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As you've all probably figured out by now, I love bad movies almost as much as I love bad books.

Bad monster movies have been a particular favorite since my teen years, when I used to watch Godzilla battle a variety of rubber-suited extras courtesy of out of town UHF stations while Mum was in graduate school.  Bad horror movies come a close second, especially the black and white ones that use Hershey's chocolate syrup instead of stage blood.  And who can forget the glossy, beautifully photographed, utterly ridiculous oeuvre of Douglas Sirk?  Particularly the ones starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman?

That's not to say that I enjoy all bad movies.  Splatter movies make me physically ill, woman-hating romantic comedies make scream, and super-macho military movies make me wish I had the medical records of the producers' urologist.  There are movies are so bad, so violent/treacly/demeaning/cliched/just plain stupid that they're no fun, so bad they can't even be mocked.

To demonstrate the different, consider two very different but equally lousy Biblical drama.  One is an appalling exercise in heated religiosity and barely veiled violence porn, while the other is an eminently mockable monument to excess and Hollywood run amok.

Appalling:  The Passion of the Christ.  Mel Gibson's little experiment in religious drama would seem, on paper at least, to have all the elements that would have had me falling out of my chair into the aisle at the Heck Piazza Microplex:  it was all in Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles (appealing to America's vast Aramaic-American population, no doubt), the script was based more on the visions of a 19th German century nun with stigmata than the Bible, and there accusations of anti-Semitism, eliminationist rhetoric, and blatant historical errors.  Add that the the actor playing Jesus was actually struck by lighting during production, and it would be hard to find a movie riper for virtual brickbats and decaying fruit.

Alas, the level of violence, fervid religiosity, and ultra-orthodox Catholicism was more than I could stomach.  "This movie should be called 'Jesus gets the shit beat out of him for two hours,'" read one on-line review, and trust me when I say that I would rather spend those two precious hours having a polite dinner a la Russe with my ex-boyfriend than go through that.

No, when I want a bad Biblical movie I want one of those grandiose sandstorm-and-toga spectacles.  You know the ones I mean:  casts of thousands, skilled actors spouting over-the-top dialogue like "More wine, you waddling toad!", gorgeous actresses wearing chiffon and carefully coiffed bouffants, character actors playing Romans/Egyptians/unbelievers, reverent music (perhaps including an overture!  Or a montage of fine art inspired by the story!), dramatic lighting and location shots in Rome or Egypt or some other exotic place....

And maybe, just maybe, a smidgen of actual Biblical verse, or maybe a parable or two, in amongst all the emoting and groaning and suffering and chiffoning and waddling toads up on the screen.

Mockable:  The Greatest Story Ever Told, the vast, vastly overbudget George Stevens production of the last days of Jesus.  This film, which stretched its production schedule so far past its deadlin that a camel actually mated, carried, and gave birth to a calf in the middle of production, was intended as Stevens' magnum opus, greater even than previous triumphs like A Place in the Sun or Giant.  To further this end, Stevens hired virtually every available actor in Hollywood, from Telly Savalas (who played Pilate with relish, though no Tootsie Pops) to John Wayne (who played a centurion who prods Jesus down the Via Dolorosa and then proclaims, "Truly this man was the Son of Gawd!") to Joanna Dunham (who played Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinner).  When Dunham, seemingly inspired by the fecund camel, also became pregnant during filming, Stevens only remarked "That Mary Magdalene was always a troublemaker" and began shooting her in voluminous robes, positioned behind rocks, and from odd camera angles in an ultimately fruitless attempt to disguise her condition.

Best of all, Stevens decided to follow the grand Hollywood tradition of casting fair skinned, blue-eyed men as Jesus despite the singular dearth of such individuals in 1st century Judea.  Originally he wanted Oscar winner Charlton Heston (who flatly refused, settling for playing John the Baptizer in a camel skin) or another bankable star, but after screen testing virtually every leading man in Hollywood and finding him less than godlike, Stevens turned his eyes to Europe.  Specifically, Stevens turned his eye to Max von Sydow, the intense, brilliant star of The Seventh Sea and other Ingmar Bergman films.  Never mind that Sydow looked about as Middle Eastern as Marilyn Monroe, with bright blue eyes, pale skin, and sandy blond hair, or that he spoke English with a Swedish accent.  Stevens sent him to a dialect coach, slapped a brown wig on him, and lo! proclaimed that he had found his Man of Men.  

Sydow, always the professional, did an astonishing job of suppressing his native accent, despite occasional (and risible) slips like, "I come to heal the helpless and the veak."  He also managed to look comfortable as a blue-eyed brunet surrounded by the likes of Telly Savalas and Jamie Farr (who plays a disciple and looks a lot more convincing as a Palestinian than most of the cast).  Alas, adopting a neutral speech pattern wasn't enough to save his performance (which often is closer to "Jesus needs Milk of Magnesia" than "Jesus is so charismatic that the Romans feel threatened by him") or the film, which is beautifully shot, impeccably staged, magnificently costumed, and so dull, airless, and long that the viewer would be justified in wondering if a camel might actually conceive, carry, and give birth to a calf while the movie is running.  

The Greatest Story Ever Told is but one of the many, varied, and almost invariably awful Biblical movies that evangelized cinemas in the 1950s and 1960s.  Some, like Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments, actually work as entertainment, though not necessarily for the reasons their makers intended; half the fun of Ben-Hur, after all, is watching Stephen Boyd, who had been told to play Messala as if he'd had a teenage fling with Ben-Hur, act opposite Charlton Heston, who had been told nothing of the sort and nearly had a stroke when he learned of it years later.  Most, however, are the sort of glitzy, silly, overblown nonsense that outfits Yul Brynner in a greasy wig and a bullwhip to play King Solomon (Solomon and Sheba), Anouk Aimee in silver glitter eyeshadow and a sneer (Sodom and Gomorrah, or Victor Mature in a greasy wig and Hedy Lamarr (Sampson and Delilah).

And some, this being Saturday night, and this diary being about books, are Movies Based on Books So Bad They're Good.

Tonight, courtesy of Susan from 29, Raboof, and MT Space, I bring a double feature of bad Biblical novels that inspired equally wretched movies.  One is by an author who had cut his teeth as a Hollywood studio editor, while the other was the basis for a brilliantly awful star turn by a Hollywood muscleman whose charisma, heavy-lidded eyes, and pouting lips made him a legend:

The Silver Chalice  The Silver Chalice, by Thomas B. Costain - this epically silly book tells the story of Basil of Antioch, a young 1st century man who has been cheated of his inheritance, sold into slavery, and apprenticed to a silversmith.  Once he regains his freedom, he is commissioned to make an elaborate silver chalice that will serve as a cover for another, much plainer drinking vessel.

We learn during the course of the novel that the wealthy man who commissions the Very Special Silver Cup is one Luke, a physician who knew a Very Special Man named Jesus.  Luke wants to preserve the Very Special Non-Silver Cup Jesus used during the Very Special Seder just before his arrest and execution, and thinks a silver sheath would be just perfect even though silver tarnishes like billy-o and will need to be polished periodically.  

To make the cup Extra Special, Basil decides to incorporate the faces of all the surviving guests into his work, and travels about the Middle East to meet the remaining Disciples.  Along the way he runs into Joseph of Arimathea, who hasn't yet left for English to plant thorn trees, the Apostle Peter, and the evil Simon Magus and his companion Helena.  Add in that Helena was Basil's childhood friend and first love, that Simon Magus is a magician who uses tricks to convince people that he, not Jesus, was the Messiah, and Costain's overheated prose, and the result is a tasty, melodramatic, and unconsciously hilarious mess.

Here are but a few samples for your delectation:

“Do you agree that we should order them back into the house and then scatter these watchers an send them home? If they refuse to obey there will be trouble. We will have to slit throats. I confess to you, Eleazer, that I do not like slitting throats at a wedding.”
I think Emily Post would agree on this.
“Adam was snoring vigorously, Luke with dignity and serenity, the servants like a full orchestra..”
And there were orchestras in 1st century Judea when?
“When is this old moneybags doing to give up and die as any decent man would do? I am tired of standing at his door.”
No one's holding a javelin to your head, sir.
“History pays no heed to the unspectacular citizen who worked hard all day and walked at night to a humble home with dust on his tunic and his flat cap. But in the end the builders have had the better of it. The miracles they accomplished in stone are still standing and still beautiful, even with the disintegration of so many centuries on them, but the battlefields where great warriors died are so encroached upon by modern villas and so befouled by the rotting remains of motorcars and the staves of oil barrels that they do not always repay a visit.”
The shattered remains of the Frauenkirche, Coventry Cathedral, and thousands of other cathedrals, palaces, and municipal buildings bombed flat less than a decade earlier would beg to disagree.

Thomas Costain had worked for many years as a story editor in Hollywood, so it's no surprise that The Silver Chalice got the full big screen treatment a few years after publication.  It was designed as a vehicle for young Broadway star Paul Newman, who had the chiseled looks and earnest expression needed to play Basil, and the studio surrounded him with established actors like Virginia Mayo as Helena, Jack Palance as Simon Magus, Pier Angeli as Basil's beloved Deborra [sic], and Lorne Greene as the Beaver as the Apostle Peter (yes, really).

Unfortunately for Newman, The Silver Chalice was even worse than the book it was based on.  The hideous sets looked like they'd been designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright reject, Virginia Mayo was painted in silver glitter and given Vulcan eyebrows, and Palance wore a series of increasingly ridiculous robes appliqued with allegedly arcane symbols that looked more like wiggling sperm.  Newman himself was so bad as Basil that he didn't work again in Hollywood for two years, and that only because James Dean was considerate enough to die in a car crash and free up the role of Rocky Marciano in Somebody Up There Likes Me.  

Ironically enough, the real-life model for the Very Special Silver Cup has nothing to do with Jesus, was not made in the first century of the Common Era, and may not even have been a cup.  Whether it was made by a silversmith named Basil is unknown, but I'm not holding my breath.

The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas - Despite the veneer of faith and Biblical origins, The Silver Chalice is at heart an adventure story.  The same cannot be said for The Robe.  Written by a Lutheran minister who only turned to writing in his early 50s, The Robe is a serious look at the Roman tribune Marcellus Gallio, witness to the ministry of Jesus, and his slave Demetrius in the aftermath of the Crucifixion.

And what a tale it is!  Gallio, it seems, is the Roman soldier who wins Jesus' "seamless garment" during the infamous dice game at the foot of the Cross.  He didn't personally believe that Jesus had committed a crime, but he carries out the Crucifixion anyway because hey, orders are orders!  He then attends a banquet hosted by Pontius Pilate, where a drunken centurion decides that hey, rank doesn't matter! and taunts Marcellus into actually wearing the Robe.

Marcellus, who is less than pleased at the way things are working out, reluctantly dons his winnings, only to have a prompt and very public nervous breakdown.  Since a mentally ill tribune is pretty much worthless, Marcellus is sent first to Rome, and then to Greece (?) to recuperate.  His loyal slave, Demetrius, finally persuades him to touch the Robe for the first time since his breakdown, and behold!  he is healed!   Convinced that the Robe has miraculous powers, Marcellus then goes full circle and returns to Palestine to track down as many of Jesus' friends and followers as he can find.  He is so moved by their testimony that both he and Demetrius become Christians.

Alas, their newfound faith is of only spiritual assistance when they return to Rome to report to Emperor Tiberius, Marcellus' mentor; Tiberius' batshit crazy nephew Caligula is now Emperor, and if there's one thing he really, really loves, it's the screams of executed Christians in the morning.  Marcellus realizes what's about to happen, frees Demetrius, and then nobly faces his martyrdom with his brand-new wife, Diana.  On their way to their deaths they manage to toss the Robe to a fellow Christian, who is tasked with delivering it to "The Big Fisherman" (the Apostle Peter).

So far this could be any pious Biblical fiction, with the bonus that Douglas, who had been writing professionally since the 1920s, knew how to string words together.  His best known quote, "If a man harbors any sort of fear, it percolates through all his thinking, damages his personality, makes him landlord to a ghost," is actually memorable in a good way; there's a kernel of truth to it, and the imagery is both interesting and haunting.  E.B. White he was not, but then again, who is?

The same praise, alas, cannot be extended to the second of the two, yes two movies made of The Robe.

The first one, starring Richard Burton as Marcellus, Jean Simmons as Diana, and a surprisingly good Victor Mature as Demetrius, was a critical and box office smash.  It was nominated for several Oscars, including a Best Actor nod for Burton, and won for costumes and set design.  It's still considered a classic, and is arguably the best of its genre along with The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur.

Of course such a success all but cried out for a sequel, but since the original had ended with Marcellus and Diana walking off to their execution, the prospects were distinctly dim.  Then someone remembered that hey! one of the supporting characters was still alive, so why not make a movie about him?

Thus was the genesis of Demetrius and the Gladiators, a movie as subtle and artistic as Victor Mature's over developed biceps.  Among the plot elements are Demetrius' friendship with Emperor Claudius (?), his romance with the lovely Lucia, a miraculous healing, several virtuous gladiators, the Praetorian Guard killing Caligula because Caligula wants to kill Demetrius, not because he was a screaming lunatic who was bankrupting the Empire, Messalina (yes, that Messalina) vowing fidelity to her husband Claudius (!!), and Caligula having prisoners killed so he can try to resurrect them with the Robe.  There's plenty of HAWT HAWT gladiatorial action and oiled flesh, and Victor Mature spends much of the movie flexing his brawny arms, wrinkling his brow, and trying to look determined while only looking petulant.  

This extraordinarily unworthy sequel made money, and it still shows up on TV from time to time, but there was no thought of making Demetrius and the Gladiators:  Oil Lamp Boogalo.  Thank the Big Fisherman.


So what Biblical bestsellers make you twitch?  Make you reach for the King James to check a quote?  Laugh hysterically at the anachronisms?  Make you turn permanently Hindu in retaliation?  Come gather 'round the atrium and share.....


Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun (hiatus) 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
alternate Tuesdays 8:00AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
Tue 10:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
alternate Thu 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Jul 07, 2012 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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