The Bible is renowned for its simplicity but it’s more complex than Christopher Hitchens or most people give it credit for. I’ve ruminated about Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings, not to be mistaken with de Mille’s version. And it’s always been my obsession to know the differences between the four Gospels and its relation to the film adaptations.
I watched the movie when I still had TCM and couldn’t distinguish it from the other, overlong epic period movies at the same time. I didn’t give it a chance and I changed the channel, regrettably. Thank serendipity for the second run-in, when I saw Ray, through Orson Welles’ Godlike voice over contextualizing Jesus’ rise with Roman imperialism, infrastructure building and the burden of oncoming tribal hostility between Jews and Arabs.
I will say that the movie’s depiction of the historical figures somehow contradicts Biblical accounts and sometimes, one woman’s spirit is captured more so than the other. Mary (Siobhan McKenna) has a soldier-like loyalty to God, willing to ride an improvised steed to Egypt to run away from a Herodain onslaught, She also returns to Nazareth and showing to a Roman official named Lucius that Her young son is the only one who survives. The book and movie fork into the interpretations of the Virgin, as the Gospel of Luke already shows Her, in pregnancy, as an indoctrinated, militant woman poetically reciting Her knowledge of Her purpose in the Father’s master plan. Although the movie’s portrait of Her is delightful enough, the Mother learning from the Youth and His lessons of peace of love which counters the warlike ideology of the area and period. She shares these lessons with Magdalene, a possessed woman in the Bible but commonly depicted as a prostitute in adaptations.
Salome is also maligned as well as her family. In the movie’s first scenes, Herod Antipas ousts his ailing and genocidal father, the son having respect for his enemies like the unknown Saviour and His cousin who grows up to be John the Baptist (the interestingly cast Robert Ryan). Antipas marries Herodias, bringing her daughter Salome in tow. Salome dances her way into getting John beheaded, the texts portraying her as Herodias’ weapon. Ray’s version subverts these women’s characteristics. Salome becomes a lustful young woman, having her stepfather’s father’s violent streak, ending her dance by sitting on the same thrown that Antipas himself has stolen. It’s easy to joke that her similarities with Herod exposes Antipas’ subliminal lust for his own father. Herodias, on the hand, isn’t as scheming as she’s depicted in the Bible, the film actually placing her as one of the audiences on the Sermon on the Mount with Lucius, both authority figures attracted to the message that tries to destroy the system that makes them benefit.
Lastly, there’s Judas Iscariot, the Bible characterizing him as a thief and traitor. Contemporary interpretations of him have always wondered why Jesus would include Iscariot into His fold, most likely knowing that he needs someone to help Him sacrifice Himself. Norman Jewison has a black actor for Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and we can add whatever symbolism we can to the colour blind ensemble, keeping in mind the racial tensions in the 70’s. Ray also paints Iscariot as a Zealot but chose a different strategy in his casting. It’s already strange and absolutely typical of Hollywood to hire the all-American Jeffrey Hunter, who does his best as the quote-worthy preacher. For Judas he picks another dirty blonde, Rip Torn, showing these two men as mirror images, Iscariot’s double loyalties haunted by Jesus unwavering sympathy, a part of a complex, political rendition of the Saviour’s life and world.
Let me just begin by saying that this is the campiest western I’ve seen so far. Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) rushes into Vienna’s (Joan Crawford) casino and accusing her of hiring the Dancing Kid for a stagecoach ambush that killed her brother. They throw empty threats about each other’s gunnery or gunship or whatever that will make Joan Collins pale in comparison. Emma throws remarks that eventually reveals her secret desire for the Dancing Kid and resentment of Vienna’s plans to introduce a train line to the insular town. McIvers (Ward Bond), who is in Emma’s team, instates a law to ban gambling and drinking outside town limits, crippling Vienna’s business. That’s just the first scene.
Then the Dancing Kid robs a bank because he thinks it’s a good idea.
This is the first time I notice the colour black in costume to pop out in a western. While Emma and her people wear the dusty browns of typical Western costume, Vienna wears black. She seems like the villain in this part of the film. She’s also more showy in her affluence, also wearing pants to show one of her employees’ endearing quips about being more manly and making him feel like less of one. The next day shows an inversion of that duality. Vienna has a few costume changes while the mob keeps wearing their mourning black and staining it while hunting for their usual suspects. Vienna’s a woman who has to transform herself because of her past, present and future, the mob keep on to old grudges and bring with them a wave of revenge and death.
After the bank robbery come the best scenes of the film, for my shallow and subjective reasons. Vienna lights the oil lamps of a chandelier, wearing a white dress that looks like she’s hosting a ball in Europe instead of closing shop in the West. Then one of the Dancing Kid’s collaborators, Turkey, totters into her saloon. Despite the hallowed Lightbox screening, I gasped loudly ‘No!’ Don’t ruin the dress.
Thank God. Vienna shows us a BAMF move, playing a piano peacefully despite of Emma’s shrill (sorry) accusations.
The lynch mob tries to finish off Vienna but she escapes. The red dust of the West doesn’t even touch the dress. My eyebrow is raising.
Vienna and the titular Johnny ‘Guitar’ Logan (Sterling Hayden) escape to a mine shaft under the former’s now burnt down saloon. A little burning wooden beam falls down on Vienna’s dress. Finally.
Despite of how well some of her contemporaries have aged, it’s still strange to see Joan Crawford try and succeed to pull off something like that. But then it’s not like the film was trying to hide her age. As Vienna, she has a history, but she knows how to take care of herself.
I’ll make a last sartorial note about the film about the final showdown. Vienna and Johnny escape through a waterfall to the Dancing Kid’s lair. The Kid offers her dry clothes – Turkey’s. Vienna shoots Emma wearing Turkey’s yellow shirt, although she looks like she cans hoot a gun better than Turkey would. In a way, she helps him get a revenge he may have asked for.
Johnny Guitar is part of TIFF’s 100, a strange choice for the campy movie being championed by critics today. TIFF’s write-up of the film touched on the movie having the two strongest female characters in film history. I agree in a way that it took me four years and this movie to know that there’s a movie out there that has two women in opposing ends of gun mobs. And yes, the men in the film are as useful as the guns themselves, rarely opposing the women who lead them. They do subvert stereotypes of good and evil, virgin and whore. And of course, Vienna and Emma are better than many female characters today. But are these female characters only strong in comparison?
Johnny Guitar, directed by pot-stirrer Nicholas Ray with a supporting cast including Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine, is on again at the Lightbox on November 20th at 6PM.
I forgot to tell you that the TIFF Cinematheque is playing a retrospective of James Mason, for some reason. They’re sexing up their program this summer, calling their Pasolini retrospective “Summer of Sex, Swords and Seduction, while calling the Mason one “the original Smooth Talker,” which he is.
Mason in his movies is either having troubled relationships with people younger than him (“Age of Consent”), enduring physical pain (“Lolita”), getting mixed up with terrorist rhetoric (“Julius Caesar.”) or having an addiction that hurts his job (“A Star is Born”). Those are the best trademarks any actor could have, better trademarks than ‘pretty and crazy’ or ‘mostly does Westerns’ like those in his generation. ANYWAY, he uses two and two halves in Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger than Life.” Ed Avery (Mason) encounters anomalous pains that will kill him in a year. He thus has to take cortisone indefinitely to stay alive. He starts to abuse the drugs and says weird things towards the people in his professional and domestic life.
It’s a melodrama with a male in the centre, and there’s the duality of him feeling emasculated yet feeling the need to take on ‘female’ roles like raising his son. His jobs, teaching and answering phone calls for taxi services, are female dominated work – he’s surrounded by them while operating the switchboards. He eventually speaks out about those jobs and the threat of the pains makes him feel emasculated, while faced with the pride that he can’t ease the burden on himself and let his wife work. He can’t handle all of this and his family is what’s affected the most. He even treats his son with psychological abuse. In essence, Ed is putting too much on his plate. Or, a really early version of “Breaking Bad.”
Someone with a sense of humour would watch this film and wouldn’t understand why he’s such an upstanding citizen and then the drugs come and that audience will say ‘There you are James Mason, we’ve been waiting for you all along.’ An interesting reaction for what is arguably Mason’s best performance.
The movie’s an acquired taste. The melodrama goes hand in hand with the extremes of his reactions to the drugs that can put audiences off, no matter how realistic they could be. And there’s the ending. But unlike the juvenile tendencies in “Rebel Without a Cause” or the noir hopelessness of “In a Lonely Place” – which I do like better by the way – “Life” is Ray’s most socially conscious film.