Surround three international stars with several thousand extras in Franco’s Spain and you’ve got yourself an instant historical adventure epic. Unfunny Cary Grant has a BIG GUN, Spanish peasant guerilla (!) Frank Sinatra looks totally lost, and Sophia Loren conquers Hollywood by making with the sultry eyes and body moves.
The Pride and the Passion
1957 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 125 132 min. / Street Date August 16, 2016 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.95
Starring Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Theodore Bikel, John Wengraf, Jay Novello
Cinematography Franz Planer
Production Designer Rudolph Sternad
Art Direction Fernando Carrere, Gil Parrondo
Film Editors Ellsworth Hoagland, Frederic Knudtson
Original Music George Antheil
Written by Edna Anhalt & Edward Anhalt from the novel The Gun by C.S. Forester
Produced and Directed by Stanley Kramer
Successful producer Stanley Kramer graduated to directing in 1955; two years later he was helming this giant, rather ill-conceived big-star epic in Spain. A controversial figure who championed liberal causes but had a spotty record with associates affected by the blacklist, Kramer made medium-sized films until he decided to take the star position as director. He eventually developed some directing skill, but his first couple of pictures are hit & miss. And this one is a demanding big-scale extravaganza.
Nobody ever said Stanley Kramer didn’t know how to get movies made. The Pride and the Passion is a cannily-packaged attraction by a producer who attacked the problem of making a hit movie as if it were a science: sign up two top male stars, the hottest new European actress, a cast of thousands, throw in a torrid romance (the Passion, get it) and giant battles of honor, and all that remains between you and boxoffice millions is a good poster. Stanley Kramer can claim that he did all of these things correctly because his show ended up a success in the ledger books. And it still retains a basic, ummm… watchability.
The producer-director certainly chose a broad canvas for his epic: Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. English Naval gunner and special agent Anthony (Cary Grant) links up with the Spanish guerilla rebels Miguel (Frank Sinatra) and Juana (Sophia Loren, pre- nose job) to retake the walled city of Avila, using an oversized cannon discarded by a Spanish commander. Their only problem is how to smuggle the oversized weapon halfway across Spain, through hundreds of miles of French- held territory.
The Pride and the Passion is big and noisy, and also klunky and awkward. Kramer’s direction is as stiff as the hundreds of storyboards held by the UCLA Research Library’s Stanley Kramer collection. The big cannon is the story’s only real source of interest. It at least has some built-in mystery and suspense. We want the monster cannon to get to Avila, mainly to find out how potent a super-weapon it will be. Kramer signed big names, but it’s a real competition to decide which is the least appropriate for his or her given role. Frank Sinatra is appallingly bad, and not only because he is miscast. As capable as Frank was at playing a regular guy (well, sort of regular), there’s nothing remotely right about him as a period character, a peasant removed from Sinatra’s street-smart roots. The hard-bitten rebel Miguel rarely if ever even smiles, and without a chance to have a personality, Frankie looks way out of place. There’s nothing for him to do, so he’s often seen doing something with his hands — working in leather, or whittling a piece of wood with his gypsy knife.
The kid from Hoboken just looks lost, like he wasn’t even thinking about his character two seconds before the camera rolled. Kramer had used Frank in the previous year’s Not as a Stranger, in which both he and Robert Mitchum were painfully miscast as doctor interns. After this experience Frank got into the producing business. Although he had a bad habit of ignoring the directors he hired, he for the most part made wise casting choices for himself.
I can see Kramer repeating to his actors how his vision for Pride is dependent on big doses of Noble and Serious. I’m not saying they had no versatility, but when Sinatra and Cary Grant did their best work it was usually by playing against those qualities. Grant’s saving grace was always his sense of irony and humor. He dutifully impersonates the English commander in his fancy uniform as straight and stiff as can possibly be done, and his personality all but disappears. In a few shots he seems to want to develop something amusing about a tassel on his Navy commander’s hat that hangs annoyingly in front of his nose. Kramer’s direction appears to ignore it. Grant isn’t even allowed to do a comic take when the same fancy hat ends up being worn by a mule. He looks appropriately dapper in his jut-jaw poses, but might as well be a statue.
1957 was the year Sophia Loren broke into Hollywood. Just one provocative view of a wet Sophia in Fox’s Boy on a Dolphin raised temperatures everywhere. UA’s Legend of the Lost paired her with John Wayne in a highly-visible vehicle. Acting opposite Grant and Sinatra was definitely a step up, and just standing like a goddess on the posters for The Pride and the Passion was enough to cement her stardom world-wide, especially when rumors spread of an on-set affair with the married Cary Grant. But the Neapolitan Loren was no more convincing as a Spaniard than was Frank. Juana’s ‘torrid’ flamenco dance is so Italian that you can almost see the Spanish extras laughing at her. Loren did not yet have her final, surgically augmented face, nor had she developed her full acting abilities. She found her real place in Hollywood pictures immediately after this show, in pictures that showcased her skill as an engaging comedienne. Four years later, she played another Spaniard in El Cid, and the improvement is remarkable.
All three stars might have come off much better if only Stanley Kramer had a clue as to how to direct an epic like this. In scene after scene, the three leads stand in stiff poses, frequently against a backdrop of peasant onlookers. Scores of dress extras, warned not to look at the camera under pain of death, are always a discreet distance away. It’s as if the three stars were wearing not mosquito repellent, but Extra Repellent. Whenever we see Sophia, it looks like the Spanish extras were just fighting to see who would get to stand in the shot near her. It’s always the three ‘real people’ against a background of near-anonymous peasants. Never has an epic about a mass struggle seemed more foolish. The stars get all the attention and the masses are completely disposable.
C.S. Forester’s source novel The Gun takes a variation of his Captain Horatio Hornblower character onto dry land. It’s still a Hornblower-type effort to sneak past the French to strike some vital target, just substituting a cannon for a ship. You’d think some fish-out-of-water mileage could be gotten from the English officer’s frustration at being stuck on dry land, with a bunch of peasants for a crew, but things never get that interesting. Kramer reduces Forester’s military strategies to a few pitiful tent scenes where Napoleonic commanders bumble around in off-the-rack tricolor uniforms. Excepting his three stars, Kramer might have directed the rest of the dialogue scenes in an afternoon or two. Special guest general Theodore Bikel is barely seen in an exterior set. Did he even go to Spain?
Kramer’s direction of the large-scale scenes has been praised, but I really don’t know why. The rolling of the big cannon across the landscape was storyboarded in great detail, yet the uninspired angles and repetitive setups don’t stop it from becoming boring. There are so many high-angled shots that most of the time the giant functioning prop looks like a toy. The landscape is mainly empty, so there’s little evocation of the Napoleonic era. One major story point sees the cannon smuggled across a bridge. The day-for-night shooting and the pitiful pontoon structure (this movie has some pretty awful art direction) make the scene look like an ambitious TV show. The few minutes of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits devoted to Napoleon have ten times the atmosphere.
The film has three set pieces that do work, up to a point. The cannon gets loose, rolls down a slope and wipes a path as it crashes through a small wood.. It is indeed impressive to see the rolling juggernaut snap dozens of trees like they were toothpicks. At least there we get a fairly unique demonstration of the cannon’s heft, if not its size. Later, to sneak by the French, the guerillas disguise the cannon as a parade float in a Catholic procession. Kramer and his composer George Anthiel (Dementia) work overtime telling us this is significant. Yes, a weapon can be a holy thing, the church is behind the people, and God is the biggest arms smuggler of all. But the dramatic impact is nil. We develop little emotional connection to the laboring peasant guerillas.
A political reading of the film is even worse. Kramer constantly falls back on religious imagery, to the point of having the Church save the gun by protecting it in a huge cathedral. Forget 1810… with these scenes of ‘faith lending a hand to the side of freedom,’ the Spaniards of 1955 would immediately associate the Catholic Church with Franco’s fascists. But it is true that the dialogue contains no other pro-Franco elements.
The great Saul Bass did the main title sequence for The Pride and the Passion, but they’re nowhere near his quality standard. A bunch of red-tinted engravings of old artwork are embellished with added dots, lines and lettering. According to the UCLA materials Bass laid out much of the storyboard planning for the film as well. The sterile and academic quality of the film’s second-unit work may have been a result of following the storyboards too literally. Most shots are locked down like a comic-book frame. Little attention is given to dressing the landscape along the path of the gun. A particularly lame sequence shows the cannon being rolled quickly through the distinctive Almería rock formations later used in The Valley of Gwangi.
The final battle at Avila does have the impressive firing of the cannon. We’ve seen it dragged it so far, that there is a release of tension when it is finally put to use. The key setup for the bombardment is a broad panorama showing a mile or so of walled city in the distance. It’s way too big to be a miniature or a forced-perspective set. As the guerilla army cheers Cary Grant on, Kramer’s gun very dramatically blasts down the wall bit by bit, until it crumbles. I assume Kramer’s construction crew had to build an extra wall section to accomplish this, and the illusion is excellent.
But when the mass charge takes place, the movie staggers forward to new levels of incompetence. Thousands of attackers are felled by the defending cannonade, with plenty of suspicious-looking black cork thrown into the air. But when they get inside the walled city we see only a handful of French defenders. The sets are so bare and unreal, it looks like they’ve broken into the Magic Castle at Disneyland.
The finale shows Grant carrying his fallen comrade to the base of a statue of the Virgin Mary, as inspirational music plays. I’m afraid that audiences were probably thinking less of the tragic irony, than of the old joke about Sinatra being so thin and insubstantial, that he’d weigh nothing at all. This finish was surely storyboarded as well, but the effect is dry and generic. The emotional sum is a big nothing.
After The Pride and the Passion Stanley Kramer found his métier in ultra-sober liberal cause movies, one crusade per film. He addressed Nazi guilt, nuclear annihilation and the Scopes Monkey trial, and touched on race relations a couple of times with Sidney Poitier. A couple of these shows hold up well today and all made money. Stanley finally fizzled when he tried to tackle the student revolution problem, way beyond the time when wishy-washy political correctness made a difference. Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is so big and has so many beloved comedians, that it can’t help but be entertaining. Minus a few awkward scenes, his best film as a director is On the Beach, where the subject matter matches the solemnity of his approach. All we can say about The Pride and the Passion is that it looks like the work of a producer-turned-director who bit off more than he could chew.
The Olive Films Blu-ray of The Pride and the Passion is a good but not great encoding of an epic filmed in large format VistaVision and originally released in Technicolor. The scan here is adequate but not particularly sharp; I would guess that it’s not new. Judging by the framing, I think it’s possible that it overscans a bit as well. The colors are okay and it’s reasonably clean, but it’s not the same as a new transfer made from an oversized negative. In defense of the Blu-ray, the HD image here is far better than the old (2002) DVD, which was not even widescreen-enhanced.
George Antheil’s score is fairly exciting and at least captures a general Spanish atmosphere. If you like the movie and want to see it splashed across your big monitor, this disc will do nicely.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Pride and the Passion
Movie: Fair + Plus
Video: Good- Minus
Sound: Good – Minus
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 23, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson