"I need no wings to fly"
The Silver Chalice
Warner Brothers 1954
Directed by: Victor Saville
Written by: Thomas B. Costain and Lesser Samuels
Starring: Paul Newman, Virginia Mayo, Lorene Green, Jack Palance, Pier Angeli, and Natalie Wood
Based upon the best selling novel by Thomas Costain, The Silver Chalice was Warner Brothers’ attempt to cash in on the popularity of Sword & Sandal films kicked off by the success of MGM’s 1951 box office hit, Quo Vadis. However, almost from the opening frame it is clear that Warner Brothers and their director, Victor Saville, had no idea what they were doing.
Made for about half what Quo Vadis cost and without Peter Ustinov as Nero, The Silver Chalice nevertheless boasts a roster of talent that should have insured a good return on WB’s investment. Many of the actors were already well established (Natile Wood, Virginia Mayo, Jack Palance) but the cast also included a couple of noteworthy debuts among them Lorne Greene and Paul Newman. Yet even these talented actors can do little to improve a script that is both too earnest and too unfocused at the same time.
Loren Greene as Peter and Paul Newman as Basil
There are several competing subplots, but essentially the story concerns a Greek sculptor (Paul Newman), sold into slavery, who is set free, both physically and emotionally, by the commission given him, from Joseph of Arimathea, to create a silver chalice to hold the Holy Grail.
This commission takes Newman’s character, Basil, from Antioch to Jerusalem and then on to Rome where he finds Peter (Lorne Greene) running a small tavern, and Simon (Jack Palance) performing at Nero’s palace as the ancient world equivalent of Penn & Teller. Newman also enjoys romantic interludes with Helena (Virginia Mayo) and Deborra (Pier Angeli). Beyond that the story is imminently forgettable and easily interchangeable with any number of other films dealing with Romans and Christians including The Robe and its sequel, Demetrius And the Gladiators. Generally, the Romans are corrupt pagans, and the Christians virtuous martyrs. Oh, and as the climax is set in Rome, there is the obligatory riot by the Mob because, as Hollywood has taught us, that’s what the Roman Mob does – it riots.
What makes this film noteworthy are neither the story nor the acting, but the costumes and sets, though not for their historical accuracy, but rather just the opposite.
Helena led away by the Praetorians
While the Roman legionaries and Praetorian Guards wear standard Hollywood Roman armor and the Roman citizens wear non descript tunics, the costumes worn by Jack Palance are straight out of a B-grade Science Fiction film and indeed the makeup poor Virginia Mayo is saddled with makes her look like ZaaZaa Gabor from the 1950’s Sci-Fi classic, The Queen Of Outer Space.
Jack Palance as Simone the Magician and Virginia Mayo as Helena.
As for the design on Simone’s costume, they might be snakes or perhaps …
Interestingly, although the legionaries and Praetorians have round metal shields, wear red tunics & capes, greaves, and carry spears, their helmets are not outrageously bad (like those in Gladiator) and even more remarkable – some of the soldiers are not wearing bracers! How the costume designer got this right, and so much else wrong, is baffling particularly given the outrageous nature of the other costumes. It is also worth noting that in this film (like so many others) the legionaries seem to enjoy lounging about at dinner while still wearing their armor! That could not have been very comfortable, for actor or for soldier.
Better still are the sets, which display a fine example of Abstract Minimalist Art. Nero’s Palace looks like Las Vegas, except even Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas displays more affinity for ancient Rome that these sets do. The sets are more reminiscent of the original Star Trek TV series, and one expects Kirk and Spock to walk in at any moment and complain that someone has violated the Prime Directive, which, come to think of it, actually seemed to happen a lot on that series.
Simone and Helena at Simone’s home in Rome. Judging from
the wall décor is it any wonder that Simone was crazed?
This is not to say the sets are either cheap or un-artistic. Far from it, and in fact the Art Director, Boris Levin and the Set Decorator, Howard Bristol, both have several great films to their credits including West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, The Andromeda Strain and Rope, to name a few.
Likewise, the story of the film is more interesting than the story told by the film.
The part of Basil, the Greek Sculptor, was first offered to James Dean, but he passed on the advice of his agent who thought the script poor. The part was then offered to Paul Newman who had lost out to Dean for the starring role in East of Eden. That film made Dean a star, while The Silver Chalice, nearly sank Newman’s career before it had even set sail. One contemporary critic said of Newman’s acting, he “delivers his lines with the emotional fervor of a Putnam Division conductor announcing local stops.” In fact, when the film was first shown on television in 1961, Newman took out a full-page ad in the Hollywood trade papers apologizing for his performance and asking the public not to watch the broadcast. Predictably, the ad had the opposite effect and the film enjoyed a robust TV audience share.
Paul Newman and Pier Angeli – Newman’s protests
not withstanding, his performance is not that bad.
Filming another movie on the same lot, Dean actually came to watch Newman work and see what he had passed up. It was on the set of The Silver Chalice that Dean met the love of his life, Pier Angeli. Years later, upon Dean’s untimely death, Newman would replace him in the boxing film Somebody Up There Likes Me, working once again with Pier Angeli. That film reignited Newman’s career, and he remained a top star for the rest of his life.
“I need no wings to fly!” Jack Palance as Simone the Magician.
Beyond the sets and the unintentional humor, there is little to recommend this film, other than perhaps Jack Palance’s scenery chewing performance. Although he is playing the character as crazed, Palance is clearly in control. His talent is both obvious and remarkable. The director no doubt meant this as a serious performance, but it is now a stand out example of High Camp at its best. In fact it now seems clear, given recent performances by Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Nicholas Cage, that Jack Palance had as great an influence on American actors as did Brando, Olivier, or Wells.
Sometimes even the most earnest of intentions bring about unintended results, so perhaps it is incorrect to say this film has no merit. On the contrary, there is enough ridiculousness here to recommend this film for a hot summer night when there is nothing else on. So pop some corn and enjoy.
Jacques Aubuchon as Emperor Nero
These short scenes from the Turner Classic Movies web site should give you a good feel for the film and the remarkably strange sets:
The DVD is currently available from Amazon.
(c)2011 David L Reinke