The Big Fisherman (1959)
Opening title for The Big Fisherman
There's love aplenty in the heart of Simon Peter (Howard Keel) in this biblical epic, but the search for some hate to generate conflict leads to his being relegated to a supporting role in what amounts to a Shakespearean Arabian Nights tale. More's the pity, since Keel's simple, sincere performance suggests that he could have continued as a major leading man long after the big-screen musical fell out of fashion. Nor did it help that despite beautiful cinematography, this old-fashioned biblical epic had the bad luck to come out in 1959, the same year as Ben-Hur, the film that revolutionized the genre.
Lloyd C. Douglas's novel is often considered a follow-up to his best seller The Robe. Simon Peter is a supporting character in the earlier book, but takes center stage in the later novel, where his redemption through belief in the risen Christ is paralleled to the conversion of an Arabian princess who masquerades as a boy in her quest for vengeance against her father, Herod. When her hunt for the man who had ruined her mother's life takes her to Israel, she ends up working on Peter's boat as he struggles with the call to give up fishing to follow Christ.
Producer Rowland V. Lee, best known for his stylized direction of Son of Frankenstein (1939), first heard of the book from Douglas shortly before its 1948 publication. Lee had been hoping to produce a film based on the life of Christ and was seeking funding from the Ford Foundation. When he read the novel, however, he decided to adapt it to the screen. With no financial backing immediately available, it would take him a while. In fact he almost lost the project when another producer, Bryan Foy, picked up a one-year option on the book in 1954. By that point, the 20th Century-Fox adaptation of Douglas's The Robe (1953) had become a smash hit, prompting Hollywood to look for the next big biblical epic. When Foy's option expired, the title passed through several other companies until Lee finally bought the rights in 1957.
He then took the project to Walt Disney, but the pioneering animator initially passed because of a longstanding policy against overtly religious material. Instead, his brother Roy backed the production but still released it through Disney's Buena Vista. With his backing, Lee lavished $4 million on the production, sparing no expense as he used almost 4,000 actors and extras and almost 6,000 historically accurate props. When overseas filming proved too costly, Lee decided to shoot in California, with location footage on his own ranch in the San Fernando Valley as well as the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth and the area around La Quinta. Interiors were shot at Universal, which also arranged the loan of John Saxon to play the Arab prince in amorous pursuit of the leading lady.
The first director signed for the film was Michael Curtiz, a Warner Bros. stalwart of the '30s and '40s. When a scheduling problem forced him to drop out, Lee hired Frank Borzage, one of Hollywood's most revered directors of the late silent and early talkie era. He won the first Oscar® for Best Directing for 7th Heaven (1927), with a second for Bad Girl (1931). He also helmed such classics as A Farewell to Arms (1932), History Is Made at Night (1937) and Three Comrades (1938). This was only Borzage's second film after ten years of inactivity as a victim of the Hollywood blacklist and would prove to be his last. Though critics have found evidence of his populist humanism in his comeback film, China Doll (1958), they have been hard-pressed to find any signs of his personal style in The Big Fisherman, possibly because of the film's epic scope. It would be the only biblical epic ever directed by the Hollywood legend and would turn out to be his final film.
For the title role, Lee signed Howard Keel, the towering baritone who had been a mainstay of MGM musicals in the early '50s. With the decline of the musical and the failure of his last MGM film, Kismet (1955), the actor had not appeared in a U.S. film in four years. Leading lady Susan Kohner had just completed the film for which she is best known, Imitation of Life (1959), in which she plays a rebellious, light-skinned black woman. The supporting cast was filled with familiar faces, including Herbert Lom as Herod, Martha Hyer as Herodias and Beulah Bondi as Simon Peter's mother. Also notable was Marian Seldes as Kohner's mother. Seldes has become a stage legend since her Broadway debut as an attendant in Judith Anderson's 1947 production of Medea. The Big Fisherman was made during a brief tenure in Hollywood to pursue film and television work. She returned to Broadway in 1961, where she began a long association with playwright Edward Albee. She also starred in such hits as Albee's A Delicate Balance, for which she won a Tony Award, Equus and Deathtrap. As a teacher at Juilliard, she helped train a generation of future stars, including Robin Williams, Laura Linney and Patti LuPone.
During scripting, Lee and co-writer Howard Estabrook stayed close to Douglas's novel with one major exception. They decided to cut Salome from the story, even though it included the beheading of John the Baptist. Lee felt the character was too erotic for a family film. Lee also decided early on not to show Christ's face on screen. In fact, the character was referred to throughout the film as "The Preacher." Christ's voice was used, however, though Lee kept the speaker's name out of the credits. According to an item in The Hollywood Reporter, the voice was supplied by the Rev. Dr. Donald Curtis, who had acted in such films as Spellbound (1945) and The Ten Commandments (1956). Curtis had studied world religions before becoming ordained in the Church of Religious Science and was minister-director at the Science of Mind Church in Los Angeles at the time of filming.
The Big Fisherman was the first film shot in Super Panavision 70, a process Panavision had refined from the MGM Camera 65 system they had developed for Ben-Hur. Veteran cameraman Lee Garmes had already mastered the widescreen format on Howard Hawks's Land of the Pharaohs (1955), but would outdo himself this time with what he always considered his best work, modeled on the look of Rembrandt's paintings. The soundtrack was produced in a new six-channel recording system that provided an enhanced sense of directionality. Enhancing the sound recording was a devotional score by Albert Hay Malotte, best known for his religious music, particularly his 1935 setting of The Lord's Prayer. Malotte also had worked extensively for Disney, providing scores for such popular cartoons as "Ferdinand and the Bull" and "The Ugly Duckling."
With all the talent on hand, The Big Fisherman should have done better. In some ways, however, the mammoth production proved too much for Borzage and Lee, who let the film go into release with visible boom shadows in some shots and an unintentionally hilarious shot of Hyer with an anachronistic vaccination scar clearly visible. The film opened to mixed reviews. While many critics praised its epic scope, they quibbled over the acting and script. A. H. Weiler of the New York Times called it "honestly reverential but rarely moving...the screen play has a disconcerting effect as authentic, scriptural passages are interspersed with contemporary dialogue and the stiff, theatrical speech of historical dramas." Keel and Lom got the best notices, but the film was eclipsed by the release of Ben-Hur later in the year. It managed to score Oscar® nominations for its art direction, cinematography and costumes, but lost all three categories to the more popular and acclaimed biblical epic.
By Frank Miller
Producer: Rowland V. Lee
Director: Frank Borzage
Screenplay: Howard Estabrook, Rowland V. Lee
Based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Score: Albert Hay Malotte
Cast: Howard Keel (Simon Peter), Susan Kohner (Fara), John Saxon (Voldi), Martha Hyer (Herodias), Herbert Lom (Herod Antipas), Ray Stricklyn (Deran), Marian Seldes (Amon), Alexander Scourby (David Ben-Zadok), Beulah Bondi (Hannah), Rhodes Reason (Andrew), Jonathan Harris (Lysias)