edited by John Hayes

The Epic That Disappeared: The Big Fisherman

By John Hayes

Those of us over a certain age – in this case, say 50 – might remember going to see a particular Biblical epic, around the beginning of the 1960s, which starred, of all people, Howard Keel.

If you can remember that much, but very little else, you wouldn’t be alone, because The Big Fisherman is usually just an irritatingly vague point in our collective cinematic memories.

For certain, we all have a vivid recollection of seeing Ben-Hur, which came just before The Big Fisherman, and likewise Spartacus, which came just after it, but there is scarcely a person who has a clear recollection of seeing Howard Keel in his only Biblical role.

Although I never saw it in its ‘roadshow’ form - only the 35mm version at my local cinema - it did indeed receive such a release. It was after all, in true ‘Biblical Epic’ fashion, shot in 65mm Super Panavision, had a huge cast, spectacular sets – everything, in fact that you would expect to see in such a film at that time - and yet it made virtually no impact. Try as I might, I find it impossible to remember a single scene from the film. I can only muster a hazy impression of having seen ‘a Roman picture’, which is a great shame, considering all the care and effort that must have been lavished on the production.

I have attempted to track down as much information as I could on The Big Fisherman, which, in actual fact, amounts to not very much information at all. We know that it came originally from the pen of author Lloyd C. Douglas – it was in fact his last novel, published in 1948 – who had enjoyed a tremendously successful career as one of America’s most popular novelists. This was all the more remarkable as he did not begin to write novels professionally until he was fifty years old, after first becoming well known as professor, a minister and a leading public speaker. Of his many earlier works, two novels would probably be considered his most famous, Magnificent Obsession – which was filmed twice, in 1935 and 1954, and of course, The Robe, which introduced the CinemaScope process in 1953.

The Big Fisherman begins with the half-Judean, half-Arabian Fara (Susan Kohner), and Arabian prince Voldi (John Saxon), who’s love is blighted by rival prince Deran (Ray Stricklyn) revealing that Fara’s father – whom she has never known – is the evil Herod Antipas (Herbert Lom). The truth of this is confirmed by her mother, Arnon (Marion Seldes) on her death-bed, and in a rage, Fara swears vengeance on Herod for deserting her mother for the infamous Herodias (Martha Hyer). Consumed with anger, she disguises herself as a boy and leaves, vowing to kill Herod. Voldi is given permission to find her and bring her back, but in Judea he is detained by Roman soldiers under Proconsul Mencius. Fara, is befriended by John The Baptist (Jay Barney), who tells her, “ Seek Him. You have need of Him”. Later, tired and bedraggled, she is discovered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee by Simon – the Big Fisherman, who takes her to the home of his mother-in-law, Hannah (Beulah Bondi), who soon discovers that Fara is really a girl and gives her some suitable clothes.

Fara and Simon are both greatly affected by the Sermon on the Mount, though Fara at first rejects Jesus’ message of “Love thine enemies”. Simon is overwhelmed when a blind baby he is holding in his arms is cured by the touch of Jesus’ hand, and is soon called to become one of the first disciples.

Though Voldi has managed to escape from captivity in Judea, he is once again arrested by the Romans, with orders to return him to Arabia, where his enemy Deran is now king. John The Baptist’s death has plunged Herod Antipas into a deep fear of retribution. He is confronted by Fara who reveals her true identity as she goes to kill him with a dagger, but her hand is stayed at the last moment as she recalls Jesus’ words, “Thou shalt not kill”.

Hastening to Arabia to help Voldi, they arrive just in time to prevent his flogging. Deran, crippled by paralysis, begs Simon to heal him, promising the release of Voldi and justice for all. Simon heals him, but Deran renages on his promise, which causes the paralysis to return with fatal results.

Voldi is acclaimed king, but destiny decrees that Voldi and Fara must first bring peace to their two countries before they can find happiness together.

The producer of The Big Fisherman, Rowland V. Lee, had met Douglas back in 1942, on the very day that he had completed the last chapter of TheRobe. On enquiring as to the subject matter of the completed story, Lee sat enthralled as the gifted speaker described his story, which ends with the robe of Jesus being passed to an old man with the closing words: “For the Big Fisherman”

“And that, Mr. Lee,” said Douglas, “is the title of my next book.”

Some years later, when Lee was working on a planned film of the life of Jesus, he saw that Douglas’ novel, The Big Fisherman, was very much in the vein of what he was trying to do himself – especially with the powerful depiction of Jesus’ Apostle Simon Peter, and he decided that this must be his next production. Lee’s prolific career in the cinema industry stretched back to the days of the silents after the First World War. He had worked in various capacities, as an actor, writer, producer and director – often simultaneously - on numerous productions, including Tower Of London (1939), Son Of Frankenstein (1940), Son Of Monte Cristo (1940), The Bridge Of San Luis Rey (1944) and Captain Kidd – his last film as a director – in 1945. Unfortunately, Douglas had died in 1951, so Lee was forced to enter into protracted negotiations for the film rights through nine separate attorneys and twenty-seven principals. Whether it was due to this legal wrangle over rights, or whether other delaying factors came into play, is not clear. Whatever the reason or reasons, it would not be until 1958 that the cameras would begin to roll on the Rowland V. Lee Production of The Big Fisherman – on October 1 st to be precise.

Producing a script from Douglas’ massive novel was an incredibly complex task, and Lee decided to collaborate with screenwriter Howard Estabrook in order to reduce epic story – which, if filmed as written, would have run to something like fourteen hours of screentime – to a more manageable length. Estabrook was an experienced screenwriter with many screenplays to his credit, including Cattle Queen Of Montana (1955), The Virginian (1946) and The Corsican Brothers (1941), to name but a few, and had worked with Lee previously on The Bridge Of San Luis Rey. After nearly a year of writing and research they were able to produce a first draft with a total of 366 pages, which was subsequently refined still further to produce a final draft of 220 pages. This draft provided all the information that would be required for the many departments that would be involved in the shooting of the picture. There would be no changes in the script, and as a result not one single day was lost during the entire four-month production schedule.

With the script completed, Lee then began to look for a suitable location. He had decided to shoot the film in Hollywood, where he felt that the actors, technicians and suppliers were ‘screen-wise’, and where anything from a golden needle to a herd of camels could be delivered to any given location in a matter of hours. The exteriors would be shot in Southern California, where the rugged rocky shore of the Sea of Galilee had its counterpart in California’s inland waters, and similarly its deserts (at La Quinta, near Palm Springs) would be ideal match for those of Arabia. The Galilee sequences were filmed on a lake, which borders part of Rowland V. Lee’s own cattle ranch, in the San Fernando Valley, which in spite of his involvement in numerous film productions over the years, he had never considered using as a film location before. And probably not without good reason; on the other side of a hill, which overlooked their ‘Sea Of Galilee’ was the huge Rocketdyne plant, which most certainly would not be mistaken for a first-century edifice. Filming was frequently interrupted by the testing of rocket fuels at the plant, which sent huge clouds of black smoke into the air.

The only major threat to the 120-day schedule occurred when a sudden gale blew down the 200 tents comprising the Arabian king’s encampment. But by way of compensation, the same gale blew in some beautiful cloud formations which were utilized for other desert scenes which were shot while the tent city was being restored.

Crucial to Lee’s vision of the story (he claimed) would be authenticity. There would eventually be a total of 6,000 props used on the many sets by the hundreds of actors who would be involved in the production, and Lee was determined that they would be as accurate as possible. So from Egypt came pottery, shepherd’s crooks and pack saddles for camels, horses and donkeys. From Israel came terra-cotta oil lamps; and hundreds of yards of rare silks, brocades and cottons were found in the bazaars of Damascus and Cairo. Rare whips made of plaited silk were found in Iran, and arms such as swords and daggers were found throughout the Middle East and Rome, as were highly polished copper plates and bowls and elaborate – and expensive - costume jewelry. Many of the items were borrowed from museums and private collections around the world. And where it proved impossible to obtain a particular object, an accurate facsimile would be made, copied from detailed photographs that had been taken by Lee’s researchers.

The design of the sets and costumes would fall to two veterans of the industry, who between them had worked on some of the most spectacular films ever made; Production Designer John de Cuir and Costume Designer Renie Conley. Both of these technicians had had long careers in the industry. Among John de Cuir’s films were Three Coins In The Fountain (1954), Carmen Jones (1954), The King And I (1956) and South Pacific (1958) and after Fisherman, he would go on to design for many more important productions, such as Cleopatra (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Hello, Dolly! (1969) and Ghostbusters (1984). Renie Conley’s career stretched back to the 1930s, since which time she had worked on dozens of films, a tiny selection being, Untamed (1955), A Man Called Peter (1955) and Three Faces Of Eve (1957). Her career, too would continue long after her work on The Big Fisherman, and would include such major productions as Cleopatra and Circus World (1964) – in both of which she was reunited with John de Cuir – The Sand Pebbles (1966) and Body Heat (1981)

To photograph his epic, Lee called upon another former collaborator, Lee Garmes. The career of this master cinematographer began in 1919 and would continue into the 1970s, and his film credits are too numerous to list here as they run into scores – many of them undoubted classics of the cinema art form. I have selected a very small sample of his work, merely to show the diversity of subject matter that he was able to handle with consummate ease. The Garden Of Allah (1927), Scarface (1932), Gone With The Wind (1939 – for George Cukor. Both of them were uncredited), Duel In The Sun (1946), The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947), Portrait Of Jennie (1948 – uncredited), Detective Story (1951), Hannah Lee (1953 – in 3D), The Lusty Men (1952), Land Of The Pharaohs (1955) and D-Day The Sixth Of June and The Sharkfighters (both 1956). An impressive list, I think anyone would agree. For The Big Fisherman, he developed a system he called ”North Light Exposure”, which made the brilliant colour of the film more vivid.

Another long-time friend of Rowland V. Lee was the man he asked to direct his picture, Frank Borzage. By 1959, Borzage (pronounced Bor-zay-gee) was nearing the end of his long career. The previous year he had produced and directed China Doll (1958), which apart from some television work on Screen Director’s Playhouse in 1955 was the only film work he’d done since 1948, when he had completed Moonrise, an uncharacteristic thriller from a director usually associated with romantic stories.

Beginning his career as an actor in 1913, he eventually graduated to directing and then producing, winning his first Oscar for Seventh Heaven in 1927 (he was the first person to win the Oscar in Best Director category). Moving into talkies, he made such films as They Had To See Paris (1929), Bad Girls (1931 and a second Oscar), A Farewell To Arms (1932), No Greater Glory (1934) and The Spanish Main (1945). After The Big Fisherman, he would complete one further film, L’Atlantide, (Siren Of Atlantis) in 1961, for which he was uncredited. He died the following year.

In spite of having a capable cast, as well as the aforementioned Howard Keel, which included Herbert Lom, Susan Kohner, John Saxon and Martha Hyer (Trivia: Did you know that Martha Hyer wrote Rooster Cogburn under the name of Martin Julien?) The Big Fisherman failed to make an impact as a movie, in spite of the success of the novel. It certainly didn’t make an impact on me – I would have remembered I’m sure – but Jon Solomon, in his excellent book The Ancient World In The Cinema, gives us some clues as to what might have gone wrong:

One other major film focuses on a specific New Testament personage. The Big Fisherman tells a tale about Peter, but offers little authenticity and little entertainment. The Arabian Princess Fara (Susan Kohner) swears to kill King Herod (Herbert Lom) and rides to Jerusalem to do so. There she becomes a good friend of John The Baptist (Jay Barney), then of Simon the fisherman. She and the piscatorial Simon quickly and unconvincingly become converts to Jesus’ preaching, and her murderous resolve weakens as Jesus’ “Thou shalt not kill” echoes in her mind. Meanwhile, Simon has repented of his earlier atheism and become a “fisher of men”.

The film’s 180 minutes are hardly filled with taut drama. The plot never decides whether it should emphasize piety, adventure or romance. The architect of the sets apparently never learned that in antiquity (as well as in modern times) columns were usually built to hold something up, not to stand alone as superfluous and expensive rows of landfill. The distastefully painted red-marble interior columns also detract from the film’s visual value. Director Frank Borage chose not to depict Jesus’ face, so he had to portray the Christ with voice alone; unfortunately, the chosen voice sounded more like the narrator for The Bell Telephone Hour than anyone God would send as his representative on Earth. And how much research would it have taken to establish that when the knowledgeable Princess Fara reads Greek scrolls, she should read from left to right, not Semitically right to left.

None of this seemed to bother Howard Keel or Herbert Lom. Lom seems genuinely to enjoy his role as the evil Oriental despot Herod Antipas, and Keel playfully bangs heads together, yells angrily, gestures wildly and even prays with the same robust and hearty spirit that he injected into all his work. Before his conversion, he boasts: “God can send all the storms he wants, just so long as I can catch all of His fish that I want.” Biblical authenticities appear sporadically – Jesus renames Simon as Peter, establishing him as the ‘rock’ upon which he will build his church, and he heals Peter’s mother-in-law (Mathew 8:14), though in the film she is said to be Peter’s nurse because the cinematic Peter is unwed. For archeological authenticity, or near authenticity, Herod’s palace includes several panels from Augustus’ Ara Pacis.

Derek Eley, in his book The Epic Film: Myth And History, puts it more succinctly:

A work like Frank Borzage’s The Big Fisherman, which uses stories of the disciple Peter as a picturesque backdrop to conventional regal shenanigans, is rare and best forgotten.

And R.E. Durgnat had this to say in his June 1960 review for Films And Filming:

Simon Peter (played by Howard Keel, who doesn’t even get a chance to sing) has just healed a blind child. Glassy eyed with reverent humility, he descends the mountainside to be greeted with the words: “Simon – you’ve got that look again…”

This film might have got by in the early 1930s, but will prove much too slow and empty for audiences today. It’s not quite as stilted and naïve as The Ten Commandments, but lacks the peculiar aura that film gained from its Biblical fidelity, its colossal budget and the flair of Cecil B. de Mille.

Frank Borzage filmed some of the tenderest love stories of the 1930s. More recently a fashion for a hard-boiled, unsentimental tone has been hard on him, and I wanted to like this film; it would have made a good ‘come-back’ for him, especially since, slowly, a more gentle mood is returning to the cinema. But here his gifts are completely crushed by the crudest of screenplays and the least imaginative forms of spectacle. Here and there linger gleams of the real Borzage. Susan Kohner cutting her hair that, disguised as a boy, she can follow her lover; the break-up of Herod’s orgy by a strange wind; the Arab tents pitched among the ruins of an even older civilization. Susan Kohner has a certain unaffected freshness.

So there we have The Big Fisherman, one of the very, very few independent productions (Centurion Films Inc.) released by Buena Vista, the Disney releasing arm. After its initial run, it dropped out of sight. I can find no indication that it has ever been shown on British television – though I understand it has made a rare appearance on US TV – and it is not available on VHS, Laserdisc or DVD. Nor can I find out why it isn’t – there have been no replies to my queries from Buena Vista as yet.

Perhaps there is some kind of Byzantine legal wrangle over rights of ownership that keeps it suspended in cinematic limbo (similar to the one that involved John Wayne’s The High And The Mighty*). If there is, it’s a great pity, because as one of the few films that were originally shot in 65mm, it surely deserves an outing in one form or another after 40 years.

*It seems that we will soon get see The High And The Mighty again after all. After being completely restored, it is due to be released by Paramount around April/May 2005. Ed.

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John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine

Last revised: 6 November, 2009

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