I got a free subscription to Time magazine for filling out some on-line survey connected to a book club I order from. Scanning the first issue, not much different from the Newsweek I also get, a legacy from a requirement that our son subscribe to a newsmagazine in a civics class, I learned something from the obituary section. (You know you are getting to a different life stage when obits are interesting.)
Jean Simmons is dead.
Jean Simmons in The RobeNot that "Jean" Simmons, but the one we know through The Thorn Birds and The Robe. Not up for the entire Thorn Birds mini-series, in her memory I opened up a DVD copy of The Robe, still in its cellophane, which I bought some time ago at Costco for five bucks, probably during a retrospective offering of Academy Award nominees and winners. Though a little premature, seasonally, for a passover/crucifixion epic, I decided to watch it anyway. And lo and behold, I was struck that it is just western wuxia...with spiritual masters, swords, emperors, horses and camels (big bactrians), imperial cities and walled provincial outposts, buff guys (Victor Mature certainly lived up to his name), many in military leathers, gorgeous women in flowing silks. The women seemed not so strong and powerful as the heroines in Chinese wuxia...they never carried swords, but I can't say any of the Roman martial skills were as elegant as the Chinese--imagine Richard Burton against Jet Li, or even Chow Yun Fat. I think not. (Though, Burton could elocute his way out of anything.) I have the idea I saw this 1953 film in a theatre, even though I would have been very young at the time. Perhaps I remember TV reruns...which did not do justice to the technicolor/cinemascope, the CGI of its day. It really is colorful, probably more so than ancient Rome ever was.
I have a weakness for these grandiose Hollywood sword and sandal movies of the '50s and '60s --The Ten Commandments, Quo Vadis, Spartacus, Ben Hur, The Greatest Story Ever Told -- most of them based on earlier novels (or scripture), not necessarily historically accurate, precursors to Gladiator, Last Temptation of Christ, the Passion of the Christ, The 300 (or is it 400?) and Kingdom of Heaven. The Robe is certainly one of the greatest...with a young Richard Burton, opposite Jean Simmons, as beautiful as Liz with the delicacy of Audrey Hepburn (even though in a few of the scenes in The Robe she appeared to have a bit of a moustache).
So, Burton (who can make anything sound Shakespearean) and Simmons together were pretty intense and compatible--they both had British accents. There was chemistry and I wondered if they ever "got it on," or was Burton just waiting for the slightly younger Cleopatra (right).
The Robe has an intriguing script. In once scene, Pontius Pilate (played by Richard Boone, better known as Paladin, Have Gun, Will Travel) says, "Give me water to wash my hands." His servant says, "You just did." "So I did," Pilate replies, perhaps the first documented case of OCD.
In another scene, Victor Mature, Richard Burton's converted-Christian slave who looks exactly like Mannix (Mike Connors), chides his master after the crucifixion over which Burton officiated: "You're going back to Capris to kiss the emperor's hand," he says. (Hand, my ass.) But actually, he doesn't, he becomes a martyr for the faith, along with the lovely Miss Simmons.
Tribune Marcellus and DianaI have to go back and look at the history of some of those other great epics; I think The Robe (1953) and Quo Vadis (1951) may have set a certain standard for which Charlton Heston, Max Von Sydow and Mel Gibson had to live up to. At first I thought Richard Burton was part James Dean and part Jack Nicholson...then I realized I was working backwards. Those guys are just parts of Burton--maybe not a martial artist, but certainly an artist by any other name.