Everybody starts somewhere. "The Silver Chalice" was Paul Newman's first big-screen movie after working for several years in TV. With his passing in 2008, Warner Bros. probably figured it was a good time to issue more of his films on disc, films they had not released before. The trouble is, there was a reason they hadn't released them on disc before: They're not very good; and the one film that fares best is the one Newman directed but does appear in. Ah, well....
The movies in the new "Paul Newman Film Series" are "The Helen Morgan Story" (1957), "The Outrage" (1964), "Rachel, Rachel" (1968, his directorial debut), "When Time Ran Out" (1980), and the film under consideration here, "The Silver Chalice" (1954)
The late Forties through early Sixties were a good time for epic costume dramas, most of them involving Judaism, early Christianity, the Egyptians, and the Roman Empire, sometimes in combination. Hollywood had already had success with "Samson and Delilah" (1949), "Quo Vadis" (1951), and "The Robe" (1953), so Warner Bros. must have assumed at the time there was room for at least another one. Little did the studio know there was yet room for far more, like "Demitrius and the Gladiators" (1954), "Land of the Pharaohs" (1955), "The Prodigal" (1955), "The Ten Commandments" (1956), "Ben-Hur" (1959), "Spartacus" (1960), "Cleopatra" (1963), and "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964), to name just a few. Not to mention the big Jesus epics like "King of Kings" (1961) and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965) or the more recent sword-and-sandal successors like "Gladiator" (2000) and "300" (2006).
So, did "The Silver Chalice" measure up to its competition? Hardly, despite a respectable budget and super-widescreen CinemaScope. I suspect the primary culprits were the writer, Lesser Samuels, who adapted the screenplay from a novel by Thomas B. Costain, and the director, Victor Saville. Neither filmmaker had any prior experience in doing epic historical dramas, and they both seemed to treat Costain's story with the reverence of the Bible. It didn't work, not when Saville directed his cast to treat every word they uttered as monumental pronouncements and apparently instructed every actor to think of the dialogue as the work of Shakespeare. The result sounds like a high school play.
No one is immune to the punishment of the script and direction. Newman stars as Basil, a young sculptor and silversmith whom the Apostle Luke (Alexander Scourby) and Joseph of Arimathea (Walter Hampton) call upon to create a silver chalice to house the cup of Jesus, the Holy Grail. Basil is a non-Christian, and the story attempts to trace his eventual conversion to Christianity, but the movie hardly touches upon the subject until the very end, by which time the audience hardly cares. Everyone in the film appears ill at ease, speaking in stilted, wooden tones, including poor Newman, which is a neat trick considering his usually smooth, casual style.
Things begin in the ancient Syrian city of Antioch, about twenty years after the crucifixion of Christ, with Basil a boy sold into the home of a rich merchant (E.G. Marshall). It then advances another ten or fifteen years, with Basil growing into Paul Newman, a young man cheated out of his inheritance and sold yet again into slavery. The tale tends to jump from thing to another rather quickly; I suspect the novel took more time to develop its separate ideas, while the movie simply galumphs through them.
As a child Basil loved a slave girl, Helena (played as a youth by a very lovely, and very blond, Natalie Wood), who early on runs away. By the time we meet Newman as Basil, Helena (now played as an adult by Virginia Mayo, with pointy eyebrows) has become the lover of a magician, Simon (Jack Palance, the best part of the show), and probably a courtesan as well, although the film only hints of such things. Naturally, Basil runs into this old childhood flame, and he wants to renew their romance despite the magician.
But life is not so simple, or we wouldn't have a plot. At the same time Basil becomes entangled in the life of a beautiful young Christian woman, Deborra (Pier Angeli). What's a guy to do? On the one hand there's the sweet, innocent Deborra, who adores him, and on the other the worldly Helena, who already has a boyfriend. Being the numbskull that he is, Basil ignores Deborra and pursues Helena.
The story line escalates when the leader (Joseph Wiseman) of an underground movement against Roman rule calls upon Simon the magician to work miracles for them in order to gain new converts to their cause. Everything culminates in the city of Rome, where we meet the Apostle Peter (Lorne Greene, always looking about twenty years older than he really was) and Nero (Jacque Aubuchon, doing his best to live up to Peter Ustinov's portrayal of the Emperor in "Quo Vadis").
In addition to the ungainly acting, we have the sets, music, and cinematography working against the movie. For all the money Warner Bros. spent on making this thing, it isn't really a very lavish or elaborate production. The sets are quite simple and unadorned, looking a lot like a stage play with stylized, minimalist set designs. Frankly, some of it looks plain cheap. Worse, the music by the usually reliable Franz Waxman is melodramatic and intrusive, and the cinematography is as bland as one could imagine. (Although, to be fair to the director of photography, William V. Skall, who had done such a good job with "Quo Vadis" a few years earlier, it was his first CinemaScope work, and he probably had not yet adapted to the widescreen process.)
"The Silver Chalice" plays like a Roman-era soap opera with all the lovers' problems, the skullduggery, the intrigue, and such. It generates a sliver of momentum when the underground movement steals the cup, but it's not much, and like everything else, it comes late.
Trivia: Not only did the movie provide a big-screen start for Newman, it got things rolling for Joseph Wiseman (think "Dr. No"), E.G. Marshall, Lorne Greene, and Robert Middleton as well. So, one cannot think of the film as a complete failure.
On the plus side, Warners maintain the movie's original ultrawide 2.55:1 CinemaScope ratio, and the print is in reasonably good shape. On the minus side, the transfer is somewhat soft and faded, the Warnercolor having little richness or pop. Occasional age flecks and a bit of normal film grain show up, with the movie's few outdoor location shots suffering the most from deterioration and noise.
The audio engineers remixed the film's audio track in Dolby Digital 5.1 to decent but not spectacular effect. There is a wide front-channel stereo spread and a fairly clear midrange. However, the rear channels receive very little information beyond a touch of musical bloom and a little crowd noise, the lower midrange and upper bass are overly warm, and the highs are somewhat edgy.
This is a bare-bones DVD, to put it mildly. There isn't even a scene selections menu, although you can access fourteen chapter stops with the remote. English is the only available spoken language, with French subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
As I said at the beginning, everybody has to start somewhere. Paul Newman disliked "The Silver Chalice" so much and his role in it, he took out a newspaper ad and famously apologized for the whole thing. Well, it's maybe not that bad, but it is in no way a classic, either. Broadly ambitious, the movie attempts to make a grand splash. Unhappily, the splash is more like a belly flop, and the film makes for a long and tedious two hours and fifteen minutes. It could have been a disaster for Newman, but obviously it wasn't, the actor good enough to stand out even here and go on to one of the most distinguished careers in Hollywood. It serves to remind us that even failures can be successes of sorts if you're good enough to overcome them. Newman was always more than good enough.