Art Vs Commerce: Musicals, Bible Stories, and Bad Choices (1950s)


What does it say about the Korean War that the big films of the early 50s just… skipped it? Not only wasn’t there an Oscar winning or hit movie about it, we haven’t had a Best Picture or box office hit even touch on military life since 1946. Audiences got tired of “let’s hear it for the troops” and embraced “The Romans sure did suck, but Jesus was cool.”

Well, the military’s back, but… I noticed a distinct change in tone.

And The Oscar Goes To…

If From Here to Eternity is remembered for anything, it’s that shot in the middle there of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr (who’s been in other movies we’ve discussed but so far I just didn’t care enough to mention her) making out in the surf. What you might not know is that a) she’s technically committing adultery (but her husband is a cheat and a tool so honestly it’s fine), b) even if Burt Lancaster had top billing, this is still very much the B-plot; c) seconds after that moment he’s slut-shaming his lady for having been with other guys. Dudes… and I say “dudes” because of all possible genders, I know, I know this is mainly dudes doing it… do not stop makeouts in order to slut-shame your makeout partner. Don’t slut-shame at all, but especially not when you are currently benefiting from her horniness.

That said.

During World War II, there had been a distinct yay-army tone in movies. This of course peaked with This Is The Army, then took a cool-down lap with The Best Years of Our Lives, and since then we’d left military life alone. Well, the army in the present day. These biblical epics don’t have much nice to say about Roman legionnaires. But I think this movie (and the book it was based on, Oscars loved book adaptations)… hates them? Like, sure, we have two protagonists (Lancaster and a somewhat wooden Montgomery Clift) and a loveable sidekick (Frank Sinatra) that are all career military men, but so are all the villains, are there are some villains. The only moral I can come up with is “The army: it breeds both patriots and monsters, the former died and the latter get promoted faster.”

So here’s our story. Private Prewitt (Clift) arrives at a new base in Hawaii. The local captain tends to fast-track promotions to sergeant for anyone who joins his prized boxing team, but Prewitt blinded a man in the ring and has no desire to ever box again. So Captain Holmes has all of his boxing sergeants join forces to make Prewitt’s life as unpleasant as humanly possible until he relents. His chief sergeant, Sgt. Warden (Lancaster)– because Prewitt’s army career is like prison, get it???— disapproves, but a) can’t really override his captain, and b) is busy banging Holmes’ wife. Prewitt’s only real bright spots are his friend Angelo (Sinatra) and his new lady friend from the local gentleman’s club (Donna Reed). But he doesn’t get to see his lady friend often, because leave is hard for him to get, and Angelo has his own issues, as Sgt. “Fatso” Judson (Junior Camper Surrogate Dad Ernest Borgnine), who runs the stockade, is out to get or maybe kill Angelo for being Italian.

So the sergeants in Honolulu are bullies, a racist would-be murderer, and a few “nice ones” who barely lift a finger to stop these waves of abuse. And this is easily three quarters of the movie. Prewitt being abused, Angelo being bullied and eventually beaten and tortured by Judson until he eventually dies. The bulk of the movie is the second act of Hacksaw Ridge, without the third act where everyone learns that Desmond Dawes is a good egg, actually, and they shouldn’t have been so mean to him. And for those who don’t memorize every little thing I say about movies, the second act of Hacksaw Ridge was the worst thing about the movie, even more than Mel Gibson’s indecision over whether he was celebrating pacifism or glorifying patriotic war-murder.

And sure, eventually Holmes’ superiors get wind of what he’s doing, partially because Prewitt eventually fights back against his worst abuser and Holmes is spotted not stopping the fight and that raises eyebrows. Holmes gets told to resign so they don’t have to let him stay in uniform long enough to court-martial him, the worst sergeant gets busted down to private and stuck on latrine detail (offscreen, sadly), and Prewitt stabs Judson to death as payback for Angelo, so they could have reached some happy ending… but then Pearl Harbor happens.

I’m honestly not sure if that was meant to be a twist. Maybe there was a hint that it was 1941 and I just missed it? Anyway the whole base gets Pearl Harbored, Prewitt, AWOL and injured since his knife-fight with Judson, tries to sneak back onto the base to rejoin his unit, and gets shot by a patrolman in the process. He’s dead, Warden refuses to get promoted to be with his stolen girl, so the romantic interests leave Hawaii on the same boat without their men, the end.

So you can see how I felt that this movie was kinda anti-military, given that the two most likeable characters, who loved the army and devoted their lives to it, were tormented and then killed by their fellow soldiers. And I’d be fine with an anti-army movie, the anti-war movie from the 30s is still in my top five for this project as of 1953, but all this relentless bullying and torment with so little payoff is just a bit much to deal with. The only bright spots are a knife-murder and watching a man’s career go up in smoke. The beach make-out might have been a highlight if Warden hadn’t ruined it so fast.

Also the final lines make a big deal out of how Prewitt’s full name was Robert E. Lee Prewitt, as if being named after General Lee made him even more patriotic somehow. Which… okay, Red State America still hasn’t accepted that Robert E. Lee is at best as much of a “great American” as Wehrmacht General Erwin Rommel, so we can’t rely on 50s America to know that, but it was a super weird note to end on. Also Prewitt’s lady friend was obviously either lied to or was lying about how he died, ’cause she told such an inaccurate tale of bravery in action I thought maybe she was talking about someone else.

Anyway it’s grim and unpleasant and has no trace of a happy ending, thanks 1953 I hate it.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s ranked 46th, right above Hamlet. They admit it’s badly paced and has aged poorly but find more nice things to say about Clift’s performance than seems rational to me. They say it’s “iconic.” I say one good shot doesn’t make a good movie. If it did, Man of Steel would be hailed as a masterpiece by more than just the Snyder Cult.

Okay, so, what was top of the box office? Something light or contemporary or–

The Box Office Champ

Son of a BITCH

Okay. Biblical epic number three, and it’s the Jesus-est one yet. It’s like someone saw The Greatest Show on Earth rake in money and Oscars, then sauntered in like whatever the 50s equivalent of a Hip Preacher was and said “You know what the real greatest show is, the love of our lord and saviour!” No, what probably happened is someone saw how much money Quo Vadis raked in and thought “Bet we could make even more if we had more Jesus,” and god damn it it worked, you absolute rubes.

Of course it wasn’t just the Jesus angle. The Robe was also the first CinemaScope widescreen movie, meaning it was literally the biggest colour epic yet, and set a record for single-day ticket sales.

This is, in effect, another movie where a Roman solider finds Jesus (more literally this time), gets converted, and confronts the Emperor about how Jesus is Good. A few differences from Quo Vadis, though: the Roman general in question is far more sympathetic than the dickwad from Vadis, despite being the guy who actually crucified Jesus; he isn’t converted by the woman he loves, but by a former slave of his (Samson and Delilah’s Samson, Victor Mature), and actually has to convert his childhood sweetheart; said couple of childhood sweethearts both die in the end; and being set several decades earlier, they had a whole different corrupt emperor to demonize.

That’s an advantage this and Quo Vadis share… if you want to demonize Rome for being mean to Christians, man you could not ask for better than Caligula and Nero. And like Peter Ustinov’s Nero in Quo Vadis, Caligula is played with such over-the-top sliminess he makes Cobra Commander look like Brooklyn 99’s deadpan Captain Holt.

Anyway it’s a lot of empty sermonizing with the only moral stance being “The Romans shouldn’t have bought and sold slaves. White slaves. We are only talking about Rome, nobody in the South panic.”

These biblical epics are not good, gang, they are not good.

And Rotten Tomatoes says: Reviews such as “Overblown melodramatic biblical nonsense” and “Pious claptrap” bring it down to 32%, boosted that high by some flaccidly positive reviews that count as “good.” Finally we agree on something.

But Why Not…? I’m not here to shill for Disney but I’d have much rather talked Peter Pan for this thing, and I bet you’d have liked it more too, 50s audiences. Peter Pan doesn’t feel like Sunday school homework.

Other Events in Film

  • A documentary called This Is Cinerama was released to show off the new wide-screen aspect ratio. Like a smaller, duller prototype of when IMAX first happened and it was all documentaries on Everest or deep sea diving and whatnot. Somehow it narrowly beat From Here To Eternity for second place at the year’s box office. Pretty hollow. Surely we won’t be hearing more about this in two pages.
  • Marilyn Monroe sang “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and if she wasn’t an icon yet, she was now.
  • House of Wax wasn’t the first 3D movie (that was actually The Power of Love in 1920, go figure), but it is an example of theatres fighting back against television with newfangled gimmicks like 3D, and one that has Vincent Price, which makes it better than most.
  • Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar and became an icon with Roman Holiday. It also had Gregory Peck.
  • If you care about the western Shane, it’s from this year. I’ve never managed, though.
  • Stanley Kubrick’s first movie, the anti-war flick Fear and Desire, came out in ’53. I will hear no arguments that From Here To Eternity was more pro-army.

Next Page: He made too many enemies, of the people who would keep us on our knees

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