Saturday, March 30, 2013

Oh, Lord. It's John Wayne.

The love started in Catholic elementary school many years ago in South Los Angeles.  On special days, nuns would send classes into the big assembly hall.  Two nuns would wheel in the projector.  With the help of our janitor, they would thread the projector and show us....a movie.  They were usually  Biblical epics.  Gorgeous young Christian women who would rather be thrown to the lions than lose their virginity to a hot Roman officer who didn't believe in Jesus Christ.  Wicked Roman emperors who sounded like they stepped out of the chorus of My Fair Lady.  Harlots trying to lead buffed Christian men astray.   Chariot chases. People who were cured of blindness.  Dead men brought back to life.  Moses parting the Red Sea with heavenly help.  And, of course, Jesus. Back in those days, Biblical epics were the equivalent of Steven Spielberg movies for us Catholic youngsters.  There was gladiator action.  The miracles had fabulous special effects.  The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah, Quo Vadis, King of Kings -- I loved 'em all.  Actors playing Jesus always fascinated me.  No matter how Jesus was described in the Bible, regardless of the fact that he was a Jew who spent a lot of time outdoors in rugged Middle Eastern terrain...rarely did he look it.  My favorite example is Jeffrey Hunter as the King of Kings.  He should've had a guitar slung over one shoulder in that picture.  He's so Malibu Jesus.
I kept waiting for this 1961 movie Jesus to say, "Before I change your water into wine, I wrote a little song about my Father....and it goes something like this...."  Look at him.  He needed a screen credit that read, "Savior's costumes by Banana Republic."

It's a wonder he didn't show up for the Sermon on the Mount in a convertible.

Then comes The Greatest Story Ever Told directed by George Stevens.  The acclaimed filmmaker directed five of my all-time favorite films -- Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, The More the Merrier, Shane, A Place in the Sun and Giant.  His tale of the Savior was pretty much required viewing for Catholics at that time.  It had big stars in cameos and a cast of thousands.  It had miracles and epic scenes.  It had an extremely reverential and stately tone.  It also had a top example of major miscasting.  First of all, Max von Sydow was picked to play Jesus.  The Swedish actor gained international fame in foreign psychological and theological dramas directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Max von Sydow starred in The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring.  A brilliant actor.  A brilliant actor who was the color of porcelain.  He should've played rock star Edgar Winter.  But he has a saintly quality here.  With a slight Scandinavian accent.  Stevens obviously told the make-up team to hit him with some of Lena Horne's leftover Max Factor cosmetics and make von Sydow a shade that we'd nowadays call "The Mariah Carey."

Like Jeffrey Hunter's version, this Jesus also had very blue eyes.

I deeply love the great classic work of George Stevens.  But, come on.  Like he couldn't have gone to Santa Monica beach  in Southern California and found a big, strappin' young Jew with a suntan and a Screen Actors Guild card to play Jesus?  Please.

Now we get to the major Hollywood miscasting.  Who shows up to deliver one line as a Roman centurion looking at Jesus on the cross?  JOHN .... WAYNE.

Yes.  John "Stagecoach" Wayne comes on to tell us "...this man was the Son o' God."

For a review, I quote the Holy Bible.  John 11:35 "...and Jesus wept."

My younger sister and I saw this movie together when we were Catholic school kids.  At that scene, I turned to her and said "We sound more Roman than he did."  This big budget production was not a big box office hit.  I can only imagine that some studio executive went into George Stevens' office and politely said "'ve got Chuck Heston as John the Baptist.  Good.  Claude Rains as King Herod.  Also good.  Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate and we've got a nice cameo for Sidney Poitier.  Then...we've got this blond Swedish actor playing Jesus, singer Pat Boone as an angel and now you want John Wayne to play a Roman guard?"


"George, you have heard him speak, haven't you?  Rosanno Brazzi is available.  He's ten years younger.  And he's from Italy.  So he can actually sound like a Roman."

"I want Duke."

"Well, alrighty then.  We'll sign The Duke.  John Wayne.  To play a Roman Centurion.  In the Crucifixion scene.  With dialogue.  Yep."

And there you have it.

You can see the results for yourself.  King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told air Easter Sunday on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).  Happy Easter.

1 comment:

  1. Funny story goes along with your John Wayne comment. Seems George Stevens did not really like the reading the Duke was giving for his one line cameo appearance in TGSET. Take after take after take after take was done and as you can imagine Wayne was getting pretty "hot under the collar". Finally, Wayne asked Stevens exactly what it was he wanted. Stevens explained that he wanted more "awe" in the line. So the next take, the Duke deadpans, "Awwwwe...Truly this man was the Son of God." I'm guessing that the take after that one was probably the one used in the final cut of the movie.


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