Warner Bros. loves collecting together like material and issuing it in sets. With their four boxes of "Cult Camp Classics" they have a little fun at their own expense, because they recognize that when you produce thousands of films over the years, not all of them are going to be top-notch. These "Cult Camp" sets feature some of the studio's--shall we say--less-than-effective efforts.
Volume 1 in the series, "Sci-Fi Thrillers," contains "The Giant Behemoth" (1958), "Queen of Outer Space" (1958), and "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman" (1958). The names alone give you a pretty good idea of the order of quality you're dealing with. Volume 2, "Women in Peril," actually contains one pretty good film, "Caged" (1949), but the other two are worthy of their "camp" designation: "The Big Cube" (1968) and "Trog" (1969). Then, in Volume 3, "Terrorized Travelers," the tone turns more to dramatic camp with "Zero Hour!" (1957, and one of several movies Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers had fun parodying in "Airplane!"), "Hot Rods to Hell" (1966), and "Skyjacked" (1972). Warner Bros. also make each of these titles available separately.
However, choosing to take the high road, I decided to watch Volume 4, "Historical Epics." I figured if I was going to watch anything campy, it might just as well be expensive and campy. The first two movies in Vol. 4 are "Land of the Pharaohs" (1955), starring Jack Hawkins, Joan Collins, Dewey Martin, and Alexis Minotis, directed by Howard Hawks (yes, that Howard Hawks, who had so many other notable pictures to his credit); and "The Colossus of Rhodes" (1961), with Rory Calhoun and Lea Massari, directed by Sergio Leone (yes, that Sergio Leone, later of Spaghetti-Western fame).
The historical epic you'll hear about this time is MGM's "The Prodigal" (1955), with Edmund Purdom and Lana Turner, directed by Richard Thorpe. Understand, however, that historical epics come in a variety of flavors. There are the sword-and-sandals epics like "The Colossus of Rhodes," "Gladiator," "Ben-Hur," "Spartacus," and "300"; the purely historical epics like "The Egyptian," "Land of the Pharaohs," "Cleopatra," and "The Fall of the Roman Empire"; the literary-fantasy epics like "Jason and the Argonauts" and the "Sinbad" and "Hercules" series; and, among the most popular of all, the Biblical epics like "Samson and Delilah," "The Robe," "The Ten Commandments," "King of Kings," and "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Hollywood based these latter films loosely on stories from the Bible, and I use the word "loosely" loosely.
"The Prodigal" fits into the Biblical category, the screenwriters adapting it from Luke 15:11-32 of the New Testament. Here, Jesus tells the parable of the man who had two sons, the youngest of whom asked his father to give him his share of his inheritance. The young man then proceeded to go to the city and squandered it all on "riotous living." Destitute, he returned to his father, and the father welcomed him back with open arms and killed the fatted calf in his honor, which angered the older brother who had remained uncorrupt, stayed on the farm, and served his father faithfully. He could not understand his father's behavior toward one who had been prodigal, sinned, and thrown away the wealth of his birthright. But the father said to the oldest boy, "Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found."
It's a sweet Bible story, filled with themes of love, forgiveness, and understanding, and the movie "The Prodigal" touches at least on a small part of it. But being a Hollywood epic, it's the younger son's wasteful extravagance and seduction that constitute the bulk of the story line. Heck, by its conclusion, the movie becomes an adventure saga, with the main character a hero. Figures.
The opening music by composer Bronislau Kaper sets the tone: It's loud and solemn and not a little bit ominous, all the while smacking of pseudo religiosity. It comes across as trite and corny, which just about defines the movie.
Edmund Purdom stars as the young prodigal son, Micah, a wealthy, carefree Hebrew youth who, while visiting the city with his older brother, Joram (John Dehner), falls hopelessly in lust with a beautiful woman named Samarra (Lana Turner), a High Priestess of the pagan gods Astarte and Baal. The movie makes a very big deal of this being a bad thing, given that the Hebrew Micah worships only one God, not many, and that Micah is already betrothed to a nice girl named Ruth (Audrey Dalton). What's more, about this same time Micah rescues a mute slave, Asham (James Mitchell), from the clutches of Nahreeb (Louis Calhern), the powerful and nefarious High Priest of Baal. So before the plot even has a chance to develop, we can see that Micah is in for a heap of trouble.
When Micah returns home, he demands that his father (Walter Hampden) give him his inheritance money so that he can go to Damascus and win over the lady. The old man reluctantly agrees, and you can just about guess the rest of the story. Except maybe the ending. It involves Micha leading a slave revolt and the destruction of the pagan temple and other such nonsense. So much for the simplicity of the Bible parable.
The two best characters in the movie are played by Joseph Wiseman (a few years later to portray Dr. No) as a Damascus con-man and procurer, and Neville Brand (a few years later to portray Al Capone on TV's "The Untouchables") as the priest Nahreeb's evil henchman. The rest of the cast are ciphers.
Edmund Purdom, who had previously starred in "The Student Prince" and "The Egyptian," has virtually no screen presence here, despite his handsome good looks. Within a few more years, the actor would be pursuing a movie career primarily in Europe. Lana Turner, by now in her mid thirties, was already a well-established movie star when she made "The Prodigal," but here her performance is almost embarrassing. She plays the harlot priestess awkwardly, attempting to vamp her way through the role with all the seductive charm of a children's Saturday-morning cartoon character. Oh, well....
"The Prodigal" is a lavish MGM spectacle of the era, with the movie's costume and set designers the real stars of the show. Otherwise, the movie is slow going, talky, and often depressing.
This was a huge CinemaScope production of the day, opening with the word "CinemaScope" before the movie's title. It's rather a shame Warner Bros. didn't do more in their transfer than clean it up a bit and enhance it for widescreen. The relatively ordinary bit rate does not do justice to the print's colors or definition.
The WB video engineers do preserve most of the film's original 2.55:1 film dimensions, though, and even with my TV set's modest overscan, the ratio measures about 2.30:1 across my screen. Still, you'll find the hues subdued, the image slightly rough, the delineation medium (close-ups look best), and the natural film grain light and soft.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack projects a sonic image as bland as the picture, meaning it is smooth and easy on the ear but not particularly brilliant or alive. About the best that can be said about it is that it's quiet and the dialogue is clear. Otherwise, the dynamics are weak, the frequency range limited, and the stereo spread narrow.
The main bonus item is an audio commentary by film historian Dr. Drew Casper, who introduces himself as our "guide." While he is enthusiastic and shares with us a wealth of information, he also seems more than a tad overly precise in his articulation, his formality making him appear a little too pedantic for my taste. I've heard Dr. Casper before but not quite so stiff as this. Nevertheless, I far preferred listening to him than listening to the dialogue and music of the movie.
In addition, the disc contains a generous thirty scene selections, but no chapter insert; a non-anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; English and French subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. All of the discs in the set come housed in their own regular-sized keep cases, just as they do when sold separately.
The Wife-O-Meter left "The Prodigal" about a third of the way in, saying she couldn't take much more of it. I have to admit the film is pretty boring, with only the slave revolt at the end to liven things up. I mean, not even the undistinguished acting is campy enough to save a script that takes itself so seriously. Ironically, I wouldn't count the production either "cult" or "camp," either, because it's not really that bad enough. "The Prodigal" is just mediocre.