[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Joan the Woman (1916)

With mistakes come trials. And C.B.’s work accumulates trial scenes, either reconstructions of trials that actually took place (The King of Kings, Joan the Woman) or invented from scratch (The Cheat, The Whispering Chorus, Manslaughter, Reap the Wild Wind, Unconquered).

The treatment is realistic most of the time—like the depiction of the place where suspects and convicts remain before or after judgment, I mean prison. Screenwriter Jeanie MacPherson had even spent several days in jail to perfect her documentation for Manslaughter.

DeMille has done a lot of work in the casting of jurors, who should, in principle, for contemporary films, belong to different strata of the society. It’s incidentally in the choice of extras that American cinema has always excelled: a bit typical, but not too much either. And in The Whispering Chorus, we also find those little sketches that journalists make during a trial, since cameras were not allowed in the courtroom.

DeMille doesn’t neglect any of the various stages of the trial and tries to push the suspense to its peak: acquittal or conviction, with multiple variants since he films not only contemporary trials but also those from all places and times, beginning with that of Christ.

When it had the means, American cinema never failed to take advantage from this dramatic setting inaugurated by DeMille. It is an extremely good setting because of its official, almost frozen quality, with the basic elements remaining the same from film to film: defence attorneys, prosecutors, judges, jurors, crowds, defendants, all easily identifiable by the viewer. One actor, Gary Cooper, was even a regular of courtroom dramas, almost always as a defendant. Capra, Preminger and Stanley Kramer would become regulars of courtroom dramas.

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Robert Preston in North West Mounted Police (1940).

Many of C.B.’s films turn around the notion of fault: someone, usually quite nice, commits a fault. He redeems himself, either in a more or less heroic death or by confessing his mistake, or by benefitting from the indulgence of a superior.

It begins with The Squaw Man. The squaw kills a man, but it is to protect the one she loves. She confesses her fault and kills herself.

Maggie, the maid of Kindling, becomes an unwitting accomplice to a burglary. Her mistress eventually pardons her.

Edith, a woman of high-society, misappropriates money from a charity, whose treasurer she is, to buy a chic dress she likes, which sets the drama in motion (The Cheat).

The English soldier Eric Trent betrays Joan of Arc, his benefactor, who will be burnt alive because of him. And in 1916, his namesake, also played by Wallace Reid, sacrifices himself deliberately by destroying the German trench posing a danger for French soldiers. Joan, who then appears in a superimposition, is happy. The soldier of 1916 has rehabilitated, in some way, his supposed ancestor.

Marcia, the heroine of The Devil Stone (1917), accidentally kills her husband, who has seized, by dubious manoeuvres, an emerald that brings bad luck. This death and Marcia’s confession ensure that the ill fate no longer works. And the detective chooses to close the case.

The accountant of The Whispering Chorus (1918) commits a forgery. He is tracked down, arrested for a murder he hasn’t committed. But his return home would compromise the future of his wife, who has remarried. And he prefers to atone for his mistake on the electric chair—the “supreme redemption”, according to the film’s French title.

The odious Elizabethan count of The Road to Yesterday is absolved of his crimes when, on his way back to the America of today, he converts to Christianity and rescues his wife from a burning train.

The two protagonists of The Godless Girl inadvertently cause the death of a student, but redeem themselves at the end by saving many lives in a fire accident at the prison.

Ronnie Logan, Madeleine Carroll’s bad brother, deserts his combat outpost, resulting in the death of several other soldiers (North West Mounted Police); he too redeems himself in his death—just like the husband in Union Pacific, responsible for the death of a man during a holdup, and played by the same actor, Robert Preston.

John Wayne (Reap the Wild Wind) is responsible for the sinking of a ship. But in fighting the octopus which threatens the life of his rival, he redeems himself while losing his life.

A jealous Delilah delivers Samson to the Philistines. To make amends, she helps Samson destroy the temple and the power of the Philistines. She dies during this destruction.

The evil animal trainer of The Greatest Show on Earth organizes the holdup of a train, but he tries to prevent the convoy with his sweetheart from crashing, at the cost of his life.

Here we see Christian ideology come to the surface: crime and purifying repentance, or sacrifice. But this is more of a dramatic contrivance than a real ideological message.

The persistence of this motif across films becomes a bit tiresome.

Does it attest to a certain lack of imagination, or a desire to exploit a formula that works very well with the viewer? Filmmakers from the thirties were not afraid to steal from themselves, as films only had an ephemeral life then, exacerbated by technical progress (advent of talkies, of colour).

Other hobbyhorses: the distant sound of bagpipes or music announcing the arrival of rescue troops (The Plainsman, North West Mounted Police, Wassell, Unconquered), wedding through a go-between object (the sword of The Crusades, the necklace of The Road to Yesterday), the glove, a theatrical prop par excellence (The Crusades, The Godless Girl, Fool’s Paradise).

Also note the omnipresence of animals, dogs and cats in the comedies, monkey (Four Frightened People, The Godless Girl), donkey (The Road to Yesterday), wild animals (Male and Female, The Sign of the Cross, Samson), asp (Cleopatra), sharks (Feet of Clay), octopus (Reap the Wild Wind), zebras (The King of Kings), not to forget Noah’s Ark in the circus film. In contrast, children are almost completely absent. They are mischievous characters, confined to secondary roles (The Road to Yesterday, Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife).

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Unconquered (1946), Gary Cooper’s supernatural entrance.

We have seen, with Feet of Clay and The Road to Yesterday, how much DeMille was fascinated by the idea of reincarnation. In her memoirs, Gloria Swanson writes that DeMille was a firm believer in it. It is indeed the only problem for very rich people who have achieved everything in life. Walt Disney even had his body preserved in optimal conditions so that he could be brought back to life the day science would allow it. The problem is certainly less distressing for a Christian like DeMille, who believed in paradise (Paradise was incidentally the name of his pleasure house). But it does exist.

Whence this taste for back-and-forth journeys to the heaven (cf. the unfinished project The Sorrows of Satan and Feet of Clay).

But this motif can be found more discreetly in many of Cecil DeMille’s works, beginning with a play he co-wrote in 1913 called The Return of Peter Grimm. The list is long: the accountant in The Whispering Chorus who was thought dead and who reappears suddenly, just like the “KIA” husband of For Better, for Worse, or the hero of The Plainsman, who miraculously survives all the Indian arrows. In The Story of Dr. Wassell, Gary Cooper believes that his dear Madeline has disappeared forever from his life, that she is even dead, but in the end, we learn that it’s not so. And the same Cooper (Unconquered), decidedly in charge of immortality, plunges with his frail skiff into the furious waters of a frightening Niagara, but miraculously comes out by grasping on to a providential branch (an unbelievable moment, but it is a playful film). He emerges, like a ghost, from a smoke cloud behind an Indian encampment. Victory is then achieved because the English place the bodies of all their dead soldiers in wagons, seated and not lying down, to make the attackers believe that they are outnumbered. A theoretical resurrection which makes them winners.

DeMille wasn’t an exception. Reincarnation—or resurrection—was a frequent motif among great American filmmakers (cf. all of Frank Borzage’s work, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Alan Rudolph’s Made in Heaven, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Frank Capra’s Lost Horizons and It’s a Wonderful Life, James Cameron’s The Abyss, even Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Otto Preminger’s Laura).

“Reincarnation” means “victory over death”, with which one man can help: the doctor.

More than the priest, who is somewhat forgotten in the work of this great Christian, the doctor is very present in For Better, for Worse, throughout Feet of Clay, a little in The Road to Yesterday, and much more in Wassell and The Greatest Show on Earth.

The doctor doesn’t intervene without reason. That’s why there are many cripples, disabled children (For Better, for Worse), blind people (The Ten Commandments, Wassell, Samson, Fool’s Paradise, Something to Think About) with a subjective shot of the person who loses or regains sight, mute persons (The Sign of the Cross, The Ten Commandments of 1956), people who can no longer use their arms or hands (The Road to Yesterday, Wassell, The Greatest Show on Earth), and disfigured heroes (The Whispering Chorus, For Better, for Worse, Fool’s Paradise). Handicaps typical of melodramas.

Prantik Basu’s Bela, which premiered at the Visions du Réel in Nyon last week and is headed to the International Film Festival Rotterdam in June, is an hour-long documentary about everyday life in the titular village in West Bengal.

Shot over two years, Bela is the third work born of Basu’s collaboration with the inhabitants of the village. The film, however, conceals the filmmaker’s familiarity with the region and its people. Reserved and self-subtracting, Basu’s digital camera surveys the spaces of the hamlet with a ruminative, bovine gaze. These measured gestures are fitting, for Bela seeks to register the leisurely rhythm of life and work in the village. To this end, the filmmaker assembles footage amassed over several months into a cyclic diurnal-nocturnal pattern, with each “day” unfolding roughly over a quarter hour.

The men of the village are, for the most part, occupied with Chhau performances, a costumed dance form of gyrating, thumping male bodies that blends classical and folk idioms. The women, on the other hand, seem mostly engaged in highly physical, productive work, harvesting crops, gathering firewood or crushing rice. But just as we briefly glimpse men making their living at a timber depot, the women decorate the threshold of their homes with beautiful rice rangolis whose simplicity counterpoints the baroque costumes and movements of the Chhau shows.

These contrasts and continuities in the gendered division of labour are offered for our consideration without a guiding commentary. Compared to Basu’s previous short films, Sakhisona (2017) and Rang Mahal (2019), which are fuelled by Santhali cosmology and myths, Bela is a stripped-down work, presenting no discursive framework to supplement what we see. There is no voiceover, musical score or interviews with its subjects, making the film at once more airy, more austere and more elusive than its predecessors.

In that sense, Bela has more in common with the formalist rural symphony that is Basu’s Hawa Mahal (2015). The filmmaker shoots with an eye for plastic composition: asymmetry, offsetting elements in the foreground, impressionistic effects obtained through frame dropping. His camera would often drift away from a scene to end on a light source or the participants’ feet. Recurring images in his work – electric wires, women carrying wood, twilight skies, rain and thunder, deforestation – become charged with specific meaning, but Basu’s touch remains light, not unlike the women’s rangolis.

We conversed with the filmmaker on his new work.

 

Could you tell us something about your personal and academic background? How did you come to filmmaking?

I grew up in a joint family of eight people, in the suburbs of Calcutta. Films are something that I have always been drawn to. I loved telling stories as a child and would always visualise the short stories and poems from my school curriculum and imagine them as films in my head. While doing my B.A. in English, I wrote the script for a short film and directed it with the help of a few friends back in 2007. That same year, I gave the entrance exam for the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and got into its Direction department.

 

How did Bela come about?

After my graduation, I was called back to FTII to direct a film as a guest filmmaker. During the making of Sakhisona, I met the wonderful performing artists, dancers and musicians of the Manbhum Sramjibi Chhau Nritya Dal. They performed and composed songs for the film. I remained in touch with them and, upon the completion of Sakhisona, visited their village Bela to share with them the final film. I stayed on for a few weeks, without any plans for another film. Over time, I developed great friendship and comradery with them, shooting showreels for their dance group and travelling with them to their dance competitions. And at some point, the seed of a new film germinated.

 

Your previous short films (Sakhisona, Rang Mahal) made imaginative use of Santhali folklore. In comparison, Bela registers as a more sober, fly-on-the-wall documentary. How did you decide on the film’s form?

Unlike my previous films, the formal structure for Bela developed during the process. I started with the dance group, and was mostly interested in tracing the transformation of the dancers from the people they were to the gender-bending roles they played. Since the Chhau dance is mostly practiced by men, I meandered to observe the women and their activities in and around the village. The juxtaposition in itself was telling a story, so adding a voiceover would have made it didactic. We see when we are told to look, but on our own, we observe. So I limited my intervention to the least, and aimed for a cinema verité approach in Bela.

 

Could you tell us a little about the Chhau performances?

Like all other dance forms, Chhau involves tremendous discipline, coordination and practice. Etymologically, it is derived from the word Chhaya, meaning shadow, image, or mask. It is said that every other boy in Purulia (where Bela is located) is a Chhau dancer, and that they learn the techniques of somersaulting underwater as they learn how to swim in the ponds at a young age. The songs that accompany Chhau dance are called Jhumur, and they follow the dohar (couplet) form. These are entwined with the landscape of Rarh Bengal and its flora and fauna. For example, the repeated meter of Jhumur songs derive inspiration from the echoes that occur while calling out in this undulating terrain, and that the subtle turn of the neck and torso in the Chhau dance is an imitation of the movements of a peacock. These nuances are usually overlooked by the viewer who is often lost is the grandeur of the performance.

 

There is a sense, towards the end of Bela, that this way of life is under threat of disappearance. Even the Chhau performances seem destined for a town crowd.

Their way of life is under a constant transformation, much like everything around us, maybe a little slower, but isn’t that inevitable? This change is probably much less in the region where I shot Rang Mahal; there is a certain welcome resistance too, in the form of the Pathalgadi Movement, for instance. But the community in Bela is at the threshold. Many of the Chhau dancers move to cities across the country and contribute to the migrant workforce. When the team had come to Pune for a performance at the FTII, two workers from a nearby construction site heard the sounds of the dhol, dhamsa and shahnai, and immediately rushed to the campus where they were performing. It turned out that they were from their neighbouring village. The joy of their reunion in a place so far away from home was a sight to behold.

 

In the film, we see men mostly engaged in the Chhau performances while women are largely responsible for productive labour, both at home and in the village. How did you see the relation between men and women in the village?

It was quite compartmentalised, in terms of gender roles. While the men dress up as women for their performance, and the women display immense physical strength in their daily activities, the lines otherwise are rather rigid. So the argument of Chhau dance being masculine for its physical rigour fails to hold true after a point. Of late, few female Chhau dance groups have formed. But the attitude towards them is very similar to the ones towards the women’s sports teams in our country.

 

Did you script or storyboard before the shoot? What was the process?

I was making notes every day after shooting, more like production notes and data logging. I shot for a few months, on and off for over two years and had accumulated an enormous amount of rush footage. So I made index cards of the sequences and did a few rounds of paper edits first. I did storyboard for my earlier films, but since I shot the last two myself, I somewhat knew the kind of frames I wanted. Also, both Rang Mahal and Bela are nonfiction films, so there is only so much one could pre-plan in terms of framing. Most of them were chance and intuitive responses to the scenes unfolding in front of the camera. Sadly, some of the best moments occur when the camera is off. Turn it on, and they are gone.

 

In a number of shots, your roving camera ends on a light source, almost as if offering a cue to the viewer that the shot is about to end. What is your fascination with light?

That’s interesting, I never thought of it like that. In most cases, it was an instinctive response, as I was mostly working with available/natural light. The night rehearsal sequence is one that I can recall. The entire activity took place around a single light source, a 100-watt tungsten bulb. Earlier, it was a longer sequence, where the bulb was set up, the insects hovering around, and then gradually the people gather. While the dancers practiced in circular motions, their blurred movements appeared like celestial bodies orbiting around the Sun.

 

Did you show the film to the people of Bela?

They have seen parts of the film, but I am yet to share the final film with them. Hopefully that will happen soon.

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Gloria Swanson in Male and Female (1919): the chaos of shipwreck.

Because of the somewhat constricted nature of the genre, DeMille and Paramount had arrived at a compromise: he would make high-society comedies, but with five minutes of ancient or medieval interludes. This is why, right in the middle of contemporary films like Don’t Change Your Husband, Male and Female, Manslaughter, Adam’s Rib, Triumph and even We Can’t Have Everything and The Dream Girl, there are strange parentheses. Paramount had something to keep the ambitious Cecil busy. Five minutes of epic film was less expensive than an hour and a half. This amazes us today, but let us not forget that we too have our commercial breaks on the television, sometimes with movie trailers very different from the film being telecast, and that there were once mid-film intervals, in Italy and sometimes in France, for changing 16mm film reels in rural theatres, to the benefit of ice-cream sales or advertising slides.

It often arrives at the worst possible moment. In the middle of Male and Female, given that the shipwrecked are dressed in makeshift outfits, we no longer even know if it’s an episode from the current story or a prehistoric flashback. Most of the time, the pretext for returning to the past remains feeble. DeMille seeks to show us that nothing has changed since the Neanderthals. The only real reason for the sequence is, of course, kitsch luxury. It’s probably the allusion to the lions of Babylon in Gerald Manley Hopkin’s poem quoted in James Barrie’s play, which Male and Female is based on, which gave DeMille the idea of going back in time.

At best, it could be said that the fragility of the link and the poverty of the trick make us laugh and sustain our interest: the worse it is, the better it is.

This economic motivation seems to have justified the structure of the first The Ten Commandments, only a third of which deals with antiquity.

The link between the present and the past is what comes out in Joan the Woman too. The story of La Pucelle is introduced by a remark by an English soldier fighting in France in 1915. And the preface to The Sign of the Cross, a ten-minute sequence added thirteen years after the shoot, presents us with reflections of American soldiers flying in 1945 over a Rome slightly destroyed by the bombardments and recalling ancient Rome. Apparently, these two scenes seem justified by the ignorance of the American public (passionate only about national, more or less modern events) about the European past. According to DeMille and Paramount, a precise link between the ancient and the modern was absolutely necessary to make these antiquities look less obsolete in the eyes of teenagers and their girlfriends. The same is true for the reintroduction of the ten commandments into the modern family of the eponymous silent film, for the final shot of an ultramodern train in Union Pacific, set in 1870, for the modern city in the last image of the life of Jesus. And not to mention the brief introductions at the beginning of the last three films, which situate them within an eternal cosmic discourse.

It is difficult to say to what extent this present-past relationship, which is the keystone of The Ten Commandments of 1923 and of The Road to Yesterday [1], corresponds to a commercial communication strategy or, on the contrary, to a personal obsession of the filmmaker. There are certainly both, but I’m tempted to favour the second hypothesis. It is too present across time periods, over more than forty years, for it to be simply opportunistic.

For it was a real problem for Americans in the 1920s: what relation can be there between the Christian morality taught in their childhood and the era of jazz, fast luxury cars and normalized breakups and divorces? 1919 and the end of the First World War gave birth to a whole new world—a rupture that is noticeable in the work of a European filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard who has more than one thing in common with Cecil DeMille: he too is a Puritan womanizer, and he frequently contrasts the art of the past with the superficiality of the contemporary world.

With this essential difference that, in Jean-Luc’s case, the opposition seems irremediable, while Cecil tries to build bridges beyond the obvious differences. The ancient interludes tend to tell us that it’s the same thing going on in the time of the Cro-Magnons, the days of Nero and the era of airships, massive bombardments, ultramodern bathtubs and hot dogs. There is certainly an interest in making connections that justify, with more or less success, the apparent incongruity of the intrusion of the ancient into the modern. The Semadar character (Angela Lansbury) in Samson and Delilah is above all reminiscent of the busybodies of Poughkeepsie, just like those chatty women near the atrium (Cleopatra) or that family of ordinary Romans about to enjoy the spectacle of the massacre of Christians (The Sign of the Cross), evoking the weekend outing of an average American family as we see in The Greatest Show on Earth. The present-past relationship doesn’t work as much on the level of moral analysis or as a look into evolution (besides, even in Intolerance, there is hardly any evolution between the Babylonian massacres, St. Bartholomew’s Day and the modern episode, except that the innocent sentenced to death is saved at the last moment by the artifice of a chase). It works more on a formal level: the visual shock of two cultures. It is a superficial shock, but one that affects us strongly. In DeMille’s work, there is a union of all the elements that open up to the universal, the cosmic and the timeless in the same image. DeMille wants to show everything, and show everything together. We have a confirmation of this at the end of Madam Satan.

If one accepts that C.B.’s approach isn’t essentially opportunistic, it remains to be seen what is essential in his work: the description of the past or the present-past relationship.

It is very hard to pin down. In the beginning, everything derived from Cabiria, and so it was all focused on the purely descriptive aspect. It was only afterwards that the comparative aspect made its appearance, for multiple reasons, which became rarer after the commercial failure of The Road to Yesterday.

 

Footnote:

[1] And which is expressed fully with the help of superimpositions and dissolves, the basic figures of style in C.B.’s work.

The history of battle,” wrote Paul Virilio in 1984, “is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.” Examining the relationship between war and images, the French philosopher advanced that, through the ages, victory in an armed conflict has always been a matter of perceiving and representing enemies and enemy territories; that, in industrial warfare, “the representation of events outstripped the presentation of facts”. He continues: “Thus, alongside the army’s traditional ‘film department’ responsible for directing propaganda to the civilian population, a military ‘images department’ has sprung up to take charge of all tactical and strategic representations of warfare for the soldier, the tank or aircraft pilot, and above all the senior officer who engages combat forces.”

Virilio’s analysis has only become more accurate with time. A few years ago, MIT developed a camera that can look around corners — an invention that has obvious military application. In March this year, the U.S. Army publicized their goggles that allows soldiers to remain inside their armoured vehicles while being able to see everything happening outside. To be able to see the source of danger without exposing yourself to it — the Rear Window principle — is already a battle half-won. Photography and filmmaking have therefore increasingly been at the centre of contemporary military strategy.

The work of German filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944-2014) has, over decades, thrown light on the profound, multi-layered links between war, photography and cinema. His films echo Virilio in demonstrating how, in modern warfare, terrains are mapped out in extensive detail, combat tactics are thoroughly simulated in software and variables of battle are controlled to such a degree that the actual field operation simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is one that has already conquered it. To see is to capture.

Two films screened at the recently concluded Visions du Réel festival in Nyon imbibe the spirit of Farocki’s work and explore the intersection between images and war with great cogency and rigour.

Directed by Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti, the Italian feature War and Peace lives up to the ambitions of its lofty title. The opening part is set in a film archive, where researchers study footage from a “forgotten war”: the Italian invasion of (current-day) Libya in 1911. Perhaps the first war expressly filmed for public consumption back home, the clips show soldiers advancing in the desert and or assembled outside captured sites. These films, we are told, played a part in creating the fiction that was unified Libya. As it did elsewhere under various imperial film units, cinema here served as a colonizing force, with the power of writing history residing with those who wield the camera.

The second segment of the film parachutes us into a crisis unit in Italy that helps locate and repatriate civilians and military personnel stuck in war-torn areas around the world. More than a century since the Libya invasion, technology has now democratized image-making. Even the “enemies” have the means to fashion their own narrative through film. Thanks to global media and the internet, these images of war can now be produced, distributed and immediately seen across the world. We observe experts at the crisis unit investigating and interacting with these videos to navigate the chaos of the present. It’s effectively a battle for the control of future history.

Production and control of images of war is also the theme of the third part of the film, set at a French military academy. A new batch of recruits in what Virilio called the “images department” is being trained in the techniques of photography, visual composition, voiceover commentary, live telecast and filmmaking. At the end of the course, a whole combat operation is simulated in the campus for these trainees to shoot and edit into a wide-screen Hollywood-like movie, as though the primary goal of war was to fabricate images, “representation of events” outstripping “presentation of facts”.

War and Peace nevertheless concludes with a reflection on cinema’s power to prevent history from falling into oblivion. As footage of post-war devastation and testimonies of Holocaust survivors wash over reel cans, we realize that while cinema may not have been able to forestall historical tragedy, as Jean-Luc Godard lamented, its true mission may simply be to pick up the pieces, to preserve the memories of the victims of war. And that perhaps is the only way cinema could film peace.

Bellum – The Daemon of War deals with similar ideas as War and Peace, but weaves them into human interest stories. Made by David Herdies and Georg Götmark, the film follows three subjects living at different corners of the world: an engineer in Sweden, an American photographer working in Afghanistan and an Afghan war veteran in Nevada, USA. They don’t meet one another in the film, but their lives are all shaped by war and Western attitudes to war.

Fredrik Bruhn, the Swedish engineer, is involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target — a game-changing invention that will eliminate the need for any human intervention in combats. Bill Lyon, the war vet suffering from PTSD, has trouble reintegrating into civilian life and hopes to go back to the front, not just for the money, but also to regain some semblance of normalcy. Paula Bronstein is a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. We see her directing her subjects with makeshift lighting, wandering the streets of Kabul coaxing children for a pose or signing photo-books at her exhibition back in the United States.

Bellum emphasizes that these are nice people. Bruhn is a doting father and a science enthusiast. Bronstein is empathetic and wants to put a human face to the fallout of the war. Despite his hatred for the conditions in Afghanistan, Lyon too is a loving husband. Well-meaning though they might be, it becomes apparent that their life and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of Lyon, who has seen his friends and colleagues die in the field, but Bronstein’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. Bruhn’s efforts to eliminate the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in an armed conflict.

Elsewhere, the narrator remarks that armies don’t use just cardboard silhouettes for target practice anymore, but well-defined human-like figures, such that soldiers find themselves in a situation as close to real life as possible. Lyon drives past a large military facility in Nevada, where a life-size replica of Kandahar was set up. Such hyper-realistic simulation environments, which were the subject of Farocki’s four-part Serious Games (2010), are ultimately designed to blur the boundary between reality and fiction and to have combatants take one for the other.

It’s judgment that defeats us,” says an embittered Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) at the end of his famous monologue in Apocalypse Now (1979). What Bellum points to us is that this judgment, this human fallibility, is the variable that technology seeks to eliminate from the equation of war, seeking to forge amoral killing machines that will, somehow, do the “right thing”. In this mission, these two films show us, cinema will be always on the side of the powerful.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Joan the Woman (1916): first flagellation in DeMille’s work.

One of the most evident, and strangest, characteristics of his work is its sadomasochism—something that is as present as the theme of water in Renoir, the opulent women dear to Fellini, the port towns in Demy or Hitchcock’s suspense. This clearly proves, if proof was ever needed, that DeMille is an auteur.

It all began in 1915, with the first truly interesting films by our filmmaker, and continued without any notable interruption until the last opus in 1956.

Delight Warren (The Unafraid) is threatened with the worst torture if she does not sign a cheque.

The Cheat revolves around a rich Japanese man who brands a socialite guilty of rejecting him after he had lent her a large sum of money. According to him, one doesn’t go without the other. You don’t see this barbaric act in this understated film where everything works on evocation, the unsaid. But we do see what precedes and follows it, and everything around it. This understatement is obviously more powerful than if DeMille had filmed it all. It remains within the limits of good taste, and we can imagine everything…

DeMille shot The Cheat by day, and at night, he directed The Golden Chance, in which young Mary Denby is whipped by her alcoholic husband, who unjustly accuses her of all vices. The film is set in a contemporary America, but the action recalls the melodramatic situations of London-based novels, particularly the work of Charles Dickens (Nicholas Nickelby, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield), where the whipped child constitutes a leitmotif.

It was Joan the Woman the following year, where the heroine is threatened with being interrogated by the English, which is in keeping with historical reality. But there is also this astonishing scene where a French peasant woman, accused of collaborating with French troops resisting the invaders, is suddenly stripped naked by His Majesty’s soldiers and severely flogged. This is a kind of action that has not been recorded in history, and which doesn’t seem very credible. Moreover, the filmed episode has little to do with Joan of Arc. We find no such scene in any of the many films made on the Maiden of Domrémy. It should be noted that, to avoid the charge of indecency, DeMille had taken the precaution of casting a very flat-chested actress in the role.

In Why Change Your Wife (1919), the heroine tries to disfigure her romantic rival with vitriol. It isn’t vitriol, in fact, but eyewash intended to frighten the girl, and to thrill the audience with this unsettling threat.

To this, I would add the paw of the lion on the body of an unconscious Gloria Swanson in Male and Female (same year).

The whip, decidedly a central prop in our auteur’s work, appears again in the two versions of The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956), since it was frequently used in the Egypt of the Pharaohs, and especially in The Road to Yesterday (1925), where the English lord Ken whips his rival to death, just after the gypsy woman is condemned to the stake.

The Plainsman (1936): Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur) never lets go of her whip.

The King of Kings (1927) retraces the martyrdom of Christ in all its stages. There is, of course, a masochist component in the whole of Christian universe. In Jesus’s journey, we can see the itinerary of a man who did everything possible in order to be tortured and crucified. Had Pontius Pilate pardoned him, he would have been really annoyed and couldn’t have justifiably claimed the role of a glorious martyr. And his example led several Christians to try to imitate him. We would be justified in wondering whether it isn’t the Christian impulse that drove DeMille towards sadomasochism.

The Godless Girl (1928) is set in a juvenile prison, where, for more than one minute, the evil guard subjects the handsome, rebellious Hathaway to a powerful jet of ice-cold water. And when the young lovers meet and try to kiss each other from either side of the fence, he unleashes a strong electric current through the barbed wire so that the heroine cannot detach herself from the fence and burns her hand: a shot reveals a smoking cross imprinted on her palm (a cross again).

I almost forgot the Tsarist officer in The Volga Boatman (1926) who orders a young boatman to shine his boots, which he has slightly soiled by accident, and deeming his speech insolent, whips him on the face. Already back in The Little American, there was the German officer who orders poor Mary Pickford to remove his boots, which isn’t an easy job.

The Sign of the Cross is perhaps the one film by our auteur that goes the furthest in this domain. There is firstly the child that the Romans tie to a rope and lower into a pit with hellfire (a torture that Joan of Arc was threatened with too) so that he confesses where the Christians meet.

There is then the pleasure of the viewers in the arena—father, mother and son—who try to get the best seats possible and bet on the surviving gladiator. A pleasure mixed with dread before the martyrdom of Christians (a situation that is repeated, in a minor way, at the temple of the Philistines at the end of Samson and Delilah): we are spared no detail (except in the redacted version at the request of the censors, who nevertheless let go of shots of dykes and boy toys). The highlight is this ravishing starlet in a bikini tied up in front of a menacing crocodile. These are brilliant, very powerful scenes, especially since the visuals are sumptuous, but which make The Sign of the Cross look like a sick film.

All through The Plainsman (1936) and Union Pacific (1939), the beautiful Jean Arthur and Akim Tamiroff wield a menacing whip, which attacks objects around people, but never the people themselves. The Hays Code of 1934 was here.

At the beginning of North West Mounted Police (1940), it’s Paulette Goddard, a rather wild young girl, who is spanked by Tamiroff. She will be spanked again, with the relative protection of her pretty rich heiress costume, by the dandy Ray Milland, who finds her too capricious, at the beginning of Reap the Wild Wind (1941). In Unconquered (1946), we witness the preparations for the flogging of the same Paulette Goddard, who is decidedly used to corporal punishment, a torture that is called off at the last second. For the sadomasochistic audience, it’s the cracking of the whip and the concept of flogging that counts (and allows it to imagine the foreseeable consequences with delight) as much as the physical act, just as it was the idea of disfiguration with vitriol (which doesn’t take place) that marks the viewer’s mind (Why Change Your Wife). This avoids the reproach of the censors and the restrictions pertaining to children.

A novelty: at the end of Samson and Delilah (1949), the whipper Delilah and the whipped Samson are fully agreed on the use of the prop. She even apologizes to him for the pain she is about to inflict on him. It is part of the plan laid by Samson, who, as the viewers at the temple are fooled by this stratagem, then seizes the whip from Delilah, the latter leading him to the pillars of the building.

There is a very interesting variation of this in the middle of The Greatest Show on Earth (1951): the animal trainer Lyle Bettger, jealous of the special attention that his sweetheart, the beautiful Gloria Graham, pays to the circus director Charlton Heston, blackmails her during an act, by letting her remain under the elephant’s heavy foot for longer than expected: a guiding gesture from the trainer would be enough for the beast to crush her pretty face. In The Sign of the Cross, the animal brings down its foot for good.

I’ve saved the best for the last: Cleopatra, where the sadistic ritual is intimately linked to sexuality. To seduce Mark Antony, Cleopatra presents him with an astonishing spectacle where seductive nymphs, fished out from the sea in large nets (a woman was already fished out with a bait in Old Wives for New), come out of shells that look like vulvas, to perform lascivious dances, surrounded by the dance master’s whip and circles of fire that he raises around them and through which they move. It’s a delirious spectacle that attests to great virtuosity on the part of our filmmaker, and a rather implausible one at that: it’s hard to imagine a woman who, in order to win the heart of her enemy, organizes such a macho show focused on other women.

In Cleopatra again, during the Battle of Actium sequence, there is this very oppressive shot of a chariot’s cogwheel crushing a soldier’s face.

The reader will perhaps forgive me for forgetting other scenes of the kind, which are often brilliant and rather nauseating, the two adjectives being linked indissolubly.

The Sign of the Cross (1932): gladiators and Christians in the arena.

This psychopathia sexualis is well in line with the image Cecil DeMille fashioned for himself: with jodhpurs and a baton in the hand (like his mentor David Belasco), he had all the makings of the perfect sadistic grandmaster.

We may wonder, is this whole arsenal there to please a public fond of sadomasochistic rituals? Or does it correspond to a personal need? I’m tempted to answer with the latter option. In fact, it all began as early as 1915, at a time when the film viewer’s sadistic needs were neither known nor exploited. One had to wait until the advent of the horror film, Tod Browning and James Whale, in the years 1925-1930, and then the actor Burt Lancaster, the most masochist of all, to find a comparison. In literature, Lovecraft himself comes after DeMille. One would even be justified in thinking that DeMille may have furnished ideas to masters of horror such as Tod Browning or James Whale. It was perhaps also that the public success of these scenes encouraged DeMille to persevere.

Why? Why? It’s not the essayist’s role to discuss this subject. Apart from Christian influence, which I’ve already alluded to, it should be noted that C.B.’s sadism is often exercised on women. And he was a frustrated man, at least during his youth: bald at a young age, he looks like the typical image of a small-time accountant in his photographs. And after 1914 and her miscarriage, his wife, for medical reasons and perhaps because she wasn’t interested in it, refused sex, a situation that seems to have lasted for the last forty-five years of their marriage. To be sure, our man made up for it elsewhere, after he achieved success and fortune. But this situation must have been hard for him. It reminds us of the scene in The Road to Yesterday where Ken tries to axe his way through the door of his wife’s bedroom. It’s a situation that must have left behind a mark, a desire for revenge, a recourse to deviant practices… But frustration can also be very fruitful for an artist: the situation of the DeMille couple is the same as that of the Faulkner couple.

Let us not forget a consistent foot (and shoe) fetish, as evidenced by Old Wives for New, Don’t Change Your Husband, Male and Female, Forbidden Fruit, The Affairs of Anatol, Feet of Clay, The Volga Boatman, Wassell and, of course, The Greatest Show on Earth, among others from 1918 to 1951.

Starting May 10, the indefatigable Laurent Kretzschmar (of the Serge Daney in English blog) will be putting up translations of over 20 texts that Daney produced during the Cannes Film Festival of 1984. To convey a sense of how prolific and rapid Daney was, the articles will go up on the same days that they were published 37 years ago.

Though understandably uneven, it’s really a remarkable and lively set of articles with very little trace of festival fatigue or complacency. The dossier includes texts on Bergman, Ray, Huston, Herzog, Skolimowski, Angelopoulos and Carax, among others. Keep an eye out for “Twice Upon a Time in America”, a double review of new films by Sergio Leone and Wim Wenders, which, in my opinion, is one of Daney’s finest ever pieces.

I was privileged to closely read these translations a few months ago and discuss them with Laurent. Working with a style as vivid and untamed as Daney’s (and as different from Luc Moullet’s) was a rewarding experience, but it is from Laurent’s own translation, highly sensitive to nuances of tone, temperature and register, that I learnt the most during the process.

So merci beaucoup, Laurent, for this priceless opportunity to collaborate. And for this gift.

Site: sergedaney.blogspot.com

Schedule (I’ll update the links as and when the posts go up):

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Joan the Woman (1916): Joan (Geraldine Farrar) on the stake, first attempt at colour for DeMille.

DeMille was seen as a tyrannical and domineering filmmaker, as affirmed by the choice of his favourite costume (jodhpurs in particular) which contributed to making him the perfect macho.

At the same time, one notices that he was someone who thought a lot about the interests of his collaborators and was very faithful to them: no other filmmaker can boast of having made their first forty-four feature films with the same cinematographer, Alvin Wyckoff in this case. Jeanie MacPherson was his go-to screenwriter from 1915 to 1937 and was instrumental in developing the couple conflicts in his high-society films. From 1919 to 1956, he had no other editor than Anne Bauchens. In almost all his films between 1918 and 1956, he cast his ex-girlfriend Julia Faye, even if she had lost some of her appeal with age. It is quite moving to find the same names in the credits of both the 1956 and the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, not just Bauchens and Faye, but also cameraman Peverell Marley.

It is clear that he acted like the head of a theatre company, obliging Paramount to put some of his collaborators on permanent contracts, even if they didn’t work every year on his films. He got angry with the company, which wanted to break with this principle.

He produced fifty-two films between 1926 and 1928, sometimes on dense and unusual melodramatic subjects. It was an opportunity for him to hire most of his favourite actors and technicians, who would have otherwise been shown the door at Paramount.

I can think only of Chabrol who could assemble a veritable family of collaborators over a very long period of time. This is very different from the method of a creator like Maurice Pialat, who changed technicians from one film to another, or even during the shoot.

It was typical of a theatre director to sometimes give each of his favourite actors very different roles (Theodore Roberts labelled a crooked old billionaire or a wheezy grandfather, and suddenly turning into Moses, Raymond Hatton, the handsome Frenchman of The Little American transformed into a small-time accountant in The Whispering Chorus) that didn’t always suit them exactly. It could work very well in the theatre because of the audience’s distance from the actor. It sometimes becomes risky in cinema, with its tighter shots. Look at this thirty-four-year-old actress who plays Joan of Arc.

In Why Change Your Wife and Madam Satan, the hero doesn’t recognize his wife, who is dressed and made up differently. In The Whispering Chorus, it is the other way around. It’s an accepted convention in the theatre, which doesn’t work in cinema, where you feel, in the tighter shots, that the husband is very close to the wife and cannot fail to recognize her.

Two devices, frequent in DeMille’s work, derive from the theatre: the use of a small window in the background (The Squaw Man, The Ten Commandments, Union Pacific) and the use of a curtain (The Road to Yesterday, Samson) which opens and closes at will onto another set. A pure filmmaker would have moved from one set to another, with camera movement or scene changes.

A man of the theatre: this is obvious, since in his early days, he adapted several plays and tried to hire the best actors from Broadway. He favours static shots, such as the brilliant 1:42 minute shot in Union Pacific where he follows the evolution of a courtship. And he made films in every genre, like a theatre director who can tackle Scapin the Schemer as well as Phèdre.

In cinema, the director is generally more pigeonholed. Look at Hitchcock or Chabrol (crime films), Leone and Joseph Kane (Westerns), Capra or Edwards (comedies), Craven or Romero (horror films).

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

The Story of Dr. Wassel (1943): Gary Cooper prays to Buddha for help… and Buddha obliges.

It’s this aspect that C.B. DeMille is often limited to by dictionaries and common mortals.

Yet, if we look at things in more detail, we notice that he has made, counting generously, no more than eight epics out of the seventy films that comprise his work. In chronological order of the beginning of the story, they are:

1260 BC: The Ten Commandments (1956 version)

1230 BC: the first third of the Ten Commandments (1923 version)

1200 BC: Samson and Delilah

49 AD: Cleopatra (a film with no connection to Christianity)

33 AD: The King of Kings

65 AD: The Sign of the Cross

1189: The Crusades

1429: Joan the Woman

The remaining sixty-two films unfold in a more modern setting, almost all of them between 1815 and 1950. Sixty-two against eight.

There is hence a clear predominance of modern times. What is then the reason for this misleading brand image?

Above all, the much higher cost of ancient films, and as a corollary, the much larger number of their viewers (even if The Crusades was a flop) and the existence of classic scenes (re-enactment of the crossing of the Red Sea).

Then there is the fact that most of these epics are talkies (and not silent) and more recent.

This brand image places DeMille at a disadvantage today, because it is clear that his best work isn’t set in ancient times.

Besides, the idea of DeMille as a Biblical or religious filmmaker is questionable: none of the first forty-four films by our auteur, with the exception of Joan the Woman and, at a push, Something to Think About, deals with a theme of that kind.

It would seem that the reference to Christianity isn’t the decisive element of these films.

As early as 1914, DeMille was a fan of the Italian film Cabiria, a blockbuster about the war between Rome and Carthage, from 218 BC to 202 BC, which was built around the movement of crowds and the grandiose character of Carthaginian architecture, born partly of religious fervour, but a fervour that had nothing to do with Christianity. Similarly, one could consider The Woman God Forgot (1917) as an evocation of Aztec civilization and religion, and appreciate a certain form of respect towards Buddhism in The Story of Dr. Wassell (1943). It’s Gary Cooper’s prayer which, in the course of a magnificent scene, seems to trigger the arrival of British rescue troops. Cleopatra and the unfinished Helen of Troy project have nothing to with the Christian God. Religion certainly interests DeMille, but it’s a general, almost ecumenical idea of religion whose chief merit is having given birth to grandiose and spectacular architectures.

So there was a displacement that took place: for DeMille, who always considered Cabiria to be the greatest film of all time (a rather surprising reaction for an American given all his colleagues praise films from their own country first and foremost), the great pagan spectacle constitutes the chief interest of these “Christian” films (Samson and Delilah, The Sign of the Cross, The Ten Commandments). DeMille bases his art on the fascinating architecture imagined by these Barbarians, these rebels opposed to the true God, all the while extolling the exploits of the true believers who fought them and tried to destroy the monuments erected by the “heretics”. There are few references in DeMille’s work to Christian art, which is less spectacular and original than the art of the so-called barbarians.

There are some in Joan the Woman and The Road to Yesterday, but very few. An ambiguous position: DeMille made all this money thanks to the art of the enemies of these Christians whose tireless missionary he was. The same is true of Antonioni, Fuller and Buñuel. They vilified the world of concrete, war and Christianity, which nonetheless made their best effects possible.

It is true, however, that DeMille sometimes makes fun of this barbaric art by revealing all its extravagances, especially in Samson and Delilah. Be that as it may, if they are ridiculous—it’s the reign of kitsch—this ridiculousness is terribly impressive.

To better understand this late intrusion of Christianity in DeMille’s work, in the forty-fifth film (discounting the very negative image of the gluttonous, chain-smoking reverend in Don’t Change Your Husband), two facts must be taken into account:

The first is that DeMille, born in the most Protestant, Puritan state in America, i.e., Massachusetts, was brought up in an environment deeply marked by religion, thanks in particular to the influence of his father who had studied for a while to become a priest. A traditional religious fervour, which was innate and self-evident, without any particular anxieties or crises, and which remains anchored in the childhood years that produced it.

We will see later that this belief remains very childlike, even childish, which makes for its charm.

The second is that, just before The Ten Commandments of 1923, Hollywood was experiencing a period of turmoil: the drug-induced death of one of C.B.’s favourite actors, Wallace Reid, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor, who was something of a libertine, the suspicious death of a guest on the yacht of comic actor Fatty, the scandal surrounding Chaplin and his first wife, Mildred Harris.

And DeMille was likely to be the next on the blacklist, since he threw very lavish parties every weekend, in the absence of his wife, in his sumptuous country villa, named Paradise, with masked balls and a bordello-like atmosphere. So it was only natural that he should make the first move in imagining an inexistent public referendum, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of a future film on religion. With The Ten Commandments, he became Hollywood’s Mr. Religion, so he became almost untouchable. He was later even named Knight of the Holy Sepulchre.

The reverend (Theodore Roberts) in Don’t Change Your Husband (1918): you’d think Buñuel…

The religious meaning of The Ten Commandments of 1923 doesn’t lie as much in the Egyptian prologue evoking the Exodus as in the modern segment, which takes up two-thirds of the film. Here we have a sanctimonious old mother, slightly mocked for her excessive rigidity (in the first cut, she was even more ridiculous, but it is said that DeMille cut out a lot to smoothen the rough edges), and her two sons, one who does everything by the book and the other who behaves like an aggressive capitalist parvenu: a real-estate developer stealing from his client, he uses poor quality cement for his new building which collapses, killing his mother in the process and violating three commandments—”thou shalt not kill”, “thou shalt not steal” and “honour thy father and thy mother”—and cheats on his wife with a schemer (“thou shalt not commit adultery”) etc. Like the army of Ramses II, he ends up in the waters of the Red Sea, but at the wheel of his posh and powerful speedboat.

A schematic, caricatural and second-hand message that makes the film rather ridiculous, with an excess that is nevertheless (unintentionally) amusing in an ironic way.

Perhaps the best part is this family scene where the good brother, with his girlfriend and the little dog, goes to eat… hot dogs at a corner shop. It’s a pleasant surprise to find such a scene in a film called The Ten Commandments.

And then, there is this other magnificent, very kitschy scene where the evil hero, who is blackmailed by his wily Chinese mistress, finds no other solution than to kill her.

The Ten Commandments of 1956 stretches what was narrated in one hour in the original silent version over three hours and forty minutes. Nine months of shooting, a revenue of $90 million (against a cost of $13 million), thanks to the excessive hype particularly around the famous special effect: the waves that part in the Red Sea to let the people of Israel pass and fall back again to drown the Pharaoh’s army. It’s a special effect done with the help of gelatine masses that swell and spill out under the pressure of gases sent through fine tubes and with the help of the film strip running in reverse. An effect that is in theory better than the one in the silent version: the corridor in the sea is now rectilinear, and not curved, which makes it look much deeper. But the abstraction of black-and-white in the first film was more effective than the essential realism of colour, which here only brings out the artifice even more. This long-awaited and disappointing episode is followed by a sequence which crudely lingers on the arrival of ten consecutive fireballs that engrave the ten commandments on a stone thanks to rather futurist, comic-book-styled effects repeated ten times over. All this ridiculous ceremonial for sometimes highly obsolete messages such as “thou shalt have no other gods before me”—while ecumenism is de rigueur today among Christians, with a kind of inter-union of religions—or somewhat outdated or futile ones such as “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”[1] or “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”.

This effect, too, gives the impression of artifice. That is the paradox of Cecil DeMille’s religious films: all the special effects, which express miracles born of divine will, are very proper, very clean, a bit Ikea-like, hypermodern and futurist even when they are all set in a distant past. The same was true with the angels appearing in The Whispering Chorus and Joan the Woman, which were made forty years earlier and are more striking.

The worst thing is the declamatory quality of the dialogue. I understood everything without ever looking at the subtitles. I was flattered, because I got the impression of understanding English perfectly. But I later realized that this was one of the characteristics of turkeys, and that in great films, like those by John Cassavetes or Woody Allen, it is very hard to understand everything, because there is real work done there, a search for natural speech. I think it was Christopher Fry, the writer-scriptwriter, who noted the particularity of epics: everyone speaks very slowly. Epics marshal very famous, high-profile characters: Moses, Ramses, and it would seem impossible not to bestow them with an authority, dignity and self-assurance worthy of their rank. This is even more noticeable in Cleopatra, where Julius Caesar and Mark Antony also appear. Conclusion: we understand everything, but the diction is monotonous, Oxfordian, and unintentionally comic. These illustrious characters lose all humanity and naturalness. They become reciters, robots without depth. And it’s hard to tolerate this for close to four hours.

Talking pictures didn’t always serve DeMille well, whose art was located at a level of abstraction to which the realism of speech couldn’t adapt. A talking version of The Road to Yesterday would have been ridiculous. Samson and Delilah is above all an adventure film, set incidentally in a Biblical backdrop, where everything is done, like in The Ten Commandments, to introduce Hollywood’s boy-meets-girl and vaudeville’s triangle formulas. DeMille hit back at his detractors: “If you don’t like my films, you don’t like the Bible”. The Bible was very laconic about these episodes from the past. DeMille may not have betrayed it, but he added a whole lot of things he liked and which were likely to appeal to the American public.

The King of Kings, the story of the Passion of Christ, is disappointing in the sense that it remains a stilted, nervous film. DeMille is visibly afraid of making mistakes. It’s religious kitsch par excellence, which benefits from a magnificent work by cameraman Peverell Marley and set designers Mitchell Leisen and Wilfred Buckland. It’s a very sober work, quite opposite to DeMille’s customary style, based on extravagance. There are highly calculated gradations of whites and especially blacks here. The visual ambience of the Passion brings out the gloomy content of this key episode of spiritual life. It is interesting to note that most films or film projects on the Passion, like those of Duvivier, Stevens and Dreyer (which was unfinished), take the sober direction inaugurated by DeMille and by paintings of the previous centuries: the ideal thing, for a subject like this, is to shoot black-and-white in colour.

Understatement reigns supreme: the flagellation of Christ is only shown in silhouette. During the ascent to Calvary, the camera frames the Cross, not Christ.

All this deserves respect, but this humility isn’t exactly C.B. DeMille’s strength, and the viewer is terribly bored over a runtime of close to three hours. The only really interesting moments are the brief stretches where we see the sinner Mary Magdalene in her luxurious chariot drawn by five zebras, recalling the eccentricities of The Golden Bed or Madam Satan.

The King of Kings (1927): the sinner Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) on her chariot drawn by five zebras.

The Sign of the Cross ends with this implausible episode where Marcus, the head of Nero’s guard, who had hitherto been totally insensitive to the Christian faith, is determined to share the fate of his beloved in the lion’s den. It takes all the talent of our filmmaker to get the public to accept this. Here is a challenge often found in DeMille’s work: it’s completely unbelievable, but we are won over by the filmmaker’s ardour in trying to impose such absurdity on us. I don’t know if we believe it, but we admire Cecil DeMille’s obstinacy, his determination in defying all Cartesianism. He subjugates us, he begs us to take part in his project, and we become, with tears in the eyes, his fans, his dutiful slaves: he has dared to, and we respond favourably to his astounding audacity, all the more so because this kind of scene appears at the very end of the film, after a long preparation. We experience the same thing in The Road to Yesterday, The Volga Boatman, The Plainsman and Unconquered.

The final seconds of The Sign of the Cross moreover contain what could be considered the peak of kitsch art: we stay back inside the prison near the arena, after the Christians have left to be devoured by lions. The jail door begins to close. We then see, in the middle of this door, a bright horizontal slot which seems to be the reflection of a window located behind it. But soon after, we also see an identical, vertical white line that combines with this apparently realistic reflection to form a perfect cross. It seems totally natural, stripped of all artifice: at the beginning of the scene, we accepted this horizontal reflection as a reproduction of reality. And this vertical addition seems to be of the same order… DeMille thus succeeds in his trick of making us accept what is obviously the height of artifice as realism.

Let’s pass over The Crusades, both a flop and an artistic failure, where the intrusion of musical form into a pious film is unproductive and where Henry Wilcoxon’s mediocre and declamatory performance destroys all effects.

The choice of making Joan the Woman warrants some explanation. The film evidently takes a direction opposite to those of the aforementioned films, which fashion themselves as champions of Christianity and those who represent it. But let’s not forget that it was the clergymen of England who burnt Joan at the stake and, like many of his countrymen, DeMille felt certain reservations towards this country, which had totally enslaved the American territory. This is very noticeable in many of his films. Moreover, Joan of Arc came before Henry VIII, so she was the victim of English Catholicism. Puritans and Protestants had nothing to do with it. And the Englishmen who burnt Joan redeem themselves, as we shall see, by helping the French in their fight against the Germans in 1917.

Religion reappears in a more precise manner in films that aren’t Biblical epics, but are set in a contemporary milieu, with pullovers and business suits: The Road to Yesterday (1925) and The Godless Girl (1928).

This unexpected intrusion of religion into the modern world is to be related to the fact that the financier of these films, Jeremiah Milbank, was devout. Both films show the conflict between atheists and Christians, a conflict that, for us French, seems somewhat bizarre in the 21st century, especially as it takes on extravagant dimensions here: in the first of these films, Beth, a 100% atheist, falls madly in love with handsome Jack. A wedding is in sight. But—the horror—Jack comes to the following dinner in his pastor attire. No question of marriage whatsoever anymore…

In The Godless Girl, Judy, the head of a group of atheist students at a high-school opposes George, the leader of the Christian students movement. Brawls. One dead.

In all these films, religion seems to be just a pretext. DeMille is closer to Lewis Carroll than to Daniel-Rops. The protagonists are on one side or the other. They don’t express their motivations, their doubts, the deepest reasons for their eventual changeover, if they exist at all. It’s completely the opposite of films by Bergman, Dreyer or Bresson. Everything remains very superficial.

This means that, except in the case of these last two films, which elevate the sudden change of ideals to the level of a surrealist artwork, the choice of making a religious film doesn’t work out in favour of our filmmaker all that much. It even goes against him. Those who follow public opinion and see DeMille above all as the filmmaker of The Ten Commandments and Biblical epics are likely to not appreciate him at all, whereas watching apparently more modest works like Kindling or Saturday Night has the potential to turn them into enthusiastic supporters. The Biblical films work on their form, their style alone, while C.B.’s modern films combine the filmmaker’s art with the power and humour of a sociological study.

 

Footnote:

[1] Note that this second commandment implicitly prohibits cinema.