• 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, March 01, 2019

    The Sword and the Cross (1958)

    La spada e la croce (The Sword and the Cross, 1958) was a vehicle for Canadian actor Yvonne De Carlo who took the leading role of Mary Magdalene, in a film which involves Jesus a great deal more than many such Jesus cameo films, yet still keeps him away from the glare of the camera.1

    De Carlo came to prominence in the 1940s, in a series of films for Universal Pictures which hinted at her future participation in peplum films, but were set in different eras. Her breakthrough film, Salome, Where She Danced (1945) contains the name of a famous (biblical) object of the male gaze, and in two of her next three films  Song of Scheherazade (1947) and Slave Girl (1947) she played a dancer in revealing costumes. It's strange, then, that one of her first scenes in The Ten Commandments (1956) features her sitting out whilst her sisters, Jethro's daughters, dance to impress Moses. Heston's Moses is initially smitten by De Carlo's Sephora, but he seemingly loses interest in her from the moment he meets God at the burning bush. In between she made two fine noirs with two of the genre's great directors, Brute Force (1947) with Jules Dassin and Criss Cross (1949) with Robert Siodmak.

    In many ways, De Carlo's role in La spada is the mirror of her role in Ten Commandments. Here though it is the woman, Mary who is the focus, and she who has the life-changing supernatural encounter which leads to the effective, though not actual, rejection of previous partners in favour of a more spiritual life. However, in contrast to Heston's Moses, De Carlo's Mary does not immediately change track in a Damascene style conversion. Instead her experience is closer to that of Anthony Quinn's eponymous hero in Barabbas (1961) - the encounter is significant, meaningful, but initially troubling.Only later does it become apparent that some sort of metanoia (change of heart) has occurred.

    Magdalene's initial response to the Jesus movement is mockery. Whilst her sister and brother (Martha and Lazarus) are followers, she torments one of his male followers by having him tied up, dressing provacatively and dancing before him in an attempt to "convince him that sin is more amusing than virtue". When she fails, she rips off the mask that her paramour/provider Anan has given her, and when her true face still fails to arouse the man, the camera defocuses on her face and she flees the room.

    It's then she hears Jesus' voice, accompanied by esoteric sounds. Going to her balcony she sees that a ghostly vision of Jesus has materialised, his head hidden in the shadows. The encounter prompts her to scold Anan "Don't touch me. No-one must ever touch me again", but she is filled with fear rather than love or faith. Mary remains in this troubled, haunted state, and resolves to go to the temple to pray, though what kind of conversion has occurred is somewhat ambiguous.

    It's there that she is caught by the mob and becomes the woman accused of adultery from John 8. Indeed the film conflates various biblical women into the figure of Mary Magdalene. In addition to the unnamed woman of John 8, she is also combined with the sister of Martha, and the woman who anoints Jesus' feet. Given the previous scene where Mary at the encouragement of a powerful man dances to add torment a holy man, she also fulfils the role of  Salome.

    Jesus, of course, intervenes. The moment in question is shot from what initially appears to be his point-of-view, but then he walks into shot. Again we see his body, but not his head. But anyone thinking that this encounter will propel her to a sold faith would be mistaken. When Martha mentions Jesus to her, she reacts "The Nazarene! Enough of this talk of the Nazarene". Martha's insistence that Jesus is the messiah only prompts Mary's self-loathing to come to the surface "Why would the real messiah come to me?...His forgiveness means nothing to me. I know what I am, and I know how I'll end." It is only when Lazarus dies and Mary calls out for Jesus that her faith becomes apparent Lazarus is raised, of course, and finally Mary becomes devoted and free to express her faith.

    The Bible tells us so little about Mary Magdalene that all this invention and conflation is necessary to fill out a 90+ minute film, but what is most surprising is that the one passage in the Bible where Mary features most prominently - their post-resurrection meeting in the garden - is omitted. Indeed the film ends somewhat surprisingly and darkly at the foot of the cross moments after Jesus' death. Gaius Marcellus, the roman centurion who she has, through the course of the film, come to love and then pass over in favour of the messiah, tries to dismiss what has just happened. "Jesus will be forgotten after his death" he suggests, as if to help. But, by this stage, Mary has been inspired: "No", she counters, "it is by his death that he will begin to live". The film ends a little darkly, but given the audience knows the rest of the story it is not without hope. Perhaps such an ending poses a question to the audience. If nothing else it's one way of avoiding one of the central dilemmas of biblical epics - how to sufficiently appease the opposing beliefs of faithful and faithless about the events being depicted. That said, if this is the reason for ending the film at this point the logic seems inconsistent. Jesus has already healed Lazarus and gone beyond the miracles in the Bible by adding gthe miraculous (and somewhat spooky) materialisation following Mary's dance.

    The materialisation scene is just one example of the film's unusual attitude to Jesus' physical body, Whilst Jesus is in one sense present far more than in films such as Ben-Hur and The Robe, the manner in which the camera is never truly permitted to fully behold him. In many scenes, including  when Jesus prevents Mary from being stoned and her visit to him in a cell before his execution, we see just his arm, or hear his voice as his body stands just off camera. In the materialisation scene his head is so hidden in the shadows it caused one scholar to mistake his body for being "headless".2 Other scenes, such as his appearance before a crowd in Pilate's courtyard, are shot from afar, so that the audience can just about make out his body in full, but cannot distinguish the features of his face. Finally we come to the crucifixion scene which uses a combination of the above strategies. Firstly the scene is shown from afar; then as the sky grows dark and a storm begins to rage the camera closes in on Mary at the foot of the cross; then in two shot of Mary and Gaius Marcellus, Jesus' legs appear between them at the top of the shot. This is followed by the camera slowing panning upwards to reveal the body of the crucified Jesus in full, but in darkness contrasted against the sky. Finally, seconds before the end of the film, a flash of lightning finally reveals Jesus' body in for just a split second.

    It's tempting to speculate as to why the film adopts such an attitude towards Jesus' physical presence. Given the final reveal, it works as a metaphor for Mary's slowly ascending faith finally reaching completion. But it also suggests that the filmmakers are uncomfortable with the nature of the incarnation and the idea of Jesus fully human body.

    The film's attitude to Jesus' body contrasts starkly with its attitude to Mary's and whilst the decision to make Mary the central character could be read as a more feminist approach to the subject, the objectification of Mary's body is just one of a number of concerns with its attitude to gender. In particular Mary's financial dependence on Anan is contrasted with her concerns, at least, that she is growing too old to retain his affections. De Carlo was only 36 at the time.

    This peaks in the dance scene. Mary is clearly hurt when Anan gives her a mask to wear during her performance, interpreting his insistence as a sign that he no loner finds her face attractive. When her masked performance fails to arose the captive follower of Jesus she throws it off in the hope that her face will succeed where her body has not. It does not. The man's rejection of her body seems in accordance with its almost gnostic attitude to Jesus' body. The film is also guilty of double standards in this respect on the one hand sexualising De Carlo's body in order to boost the film's box office appeal, whilst on the other, chastising Mary for appearing sexually "available".

    Also problematic in terms of gender is the film's conflation of various female characters in the Bible into one, Mary. This contrasts with La spada's fleshing out of the role of various male characters who are only mentioned in passing in the biblical text. Other women do appear in the film notably Mary's virginal sister Martha and Pilate's wife Claudia, but the film's contrast between "virgin" and "whore" is the person of Mary is problematic even despite the fact she is not quite portrayed as being a prostitute.

    That said La spada was arguably the first in a string of Biblical pepla where a woman was the leading character. The following year Solomon and Sheba (1959) would significantly enhance the queen's role to the extent that by the end of the film the audience is more invested in her character than that of her male counterpart. 1960's Esther and the King followed the two-names pattern but relegated Esther's co-star to a nameless "King", in the title at least. The Story of Ruth also released in 1960, went a step further and only named the female charcter in its title.

    1 - Various cuts of this film are available including a 97 minute English version and a slightly longer 101 minute Italian version which includes the trial before Pilate and a scene in which the subsequently freed Barabbas chokes Anan to death. Barry Atkinson also notes the existence of an even shorter 88 minute cut.2
    2 - Atkinson, Barry (2018) Heroes Never Die: The Italian Peplum Phenomenon 1950-1967. London: Midnight Marquee Press. p.81.

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    • At 8:08 am, March 01, 2019, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo) doesn't dance with her sisters in The Ten Commandments. She explicitly tells her sisters that she won't dance with them, and then she leaves Jethro's tent. After the dance is completed, Moses goes off and finds her.

    • At 8:51 am, March 02, 2019, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Ah, good catch. Thank you. I've amended my original text to reflect your point. Thank you.


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