16 March 2004 | gleywong
Saved by Brynner
Previous reviewers did not like this film, but it kept my attention to the end. Compared to other great biblical spectacles, this one has some true moments, due mainly to the strong cast and the director's restraint. This was King Vidor's final film. Remember, he made "The Great Parade,""The Crowd" and other early silent hits. What I liked about this film was Brynner's dignity and kingliness. For someone born a gypsy, Brynner had an innate aristocracy and gravitas; in any scene, he holds your attention and roots the action. And he could deliver the lines elegantly. Could you imagine Tyrone Power in this role? It would be a bit of fluff by comparison (remember him as the feckless husband in "Witness for the Prosecution"?), or perhaps, one might say, Power would have been an equal to George Sanders'surface play of the role.
Another thing going for the film is the consistent delivery of lines by all the actors. Most of the other players were English (Harry Andrews, David Farrar) or Italian (Lollobrigida, Pavan), or foreign, and that gave the dialogue a certain musicality. If all actors had been been "amurican," the tone of the dialogue would have been flatter and much less interesting to listen to. Probably the weakest actor was Lollobrigida, with her masklike visage. She delivered her lines credibly, but there was really no frisson between her and Brynner, (certainly not as there was between Brynner and Deborah Kerr), so that the love scenes came across as a tad dull.
As for the combat and action scenes, Vidor's background in silents shows in the way he holds back with the soundtrack, even as horses, chariots and warriors are running headlong over a cliff. The final sword fight between the brothers was certainly no 10-minute "Prisoner of Zenda", but it was not the fighting itself that was important, but the confrontation between the brothers themselves, reliving the Caine and Abel tragedy. The director is presenting the story as a parable of a failed brotherhood (regardless of how it jives or not with the Biblical text or historical accuracy) that bows before allegiance to a single God and social covenants, so the action is on a straight and simple level that some viewers may find too simple. This sense of the parable guides the actors' delivery of their lines, all with a distinctly measured rhythm that some may consider artificial, and others elevating, as if it were verse.
One can compare Vidor's approach in this film with the many other Biblical spectacles before and after (such as "David and Bathsheba," "Ben Hur," even "Spartacus"), and this movie comes out very "clean" in the battle scenes and refusal to focus on the blood and gore of battle. Vidor's pacing in the dialogue (not quite Shakespearean, but close to it) is consistent with the overall sense of restraint that he excercised.
The clarity of the film's message is reinforced by the costumes, which are openly differentiated as to Egyptian or Israelite,making it easy to distinguish the sides in the battle scenes.
Of five *****, three and a half, it's still worth watching as the swansong of one of Hollywood's great directors.