THE SILVER CHALICE
The word 'inauspicious' would be a good word to describe The Silver Chalice as regards the career of Paul Newman. Newman became one of the most respected actors of his generation (and his blue eyes didn't hurt either). Nevertheless, in his debut on film, The Silver Chalice became an embarrassment to him, so much so that he turned down the title role in Ben-Hur because, in his words, he didn't want to ever again 'act in a cocktail dress'. This is a pledge Newman kept, as I cannot think of any Biblical or historic epic he ever worked on after The Silver Chalice.
However, the film exists, and it will forever be linked to Paul Newman.
You don't watch The Silver Chalice. You endure it. It's a film that more than earned Newman's scorn. An embarrassment to just about everyone involved, it is perhaps the nadir of Biblical films, a film so misguided, so inept, that it might even have been a 'so bad it's good' title if only for the fact that it's so bad, it's just plain bad.
It's a bit difficult to give a summation of the plot of The Silver Chalice since it tends to bring things up and either forget about them or mention them long after we've moved on to other stories, but I'll do my best. A young man is adopted by a wealthy Greek patron of the arts, seeing the young man's talent for sculpture. The young man, now named Basil, finds his first true love with a slave girl named Helena, who escapes. Basil would have been wiser to have left with her, for after his adopted father Linus dies, his wicked uncle Ignatius manages to pull a fast one, disinherit Basil (Newman) and have him sold off into slavery. The only way for Basil to be restored is to get one of the five witnesses to his adoption to come forward. Three are dead, and two are missing.
Many years later, Basil, now a silversmith, is found by Helena (Virginia Mayo), as well as Doctor Luke (Alexander Scourby). Both want Basil free, though I'm not exactly sure what Helena's scheme is. Doctor Luke buys his freedom for one reason: he needs someone to make a silver chalice to hold The Holy Grail, currently in possession of Joseph of Arimathea (Walter Hampden). Helena has gotten herself involved with Simon the Magician (Jack Palance), whose feats of wonder astonish the simple Greeks and Jews in Antioch. Simon is approached by a Jewish revolutionary who wants Simon to supplant the cult of 'Christians', with their effete theology of loving your enemy. If Simon can convince the people that he is greater than this Jesus of Nazareth, he can help them form a revolution.
Somewhere in this Basil meets with Joseph's granddaughter Deborah (Pier Angeli), who is a Christian. Well, somewhere in all this he manages to make the silver chalice, complete with the face of the apostles save for Peter, finding the making of the face of Christ rather impossible. By the time the film ends, Basil and Deborah are married, go to Rome to meet Peter (Lorne Greene), and Helena & Simon fall into the court of Nero, where Simon decides he will face Peter in some sort of miracle death-match that involves the completely crazed Simon flying in the Coliseum. For some reason, he fails, and in the ensuing riot Helena is forced to try and make some miracle, the silver chalice and the Holy Grail get lost when a mob storms Simon's home, and Basil and Deborah sail off.
It's a bit hard for me to really give an accurate overview of The Silver Chalice given that I kept falling asleep at it. I did try to keep up with whatever wild turns or sheer lunacy the film went to, but after a while I gave up. There is simply no saving The Silver Chalice from itself, as it is absolutely determined to make a spectacle of itself (and not in a Biblical spectacle good way). It is all but impossible to make a good film when Lesser Samuels' adaptation of Thomas B. Costain's novel has such leaden lines as "Yes, you're right Theron. I am a rich man, but I'm poor because I'm childless".
And that was within the first five minutes! The rest of the script goes along those lines, with such awful dialogue that doesn't so much tell a story or even move the plot along but just give the poor actors something to say. The fact that the story seems to go all over the place with no chance for any character development makes things all the more horrific.
Perhaps the script is why the acting is equally stiff, somewhere beyond parody. Newman cannot be held to blame for the blankness of his performance. I blame director Victor Saville (in his final directing job) for the fiasco of just about everyone's performance. Those who weren't broad (like Mayo, doing more twirling than acting) were stiff and emotionless (like Newman). The performances consisted of mostly people either standing around, striking poses and making 'grand pronouncements' or people showing no emotion.
There was one performance that seemed to be from another world, and that was Palance as our villain. Perhaps he figured The Silver Chalice was going to be a disaster, or maybe he was just drunk. However, there was a broadness to Palance that transcended broadness into sheer camp. No man who wears red tights that appear to have sperm painted onto it will ever be described as rational.
There really isn't anything to recommend The Silver Chalice save for Franz Waxman's score, which is so far above the project. It's no surprise that Waxman's score earned an Oscar nomination, but now we have the sad situation of having The Silver Chalice be an Oscar nominee.
Stiffly acted, The Silver Chalice is so sleep-inducing that one really cannot keep up with what's going on. Newman survived this, though perhaps he should have laughed it off rather than issue apologies (few expect a first-time film actor to knock it out of the park in their debut...just ask Jessica Lange). Mayo and Palance survived as well. The Silver Chalice is not a film I'd recommend: it's too boring. However, if you're having trouble sleeping...