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The Pride and the Passion

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Sep 19, 2016

The 1957 Stanley Kramer-directed film "The Pride and the Passion" is a slog in more than ways than one.

Based on the novel "The Gun" by C. S. Forester, the movie concerns nationalistic wrangling over a ginormous cannon -- "forty feet long," we're given to believe, and weighing "seven tons," though it looks more like twelve or fifteen feet in length. In any case, the cannon is ornate, almost unmanageably heavy, and unmatched in sheer destructive power. It was an invaluable asset to Napoleon's army as the French conqueror marched across Spain, which is why the Spanish took pains to roll the thing over a cliff.

But wrecked as it might be, the cannon is salvage able and whoever gets to it first will have the chance to use it for themselves. The British take an interest, dispatching Captain Anthony Trumbull (Cary Grant) to petition a Spanish general for his help in locating and transporting the cannon to a British ship. However, the general and his men have left by the time Trumbull shows up looking for him; in his place is a band of guerrilla fighters led by the charismatic, but militarily non-knowledgeable, Miguel (Frank Sinatra, doing a hilarious bad Spanish accent).

Miguel agrees to help with the cannon, but only if Trumbull in turn agrees to a detour: Rather than making a beeline for the port city of Santander, the guerrillas set about wheeling the cannon across six or seven hundred miles of rough terrain to Avila, where Miguel intends to use the cannon's power to breach the city walls and eject the invading French army that has dug in there. The trek makes for slow going, and not just for the guerrillas; this is, after all, a film that runs to nearly two and a half hours, and as ponderous as its big gun might be, its delusions of epic-hood are even more exaggerated.

While the technical accomplishment of making a movie about such a huge piece of military hardware was no doubt impressive (and it would have been nice had there been a documentary about this included as a special feature on this Blu-ray release), it hardly makes for riveting cinema despite some dramatic mishaps (a river crossing gone wrong; an ill-advised attempt to jockey the cannon down a steep mountainside).

That's there the inevitable romantic subplot comes in. For some reason Miguel -- otherwise so intently, even stupidly, single-minded on fighting off the French -- has made time and space in his ragtag life for a lover of exotic, unparalleled beauty. Her name is Juana, and she's played by Sophia Loren, who lights up the screen with the merest glance (let along the occasional exotic dance number). If the military mission is complicated by the jockeying of Trumbull and Miguel, who act like two preening roosters, then you can be sure the personal dynamics are going to get even stickier.

This is a big movie, and its production isn't at fault. But the pacing, characterizations, casting, and direction all come up short. Kramer went on to direct some great stuff -- "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" showed he knew how to deal with casts packed with high-wattage stars, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" showed that he could direct films with molten-hot emotional cores, and classics like "Inherit the Wind" and "Judgment at Nuremberg" (or even the downbeat nuclear holocaust drama "On the Beach") display his mastery for complex storytelling, but this film feels like it's got training wheels bolted on.

Actually, this film feels like the better part of its scenes are bolted on, including the overheated romantic exchanges, a clumsily handled subplot about a doomed young man who admires Miguel with puppyish loyalty, and a ridiculous knife fight that unfolds, without a scrap of tension, under the whirling arms of a windmill.

What's more, you'd think that a movie boasting Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren couldn't possibly miss -- until, that is, you arrive (pretty promptly) to the conclusion that this particular configuration of talent has more to do with box office draw than chemistry, and Kramer doesn't have a clue how to make it work between them. The triangular romance falls just as flat as the grudgingly respectful rivalry that the film aims for between the two male leads.

With no extras to generate additional interest -- nothing to set the film in its historical context; nothing to explain, or even marvel at, the casting -- all the buyer has to go on is the film itself, but to whom is this Blu-ray release going to appeal? It looks great -- sometimes.

It also looks awful, sometimes, not because of the transfer but due to the flaws and limitations of the source material, in particular the filters used in the sequences that were shot day for night. (In one pitched battle, the day for night shooting alternates with footage taken in darkness, which demolishes the film's tenuous suspension of viewer disbelief.)

As for that long, long slog... well, there's no way around it. It's pretty boring. There's a nifty twist in which the guerrillas use a cathedral as a repair workshop for the cannon, right under the noses of the watchful French, but that standout scene comes along late in the game and only serves to upstage everything that came before, leading one to question the editorial choices that left so much puffery in place to begin with.

Still, everything has its own niche in the marketplace. If this movie is for you -- thanks for Loren's earthly beauty, or Cary Grant's gravitas, or even Sinatra's horrible miscasting and even worse hairpiece -- then this Blu-ray edition will delight.

"The Pride and the Passion"

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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