Chariots of Fire (1981) and Thatcher

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. [1]

Chariots of Fire was a commercial hit across the world. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

With such a biblical reference for the title, you may think the film Chariots of Fire was a religious film. The film’s title was inspired by the line, “Bring me my Chariot of fire!” from the William Blake  poem, which derived from the above biblical quote from the second book of kings (above). This poem was also adapted into the British hymn Jerusalem which is heard at the end of the film, when people walk away from the funeral. 

Bring me my bow of burning gold;

Bring me my arrows of desire;

Bring me my spear; O clouds unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire I will not cease from mental fight;

 Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand;

 Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land.

William Blake

The film certainly does mention religion, but that is not its central focus. Chariots of Fire (1981) has come to represent the Thatcher era for many commentators.[2] One critic placed in a set of films that defined the Thatcher era. Andrew Pulver of The Guardian believed: “All the optimism of the early years of Thatcher’s premiership can be found in this unashamedly patriotic, and undeniably stirring, epic. By connecting the experiences of Jewish sprinter Harold Abrahams and Scottish flier Eric Liddell, Chariots rather brilliantly manages to position itself as an outsider-against-the-establishment story – the real villain here is the complacent Prince of Wales (Edward VIII to be): the film’s anti-aristocrat sentiment was right up Thatcher’s street.” [3] The film would be used as a fundraiser by conservatives.

Chariots of Fire (1981) was based on two athletes who participated in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian and runs for God’s glory; and Harold Abrahams, who wants to break into the Christian English hierarchy. It is not a particularly accurate account of the two men’s participation in the games. The errors are for all to see. To name a few: Harold Abrahams did not court the singer court Sybil Evers until well after the Olympics, and he did not win the college dash, it was Lord Burghley. Abrahams was also known for his long jumping, and this is not mentioned. Liddell also introduced Abrahams to the professional sports coach Sam Mussabini.[4] The list of errors is quite extensive, but it simply does not matter. Like all good historical fiction, the underlying events are only a platform for an engaging story. The two characters are quite sympathetic. Both are outsiders. Liddell is the son of missionaries in China, as well as being a Scot, and Abrahams is a Jew whose father is an immigrant from Lithuania. Abrahams is trying to break into the establishment by doing brilliantly in the Olympics. Liddell runs for God’s pleasure and as a vehicle to deliver sermons to people. Abrahams is intense and driven, but he has a gift for friendship, as well as enjoying Gilbert and Sullivan. In contrast, Liddell likes people’s company and has a modest nature.

Chariots of Fire (1981) was based on two athletes who participated in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian and runs for God’s glory; and Harold Abrahams, who wants to break into the Christian English hierarchy. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The message of competition between these fine athletes was one that resonated with the times. Thatcher was elected in 1979, with a strong commitment to private enterprise. Chariots of Fire, like many other films about sport, extolled competition as bringing out the best in people. Losing was a shattering event, but it made all who participate stronger. The messages of the benefits of the competition were certainly topical at the time. The first term of the Thatcher Government was not a pleasant one, and her government was deeply unpopular. The privatisation, deregulation of the commercial sector and austerity measures had caused the economy to stall. The success of the Falklands invasion in 1982 pulled the government out of a slump, and it rode an economic recovery to become one of the most successful in the United Kingdom’s history. In doing so, Thatcher reversed reforms that dated back to the Attlee Government in 1948. It caused massive upheaval and disruption as the public sector was wound back.

The second theme in the film was patriotism or less kindly, nationalism. The film is filled with English flags, and it is literally – and metaphorically – a flag-waver. Yet it is not competition or nationalism at its heart, but ambivalence about British history and class system. The film is set in the run-up to the 1924 Olympics, the shadow of the First World War looms over this film. A scene in the University where the lecturer looks at the names on the wall, and laments that they all had promise. A generation had been lost, and now the United Kingdom had to stagger into the future. The slaughter caused by nationalism is in the background of this film – it is not exalted. It does praise a benign form of patriotism exemplified by supporting your team at the Olympics by – well – waving flags.

Abrahams works with a profession coach to win, putting hi mat odds with the amateur ideal of the upper classes. Image courtesy of EMoviePoster.

When the director Lindsay Anderson was asked about his role in the film, he said it was fine to bask in the past, provided it was sentimental. Lindsay’s film about the London class system was the fire breathing If (1968).  Lindsay would later say that he enjoyed the sentimentalism of Chariots of Fire. While Anderson’s actors in his cinema want to break down the class system, in Chariots of Fire, one man, Norman Abrahams, wants to break into the establishment and feels hampered by his Jewish background – although he remains proud of it. The other, a Scottish missionary, has no interest in the establishment or its rules, and only wishes to serve God. He runs to feel God’s pleasure.

Directly or indirectly, the film represented some of the Thatcher era’s values, with its themes of careers open to talent, individual effort, and strong competition. Abrahams uses sport to break into British society, by excelling at running. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In this new class system, talent will provide entry to the upper echelons.While not as flexible as American or Australian society, the British establishment was not rigid.  The British could always absorb talent into its hierarchy, regardless of origins. Benjamin Disraeli, who became a Prime Minister twice, was from a Jewish family. The current Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a tobacconist, and a woman and the system absorbed her talent, and she rose to the top. Such flexibility has always been an aspect of the British system. When it is announced at the end of the film that Abrahams became the elder statesman of British athletics, it should have come as no surprise.

Liddell is passionately connected to the community, and when the Olympics are over, he returns to his missionary work in China. He is not a figure of the Thatcherite period where the message is– there is no such thing as society. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

But the figure of Liddell is a counterweight against these Thatcherite messages. Liddell feels “God’s pleasure” when he runs. He does not run for some “tin cups” and gains more joy from distributing prices at a charity race to children. Liddell is passionately connected to the community, and when the Olympics are over, he returns to his missionary work in China. He is not a figure of the Thatcherite period – with its message of “there is no such thing as society.” Most of the film’s political critics focus on Abrahams, but a counter message is there. This film is also about a man who will stare down the British establishment to address his moral concerns. By only examining one part of the film, critics have overlooked some strong messages about working for the community and less fortunate. Chariots of Fire is a complex and multifaceted film. Just looking at it with a political lens limits the appreciation of it.

[1] 2 Kings 2:11 King James Edition.

[2] Ellis Cashmore (2008) Chariots of Fire: bigotry, manhood and moral certitude in an age of individualism, Sport in Society, 11:2-3, 159-173, DOI: 10.1080/17430430701823406. Other views are contained in Claire Monk. “The British ‘heritage Film’ and Its Critics.” Critical Survey 7, no. 2 (1995): 116-24. Accessed October 2, 2020.

[3] Andrew Pulver, “The films that defined the Thatcher era,” The Guardian, 9 April 2013, accessed at on 2 October 2020.



Ngram charting the rise and fall of directors

The Ngram shows references to DeMille. His reputation dives after his death and suffers a fall in the 1980s, before beginning a steady increase

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Charting how a reputation rises and falls is always a challenge. It is a difficult research project to shift through the various sources. However, a recent Google tool may provide some answers.

In 2010, Google released some searchable data derived from its book scanning. The book scanning project has now encompassed 25 million books. While the project has been controversial because of copyright issues, and other legal matters, it has one useful tool that could assist researchers in reputation.

According to Wikipedia, “In the fields of computational linguistics and probability, an n-gram is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sample of text or speech. The items can be phonemessyllablesletterswords or base pairs according to the application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text.” Basically, what the ngram viewer does is show how many times a certain expression is repeated across the books surveyed.

Now it is always going to be a rough and ready tool, but looking at an individual, we can start to see the shape of their reputation. Taking the director and producer Cecil. B DeMille as an example, the data shows considerable shifts in his reputation over time.[1]

The references begin in 1915, which is when Cecil B. DeMille would have come to attention, when he directed The Squaw Man with Oscar C. Apfel, and starring Dustin Farnum. It was DeMille’s first film and it was also the first feature film in Hollywood. DeMille’s reputation shows a steady increase until about 1923, when it flattens for a decade. DeMille was a highly prominent film director at this time.

Around 1930, the charts takes another jump forward and rises sharply. This coincides with DeMille’s return to Paramount in the early 1930s, and then a strong success story through the sound period. This trend continues up to 1956, when DeMille directed The Ten Commandments.

The number of mentions dips after his death, and reaches a low point in 1964. In the early 1960s, Andrew Sarris placed DeMille in the second rank of directorial hierarchy, and interest appeared to rise until 1974.

DeMille directing The Ten Commandments. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

During the late 1970s, when Joseph Mankiewcz started being interviewed about the Screen Directors Meeting in 1950, mentions of DeMille began to fall. [2] However, in 1980, his reputation turned a corner and he began a steady and unspectacular rise. This continued until 2005, when his mentions started to decline.

DeMille’s decline from 2007 is reflected in basically all other directors from the same period. It simply could be that interest in shifting from the era as a whole. The Ngram open up some interesting lines of inquiry for reputational inquiry.



[2] Brianton, Kevin. Hollywood Divided : The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist. Screen Classics. 2017.

Interiors and exteriors in the Leopard

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

According to the highly influential critic Roger Ebert, ‘“The Leopard” was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character.’ Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Taking an iconic novel and putting it on the screen is always a dangerous step. Many great novels have made mediocre or even poor films. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby may be one of the highpoints of American literature, which seems to be a novel that defies translation onto the screen. Gatsby has had four film adaptations, with two especially big-budget, well-known movies: the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and the 2013 film with Leonardo DiCaprio. A silent film was made in 1926, but only a short trailer can be accessed. Despite the large budgets for the Redford and DiCaprio versions, the best of the three adaptations, to my mind, appears to be the low budget version in 1949, directed by Elliott Nugent, with Alan Ladd in the title role – but the internet review site rotten tomatoes gives it 41 per cent: the Redford version came in at 27 percent: and the DiCaprio version is the most popular at 67 per cent. Based on contemporary reviews, the 1926 version gained 44 per cent. [1]  None can be deemed a great film, even though the novel is an American classic.[2]

The surprising choice of Burt Lancaster for the role of the Prince seems to be perfect now. Yet, he was chosen after Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, and Nikolay Cherkasov were not available. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The standards for such a translation from a piece of literature to the screen are high, much higher than an original script. So it is a brave director who takes on a classic, as few can rival the impact of the novel. Yet some have done so. Described as one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, The Leopard tells the story of the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution. The Prince of Salina, Fabrizio, still ruled over a vast estate in Sicily in 1860. The symbol for his family is the Leopard – hence the title. When Garibaldi’s troops land, he must decide between the growing new forces of republicanism and the old regime. The director, Luchino Visconti, may have been attracted to the book because he also came from an aristocratic family, and he almost certainly felt some connection to the title character.

Claudia Cardinale spoke Italian – or more likely in a Sicilian dialect or French when she worked with Alain Delon. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

According to the highly influential critic Roger Ebert, ‘“The Leopard” was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character.’[3] Yet the casting was, in many ways, a happy accident. The surprising choice of Burt Lancaster for the role of the Prince seems to be perfect now. Yet, he was chosen after Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, and Nikolay Cherkasov were not available.[4] It was very much an international production designed to appeal to audiences across the world; hence it also stars Alain Delon from France and Claudia Cardinale, nominally from Italy – she was Italian Tunisian. Even though Lancaster comes from a Northern Ireland origin, he passes well as an Italian. It was filmed without sound. Lancaster spoke his lines in English, Cardinale spoke Italian – or more likely in a Sicilian dialect or French when she worked with Delon. Only later was the film dubbed into Italian.

The film falls in one key area, which is the interior monologues of the Leopard. It is not something that can easily translate from the interior to the exterior. In theatre, you can directly address the audience, talking the character out of time and space. In the film, this technique is far more difficult. A director might show a shot of the actor staring into space, and then run a voice-over showing the countryside that they are looking at in the distance. In The Leopard, who strives for naturalism, cannot do that. We cannot look inside a character’s head and read their thoughts, just as we cannot do it in real life.

In some scenes such as the arrival of Claudia Cardinale, the battle of Palermo, and the final ball, Visconti seems to reach a different level in film making. Images courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Yet the internal monologues of the Prince as he ruminates on death and the changing situation of the times, are the brilliant backbone of a great novel. It is where the novel takes off, and the film flounders. Occasionally, Visconti allows the Prince to state these thoughts, but he never delivers the full weight of them. This approach probably says more about the limits of cinema as an art form.

While the film flounders with the internal dialogues, the book does not convey the beauty of the palaces or the visual splendour of Sicily. It is a film of exteriors. In some scenes such as the arrival of Claudia Cardinale, the battle of Palermo, and the final ball, Visconti seems to reach a different level in film making. While some find Visconti slow, I find the detail of each scene so interesting that I want more time.

In short,  The Leopard (1963) is one of the most beautiful films ever made, and it is to Criterion’s credit that they have given it a treatment that it deserves. The Criterion disc set is the best way to watch the film outside of a cinema. It has the full 185-minute version – the first release was shortened by 25 minutes – but in either the directorial version, the film is a swirl of brilliant performances and directorial finesse. To my mind, the extended version does not add a great deal to the overall impact of the film, but it interesting to see it. The set has an outstanding commentary by film historian Peter Cowie who completes an excellent presentation of the film. The attached documentary is of little interest. Overall, a beautiful set in homage to one of the finest films ever made – certainly Visconti’s masterpiece.

[1] The Great Gatsby (1926) accessed at; The Great Gatsby (1949) accessed at; The Great Gatsby (1972) accessed at; The Great Gatsby (2016) accessed at on 18 September 2020.

[2]  Dr. Anna Wulick, ‘Every Great Gatsby Movie, Compared: 2013, 1974, 1949,’ 4 November 2018 accessed at on 18 September 2020.

[3] Roger Ebert, The Leopard, Chicago Sun-Times 1 October 2003, accessed at on 18 September 2020.

[4] Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2000.

The Godfather in the time of Trump

The opening sequence has a middle aged Italian man talking to the Godfather Vito Corleone, seeking the murder of two men who attempted to rape his daughter. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

The Godfather was released on 24 March 1972, and it has become one of the iconic films of the twentieth century. It is often voted in the top ten films of all time. Expressions such as “Make him an offer he cannot refuse,” are common place. Even the adlibbed line such as “don’t forget the cannoli” is now on T-shirts. The fascination with the series shows no sign of diminishing, with even the weakest of the sequels, Godfather part III, to be re-edited with new ending.[1]

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, which was never more than an enjoyable read, director Frances Ford Coppola managed to create one of the great family sagas of all time. It combined the gangster film with distinct resonances of the power struggles of the Borgias – who even get a mention in Godfather Part III. At times, Coppola also looks at reworking Shakespeare’s King Lear. Overall, he is remodelling some of the great family dynasty epics. Can it be that one of the most successful TV shows in British Television History was I, Claudius, where the naked ambition of the Julio-Claudian family, is laid bare. The show was released in the wake of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Its slogan was: “All Rome thought him a fool, but his genius was survival.”

I, Claudius, where the naked ambition of the Julio-Claudian family, is laid bare. The show was released in the wake of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Its slogan was: “All Rome thought him a fool, but his genius was survival.” Poster in author’s collection

The opening sequence has a middle aged Italian man talking to the Godfather Vito Corleone, seeking the murder of two men who attempted to rape his daughter. He says: I believe in America. America has made my fortune, and I raised my daughter in the American fashion.” Right from the start, there is a clear distinction between traditional values and the Corleone family. The legal system – the tool of the moneyed white classes – had failed the Italian community, “for justice, you need to go to Don Corleone. We never see what happens to the young men, but we can safely assume it is not pleasant. (In the book, they are beaten with professional restraint – they are not murdered.)

Filmed in glorious rich colors by Vittorio Storaro, the film takes its time to introduce its cast through a favors session with Don Corleone and then an extensive wedding scene. The camera shows little sections of each of the major characters, giving an idea of each character. The wedding is a formal Italian family wedding, but the undertones are there from the beginning. The wedding gives way to full scale intimidation of a Hollywood producer who will not yield to a small Corleone request. The film switches gear and we realise that these ‘salt of the earth’ Italians can and will flick any violent switch to get what they want.

Marlon Brando revived a stagnant film career with his performance as Don Corleone. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The Godfather was produced when the Pentagon papers were being released, and massive protests against the Vietnam War were being held across the United States. The period reflected the breaking of trust between the US Government and the American people. The Pentagon Papers detailed the history of the United States’ political and military involvement in IndoChina from 1945 to 1967. The papers had demonstrated, among other things, that the various administrations misrepresented the situation in Vietnam to the American people.

The initial context of the film has been lost over the passage of time. The original Godfather was released at the time of the Nixon administration, particularly when the Watergate scandal was about to reach its conclusion. From 1972 to 1974, the United States had been preoccupied with the Watergate scandal, which led to the impeachment process of President Nixon, eventually forcing his resignation. In many ways, the Nixon administration reflected the world of the Corleone’s.  On the surface, it spoke of traditional virtues such as family, honor and tradition, while underneath, it was unlawful. Whatever trust remained, was lost when the Watergate scandal broke, and it has never been recovered.

The successful leader is a gangster. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

For a new generation, the Trump administration has provided some renewed interest in the film. One academic has even managed to draw some weak links between the Trump Administration and The Godfather. [2]  Certainly cartoonists. T-shirt designers  and political commentators have not shied away from the analogy.[3]

Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote: “for the Corleones, the land of opportunity is America the Ugly, in which almost everyone who is not Sicilian or, more narrowly, not a Corleone, is a potential enemy. Mr. Coppola captures this feeling of remoteness through the physical look of place and period, and through the narrative’s point of view. “The Godfather” seems to take place entirely inside a huge smoky plastic dome, through which the Corleone’s see our real world only dimly.”

The Trump administration certainly does contain a lot of relatives. The Republican National Congress demonstrated their the family connections. The Trumps do convey a them against the world attitude.

Trump also rode a wave of disquiet at elites to get to the White House. The disquiet may have begun with the left, but it has spread to the right. Trump’s calls to “drain the swamp” of American politics, resonated with a disaffected electorate. His election represented a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and the American presidency. The disquiet which The Godfather reflected in 1972 is now the political mainstream.




Feydeau to Marx to Spike to Python

Occupe toi d’Amelie (1948) a film adaptation of Feydeau’s work . The poster is a fine example of Cromiere’s artwork. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

The streaming services are reviving interest in one of the excellent comedy writing teams of all time: Monty Python, a British team that dominated comedy on television and film from the late 1960s through to the 1980s. It is a pleasure to see the fish slapping scene and the brilliance of the dead parrot sketch. The pythons openly acknowledge their debt to Spike Milligan, and Milligan is clear that the Marx Brothers influenced him. This transatlantic comedic cross-fertilization has produced some astonishing results, and we are all the richer for it.

But possibly, there is a distant French relative to this family tree. Georges Feydeau was France’s leading writer of farces  – which he referred to as “vaudevilles” – since the early 1890s. He wrote about 40. Many critics have noted the similarities between the Marx Brothers and Feydeau.

The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote: “Some people like to talk rather weightily about the similarity in the lunatic logic that dominates the best of the Marx Brothers movies and Georges Feydeau’s elaborate French farces. For Canby, the Marx Brothers movies were collections of brilliant individual routines, almost like a machine gun popping off with no routine running into the other. “While each Feydeau play is a single, breathless routine in itself, designed to be framed by a proscenium arch for a spectator who, sitting in a fixed position, can appreciate the comedy of simultaneous actions and reactions. Canby argued that turning a movie camera on a Feydeau play would destroy its structure.[1]

Canby is relatively dismissive of A Flea In Her Ear (1968), which is a play by Georges Feydeau written in 1907, at the height of the Belle Époque, adapted by John Mortimer and directed by Jacques Charon. Canby’s criticism is valid to a certain extent, but Occupe-toi d’Amelie or “Keep an Eye on Amelie,” directed by Claude Autant-Lara, may give him pause. As Leslie Halliwell noted in his book Halliwell’s Hundred, it begins outside the cinema and does not pause for breath for its entire length. It begins with a running man, and the pace does not slacken for a moment.[2]

In 1948, after the revival of the play Occupe-toi d’Amelie, Autant-Lara began adapting the famous play by Feydeau, in collaboration with Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. The authors decided to develop the characters in a contemporary context, rather than the turn of the century. It was located at the Palais-Royal theater. In the film, Parisian cocotte (Danielle Darrieux) agrees to a mock marriage ceremony, and in turn, is deceived by an actual ceremony, but manages to outwit a fate worse than death – middle-class respectability. Claude Autant-Lara’s direction is very fast, a surprising change of pace from his other work, such as The Red and Black, which also starredDanielle Darrieux.

It is hard to know if the Marx Brothers were aware of the Feydeau farces. They all appeared in Vaudeville for many years and moved to the theatre. The door to Hollywood opened when sound was introduced. It is hard to imagine the Marx Brothers without sound. So it is entirely possible that they were aware of the plays. Feydeau’s The Girl from Maxim’s was in Broadway in 1899, when the Marx Brother were infants. But The Girl from Montmartre ran from August 1912 to April 1913, and Breakfast in Bed had appeared on Broadway in 1920. In 1924, the Marx Brothers appeared on Broadway, but Feydeau’s plays could have been an influence, as they had been in Vaudeville since 1905.[3]

What is certain is that they both draw from the same well of anarchic comedy. There is one scene where lines between the play and the audience are blurred and then erased. The same idea would appear in the Marx Brothers, Spike Milligan and eventually Monty Python. Maybe a long bow, but who knows.

People interested in Occupe Toi Amelie can easily find the DVD, but like many French films, it isn’t easy to source it with English subtitles.

[1] Vincent, Canby, “Screen: ‘Flea in Her Ear’: Charon Directs Movie of a Play by Feydeau,” New York Times, 28 November, 1968.

[2] Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell’s Hundred : A Nostalgic Choice of Films from the Golden Age. London ; New York: Granada, 1982, 243- 246.

[3] Internet Broadway database,, accessed on 4 September 2020.

Kobal, John. The Lost World of DeMille. USA: University of Mississippi Press, 2019.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Cinematic reputations rise and fall. None more so than Cecil B. DeMille who is the only film director to dominate Hollywood from the 1910s, through the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and well into the 1950s. DeMille is simply without peer throughout the studio era. His only possible directorial rival was John Ford, who had been in Hollywood since 1913 as an actor, but even he did begin his directorial career until 1917. Ford did not have a major directorial success until 1924 with The Iron Horse, at which stage DeMille had been a key director for close to a decade, with his first film The Squaw Man co-directed by Oscar Apfel in 1914. Aside from being a director, he had helped found Paramount Studios. In one form or another, he would dominate Hollywood for close to 40 years, culminating in The Ten Commandments in 1956, one of the most successful films of the era.

Despite his success, DeMille’s reputation would be dragged through the mud for various cultural and political sins. From the early 1980s, DeMille would be depicted as a McCarthyite figure with an anti-Semitic edge, and his films were dismissed for their commercial crassness. Sumiko Higashi’s book Cecil B. DeMille: A Guide to References and Resources published in 1985 shows the coverage of the director had declined to the point of oblivion at the time of publication. One of the final items in the bibliography was an unpublished biography by John Kobal called DeMille and his Artists.

Kobal was five years into the research and writing of the book at this point. He had already written 30 books on film and photography, and this was to be his masterwork. Even though Kobal had chosen an unpopular subject, with his profile, publishing record, and contacts, he would have almost certainly had the book published. Yet people interested in DeMille could only speculate what the book contained, because, until now, that entry in the bibliography was as close as people got to it.

The chances of having his book published crashed when Kobal contracted HIV and died at the age of 51 in 1991. Anecdotally, he had completed the book a few weeks before his death. Despite a decade of work, an 1832-page manuscript of a then unpopular film director would have been a hard sell. Despite Kobal’s obvious writing talent, pulling together a major biography while seriously ill proved impossible. People who had seen the original manuscript doubted if anyone could make anything out of it, and for close to 30 years, that was certainly the case. The manuscript was left to languish until Kobal’s younger sister Monika negotiated its release and then approached the University of Mississippi Press.

After some strenuous structural edits by Graham Coster, which reduced it to a more modest 420 pages, the newly-released book retains Kobal’s focus on Hollywood’s classical era. He dedicated his life to celebrating the visual beauty of its cinema – particularly its photography, eventually establishing a major photo archive of the film industry. DeMille’s almost inexhaustible visual imagination, splendour and the spectacle clearly drew Kobal to his subject. DeMille was essentially a visual director, and many critics regard his silent films as superior to his cinema of the sound era – partly for this reason.

Even DeMille’s sound films were essentially cinematic. If anyone thinks of the director, it is usually in terms of images, and rarely because of the film’s dialogue. His signature scene is where the actor Charlton Heston plays Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956). This image has seared itself onto the popular imagination. Anyone interested in American cinema would immediately identify it –and it would be recognised by millions. Few directors of any stature can claim to have made such a visual impact. Kobal brings an intelligent enthusiast’s energy to his treatment of the director. Scenes in the films are described brilliantly by Kobal,  such as a battle in DeMille’s first historical drama Joan the Woman (1916). Not surprisingly, the book has excellent photographs from the Kobal collection that reinforce the astonishing visual quality of DeMille’s cinema.

Kobal’s critical discussion of DeMille’s cinema is interesting and thought provoking. His section on the Whispering Chorus (1918) is a fascinating one, highlighting the tension between artistic and commercial pressures. The film contains a great sequence when DeMille shows a man wrestling with his conscience in a prison cell. The whispering chorus of voices talking to the central character was an artistic and technical triumph. Kobal provides a sound argument why DeMille moved away from the artistic path. Clearly, Kobal is wrestling with the early criticism of Kevin Brownlow, – with whom Kobal co-wrote books – who believed that DeMille had lost his artistic credibility from this point. It would have strengthened his book if he identified to whom he was directing his comments. Kobal points out that the film was both an artistic and commercial success, undercutting Brownlow’s view that DeMille abandoned artistic cinema in favour of commerce.

Using his extensive contacts within the film industry, Kobal interviewed many people, to gain some great perspectives on the veteran director. The interview with his employee Gordon Mounts in which he talks about DeMille’s closest advisor Daniel Hayne’s sexuality and religion is a revelation. Hayne would complete DeMille’s auto-biography and the professional relationship between the two men is a fascinating one.  Kobal’s interview with his lawyer Neil McCarthy also open windows onto his little-known roles in setting up a commercial aviation company in the 1920s. Indeed, his interviews are the most important contribution of the book.

The interviews are also one of the book’s key weaknesses. Often Kobal is guilty of repeating Chinese whispers. DeMille set up a foundation to tackle union closed shops in 1945. Kobal argues that the violent strike breaker Tom Gerbich of Republic Steel led his DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom. (p. 372) This was a claim made by Joseph Mankiewicz in 1978 to his biographer Kenneth Geist – who called him Tom Gerdler. It is uncertain where the information originated. In fact, Tom Girdler was the actual name of the Republic Steel head. According to the foundation records, to which Kobal had access, Girdler donated $500 to DeMille’s foundation in 1945, and DeMille thanked him for his “generous help” in 1955. Girdler was an occasional correspondent over the years but appeared to have played no formal role.

In addition, Kobal talks about DeMille supplying information to Joseph McCarthy and HUAC. These allegations were again smears from DeMille’s political opponents, and there is no documented evidence for these claims. DeMille was an FBI informant, but had no role with HUAC. Kobal simply repeats the accusations as facts. Such errors show Kobal was often quickly collating material and often did not check his oral or written sources. Even so, Kobal’s coverage of the controversial 1950 Screen Directors Meeting is far better than many historians who followed him. Kobal made good use of the court transcript and provided a solid description of the meeting. Kobal does not excuse DeMille, for his attack on Joseph Mankiewicz, but he does put his actions in context.

Kobal has not written a critical biography, but it is not hagiography. It is a polite retelling of the life of a director, and the author is a clear fan who knows and enjoys DeMille’s films. The publication of The Lost World of DeMille feeds into a positive reassessment of DeMille that began with Kevin Brownlow’s documentary American Epic in 2004, and it has gathered pace from that point. In many ways, Kobal’s biography compares well to Scott Eyman’s authorised account of 2010, and it is far better than Simon Louvish’s work of 2008. It is a notable addition to the commentary of an important and still over-looked film director.

Originally published at Brianton, Kevin. Review of The Lost World of DeMille, by John Kobal. Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal 50, no. 1 (2020): 88-89.

The reaction to the Ten Commandments

DeMille’s Ten Commandments raised issues about the cold war. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In most cases, it is difficult to determine the precise reaction of the audience to a film.  However, The Ten Commandments made such a huge impact in the United States and DeMille was such a compulsive collector of every reaction to his films that it is possible by examining his archives to gauge its influence.  DeMille’s opening statement was quoted in many film reviews across the United States.[1]  Certainly his ideas about the struggle having modern resonances were well received.  For example, the Memphis Press Scimitar wrote:

In freeing the Israelites from Egyptian oppression and he establishment of government by law as embodied in the 10 commandments veteran Producer, Director Cecil B. DeMille has seen a parallel to the great 20th Century struggles between tyranny and freedom.[2]

The Houston Texas Press noted:

The timelessness of this picture in out world where men have scaled the lengths at the same time producing our modern Pharaohs and their slaves is a lesson in faith.  It shrinks the doctorial world planners down to actual size and renews our appreciation of liberty.[3]

The Boston Independent said:

As the Israeli – Egyptian impasse invites the wisdom of Solomon to resolve it and refugees flee Soviet policed Hungary, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments which recalls the genesis of the conflict and man’s earliest struggle for freedom … It is doubtful if there could be a more apropos commentary on the world situation than the final lines spoken by Moses. ‘Go proclaim liberty, throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof.’[4]

The film was also discussed in newspaper editorials, where the Los Angeles Express saw its cold war undertones:

As a story of the downfall of tyranny and of the triumph of religious faith, it also may be source of inspiration to an anxious world.

The newspaper’s reviewer saw it in a similar vein:

It is really the story of man’s search for freedom from tyranny – which could apply right now to the cause of the Hungarians vs. the Russians.[5]

The theme of freedom triumphing over tyranny was repeated in hundreds of reviews and articles across the United States.[6]

The Ten Commandments had a tremendous impact on religious leaders across the United States.  It was released at the time of the Suez crisis and many Jewish leaders saw it as a vindication of the Israeli position.  But even Jewish religious leaders saw its cold war message of salvation.  Rabbi Irving Lehrman gave a sermon on ‘Moses – Hollywood’s Newest Hero’.  He said the spirit of Moses was needed today.

That spirit – of freedom and peace – is needed in Poland and Hungary whenever people are enslaved so that the world can be led back to the Ten Commandments and break the shackles of tyranny.

While Moses is dead his spirit lives on.  That spirit is needed today in London, Paris and Washington, so that the people of Israel battling the modern Pharaoh will have more faith and will be led from Egypt to the promised land of freedom and peace.[7]

William Lindsay Young of the National Conference of Christians and Jews wrote to producer Henry Wilcoxon:

It may well be that Cecil B. DeMille, through the production of the Ten Commandments, will stand out as one of the great prophets of the 20th century.  From out of the Judeo-Christian revelation he has drawn a clear and compelling picture of the relevance of this heritage for our day.  One sees, as in the brightness of noon, that when the spirit of freedom burns in the souls of men, no material force, no tyrant, can keep them in bondage.  In this beautiful screen production Mr DeMille has given us a lethal spiritual weapon that will have telling effect in the current worldwide struggle for the preservation of freedom.[8]

Christian leaders also saw the film’s political message.  Director of the Communications Division of the American Baptist Convention, R. Dean Goodwin, wrote to Ann Del Valle of Paramount Studios about the film’s probable reception in the USSR.  He wrote:

We who have lived all our lives within the framework of the Christian tradition and who believe in freedom and the dignity of man, and who believe in a moral code that is sanctioned by a Diving Being find it to understand a society which rejects all of this.  The governing powers in the Soviet Union could not afford to have a film viewed by Russian people in which one person stands on his God-given rights before the king, and in the name of God demands his rights and leads his people to freedom.  I found enough people in the Soviet Union who want such freedom that I must admit it would be dangerous to the established authorities to show “The Ten Commandments” anywhere in the Soviet Union.[9]

Other religious leaders saw it in a similar fashion.  Herschel Hedgpath of the Methodist Church wrote to Paramount executive Frank Freeman saying;

I believe that Paramount studios and Mr DeMille have made a lasting contribution to the thinking of our time … We need to come to grips with an understanding of the true nature of the basic Communist ideology and I think the picture in its clear analysis of the basic nature of dictatorship and freedom as opposing ideas in the rule of man does this clarification vey nicely.[10]

The comment which pleased DeMille the most was from the statesman Bernard Baruch who wrote a not to DeMille saying: ‘In the materialism of today, the production I was privileged to see last night is a spiritual uplift to those who yearn for liberty against tyrants.’  DeMille sought and got permission to use the quote in newspaper advertisements across the country.[11]

While The Ten Commandments may have been the most direct of the biblical epics in its anti-communism, the themes can be traced directly back to Samson and Delilah.  And the public did get the message.  A fan, Mrs R. M. King of Florida, wrote to Cecil B. DeMille saying:

What we Americans need is more religious pictures.  Such faith as Samson and Delilah would cause God to backfire Russia’s bomb and to rust the ‘iron curtain’.[12]

The major thrust of all these films was that an immoral empire would crumble into dust when faced with true religious determination.

Despite his ultra-conservative leanings, the political message of DeMille’s biblical films was far more subtle than the overt anti-communist films of the time.  He did not use them as vehicles for straight out anti-communist propaganda and their message of religious salvation against tyranny was eagerly accepted by the American people.  The popularity of biblical epics cannot possibly be attributed entirely to their anti-communist message.  Yet they did provide reassurance that God would protect his people in times of adversity.  Perhaps at the deepest level possible, these films reassured a worried American public.  If there was no physical defence to the threat of nuclear war and the communist hordes, then there was a spiritual defence.

The biblical epics provided a cultural mythology that assured the destruction of the communist empires.  The American people needed to be reassured that this growing threat would inevitable crumble.  While the anti-communist films had merely heightened fear and tension and created the impression that the communists were an implacable enemy, the biblical epics of the 1950s provided another depiction which showed them vulnerable to resistance based on spiritual values.  Empires without a moral basis may flourish for a while but they would wither in time because of its absence.  The image that communism was doomed, or damned, was highly reassuring to audiences.  These films advocated views which were remarkably similar to those held by the State Department Secretary John Foster Dulles and many other conservative political leaders.  The unrivalled popularity of these films in the 1950s shows that Dulles’s ideas were deeply ingrained throughout the United States.

[1] Some examples include Galveston Texas News, 7 March 1957, New York Herald Tribune, 2 October 1956, New York Journal American, 30 September 1956, Buffalo Evening News, 10 January 1957, Arizona Republican, 24 February 1957, Press-Telegram, 1 August 1957, Livermore (Calif) News, 24 December 1957, The Sunday Denver Post, 27 January 1957, 7 February 1957, Daytona Beach Morning Journal 6 February 1957, Chicago American, 20 October 1956, Indianapolis Star, 30 January 1957, Baltimore Sun, 20 October 1956, Michigan Battle Creek Enquirer and News, 10 October 1957, Detroit Independent, 25 October 1957, Tell City Independent News, 18 January 1956, The Witness, (Dubuge, Iowa), 2 January 1956, New Beacon (Mass), 16 April 1958.  Scrapbooks 171 – 188 Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[2] Memphis Press Scimitar, 7 March 1957, Scrapbook 218, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[3] Houston Texas Press, 8 February 1957, ibid.

[4] Independent Boston, 21 November 1957, Scrapbook 216.

[5] Los Angeles Express, 15 November 1957, Scrapbook 214.

[6] Among other newspaper articles with similar themes were the Houston Chronicle, 7 February 1957, Houston Post, 3 February 1957, 10 February 1957, Texas Gazette, 16 July 1957, Omaha World Herald, 1 March 1957, Attica NY News, 20 December 1956, New York Herald Tribune, 4 November 1956, NY News, 11 November 1956, New York Morning Telegraph, 9 November 1956, NY Times, 11 November 1956, NY World Telegraph and Sun, 9 November 1956, Buffalo Evening News, 12 December 1956, Buffalo Courier Express, 23 October 1956, Buffalo Jewish Review, 21 December 1956, Jamestown (NY) News, 18 April 1957, Cincinnati Time-Star, 21 December 1956, Columbus Dispatch, 7 March 1957, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 26 November 1956, Newark Advocate, 14 July 1957, Bisbee Daily Review, 26 March 1958, Arizona Daily Star, 3 March 1957, Phoenix Gazette, 6 March 1957, Arkansas Gazette, 10 February 1957, LA Herald Express, 25 October 1957, LA Valley Times, 28 October 1956, Telegraph Tribune, 1 August 1957, Los Angeles Times, 5 January 1957, Los Angeles Herald Express, 15 November 1956, Datona Beach Morning Journal, 6 February 1956, Miami Herald, 16 December 1956, Florida Times-Union, 6 February 1957, Orlando Sentintal, 29 January 1957, St Petersburg Times, 26 January 1957, Pensacola Standard, 7 February 1957, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 20 January 1957, Chicago American, 21 November 1957, Evansville Courier, 26 June 1957, Indianapolis Star, 30 January 1957, Boston Sunday Herald, 12 August 1956, Christian Science Monitor, 13 November 1956, Detroit Times, 22 November 1956, Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, 25 October 1957,Kansas City Star, 14 February 1957, Monroe Morning World, 4 July 1952, Boston Daily Record, 4 May 1957, New Beacon (Mass), 16 April 1958, Malden Press, 2 May 1958, Birmingham News 7 October 1956, Phoenix Gazette, 9 October 1956, and St Petersburg Times, 26 January 1957.  Derived scrapbooks in the Cecil B. DeMille archives. 

[7] Miami Herald, 16 December 1956, Box 724, Folder 21, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[8] William Lindsay Young to Henry Wilcoxon, 27 September 1956, Box 720, Folder 3, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[9] R. Dean Goodwin to Ann Del Valle, 24 October 1958, Box 720, Folder 3, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[10] Herchel H. Hedgpath to Frank Freeman, 11 January 1957, Box 720, Folder 30, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[11] Bernard M. Baruch to Cecil B. DeMille, 6 October 1956, Box 214, Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.  The advertisement appeared in the Los Angeles Times, 12 November 1956 and across the United States.

[12] R.M.King to Cecil B. DeMille, 10 March 1950, Box 632, Folder 4, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

The Ten Commandments (1956) – part two

DeMille directs Brynner in the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

The Ten Commandments focused on the spiritual strength of the Israelites which eventually overpowered the military might of the Egyptian empire.  The film opened with scenes of clouds and the narrator saying:

And God said let there be light and behold, there was light.  And from this light, God created life on earth.  And man was given dominion over all things.  And the power to chose between good and evil.  But each sought to do his own will, because he saw not the light of god’s law.  Man took dominion over man.  The conquered were made to serve and conqueror.  The weak were made to sere the strong and freedom was gone from the earth.[1]

The film then moved to a scene of endless lines of Hebrew slaves dragging massive blocks across the ground with Egyptian guards cracking whips.  The Egyptians were cruel and vicious toward their Jewish slaves.  No end existed to the plight of the Israelites.  In one scene the narrator said of the Jewish slaves:

Day after day, year after year, century after century, bondage without rest, toil without reward, these are the children of misery, the afflicted, the helpless and the oppressed.[2]

Joshua, played by John Derek, asked his girlfriend, ‘Is life in bondage better than death’ and Sayre pointed out that it echoed the phrase, ‘Better dead than red.’[3]  The phrase was repeated throughout the film.

The film detailed the rise of Moses who became the deliverer of the Jews.  To escape being killed by the Egyptians, who were hunting for the famed infant deliverer, his mother placed him in a basket on the Nile.  The basket floated down the Nile and was eventually picked up by the childless Pharaoh’s childless daughter who adopted him.  He was favourite and seemed certain to take the throne upon his death.[4]  He eventually learned of his Hebrew background, renounced his Egyptian past and was forced to become a slave building the pyramids.  Moses could not stand the poor treatment and fought with an Egyptian overseer after which he was banished to die in the desert.

In the desert, Moses attained great spiritual wisdom and power and then returned to Egypt.  He gave a demonstration of his new powers and demanded that the new Pharaoh ‘let my people go.’  DeMille wrote in his autobiography that when Moses stood before the Pharaoh and said the ‘divine demand’, it was a depiction of the same forces that ‘confront one another in the world today.’[5]  When Rameses refused, Moses prophesied that seven plagues would visit upon Egypt.  The Pharaoh scoffed at Moses and his prophesies and Egypt was then subjected to one plague after another.  After suffering the seven plagues, the Pharaoh still refused to let the Jews leave Egypt.  He announced to his soldiers that the first born of every Jewish family should die.  Before he could act, Moses prophesied that an Angel of Death would visit Egypt killing the first born of every family.  The Jewish people were saved by dabbing lamb’s blood over their doors.  Every first born child died including the son of the Pharaoh.  The distraught Pharaoh finally succumbed to this overwhelming pressure to let the Jewish slaves go free.  In the response Moses says:

Tomorrow we go forth a free nation, where every man shall reap what they shall sow, where no man may kneel except in prayer …[6]

With phrases like ‘free nation’, and ‘reap what they will sow’ the links are made between the Israelites and the Americans.  The Pharaoh, on the other hand, sounded like a Marxist when he snapped, ‘You prophets make the Gods, so that they may prey on the minds of men.’[7]

After the Israelites had begun their walk towards the promised land, the Egyptian Pharaoh decided that he wanted to destroy them.  He sent out his magnificent army in pursuit of the defenceless Jews.  The famous climax of the film had Moses dividing the Red Sea while the Egyptians were held back by a pillar of fire.  The fire subsided and the army chased the fleeing Israelites across the floor of the Red Sea.  When the lase Jew had crossed the Red Sea, the waters were sent crushing in on the Egyptian Army and all were destroyed.  Rameses returned back to his palace, shattered, bewildered and beaten.  He slumped into his throne and said ‘Their god is God.’  The slaves had defeated the masters.

The rest of the film was an anti-climax after the Red Sea scenes.  Moses ascended Mount Sinai to accept the ten commandments.  He found when he retuned that his people had begun following some pagan religious sect.  God’s punishment was swift and merciless, as Moses hurled the ten commandments at the idolaters and set off an earthquake which engulfed the pagan worshippers.  One of the strongest themes of these films was that those who did not follow God’s rules would be punished.  The Israelites were forced to wander for forty years before finding their promised land.

The film concluded by Moses dying with the promised land in sight.  Actor Charlton Heston noted that the last line ‘Go proclaim liberty throughout all the lands unto the inhabitants thereof,’ were the words inscribed on the Liberty Bell.[1]  The bell was a treasured relic of the American Revolution which was rung on 8 July 1776 to announce the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.  DeMille was trying to create a direct link between the struggles of the Israelites and the American War of Independence in the minds of the audience.  From the first scene to the last, DeMille was using the story of Exodus as a modern political statement.

The Ten Commandments was a remake of his highly successful 1923 film, yet there are significant differences between the films.  The original film told the story of Exodus as a prologue to the main feature which focused on the importance of the commandments in daily life.  The 1923 version also contained the Christian message of redemption for sinners which the 1956 version lacked.

[1] Transcribed interview with Charlton Heston, 16 August 1955, Box 12, Folder 18, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.  The phrase is from Leviticus 25:10.

[1] Ten Commandments (d) Cecil B. DeMille, (w) Aeanas Mackenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jnr., Jack Garris, Frederic M. Frank

[2] ibid.

[3] Nora  Sayre, Running Time, p. 204.

[4] DeMille was scrupulous in his research on The Ten Commandments and the idea of Moses being a Pharaoh has recently been raised by historian Ahmen Osman in Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt: The Mystery of Ankehenaten Resolved, Paladin, London, 1990.

[5] Hayne, Autobiography, p. 377.

[6] Ten Commandments op cit.

[7] ibid.

The Ten Commandments ( 1956) – part one

The idea of linking the struggles of the Israelites to the Americans was developed further in Cecil B. DeMille’s final film The Ten Commandments (1956). 

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

In personally introducing the film, DeMille left no doubt of its political leanings.  He said the birth of Moses was the ‘birth of freedom’. 

The theme of this picture is whether men are to be ruled by God’s law – or they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses.  Are they free men or are they to be property of the State or free souls under God?  This same battle continues throughout the world today.[1]

He later used his speech as a basis for an address to the university of Southern California on 6 December 1956.  He changed the speech to reinforce his political point and linked the Israelite’ struggles with Hungary’s.

Are men to be free souls under God or are they the property of the state?  Are men to be ruled by law, or by the whims of an individual?  God’s answer to these timely questions were given three thousand years ago on Mount Sinai.  Russia’s answers was given recently in Hungary.  The world must make its choice.[2]

In his introduction to the film, DeMille was linking the Egyptian tyrannies to Russian communism.  DeMille saw religion as a political force which could deliver freedom to people.  In his autobiography, he made it clear that the film was anti-totalitarian.  He wrote:

For more than twenty years and increasingly in the years since World War II, people had been writing to me from all over he world, urging that I make The Ten Commandments again.  The world needs a reminder they said, of the Law of God; and it was evident in at least some of the letters that the world’s awful experience of totalitarianism, both fascist and communist, had made many people realize anew that the Law of God is the essential bedrock of human freedom.[3]

But it was definitely communism, not fascism, which was the target.  Recalling a press conference in Egypt, he denied that the film was anti-moslem.  He said one of the strongest voices urging him to make The Ten Commandments was the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who saw in the story of Moses, a prophet honored equally by Moslems, Jews and Christians, a means of welding together adherents of the three faiths against atheistic communism.[4]

[1] Ten Commandments (d) Cecil B. DeMille, (w) Aeanas Mackenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jnr., Jack Garriss, Frederic M. Frank.

[2] Cecil B. DeMille, Moses and Today, Address delivered to the University of Southern California on 6 December 1956.  Box 9, Folder 24, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[3] Donald Hayne, (ed.) The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, W.H.Allen, London, 1960, p. 376.

[4] Ibid., p. 385.  The letter was kept by DeMille.  Mohammed Ali Jinnah to Cecil B. DeMille, 20 December 1954, Folder 3, Box 724 Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

A Man Called Peter: politicising religion

A Man Called Peter (1955) blurred the lines between politics and religion. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Dr Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

The links between the Israelites and the United States were discussed in A Man Called Peter (1955) which was a very popular film.[1]  It detailed the rise of Dr Peter Marshall, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, who became chaplain for the United States Senate.  The film was a collection of Marshall’s sermons strung together with the story of his rise and near perfect marriage.  Near the conclusion of the film, he delivered a sermon on Elijah and the threat of the God Baal to the nation of Israel.

The leaders of ancient Israel, including the King, had come together to make a great decision.  It was a national emergency.  Elijah, the prophet, had summoned them to meet on Mount Carmel to settle no less a question than who they should worship.  William Penn has said that “Men must be governed by God, or they will be ruled by tyrants.”

Here then was a Hebrew prophet facing the very same issue and making his people face it with him.  They all knew the history of the nation.  How God had led their fathers out of bondage into a new land of pioneers.  How his holy law had been rewritten into the nations constitution.  How the ten commandments had become the bill of rights – and a declaration of “dependence”.  But something in the nation’s life had begun to fade.  Moral decay had set in.  They had begun to love things more than principles.  They had become materialists.  And materialism had a God called Baal.  Now, Elijah saw the danger.  He saw what would happen if the moral fibre of the nation was weakened.[2]

Marshall then went on to explain the defeat and the death of the prophets of Baal by Elijah at Mount Carmel.  He followed the sermon with a call for a modern day Elijah to come to the United States to stare down the false ‘demi-gods’ of today.  The teachings of Baal were not mentioned in the Old Testament and it was Marshall’s own interpretation that it was a materialistic faith.  Marshall said that the choice was between being ruled by God or tyrants, to either follow God or ‘follow Baal to hell’.[3]

Marshall argued that the United States had a choice between either the Lord or the materialistic faith of Baal.  Furthermore, following the God Baal would undermine the moral fibre of the nation.  Marshall linked the Israelites’ struggles with those of the United States.  The Jewish people were depicted as pioneers and the ten commandments as their bill of rights.  When he referred to the holy law being written into the nation’s constitution, it was difficult to tell if he was taking about the United States or Israel.  The sermon on Elijah and the Baal was a strong political statement with cold war overtones.  The United States must follow the laws of God or it would lurch into communism, it was either God or materialistic tyranny.  To the audience of 1955, that was a simple choice between communism and God.

The actual interpretation of Baal as a materialistic faith is at odds with most biblical scholarship which sees it as fertility cult which competed against Judaism.[4]  It is also clear that the sermon was deliberately chosen as a political message by the screenwriter.  It is not mentioned in either the biography by his wife or in the published collection of his sermons.[5]  The screenwriter must have hunted out this sermon quite deliberately and selectively.  Marshall’s published sermons rarely touch on political issues, although according to his wife Catherine, Marshall wanted God to influence the individual legislators in their decisions.[6]

The director Koster constantly cut to the faces of three Senators who were listening closely to the sermon.  To make sure that the audience was aware of the moral strength of Marshall’s political arguments, Koster linked Marshall with the figure of President Abraham Lincoln throughout the film.  He preached in Lincoln’s old church and in another scene, he drove reverently past the Lincoln memorial.  Marshall also called upon the figure of Lincoln to support him in debates against parishioners.  This was done to give his theological statements added political weight.  It appeared that his efforts were not lost.  The powerful film columnist Hedda Hopper in 1957 placed A Man Called Peter seventh in the top ten films of all time.[7]  This reverence indicated that the film made a great impression at the time of its release, even though it is now largely forgotten.

[1] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Vintage, New York, 1982, p.

[2] A Man Called Peter, (d) Henry Koster, (w) Eleanore Griffin.  William Penn (1644-1718) was an English Quaker who helped establish the colony of Pennsylvania.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades And Their Impact on Today’s World, Anchor, New York, 1992, p. 11.

[5] The sermon is not mentioned in Catherine Marshall, A Man Called Peter: The Story of Peter Marshall, Fontana, Glasgow, 1978 on which the film was based or in Marshall’s published collection of sermons in Cathy Marshall (ed.). Mr Jones, Meet the Master, Fontana, London, 1964 (1949)

[6] Marshall, A Man Called Peter, p. 226.

[7] Los Angeles Times 3 January 1959 printed in Steinberg, p. 184.