Writer: J P Miller, from the novel, Killing a Mouse on Sunday, by Emeric Pressburger
Stars: Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif
I picked Behold a Pale Horse because it’s the sort of film I have trouble believing exists and I have no idea why anyone thought it would be a good idea to make. My review of Terror in a Texas Town talked about an era of American cinematic history that was dominated by Communist witch-hunts, the Hollywood Ten and how tough it was for blacklisted artists to find work. So, only six years later, it feels completely surreal to watch Peck, a huge Hollywood star riding high after On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, How the West Was Won, To Kill a Mockingbird and Captain Newman, MD, to mention just the previous six movies he’d made over the previous five years, playing a hero who happened to also be a Communist, a terrorist and a vehement anti-Catholic. Could there possibly be a more unlikely role for a Hollywood star in 1964, especially the year after his Oscar win for playing the iconic American hero, Atticus Finch? I’m a blank and I wonder if it’s why this marks the line between what I know Peck from and what I don’t.
Even if somehow director Fred Zinnemann could manage to tap into an early vein of counterculture anti-hero worship, he had to get the film made first and, utterly unsurprisingly, Franco refused permission for Columbia Pictures to shoot in Spain. In fact, his government blocked distribution of all Columbia’s output in Spain and forced them to sell their Spanish distribution arm. M J Frankovich, a Columbia vice president, estimated months prior to this film’s release that it had cost them millions of dollars in lost revenue even discounting its production cost. They were unable even to screen the film on American television, after a request from the Spanish government. But they continued on with production, shooting exteriors across the border from France, and filming ran a month over schedule. Yet, when they previewed the film to US audiences, they found that nobody knew what it was about, so they had to add an introduction, cut from To Die in Madrid, a documentary on the Spanish Civil War, with overlaid narration in English.
This is Paco Dages, a young orphan who travels over the border to Pau to track down ‘the great leader of the guerrillas’, so he can ask him to kill Viñolas. After all, the captain beat his father, José Dages, to death in an attempt to drum Artiguez’s location out of him. Paco doesn’t find the hero he expects, even asking him, ‘Are you his father?’ The supposed ‘great leader’ is a slouchy and grouchy man rotting in his garret with a smoker’s cough; he’s quick to anger and he promptly throws the kid out. By comparison, Captain Viñolas is bursting with life. We meet him on horseback warming up a bull for a matador, then he goes to romp away the day with his mistress. Quinn wasn’t the star that Peck was, though he already had a pair of Oscars under his belt, but he was still well established over a decade since Viva Zapata! He plays the captain with ease, but for a plastic tricornio that looks like the headgear of an alien race in a cheap sci-fi movie, while Peck consciously tries not to play Artiguez like his co-star would have done.
While Peck and Quinn are both given opportunity to build depth into their characters, Sharif is gifted with a peach of a part that’s full of complexity and, once he’s introduced, over forty minutes in, it’s hard to see anyone else as the lead. Pilar Artiguez, played with surprising passion by Mildred Dunnock, given that she is bedridden and immobile for the entirety of her small part, has no love for the clergy. She tells a priest who attends her, ‘Go bless the rifles of the firing squad, Father.’ But, hearing that he’s substituting for Fr Francisco, who’s about to leave for Lourdes, and knowing that the other will have to go through Pau, she requests his presence and, right before she dies, asks him to fulfil her last wish. She knows that Viñolas has set a trap for her son and that he’ll walk into it, so Fr Francisco should take the news of her death to him and thus save his life. The priest thus finds himself in the horns of a dilemma, torn between duty to his God, to his country, to the law and to the last wish of a dying woman.
The loss of screen time hampers Quinn as much as his tricornio because, as capable as he is as Viñolas, we find that we don’t miss him when the story takes us to Pau and Lourdes. Peck, on the other hand, has more resonance when he’s offscreen than when he’s on it, because he’s clearly miscast as Artiguez and he struggles to sell the role to us. As an actor of serious talent, he gives it his best shot, but he’s just too morally upright to carry a role that has him kidnap a priest and slap him across the face. We don’t buy it, even as we utterly buy Omar Sharif’s lack of similarly violent response. Peck is at his best when Artiguez begins to think, because there’s admirable subtlety in his body language, but the louder he gets the less credible he becomes. I presume Peck took the role as a challenge and an opportunity to diversify parts, but it didn’t work. Fortunately for him, few people saw the film in 1964 and he stayed as popular as ever. Quinn, of course, walked easily between heroic and villainous roles and this didn’t hurt him at all.