Behold a Pale Horse (1964) ***

Old causes never die but they do go out of fashion and interest from movie audiences in the issues surrounding the Spanish Civil War had fallen from the peak when they attracted artists of the caliber of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. But passions surrounding the conflict remained high even 20 years after its conclusion as indicated in this Fred Zinnemann (The Sundowners, 1960) drama.

Manuel Artiguez (Gregory Peck) plays a disillusioned guerilla living in exile in France who has ceased raiding the Spanish border town under the thrall of the corrupt Captain Vinolas (Anthony Quinn). Artiguez has two compelling reasons to return home – a young boy Paco asks him to revenge the death of his father at the hands of Vinolas and his mother is dying. But Artiguez is disinclined to do either. Heroism has lost its luster. He has grown more fearful and prefers to live out his life drinking wine and casting lustful glances at young women.

In France he enjoys a freedom he would be denied in Spain. He is not hidden. Ask anybody in the street where he lives and they will tell you. This is a crusty old soldier, unshaven, long past finding refuge in memories, but not destroyed either by regret. There is a fair bit of plot, some of it stretching incredulity. The action sequence at the end, conducted in complete silence, is very well done, but mostly, while a shade on the earnest side, this is a character piece.

This is not the upstanding Gregory Peck of his Oscar-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). He is a considerably less attractive character, burnt-out, shabby, grizzled, lazy, easily duped, unwilling to risk his life to see his mother. We have seen aspects of the Anthony Quinn character before but he brings a certain humanity to his villain, bombastic to hide his own failings, coarse but occasionally charming, suitably embarrassed when caught by his wife visiting his mistress and praying earnestly to God to deliver Artiquez into his hands. Omar Sharif is the most conflicted character, forced by conscience to help an enemy of the Church.

Movie tie-in paperback edition.
The more esoteric cover for the original hardback edition.

However, two elements in the picture don’t make much sense. Paco tears up a letter (critical to the plot) to Artiquez which I just cannot see a young boy doing, not in an era when children respected and feared their elders. And I am also wondering what was it about Spain that stopped directors filming it in color. This is the third Spain-set picture I have reviewed in this Blog after The Happy Thieves and The Angel Is Red. For the first two I can see perhaps budget restrictions being the cause, but given the stars involved – Rex Harrison and Rita Hayworth in the first and Ava Gardner and Dirk Bogarde in the second – hardly facing the production dilemmas of a genuine B-picture. But Behold a Pale Horse was a big-budget effort from Columbia and while black-and-white camerawork may achieve an artistic  darkness of tone it feels artificial. This was never going to be the colorful Spain of fiestas and tourist vistas but it would have perhaps been more inviting to audiences had it taken more advantage of ordinary scenery.

J.P. Miller (Days of Wine and Roses, 1962) adapted the film from the novel by Emeric Pressburger who in tandem with Michael Powell had made films like Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). The film caused calamity for Columbia in Spain, the depiction of Vinolas with a mistress and taking bribes so upset the authorities that all the studio’s movies were banned.   Peck and Quinn had worked together in The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Quinn and Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Age of Consent (1969) ***

Reputations were made and broken on this tale of a jaded artist returning to his homeland to rediscover his mojo. Director Michael Powell had, in tandem with partner Emeric Pressburger, created some of the most acclaimed films of the 1940s – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) just remade by the BBC and The Red Shoes (1948) – but the partnership had ended the next decade. Powell’s solo effort Peeping Tom (1960) was greeted with a revulsion from which his career never recovered. Age of Consent was his penultimate picture but the extensive nudity and the age gap between the principals left critics shaking their heads.

For Helen Mirren, on the other hand, it was a triumphant start to a career that has now spanned half a century, one Oscar and three Oscar nominations. She was a burgeoning theatrical talent at the Royal Shakespeare Company when she made her movie debut as the muse of the artist played by James Mason. It should also be pointed out that when it came to scene-stealing she had a rival in the pooch Godfrey.

You would rightly be concerned that there could be some grooming going on. Although 24 at the time of the film’s release, Mirren played an under-age nymph who spent a great deal of time sporting naked in the sea off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But there are a couple of provisos. In the first place, Mirren’s character was not swimming for pleasure, she was diving for seafood to augment her impoverished lifestyle. In the second place, she was so poor she would hardly have afforded a swimsuit and was the kind of free spirit anyway who might have shucked one off. Thirdly, and more importantly, Mason wasn’t interested. He wasn’t the kind of artist who needed to perve on young girls. An early scene showed him in bed with a girlfriend and it was clear that he was an object of lust elsewhere. Mason was an artist, fit and tanned, as obsessed any other artist about his talent, and was in this remote stretch not to hunt for young naked girls but to find inspiration. As well as eventually painting Mirren, he also transforms the shack he rents into something of beauty.

Mason is as vital to Mirren’s self-development. The money he pays her for modelling goes towards her escape fund. Her mother being a useless thieving alcoholic, she has little in the way of role model. And the world of seafood supply was competitive. She is lost in paradise and the scene of her buying a tacky handbag demonstrates the extent of her initial ambition. Although her physical attributes attract male attention, it is only on forming a relationship with the painter that Mirren begins to believe in herself. There’s not much more to the central story than the artist rediscovering his creative spark and helping Mirren’s personal development along the way.

And if Powell had wanted to make an erotically-charged movie, he need look no further than his own Black Narcissus, in which two nuns are brought to the brink of lustful temptation in a convent in the Himalayas. Powell, himself, had form in the erotic department, having previously been the illicit lover of the film’s star Deborah Kerr and at the time of making the movie had switched, in similar illicit fashion, to her co-star Kathleen Byron. There is no question that the young Mirren in a beauty, but it is not lust that guides Mason.

Female career longevity has always been an issue in Hollywood, the assumption being that women had shorter careers than men. But when I was writing “When Women Ruled Hollywood,” I discovered this was not true. Until Sophia Loren’s late foray this year, Jane Fonda had led the roll of honor – male or female – with a career lasting 58 years. Next came Shirley Maclaine with 56 years, then Clint Eastwood (54), Katharine Hepburn (52) and Helen Mirren (51) and Robert Redford (51). Loren’s latest – The Life Ahead – gave her a career as a recognised star turn of 66 years.

Mason is a believable character. He is not an impoverished artist. Far from being self-deluded, he is a questing individual, turning his back on easy money and the temptations of big city life in order to reinvent himself. He isn’t going to starve and he has no problems with women. And he is perfectly capable of looking after himself.  A more rounded artist would be hard to find. Precisely because there is no sexual relationship with Mirren, the movie, as a film about character development, is ideally balanced.

The movie is gorgeously filmed, with many aerial shots of the reef and underwater photography by Ron and Valerie Taylor.  

What does let the show down is a proliferation of cliched characters who over-act. Jack McGowran as a sponging friend, ruthless seducer and thief heads that list closely followed by Neva Carr-Glynn as Mirren’s grandmother who looks like a reject from a Dickens novel. There’s also a dumb and dumber cop and a neighbor so bent on sex that she falls for McGowran. It’s not the first time comedy has got in the way of art, but it’s a shame it had to interrupt so often what is otherwise a touching film.

At its heart is a portrait of the artist as an older man and his sensitive relationship with a young girl. In later years, Powell married film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and after his death she oversaw the restoration of Age of Consent, with eight minutes added and the Stanley Myers score replaced by the original by Peter Sculthorpe.