March 30, 2013
The Ten Commandments
I think I have not seen this film since "The Ten Commandments" was the only movie being shown in theaters during Holy Week. Despite the length of four hours, the only thing I really remember about it was the Red Sea scene, and maybe that is more because of the poster than the film. This Maundy Thursday, I decided to revisit this grand classic film, the last film of renowned director Cecil B DeMille.
While I was watching, I recognized several scenes by bits and pieces only, especially in the first half before the intermission. The scenes in the second half were more memorable. This whole matter about the Egyptian princess Nefretiri (whom I am not really clear what the nature of her close relationship is to the Pharaoh Sethi was) played by a very campy Anne Baxter, I do not remember AT ALL. Maybe I was still too young back then to understand the flowery-worded melodrama involving her double-dealing character, and how she affected the relationship of Moses (an outstanding Charlton Heston) and Rameses (a believable Yul Brynner). I was touched by the sympathetic treatment the production had for Pharaoh Sethi (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and his sister Bithiah (Nina Foch). The scene of Moses meeting his mother Yochabel (Martha Scott) was very moving. The overseers Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) and Baka (Vincent Price), were contemptible with their hammy villainy.
But you can really see why this biblical epic was an instant classic back then, and up to now. The "cast of thousands" it boasts of in the poster is literally true (no computer-generated crowds back then. The sets and costumes were incredibly grand and colorful. The Oscar Award-winning visual effects (parting of the Red Sea, turning water into blood, etc...) were impressive considering that this was made back in 1956! While I am sure these effects would have been done differently with the advanced technology now, the last plague which simply depicted the Angel of Death like a green mist creeping on the floor can still elicit fear in the audience. OK, the burning bush scene could be done much better now, but the memory of seeing Moses' physical transformation when he came down from Mt. Sinai with that incredible brush-up hairstyle change could not be replicated.
Jesus Christ Superstar
I held off watching Jesus Christ Superstar for the longest time. I could not understand how Jesus and the apostles could be portrayed as hippies, which I thought was disrespectful and irreverent. I tried many times to start watching the film but found it difficult to get through those radical opening sequences featuring Judas. However, when I finally did get through that first song number, I found myself quite engrossed in the way the story of Christ's Passion was told and enacted in rock songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Yes, the sets and props were strangely anachronistic (like t-shirts, postcard racks and machine guns), but I guess those things symbolize the timelessness of the story's message. Watched this again yesterday Good Friday, with my 13-year old daughter, who seemed to have appreciated the film and its music as well.
The song "Gethsemane" was so vital, it is just breathtaking to hear. The lyrics got the conflict within Jesus at that contemplative moment in the Garden. This song is Ted Neeley's high point in the whole film as Jesus Christ. Another song that moves me is the LSS-inducing "Could We Start Again Please?" With a melody so simple and lyrics so bare, the emotional punch of this song is astounding. It moved me to tears, honestly, when I hear Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene) and Philip Toubus (Simon Peter) sing those earnest words which echo our own sentiments with our own faults:
"I've been living to see you
Dying to see you, but it shouldn't be like this
This was unexpected, what do I do now?
Could we start again please?
I think you've made your point now
You've even gone a bit too far to get the message home
Before it gets too frightening, we ought to call a halt
So could we start again please?"
The Judas character plays a co-equal role in this interpretation and Carl Anderson so passionately portrays him. We see and hear a lot from him that was why this play was controversial back in the day. The words he sings vivify the conflicts within this disturbed man. Magdalene's love song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" takes on a different meaning when Judas sang it before his climactic suicide song. Talking about hanging, that scene was so chillingly and realistically shot.
Special mentions would be the odd but welcome comedy respite provided by Josh Mostel as King Herod, and the unusual contrast of the deep voice of Bob Bingham vis a vis the falsetto voice of Kurt Yagjihan, as the high priests Caiaphas and Annas. The 39 Lashes scene with Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate was also very painfully memorable.