille but it also points the way towards Pasolini. And whilst the revolutionary edge of that film is a little more restrained here it's quietness and restraint make for a more thoughtful approach to the subject than so many that would follow in its wake.
    Peréz, Aurelio (2012) "El Evangelio según el cine" at zocalo.com.mx. Available online


    Friday, October 05, 2018

    Solomon and Sheba (1959) - part 2 - Parallels and Politics

    This is the second in a series of posts looking at the 1959 epic Solomon and Sheba. You can read them all here.

    In the last post in this series I touched on the way Israel is depicted as believing her God to be far more upright, moral and decent than the way the film actually portrays him. In order to understand this contrast more fully it is necessary to undertake a fuller exploration of the portrayal of Israel in the film. As with many epics of the era the filmmakers attempt to draw parallels between the Hebrew nation and 1950s America.

     This is particularly notable at the start of the film as Adonijah (George Sanders) presumptively declares himself David's successor, only for the king to emerge from his coma just long enough to recommend that Solomon should succeed him instead. As David (Finlay Currie) explains to his, now seething, eldest son, "Above all others, the King must respect and obey the law. In proclaiming yourself, you have violated the law of God and of man". As Forshey observes
    "This is more an American ideal than a Hebrew one, and reflects the opinion that the rule of law should not be hereditary. According to this point of view, the will of God requires that the most qualified should rule." 4
    Yet even this intervention wasn't sufficiently American to satisfy the screenwriters, so Solomon's claim to the throne is boosted by a democratic election, of sorts, by the elders of the twelve tribes. It is they who consent to David's choice of successor, Solomon, in preference to his older brother Adonijah. Whilst Solomon is technically a monarch, his position is very much dependent on the votes from these representatives, thus resolving the inherent tension in portraying a firmly monarchic nation as a forerunner of modern (democratic) United States. Furthermore
    "King David's federalistic, melting-pot deathbed speech" has the outgoing monarch insisting "on a 'union' of the tribes 'welded together in an indestructible oneness'. The first equivalence sees two God-inspired democratic nations fighting to free the world from slavery. The second parallels two 'chosen' people formed out of frontier, both loking (sic.) nostalgically back to those origins from present urban corruptions."5
    Having squeezed ancient Israel into the mould of twentieth century America sufficiently well, the film can then dwell on the most important moral values the two nations supposedly have in common. Thus Israel is frequently portrayed as a champion of progressive values. Their enemies in the surrounding nations deride them for it ("Peace is for women and children") and see their championing of freedom from slavery for all is seen as a critical weakness.

    When one of Sheba's advisers tells her about the Israelite's "one god who teaches that all men are equal and none are slaves" she initially dismisses it as "a foolish idea" but then reflects that perhaps she ought not to dismiss this threat so lightly adding "yet... if that idea were to take hold of the people, the Queen of Sheba would soon come crashing down from her throne". "As would all other absolute monarchs" her aide suggests.

    For a film that tries so hard to milk the success of 1956's The Ten Commandments (even recruiting one of its leading stars) this conversation seems curiously contradictory. Superficially it almost appears like it is the idea of democracy/freedom for all that is being attacked. However, the word "absolute" is no doubt intended to be pivotal. It acts as a way of highlighting the 'superiority' of the proto-American Israelites over the never-really-depicted Shebans. The Israel of this film is a quasi-democratic theocracy (or at least 'one nation under God') and so, by implication, is not running the risk that everything will "come crashing down" by banishing slavery.

    However, this idea of Israel being a place free from slavery is not historically accurate. Far from ending slavery, the Law of Moses legislates for it. Furthermore, it is difficult to find an Israelite monarch whose actions did more to increase and promote slavery - even at the cost of dividing his kingdom after his death - than Solomon. Whilst Solomon's father became king partly because God chose him and anointed him, but also because, eventually, the 12 tribes in some way consented to
    him being their leader. In contrast, the reign of Solomon himself seems to have been far more authoritarian.

    Nevertheless the Israel of the film is portrayed as anti-slavery which ultimately only serves to highlight the gulf between the god that Israel believes itself to be following and the god that is depicted by the film itself. I will expand on that gulf in the next post in this series in a few weeks.

    4 - Forshey, Gerald  E.,  "American  Religious  and  Biblical  Spectaculars"  (Westport,  CT.  Praeger  Press:  1992),  p.78.

    5 - Babbington,  Bruce  and  Evans,  Peter  William.  "Biblical  Epics:  Sacred  Narrative  in  the  Hollywood  Cinema",  (Manchester:  Manchester  University  Press)  1993,  p.55.

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