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Roman Roundup!

We watched two new Rome-related movies last weekend, and they were both kind of weird, but in different ways. I meant to post something about them earlier, but got distracted by the aforementioned Yuletide Bearcave.

Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) is based on a George Bernard Shaw play, and it shows.

It stars Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh, and therefore ought to have been the best thing ever, but instead it marks the first time in my life I didn't like Claude Rains in a movie.

let smugness be your polestar

Caesar comes to Alexandria, talks to a sphinx about What All This Fighting Is For, and meets a teenaged Cleopatra, whom he then teaches Pygmalion-style to carry herself royally and rule in the Roman fashion. There's a conceit that all Egyptians are terrified of Romans and believe that they eat other kinds of humans, and some vaguely racist scenes of Egypt extras running around screaming about the Romans. There are also several non-vaguely racist scenes involving an imported American stage caricature as a "Nubian slave." The script also tries to pretend that Vivien Leigh's skin is darker than Claude Rains', for no discernable reason. Everyone is horribly witty and Shavian and winks at the audience constantly, and I'm not saying it couldn't work, but it doesn't.

Vivien Leigh could have been a great Cleopatra in another movie, and you could argue that she was a better Cleopatra in Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, just as Elizabeth Taylor was a better Cleopatra in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Now and then she gets something to do, but the Pygmalion plot is cloying and unbelievable, and the constant epigrammatic quipping doesn't suit the Hollywood Egypt Spectacle sets and costumes.

Claude Rains plays a Composite Claude Rains Character, not terribly convincingly. Leigh wears her wigs beautifully and is earnest and petulant and ruthless and childish, all to no avail. There's all this weird Mark Antony foreshadowing, and listen, I love that vicious douchebag as much as anyone, but it's all a little too on the nose. Caesar and Cleopatra almost certainly worked much better as a play, especially a play with a large number of the playwright's friends in the audience. There are many opportunities for Shaw fans to nod rapidly with wry smiles on their faces, and lots of cues to elbow the person next to you and chuckle knowingly.

The Robe (1953) is an Epic of Early Christianity, like Quo Vadis, with slightly more robust Christians and a much less enjoyable Imperial Antagonist.

The Robe is not as good as this picture makes it look

It's interesting to see how much The Robe leans on the audience's presumed knowledge of the basics of Christian mythology. Everyone is changed by the mysterious man from Galilee, but we never find out much about him or see his face (Quo Vadis was similarly avoidant). A Roman tribune (Richard Burton) offends Caligula (a memorably un-memorable Jay Robinson) and is sent to Palestine as punishment; his sort-of-semi-fiancee intercedes for him with a strangely benevolent Tiberius on Capri (also, Julia is kept alive solely for the sake of some "old shrew" jokes? I don't know why that happened), so he's send back immediately, but not before he has to oversee the crucifixion of this one rebel-messiah guy and some other guys we never see.

This is an outrage! I mean, it actually is; crucifixion is terrible, but would a Roman tribune really be unfamiliar with the practice? Well, every rebel has to have their Haymarket, and this is his. It's really only the sloppy writing and editing that makes it seem implausible and overwrought. Anyway, he wins the crucified man's robe in a game of dice, but it burns him, precious, so he gives it to his slave (Victor Mature, probably the best thing about this movie that isn't a set painting) who takes up with the disciples when Marcellus heads to Capri with a head full of swarming guilt bees. Marcellus has been severely emotionally damaged by the incident and freaks everyone out with his flashbacks when he lands. He decides to go back to Jerusalem immediately to destroy the robe so he can feel better. One thing leads to another, he ends up joining the Christians (not likely to have been called Christians at this point, but ok) and eventually follows them back to Rome, where Caligula is now emperor and cares about Christians for some reason despite never really caring about Christians before. Maybe it's because he's Pure Evil? I don't know. He doesn't care about any of the things Caligula has traditionally cared about, either, like making his horse a senator -- just about sticking it to Marcellus and a rag-tag band of Palestinian cultists.

I can't stress enough what a disappointment The Robe's Caligula is. He is a disgrace to the name of Caligula. It shouldn't be hard to make Caligula not boring, but Jay Robinson's Caligula is boring. I mean, we can't all be John Hurt and Jay Robinson certainly had a lot less to work with, but there's nothing distinctly Caligulish about him at all; he's just Snidely Whiplash in a couple of capes. I don't know why they made Tiberius so semi-benevolent, either. He's like the Improbably Avuncular Augustus of this movie. The Christians are a little more energetic than the ones in Quo Vadis, but the Romans are much duller. I missed Peter Ustinov's hamtacular Nero a lot.

Everyone else is doing their best, except maybe Richard Burton, who could probably do better if he tried but doesn't seem to feel like it right now. The sets are beautiful and very obviously paintings, but in a pleasant, engaging way. A nice scene with Judas is spoiled by the addition of gigantic thunder and lightning effects the minute he says his name is Judas. The complete absence of chemistry between Richard Burton and Jean Simmons is practially a character in its own right.

For all it dwells on the horrors of Roman execution and torture, the movie is weirdly coy about the fate of its leads. Marcellus is condemned to death by Caligula for his anti-statist Christian activities; Jean Simmons goes with him because their lack of chemistry is a bond no man can sever. But instead of being killed in the arena, or crucified, or even getting a simple knife to the stomach, they just walk out of the palace or senate or whatever it is and straight into some clouds while an anachronistic choir sings halleluja. Then the movie ends. That's literally what happens.

Neither movie was very good. Caesar and Cleopatra managed to be significantly less enjoyable than the Elizabeth Taylor version, despite being about forty times shorter. At least Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra had political ambitions and didn't spend half the movie being coached on her vowels by Henry Higgins. The Robe was just kind of a slog, though an occassionally entertaining one.

I still want to say something about The Eagle and Centurion at some point -- and Empire, the short-lived show in which we are supposed to root for Octavian for some reason (it's all a little confusing) (and not necessarily in a fun way) but it will have to wait.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 2nd, 2015 03:44 pm (UTC)
I kind of liked Caesar and Cleopatra - it wasn't amazing, but it was different from what I expected, knowing nothing about it going in, which was fun on its own (I didn't know about it having been a play; that explains the weirdly static setting then). But then, I also do like My Fair Lady.

Pity The Robe doesn't sound very good. Quo Vadis was fun, I might have enjoyed something vaguely similar.
Jan. 2nd, 2015 04:29 pm (UTC)
I liked My Fair Lady! I just didn't buy Caesar as Henry Higgins, I guess. And a lot of the stuff that was played as funny wasn't funny to me. But I did love Cleopatra's wig made of rocks.

If you like Hollywood religious epics in general, The Robe is probably worth at least putting on in the background while you do something else. I would say it's mediocre with occasional glimmers of bad. There are a couple of interesting scenes, but nothing to compare with the best moments in Quo Vadis. But my judgment is not always reliable.

Edited at 2015-01-02 04:30 pm (UTC)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


blase ev

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