Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Fred Zinnemann | Behold a Pale Horse

why did he come back?
by Douglas Messerli

J. P. Miller (writer, based on a novel by Emeric Pressburger), Fred Zinnemann (director) Behold a Pale Horse / 1964

If you can accept Gregory Peck as a Spanish Civil War hero, Anthony Quinn as a dark-hearted Spanish fascist, Mildred Dunnock as a dying Spanish mother, Omar Sharif as a French priest, and the young Italian child actor Marietto Angeletti as the son of a Spanish Republican—and that’s a lot of “ifs”—then Fred Zinnemann’s 1964 film, Behold a Pale Horse is not half-bad.
       Just in case his audience had forgotten the Spanish Civil War which brought Franco to power—and evidently, based on the financial failure of this film, his audience had—Zinnemann begins the work with documentary photos that recount some of the horrible details of the war before zeroing in on a long line of Republicans being forced to leave their country. One of  them, Manuel Artiguez (Peck) turns back to Spain at the very last minute, as his colleagues shout “Where are you going, Manuel. The war is over.” For reasons we never quite discover, for Artiguez it clearly hasn’t ended, and he remains a thorn in the side of the fascist Captain Viñolas (Quinn), for years after. 
       By the time we next see him, however, Artiguez has finally crossed the border and is now living as an older recluse in the small French town of Pau. There a young boy, Paco (Angeletti), the son of another war hero, visits him, hoping that Artiguez will return to Spain to avenge his father’s death. At first, Artiguez rebuffs the child’s request. But, coincidentally, in the town that Viñolas controls, Artiguez's mother lays dying in the hospital.

      Paco knows the hospital, wherein his father ended his life, well; and, accordingly, the two plot how Artiguez might be able to sneak in to visit her. About to die, however, the mother—who hates the clergy, but has heard that one hospital priest, Father Francisco (Sharif), is about to travel with a group of other priests to Lourdes—knowing that he will have to stop a Pau on the way, asks that he visit her. She asks Francisco to pass on a letter to her son and tell him not to come back, since she will be dead.
      The film, accordingly, now shifts in an entirely different direction. Since Artiguez is out when he attempts to visit, Francisco leaves the mother’s message with the boy, who still desiring revenge, tears it up and destroys it. But when Paco recognizes another visitor to Artiguez—come with a message that his mother still lives—as a traitor, he tells Artiguez about the priest’s visit. 
        One of the longest scenes in this film, accordingly, takes place in Lourdes, as the two attempt to track down Francisco. Certainly, these are beautifully filmed scenes which, taken together, create a sense of drama, but it seems to lead in the other direction in which we know the narrative must eventually take.  And when they finally track down the priest, confirming the mother’s death and, by implicating Artiguez’s smuggler friends association with Vinolas, our Republican hero has absolutely no reason any longer to return home. Even his enemies cannot comprehend “why he has come back.” And certainly the viewer has no clue except that he’s been described as a hero, and that’s what heroes do! Yet our hero's actions, this time around—particularly since he has no longer any need to visit hospital and knows it’s a trap—make utterly no sense. Artiguez manages to shoot a few soldiers, but is quickly killed, seemingly for other reason that he has come back to Spain once too often.
       Zinnemann, as always, is a capable filmmaker, and this work has a great deal of black-and-white beauty, reminding one a bit of the great black-and-white Civil War photography. But the story, based on a novel by Emeric Pressberger, has completely lost its urgency, and rationality is upended, apparently, by an emotional hatred of Franco and his thugs. It is almost as if Artiguez doomed himself to die.
     Although Zinnemann has almost always worked with good actors, he generally is too careful and predictable in his films to take the chances of another highly artful director like Alfred Hitchcock. In this mid-career work, we begin to see that his artfulness has begun to dominate over the urgency the logic of cinematic acts. Only two years later, in A Man for All Seasons, he has turned to heavy costume theatricalism, and by the time he filmed Julia in 1977 he had apparently come to see filmmaking as simply a string of events.

Los Angeles, January 10, 2017

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