9 Chapters
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9. Universality, Transcendence, and Collapse: Music and The Greatest Story Ever Told

Stephen C. Meyer Indiana University Press ePub

In the new economy of the blockbuster that began to emerge in the postwar period, Hollywood studios needed to transform the premieres of their big-budget films into high-visibility cultural events. Among the many strategies that they employed along these lines was to publish books or pamphlets in conjunction with these blockbuster premieres. Noerdlinger’s Moses in Egypt—to which I referred in chapter 5—is a somewhat anomalous example of this kind of work. More typical is a promotional book by Ray Freiman that was designed to accompany the premiere of Ben-Hur.1 Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the book is dedicated to high-impact images. At the end of the book, for instance, are a series of color prints—reproductions of oil paintings depicting various scenes from Ben-Hur—that may be carefully torn out along conveniently placed perforated seams (the text informs us that these prints are suitable for framing). The book also includes profiles of the stars, as well as brief essays that discuss various elements of the film such as costumes, sets, and music. The emphasis in all these essays is on size, splendor, and magnificence. The promotional book for Ben-Hur, in short, documents and exemplifies the aesthetics of the superlative that was such an important part of the biblical epic genre.

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5. Spirit and Empire: Elmer Bernstein’s Score to The Ten Commandments

Stephen C. Meyer Indiana University Press ePub

Like many other critics writing during the 1970s, Michael Wood had an essentially negative attitude toward the biblical epics of the previous decades. In a striking phrase from his book America in the Movies, Wood describes the epics as “articulations of a genuine American myth: the myth of excess, the myth that suggests, in many places and in many forms, that only those things that are too big are big enough for American appetites, and that only too much is really sufficient.”1 “The basic elements of the epic,” he continues a few paragraphs later,

seem to run from the relatively minor ones like the music (preferably by Miklos Rozsa or Elmer Bernstein, and always a martial, pompous affair, with lots of organs and trumpets, a mixture of Elgar, Episcopalian hymns, and Handel, alternating with exotic-sounding slow movements for the love scenes, variations on the tunes we usually associate with snake charming) to relatively major ones like certain sturdy, straight-faced acting styles to absolutely essential elements like the big scenes (the orgy, the ceremonial entry into the city, the great battle, the individual combat, and where possible, a miracle or two) and big, earthshaking themes.2

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2. Turning Away from “Concocted Spectacle”: Alfred Newman’s Score for David and Bathsheba

Stephen C. Meyer Indiana University Press ePub

By 1951—the year in which both David and Bathsheba and Quo Vadis premiered—the practice of supplementing box office receipts by commodifying cinematic music was already well established. This commodification took a variety of forms. Later in the decade (after the long-playing record became established as a commercially viable medium for recorded sound), “original sound track” albums became important. But in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the principal media for the dissemination of film music (outside of the films themselves) were concert music (such as the Spellbound Concerto that Miklós Rózsa created from his score for Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or the Sinfonia Antarctica that Vaughn Williams developed from his score for Charles Frend’s Scott of the Antarctic) and popular songs, either taken directly from the film or else cobbled together by adding words to prominent themes from the film score. These songs (and, to a lesser degree, the concert music as well) could then be recorded and/or sold as sheet music. Along with various picture books, novelizations, and other kinds of material, these ancillary products orbited around mid-century films like so many moons around a central planet.

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3. Spectacle and Authenticity in Miklós Rózsa’s Quo Vadis Score

Stephen C. Meyer Indiana University Press ePub

In “The Romans in Films”—one of the lesser-known feuilletons from the Mythologies collection—Roland Barthes turned his caustic wit on a seemingly inconsequential detail from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar (1953): namely, the hair styles of the leading actors. In this film, he writes,

all the characters are wearing fringes. Some have them curly, some straggly, some tufted, some oily, all have them well combed, and the bald are not admitted, although there are plenty to be found in Roman history. . . . What then is associated with these insistent fringes? Quite simply the label of Roman-ness. We therefore see here the mainspring of the Spectacle—the sign—operating in the open. The frontal lock overwhelms one with evidence, no one can doubt that he is in Ancient Rome.1

Barthes places the omnipresent forelock in what he calls an “ethic of signs.” “Signs,” he continues,

ought to present themselves only in two extreme forms: either openly intellectual and so remote that they are reduced to an algebra, as in the Chinese theatre, where a flag on its own signifies a regiment; or deeply rooted, invented, so to speak, on each occasion, revealing an internal, a hidden facet . . . (as in the art of Stanislavsky, for instance). But the intermediate sign [such as the fringe] reveals a degraded spectacle, which is equally afraid of simple reality and of total artifice.2

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8. Suoni Nuovi, Suoni Antichi: The Soundscapes of Barabbas

Stephen C. Meyer Indiana University Press ePub

The popularity of the biblical epic, as I have already noted, was closely associated with the “fourth great awakening” that filled the pews of churches during the postwar period. The crest of this religious wave is of course impossible to mark with specificity, but we might use church attendance as a rough measure of the centrality of Christianity in American life during this period. Self-reported church attendance reached its all-time high in the United States in 1955 and 1958: years which correspond almost exactly to the release dates of the two films that probably mark the high water point of the genre (The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, respectively). The association between the postwar biblical epic and the postwar Christian church, moreover, was not merely a matter of statistics. Cinematic representations of biblical narratives found their way into the fabric of American religious life, not least through musical adaptions. Selections from Miklós Rózsa’s scores for King of Kings and for Ben-Hur were arranged for church choir, while The Ten Commandments—especially after it began to appear on television in 1973—attained a special, quasi-sacramental position as a special Easter program. The monumental scale of these films, their centrist theological stance and optimistic messages, position them as cinematic analogues of the expansionist, self-confident mainline Christianity of the 1950s. The postwar biblical epics, in other words, were both participants in and expressions of the “fourth great awakening” of American religious life.

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