In The Greatest Story Ever Told, an assortment of Hollywood icons share the screen with lesser known talent, to give the audience a well-known tale. Some of the film works, while other parts are wooden, especially because we’re so busy spotting stars that we’re distracted from the story. Nothing exemplifies this better than the scene of John Wayne as the centurion who stood by the cross during the crucifixion.
He intones the famous line “Truly this man was the son of God”, but sounds as Roman as a cowboy.
I don’t know how to feel about this, given that nobody really expected realism in films made in 1965. For the time it was more or less average, and not the worst.
I can’t help noticing how commercial cinema revisits themes a few times each generation, coming closer or diverging from realism depending on the expectations of the paying public. In our own era such a film might show a centurion speaking some dialect of Latin instead, perhaps with subtitles (as in Passion of the Christ). Hollywood is a factory of anachronism, regularly giving the audience moments that are more modern than accurate (for instance in the careless sprinkling of current colloquiualisms), although each generation gradually gets more realistic than the previous generation in the core facts being presented.
Tonight I saw a film that reminded me of John Wayne’s famously anachronistic delivery of that line, but it wasn’t a Biblical epic. No, I saw The Butler, a film by Lee Daniels that’s a chronicle of the civil rights movement. In fairness, nobody is quite as bad as Wayne.
I liked it very much..! But as a realistic film it’s a lot like The Greatest Story Ever Told:
- It’s full of stars in brief appearances as famous people. Jane Fonda is Nancy Reagan, Robin Williams is Dwight Eisenhower. John Cusack is Richard Nixon. I won’t name them all, because part of the fun is in recognizing them. But the fact we’re drawn to those famous faces seriously breaks the illusion, turning it into a kind of star-parade that feels decidedly old-fashioned.
- The story majestically unfolds from famous episode to famous episode, as though we were moving through chapters of a Gospel account of the life of Jesus. As soon as the son sits down at the table with the beret we know he’s a Black Panther, which will lead to some sort of political discussion. As with Biblical epics, some of the greatest pleasure is in famous moments seen from an oblique angle rather than directly. I thought of Ben-Hur—a film I love very much –a few times during this film.
- There’s a kind of sublime achieved in the film, as in epics such as Ben-Hur, in taking us directly to the heart of a great moment, and if you’re a true believer there will be tears. While I may have been already tenderized by the opera I saw last night, speaking as a guy who loves to cry at operas & movies, I was more emotional at The Butler than any film I’ve seen in a very long time. If you like to cry, you’ll love this film: unless you’re a racist, of course.
So let me be clear. I do not want to knock this film. It reminds me a lot of The Help, another film that was a kind of template allowing us to see the inevitable progression of history –that we are privileged to know with the benefit of hindsight—except that it’s got a different focus.
I am highly sensitive to fictions as I write this. I’ve been thinking a lot about Syria, about the various stories being put out by various governments. I don’t pretend to know the truth, only that one of the wonderful things about this film is that awareness of stories being told & retold. While some of the mechanics of this film are very old-fashioned (see the bullets above), there’s one aspect that makes me smile. I am fascinated by the changing presentation of the discrepancies between fact & fiction. While aspects of The Butler are mechanical, particularly the resemblance to the epic-genre & its story-telling techniques, there’s no mistaking the truths in this film concerning America’s past. As a baby-boomer I watched this, and almost expected to see someone say “this is your life”. And it was, and is. For certain aspects of this film–the most political parts of the film– it’s shockingly accurate.
No wonder the whole Jane Fonda thing has been trumped up in places that fear this film (for instance as in this Fox News Report). They had little problem with Fonda for generations, when she played harmless characters and made them money. Suddenly the film is going to be banned, even as Fonda plays a tiny part, giving a wonderfully sympathetic version of Nancy Reagan? Gimme a break. They fear this film because it reminds you of America’s hypocrisy, its racist past and the strong remaining vestiges to this day.
Verily it’s like a Biblical epic, a spiritual tale as remarkable as anything in the Bible, except we know this one is true. How beautiful, to see the way this film ends.
See it and believe, sorrow for the damned, redemption for the faithful.