In the Audience: Third time’s a charm?

By NICK ROGERS

I have been very excited to present the Classic Movie Night’s latest film series “Of Epic Proportions: Classic Hollywood Film Spectacles,” capturing the industry’s love of big-budget, big-production, big-cast, big- profit box office bonanzas. All five of the films in this series had hefty budgets, great production values, huge star power and eventual huge profits. Except one…

My final presentation in this series will screen on Wednesday, March 8, at 7 p.m. at the same wonderful venue as all our classic films have played, the Historic USO Building. The film is a very recent one with an interesting history and curious circumstance as to why it was ever filmed. I will fill you in with the juicy details, except the title…of course. It shouldn’t be too hard to guess. It is set in the time of Christ, and contains an outrageous chariot race. There!

There are actually four Hollywood renderings of the 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace, the first one (1907) being a very short version to be followed, through the years, by three longer and more elaborate versions.

In 1922, the newly organized Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios acquired the rights to film the long-running (25 years) stage version of Wallace’s hugely successful novel of this tale of the Christ.

After two years of difficulties in location shooting in Italy, the production was moved to MGM in Culver City. The costs eventually rose to $3.9 million, making it the most expensive film of the silent era. One of the assistant directors of this film was a very young William Wyler, who would direct the 1959 remake. Although audiences flocked to the movie after its premiere in 1925, its huge expense resulted in a hefty net financial loss for MGM. That loss was eventually recouped upon a 1931 re-release (with sound effects and music added).

Fast forward… In 1952 MGM announced plans to remake the 1925 spectacle. A myriad of problems, mostly with the script, delayed the beginning of shooting until 1956. The fortunes of MGM were waning by the mid 1950’s owing to the consent decree of 1948 that forced film studios to divest themselves of theater chains and the competitive pressure of television.

To save the studio, and inspired by the success of Paramount’s 1956 Biblical epic “The Ten Commandments,” the film proceeded in development with award-winning William Wyler as its director. With a budget that finally capped at $17 million, and with Charlton Heston cast in the lead role (along with 365 additional speaking parts, 5,000 extras wandering around the Italian location, plus a stable of 200 camels and 2,500 horses), the picture went into a grueling year and a half of production. The famous chariot race took well over a year to film. Premiering in late 1959, the film received mostly positive reviews and huge box office receipts (eventually hauling in $147 million), and easily nabbed 11 of its 12 Oscar nominations. The only negative comment on its cumbersome four-hour length.

So, fast forward again to 2014. Paramount Pictures and MGM, announced that they would co-produce a new version of this twice filmed spectacle based on the original novel, rather than the play. Director Timur Bekmambetov was fascinated by the second film, but found the focus on revenge rather than forgiveness to be problematic. This was the prime difference between the book and the 1959 movie. A truly international cast, including Jack Huston (of the famous Huston movie clan) and acclaimed actor Morgan Freeman (plus over 2,000 extras), was assembled for the Italian-located film shoot.

In many instances, computer-generated effects were used, but as little as possible. The famous chariot race, actually clocking in at the same 10- minute running time as the previous versions, combined computer special effects and live action stunt work in a very effective manner… with no horses being wounded and slaughtered as in the other films! In hopes of capturing evangelical audiences, the character of Jesus Christ was actively integrated into the action, rather than being briefly witnessed by others in the earlier versions. That did not appeal to churchgoers ... or anyone else! This third attempt failed to impress critics and audiences alike. The $100 million in expenditures were not recouped; $94 million was the final box office tally.

So, why am I showing this? I really admire this film. Trust me on this. This version has a more realistic feeling in its casting and production values. We finally have a motion picture that features younger, more ethnically diverse actors, rather than perfectly-groomed, long-in-the-tooth white Hollywood actors (sorry, Charlton Heston). The film is gritty rather than glamorous, and naturally draws you into its action and locations. The film beautifully retells the entire story in a tight, no-nonsense two hours, rather than a tedious, butt-numbing four. And the chariot race will have you jumping out of your seat with its realistic, breathtaking action. Most importantly, this version ends on a hopeful and inspiring note…something we really need these days! And, stick around for the extremely clever ending credits that will delight hard-core film fans.

In other words, I am ending this spectacular series — with a real spectacle!

Story First Published: 2017-02-10