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Behold a Pale Horse

by Glenn Erickson Aug 06, 2019

Here’s a highly suspenseful thriller with fine characterizations, set in a grim but meaningful place — Fascist Spain in the late 1950s, when Franco’s operatives still hold the country in a tight grip. The very modern story (by Emeric Pressburger) is also timeless: the old lost-cause warrior takes on one last mission into enemy territory. Gregory Peck (he’s good) is the legendary raider on a mission to kill an old enemy, Anthony Quinn.

Behold a Pale Horse
Twilight Time
1964 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 118 min. / Street Date July 29, 2019 / Available from Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring: Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Raymond Pellegrin, Paolo Stoppa, Mildred Dunnock, Daniela Rocca, Christian Marquand, Marietto Angeletti, Perrette Pradier, Zia Mohyeddin, Rosalie Crutchley, Michael Lonsdale, Martin Benson, Claude Berri, Albert Rémy, Alan Saury.
Cinematography: Jean Badal
Original Music: Maurice Chevalier
Written by J.P. Miller from a novel by Emeric Pressburger
Produced by Gregory Peck & Fred Zinnemann
Directed by
Fred Zinnemann


Just how does a confirmed liberal make it in Hollywood, through the roughest years for progressive talent?   I believe that Fred Zinnemann was simply a man of integrity, through and through. I was once able to see the uncut interviews for an early ’80s documentary on George Stevens, which was packed with pompous (if sincere) witnesses to the making of The Greatest Story Ever Told. Alone among them, Zinnemann stood out as utterly level-headed in his humanist values.

Talk about a career… thanks to Criterion we can see Zinnemann’s formative pictures starting with the contribution he made to the Weimar-Era People on Sunday (1929), and moving on to the out-and-out Communist feature he co-directed in Mexico, Redes (1936). That picture got some attention in New York and Los Angeles, and a couple of years later he was making short subjects for MGM. Zinnemann didn’t get his ‘A’ picture break until The Seventh Cross. Although he took on a wide range of subject matter, a thread of anti-Fascism runs strongly through his work. His ‘rubble of Germany’ picture The Search succeeds in combining neorealist grit with MGM sentimentality; it’s the most humanist Hollywood film of the postwar years. He also stood strong during the infamous Director’s Guild meeting, where Cecil B. DeMille tried to push through an oppressive loyalty oath, and inferred that upstart directors with foreign-sounding names were un-American.


In the early 1960s, after the success of his mature movies The Nun’s Story and The Sundowners, Zinnemann turned back to a specific anti-Fascist theme that no studio had touched: the political fate of divided Spain under Franco. Tens of thousands of Republicans had been murdered, and the country was all but closed off until the 1960s. Alain Resnais’ French movie La guerre est finie would tell a somewhat similar story two years later, but Zinnemann’s Behold a Pale Horse was an unusually bold, uncommercial investment for Columbia Pictures in 1964.

The story is from a book by Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell’s ex-partner in the famed ‘Archers’ productions. Wartime spy intrigue was a Pressburger specialty, with an impressive list of accomplishments: The Spy in Black, Contraband, 49th Parallel, The Silver Fleet, Pursuit of the Graf Spee, Ill Met By Moonlight. Behold a Pale Horse is a serious study of a what is essentially the effort of an exiled Republican fighter who has spent twenty years as a terrorist.


For twenty years, grizzled old Manuel Artiguez (Gregory Peck) has been raiding into Franco Spain from just across the border in France. Now retired, he’s living in poverty, his guns buried in a safe place. Manuel’s opposite number Viñolas (Anthony Quinn) runs a tight police force, but is chafing under his failure to capture Artiguez after all these years — the Fascist bureaucracy doesn’t like failure. To keep his job, Viñolas takes advantage of a morbid situation: Manuel’s mother Pilar (Mildred Dunnock) is dying in a hospital. Hoping to lure Artiguez out of hiding, Viñolas sends the rebel’s former partner Carlos (Raymond Pellegrin), now a turncoat, to deliver the news. But two other Spaniards make contact with Manuel first. Priest Francisco (Omar Sharif) detours from his pilgrimage to Lourdes to fulfill Pilar’s last wish: tell Artiguez that Viñolas has laid a trap for him. And the young orphan Paco Dages (Marietto Angeletti) has come to stay with Manuel’s ex-rebel pal Pedro (Paolo Stoppa). Paco wants Manuel Artiguez to go back across the border one more time to assassinate Viñolas. Paco’s father was yet another of Manuel’s comrades, and the chief of police had him tortured to death.


Resnais’ La guerre est finie is an impassioned tale of political commitment, with Yves Montand as an exiled politician being lured back where Franco’s minions can catch him. Zinnemann’s tale dispenses with niceties, giving us a hero who didn’t acknowledge the surrender and continues to war against the Fascists, as would a Terrorist, out of pure principle and stubborn vengeance. An opening montage taken from Frédéric Rossif’s fierce documentary To Die In Madrid (1963) ends with nicely-matched images of Manuel Artiguez being forced by his friends to drop his weapons as the French allow them to flee across the border. We only hear about Manuel Artiguez’s feats as a grim Robin Hood for a lost cause — he’s apparently spent many years as a bloodthirsty bastard, hard and mean. Artiguez has raided and killed for the same territorial principle that makes Sierra Charriba terrorize New Mexico in Major Dundee: he wants his homeland back.

Non-fans of Gregory Peck ought to appreciate this performance; Zinnemann directs all of his star actors to play everything low key, and the result is more than satisfying. Artiguez resists Paco’s challenge and becomes furious at the charge that his old pal Carlos is a rat — and goes to great lengths (driving to Lourdes as well) to find the priest that talked to his mother on her deathbed. The irony is that the elderly Artiguez will be motivated and energized by the idealism of the younger priest. Young Paco is apparently willing to continue his elders’ ‘good fight’ right into the next generation, a notion that Pressburger and Zinnemann study, as opposed to endorse.


The historical reality communicated by Behold a Pale Horse is that Manuel Artiguez’s commitment just prolongs the misery. He’s not unlike the fictional Ethan Edwards, another hardliner who ‘didn’t show up at the surrender’ and is willing to expend his life in hatred. Behold pays off almost like Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, which doesn’t put it into the Feel Good category of movie outings for 1964. Zinnemann must really have wanted to make this one.

Superficially, Manuel Artiguez has much in common with Edward Fox’s The Jackal: he’s a man with a gun on a mission of assassination. We see Manuel Artiguez cross the border (all of this territory appears to be in the Pyrenees) through a mountain pass as dramatic as the Arizona towers in John Ford films. Manuel Artiguez didn’t beat his sword into a plowshare, either — Paolo has his cache of guns stashed away. One last ‘old man flirt’ with a rural waitress, and Manuel Artiguez is ready to go into action.

Meanwhile, Viñolas worries about his Artiguez problem while keeping his men in line and his mistress (Daniella Rocca of Caltiki) a secret from his wife (Rosalie Crutchley). He also has time to accept a literal gift horse from a local rancher.

I’d never really seen Behold a Pale Horse until now, as the only opportunities to do so were in little bits sandwiched between commercials on TV. The film has a European pace and flavor, with rich B&W cinematography and impressive location filming. The director keeps many angles wide, pulling us into the views of streets outside Manuel Artiguez’s window. Manuel’s rooftop view of his quarry from a nearby rooftop needs a full-sized image to be appreciated — this show couldn’t look good on a small TV, flat.

It’s all performed in English, but the writing and performances are so sharp and low-key, we don’t mind. We forget about the language as we do in Zinnemann’s much better known and appreciated The Day of the Jackal, ten years later. Everybody is lively and sincere, but Zinnemann pares away Anthony Quinn’s customary overacted ‘gusto,’ to great effect. The same goes for the beloved Italian ham Paolo Stoppa. Omar Sharif communicates a practical sensitivity that’s somewhat lacking in his Doctor Zhivago. Unlike the David Lean film, all these people have choices to make. Character determines fate… this is not the ‘sweep of history,’ but a bitter little episode by which Manuel Artiguez fulfills his destiny.


Actresses from America (Mildred Dunnock), England (Rosalie Crutchley) and Italy (Daniela Rocca) all convince as Spanish for the purposes of the story. In smaller roles we see good input from Christian Marquand (The Flight of the Phoenix), Martin Benson (Goldfinger), Alain Saury (Carve Her Name with Pride) and even a young Michael Lonsdale, who is of course the surprise hero of Day of the Jackal.


Fred Zinnemann clearly reserved the right to make Behold exactly as he saw fit. We are more than surprised when the Republicans voice their hatred of the priesthood, without being ‘corrected’ by the screenplay. The church was of course in alliance with Franco’s party, El Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista, and participated actively in some of the worst reprisals. Only Omar Sharif’s honest Father Francisco comes across as an endorsement of Church values, and he seems rather isolated in his idealism.

The film’s artsy-sounding title may have reminded audiences of Vincente Minnelli’s rather pretentious The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but there’s no mystery as to why Behold didn’t pull in the audiences. It’s a long story that most Americans either didn’t know about or felt was politically divisive. The only ‘exciting action’ is in the last reel. I personally think Manuel Artiguez chose the wrong target — if he had chosen the man on the left, the surviving Fascist policemen might well conclude that the man on the right was in on the kill. His goose would likely be cooked anyway.

The most amazing thing I’ve read about this show is that the celebrated production designer Alexandre Trauner (The Man Who Would Be King, The Apartment) built at least one entire Spanish street on a large outdoor set in a French film studio. Incredible sounding, but it makes sense if you think of how unwise it would be to film on an actual 5th-floor rooftop. And they obviously couldn’t film anything in Spain itself.


The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Behold a Pale Horse does us a great service by resurrecting a film forgotten by many and underestimated by most that have seen it (including this reviewer, previously). It’s clearly not the uplifting thriller that is Day of the Jackal, but it may be the best show of its type. Jean Badal’s high contrast B&W cinematography is absorbing in both the dusty interiors and the beautiful exteriors, such as when Viñolas previews a show horse that a local landowner will likely give him as a political bribe. Badal was a cameraman on both What’s New Pussycat and Jacques Tati’s amazing Playtime.

The only disc extra is a trailer. According to the insert booklet notes, Twilight Time is still releasing discs co-produced by the late Nick Redman. Michael Finnegan has taken over liner essay duties. TT chooses a good B&W image for the cover, as most ad materials for Behold pair images of Peck and Quinn as if they were re-teaming for another attempt on The Guns of Navarone. In-character still photos even show them posing together, something unthinkable in the movie proper.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Behold a Pale Horse
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
August 1, 2019

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.