A muted thriller from Fred Zinnemann

Like Joseph L. Manckewicz, Fred Zinnemann was a director of films of more-than-ordinary intelligence with fine performances, who has been neglected by auteur theorists. Though neither had a consistent visual style, each met the auteur criterion of having a recognizable theme or set of themes. They also versatile writer-director Billy Wilder was also ignored by the French auteur theorists and their American epigoni like Andrew Sarris. (Sarris eventually acknowledged having been wrong about Wilder).


The 1964 Columbia movie “Behold a Pale Horse,” based on a novel by Emeric Pressburger (who had been half ot the Archers with Michael Powell through the astonishingly dull “Ill-Met by Moonlight”) is IMHO too long (121 minutes), but strikingly photographed by Jean Badal      (best known for lensing Jacques Tati’s “Playtime”) with an exceptionally good soundtrack written by Maurice Jarre, between the ones with indelible themes he wrote for “Lawrence of Arabia” and for “Doctor Zhivago” (rhough my favorite was later, the one for the 1982 “The Year of Living Dangerously”).

One could see the movie as reuniting Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn from “Lawrence of Arabia,” though perhaps more apt is to see it as reuniting Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn from “The Guns of Navarrone” (in which their characters intensely disliked each other). “Behold a Pale Horse” is a sort of muted thriller, but far more character-driven than Zinnemann’s “The Day of the Jackal” (1973). In this it prefigured “Julia” (1977), Zinnemann’s last hit (I’m curious about his last movie, “Five Days One Summer” (1982)).

1964 was a good year for Hollywood movies and the apogee of Anthony Quinn’s career (“Zorba the Greek”). Quinn was more restrained than usual as Captain Vinolas, the police chief of a Spanish (Basque) border tow, San Martín, that has been regularly raided in the two decades since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 but Manuel Artiguez (a grisly and otherwise unpleasant Gregory Peck), who lives in southern France and has never surrendered or otherwise moved on (he’s not as weary as Yves Montand in the contemporary-to-it “La guerre est finis” and far more a rebel than a disciplined revolutionary like Montand’s character).

The movie’s point of view is provided by 11-year-old Paco Dages (Marietto Angeletti) whose father was recently tortured to death by and crosses the border seeking out Artiguez whom he wants to kill his father’s murderer. It looks like Artiguez has gone soft, more interested in wine bottles than in raiding Spain and embarrassing Capt. Vinolas.

Artiguez’s mother, Pilar (played by John Ford repertory company actress Mildred Dunnock), is dying in St. Martín, She does not want to go into a hospital, but Capt. Vinolas sees an opportunity to use her as bait in a trap for his nemesis. Before she dies, Pilar asks a priest Father Francisco (Omar Sharif), who is about to go to Lourdes to tell her son to stay away.

As anti-fascists the Artiguezes, mother and son, loathe the priests who supported the fascists in overthrowing the Spanish Republic and blessed the continued torture of dissidents in Franco’s Spain. Neither Paco nor Manuel believes the priest, especially since Carlos (a jackal, though not The Jackal of Zinnemann’s later movie!— Raymond Pellegrin) has brought a message that Manuel’s mother wants to see him before she dies (a message composed by Capt. Vinolas).

Father Francisco is the most sympathetic adult character in the movie, and Manuel decides which message (and which messenger) is telling him the truth.

The title derives from the Book of Revelation 6:8: “Behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” The verse appears before the movie (which includes some minutes of documentary footage from the Spanish Civil War and the Republican troops crossing into France, reluctantly giving up their rifles) and guarantees there will be death. My interpretation of the movie is that living is more difficult than dying, and least for aging heroes, though I also wonder how safe the road to Lourdes is going to be after “THE END” flashes across the screen. Pedro (Paolo Stoppa) will have sobered up by then…


BTW, the portrait of Capt. Vinojas so enraged Spanish authorities at the time that not only did they ban the movie, but they banned all movies released by Columbia. (What upset the Franco censors was not that the police beat Paco’s father to death or used a hospital as a trap for a shootout, but that Capt. Vinojas was shown with a mistress and taking bribes—though his opening scene shows him saying he cannot take a gift, though implying that the price he will pay for the horse he wants will be very far below the market rate.)

The movie did not get into the long-running reign of terror by the Franco dictatorship, and I didn’t think that Capt. Vinojas was portrayed in unflattering ways… and the issues of the Republic vs. the insurgent Phalange were avoided, making the movie seem a personal feud of the aging antagonists.


The DVD includes a trailer for “Behold” and ones for “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Guns of Navarrone” (the latter with voiceovers from Peck). The images did not seem too dark to me, though I wondered when it rained so that the streets and sidewalks of San Martín glistened by streetlight.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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