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Tag Archives: Epics

Captain From Castile (Dec. 25, 1947)

Henry King’s Captain From Castile premiered on Christmas day in New York and Los Angeles, and went into wide release in January 1948.

It’s a lavish, Technicolor epic marred by a handful of flaws. The biggest flaw is that it doesn’t have an ending, and just sort of stops halfway through. The journey to the non-ending is uneven but generally entertaining and occasionally spectacular, which makes its abruptness all the more frustrating.

Captain From Castile is based on Samuel Shellabarger’s novel of the same name, which was published in early 1945. It was originally serialized, and was incredibly popular even before its publication in book form. Darryl F. Zanuck paid $100,000 for the rights, which was a lot of cabbage in the ’40s.

The film version only covers the first half of Shellabarger’s novel. Zanuck originally planned to exhibit Captain From Castile as a roadshow presentation with an intermission, so I’m not sure if the unsatisfying end was due to budget concerns or a flawed script. Three and a half months of shooting in Mexico wasn’t cheap, and the bottom kind of dropped out of movie-going in 1947 (after 1946, which was the biggest movie-going year of all time). Captain From Castile made its money back and then some, but it wasn’t a runaway success due to its incredibly high budget.

The film begins in Spain in the spring of 1518, and follows the progression of a young Castilian named Pedro de Vargas (played by Tyrone Power) from callow youth to victim of the Inquisition to seasoned soldier under the command of Hernando Cortés in Mexico. (Cortés is played to the laughing, mustache-twirling, swaggering hilt by Cesar Romero.)

Despite the presence of swashbuckling superstar Tyrone Power, Captain From Castile isn’t really a swashbuckling adventure film. It’s a historical epic in which narrative tension is nonexistent for long stretches. All sequences involving the Cortés expedition were filmed in Mexico, and often on the location associated with the actual event. Captain From Castile always looks fantastic, but its story isn’t always up to the high standards of the visuals.

I really love Tyrone Power, though, and with all due respect to Errol Flynn, I think Power is the greatest swashbuckling star of all time. I also think he’s a much better actor than he’s given credit for, and he turns in a strong performance in Captain From Castile.

But moments of real power in the film are few and far between.

There’s one sequence, however, that I think stands as one of the best of Power’s career. After Pedro de Vargas is imprisoned by the Inquisition and his roguish friend Juan Garcia (Lee J. Cobb) has secreted weapons in his cell, his mortal enemy Diego de Silva (John Sutton) — the man responsible for Pedro’s sister’s death by torture — enters to taunt Pedro. This leads to a fast, brutal sword fight in close quarters that’s one of the best and most exciting I’ve ever seen.

Pedro’s romance with the servant girl Catana (played by the very inexperienced actress Jean Peters) is romantic and sexy — especially the scene in which Pedro dances with her in front of Cortés’s entire camp. The musical score by Alfred Newman is fantastic, and was one of the first film scores to be released as a soundtrack album.

The film looks amazing. The Technicolor cinematography is great, and the Mexican locations were so cooperative that the Paricutin volcano even agreed to erupt during filming to stand in for the eruption of Popocatepetl in the 16th century.

But there’s ultimately something a little slack and unsatisfying about Captain From Castile, and it’s not just the anticlimactic ending. I’d recommend Captain From Castile to all fans of bloated historical epics, but if you’ve never seen a Tyrone Power film, it’s not the best place to start.

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Forever Amber (Oct. 22, 1947)

Forever Amber
Forever Amber (1947)
Directed by Otto Preminger
20th Century-Fox

The review of Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber in the November 3, 1947, issue of Time magazine called it “every bit as good a movie as it was a novel,” but I’m not sure if they meant it as a compliment.

Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 period romance was the best-selling American novel of the ’40s. Forever Amber sold more than 100,000 copies during its first week on the shelves, and went on to sell more than three million copies. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how much Winsor’s storytelling skills had to do with its popularity. What I do know is that it was banned in 14 states, and that the attorney general of Massachusetts — the first state to institute a ban — cited 70 references to intercourse, 39 out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and seven abortions, among other reasons for the ban.

So it seems clear that whatever other merits the novel had, its biggest selling point was S-E-X.

To be adapted as a film, a lot of the novel’s more scandalous bits had to be cut out, but it still has one big selling point: L-I-N-D-A. D-A-R-N-E-L-L.

In her journey to the screen, the vain, beautiful, promiscuous, and socially climbing Amber St. Clare lost many of her lovers and innumerable shocking details and compromising situations from the novel were excised. (The film does contain one element from the novel that was extremely rare in Hollywood films of the ’40s — Amber’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. However, the fornicating that produces the offspring occurs so far off screen that the announcement that she’s expecting comes as a complete surprise.) No matter how tame the story might be compared with the book, though, Linda Darnell’s megawatt sex appeal and unearthly beauty lend a constant sense of illicit excitement to Forever Amber.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of her co-star, Cornel Wilde, who plays Lord Bruce Carlton, the gentleman soldier on whom Amber sets her sights at the beginning of the film, but who never loves her quite as much as she loves him. Wilde cuts a dashing figure, but he has roughly one facial expression. He doesn’t so much act in this film as much as he exists.

Forever Amber is set during the English Restoration, when Charles II returned to the throne from exile and the monarchy was restored. The film hits all the high points of the time period, like the plague and the Great Fire of London. Also, George Sanders, who plays King Charles II, is a lot of fun to watch. His trademark indifference and supercilious charm are perfectly suited to the hedonistic monarch he’s playing.

Forever Amber is far from a great film, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It’s a beautifully filmed Technicolor epic that overwhelms the senses with its visuals and sweeping musical score. This is the kind of film in which $100,000 was spent filming a single kiss that was later cut from the film.

Unconquered (Oct. 10, 1947)

Cecil B. DeMille’s Unconquered is an overblown, bodice-ripping Technicolor epic that’s equal parts high drama and high camp. It’s also a whole lot of fun.

DeMille was 65 years old when he directed Unconquered, and by that point in his career he knew his way around an over-budget spectacle. (Unconquered cost almost $5 million to make, a king’s ransom in 1947.)

Most of the money shows up on screen, though. This is a great-looking picture. It drags a little in places, but for the most part it’s a fun ride. There are a few standout action set pieces — like a canoe chase that ends with a drop straight down a waterfall — but the talky bits are pretty enjoyable, too, even if they’re straight out of a potboiler.

Unconquered, which is based on Neil H. Swanson’s novel The Judas Tree, takes place in 1763, when Fort Pitt marked the end of the known and the beginning of the unknown in America. Located where one can now find Pittsburgh, the fort was the last outpost of civilization in the New World, surrounded by a vast forest filled with hostile Indians.

A beautiful Englishwoman named Abigail Hale (Paulette Goddard) stands trial for the murder of the royal officer who was killed when she was helping her brother fight off the King’s press gang. She is given a choice, face execution in England or be sold as a bond slave in Norfolk, Virginia.

Naturally, she chooses life over death, but life as a bond slave is no picnic, especially when she’s bought by the villainous arms trader Garth (Howard Da Silva). The handsome Capt. Christopher Holden (Gary Cooper) outbids Garth and then casually gives Abby her freedom, but the treacherous Garth makes a deal with the slave trader to double-sell her and retakes possession of her.

Garth’s villainy isn’t limited to his treatment of beautiful white female slaves. He also has a monopoly on the lucrative beaver-fur trade west of Fort Pitt, and will do anything to maintain it, including arming the hostile Indian tribes to prevent white settlement beyond the Alleghenies.

The chief of one of those hostile Indian tribes is named Guyasuta, and he’s played by Boris Karloff, who’s always fun to watch. Guyasuta’s medicine man, Sioto, is played by Marc Lawrence, a regular in gangster movies. The scene in which Capt. Holden tricks Guyasuta and Sioto into releasing the captive Abby by using his “magic” compass was the high point of ridiculousness in the film, but in a movie like Unconquered, once you’re along for the ride, the more ridiculous the better.

Cooper and Goddard were both a little too old for the roles they were playing in Unconquered, but they were both still extremely attractive, so it didn’t bother me that much. The action in the film is well-staged, especially the final battle for Fort Pitt, which is heavy on the pyrotechnics. Who cares if it’s all a little hokey? No one does epics like Cecil B. DeMille.

Incidentally, Unconquered was the highest grossing film of 1947, with total ticket sales of more than $6 million. So at least it made its money back.