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an essay on 'Behold A Pale Horse' (1964) ml

There is an unforgettable moment in Behold A Pale Horse (1964) when director Fred Zinnemann brings two of Hollywood’s finest action stars together at last, in a sequence of unrelenting passion and fear. We see Omar Sharif, dressed in a black priest’s robe, walking peacefully down a road in the French countryside when a car suddenly pulls up beside him, and Gregory Peck steps out. Angry and impatient, he grabs Sharif by the arm.

“Get in, priest!” he growls.

“Beg your pardon?” Sharif asks, confused.

“I said GET IN, PRIEST!” Peck roars.

He shoves Sharif into the car with two other people, interrogates him, mocks him and—at one unexpected moment—smacks him hard across the face. We can hardly believe the tension of what we are witnessing, and it is one of the most underrated dramatic confrontations ever filmed in a 1960’s Hollywood movie.

A $3.9 million movie headed by a strong director with an impeccable cast, Behold A Pale Horse was a notorious box office flop in the summer of 1964, grossing a mere $900,000 and embarrassing Columbia Pictures’ reputation in international cinemas overseas. The movie, a political thriller about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, was made at a time when Franco was still in power in Spain; the Spanish government was reportedly so offended by the film’s subject matter that Columbia was even forced to sell its Spanish distribution business. Advertised as a reunion between Peck and Anthony Quinn after The Guns of Navarone (1961), and also as a reunion between Quinn and Sharif after Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Behold A Pale Horse promised audiences an action-packed Hollywood vehicle and gave them, instead, a moody, meditative morality play.

If Behold A Pale Horse has been all but forgotten today, it’s easy to see why. Shortly before his death in 1997, Fred Zinnemann admitted in an interview with Brian Neve, “The film didn’t really come together… it was interesting, but it did not really feel right except in a few spots.” Zinnemann may have been ruminating over the film’s disappointing finale, in which Peck—portraying an aging Spanish assassin—walks out to San Martin for a final showdown with Anthony Quinn, who plays a military police captain. We expect Peck to kill Quinn at the end. Instead, Peck wastes his ammo on a former friend—a “traitor”—and dies in a hail of bullets, while Quinn walks off scot-free.

It wasn’t just the fact that Behold A Pale Horse ended unhappily that disappointed audiences—it was the failure on the part of the film’s unhappy ending to make any significant emotional impact. The Day of Jackal (1973), arguably Zinnemann's richest masterpiece, is another film that ends with the hero getting killed immediately after failing his mission, but at least in that film the hero has an excuse: he simply misses his target. The same cannot be said for Behold A Pale Horse, in which the hero fails not because of bad aiming, because of his own stupidity; it doesn't make for very exciting cinema, nor does it do much in the way of inspiring intelligent critical perspectives. The film’s central question (why doesn’t Peck shoot Quinn at the end?) is not a very compelling one.

Watching Behold A Pale Horse today, I’ve found that the most compelling aspect of the film is the onscreen relationship between Peck and Sharif, both of whom are, in a sense, playing quintessential Zinnemann-type heroes in the film. Peck’s character, the Spanish bandit Manuel Artiguez, is a lone gunman plagued with feelings of self-doubt, much like Robert Ryan’s Joe Parkson in Act of Violence (1949) and Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in High Noon (1952). Sharif’s character, an innocent young priest named Father Francisco, is torn between following the customs of his church and doing what is right for his country; he might as well be a cousin to Audrey Hepburn’s Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story (1959). Whenever Peck and Sharif are onscreen, playing Artiguez and Francisco, respectively, they succeed in delivering material that is pure Fred Zinnemann. The other characters in the story—the ones played by Anthony Quinn, Marietto Angeletti, Paolo Stoppa and Raymond Pellegrin—are not nearly as interesting: they are bland, uninspired and two-dimensional, and they have no business being in a Zinnemann film.

Zinnemann’s decision to cast Gregory Peck as Artiguez (a role originally meant for Quinn) caused bitter sniping amongst critics at the time, who didn’t take too kindly to seeing Peck cast against type as a crotchety old Spanish mercenary. Richard Schickel had complained in Life magazine, “What is needed is the internal stimulus of a powerful performance from Artiguez… what we have instead is gentle, attractive, intelligent Gregory Peck, an actor who sometimes smolders but is quite incapable of bursting into angry flame.” It is possible that critics like Schickel were too accustomed to Peck’s image as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) to imagine him playing tougher characters by that point in his career. While Peck might not have been the right ethnicity for Artiguez (the character was based on a real-life anti-Franco rebel named "Zapater"), he got everything else nailed down perfectly about the character: his laziness, his grumpiness, his method of viciously pulverizing all those who lie to him or stands in his way. Zinnemann, who praised Peck as having turned in a “riveting performance”, was right to cast him.

Peck’s performance in the film is matched by the equally riveting performance of Omar Sharif, whom Zinnemann had met through David Lean at a screening of Lawrence of Arabia; Zinnemann thought Sharif was a “terrific” actor with “an enormous capability.” Many of the best scenes in Behold A Pale Horse depict Sharif, as Father Francisco, reflecting quietly on individual circumstances, choosing his words carefully and responding to arguments with effective counterarguments. Consider the scene in which Captain Vinolas (Anthony Quinn) captures Artiguez’ ailing mother (Mildred Dunnock), and then asks Francisco—who has listened to her last words—to reveal them to the police. Francisco refuses, warning Vinolas, “If you try to force me to tell you something my vows forbid me to tell, then you are also desecrating the church.” Or look at the scenes in which Francisco is accidentally separated from his party of priests during a trip to Pau, as he finds himself wandering around helplessly in the menacing streets all around the French underworld. In each of these scenes, Sharif’s panic and desperation are essential in order for the audience to identify with him.

Both Artiguez and Francisco are suffering an unbearable crisis of conscience. Artiguez is afraid he’s grown too old to kill Vinolas. Francisco wants to warn Artiguez of the trap Vinolas is setting up for him in San Martin, but isn’t sure if doing so would violate the doctrines of his church. Zinnemann first attempts to bring the two characters together when Francisco stops by Artiguez’ apartment to deliver a letter, which—for complicated reasons—finds itself flushed down a toilet. Normally the delivery of a letter in a Zinnemann film means bad news: think the opening sequences of High Noon or A Man for All Seasons (1966). When Artiguez and Francisco finally do meet, however, it results in the film’s single-greatest sequence, in which they sit across from each other in Artiguez’ darkened apartment, breaking bread and exchanging religious disagreements. When Francisco, for example, brings up the subject of a brain-damaged priest (Jean-Paul Moulinot) who may have been assaulted by Artiguez during a bank robbery, Artiguez is unsympathetic: “Priests should stay out of banks!” A discussion about a neighborhood in Lorca, however, leads to smiles, a toast over wine and an area of mutual understanding.

Unfortunately, when Zinnemann is left with the other characters, he finds less dramatic ammunition. The character of Paco, a 10-year old boy who asks Artiguez to kill Vinolas for executing his father, is admirably portrayed by Marietto Angeletti, but carries a burning desire for vengeance that he is too young to fully understand. The occasional father-son type rapport between Peck and Angletti, while amusing, has none of the depth that we got between Montgomery Clift and 9-year old Ivan Jandl in Zinnemann’s The Search (1948). Both Paolo Stoppa, as the bandit Pedro, and Raymond Pellegrin, as Carlos—Artiguez’ best friend who is secretly Vinolas’ mole—are left with thankless parts.

But the most disappointing character is far and away Anthony Quinn’s Captain Vinolas, a surprisingly boring villain: we see him romancing a mistress and lighting candles asking God to help him slay Artiguez, but that’s it as far as his psychological troubles go. Zinnemann also fails to draw striking parallels between Vinolas and Artiguez. You’d think Quinn and Peck would have a lot in common, but the most Zinnemann can do is make them both out to be incredibly salty, lecherous men who can’t seem to resist checking out a fine woman’s @$$.

To be sure, it sounds like everyone had a lot of fun making the film. Anthony Quinn would often bring his newborn son onto the set to watch bull fights; Zinnemann described Quinn as "colorful", “cooperative”, “professional” and “very entertaining" on the set. Omar Sharif was thoroughly impressed with Zinnemann’s directorial technique, raving in the New York Herald Tribune about how he believed the director had “a marvelous rapport” with his actors (Sharif would later dismiss Behold A Pale Horse as one of many “bad movies by good directors” he made late in his career, long before his excellent comeback in 2003's Monsieur Ibrahim). Gregory Peck’s biographer, Gary Fishgall, reports that the actor considered the overall shoot to be “a marvelous experience”; he was allegedly so impressed with Zinnemann’s technique that he believed it to exceed even that of Hitchcock.

The film’s technical aspects have aged nicely. The score by Maurice Jarre, while not one of the composer’s most memorable efforts, makes chilling use of drums and isolated guitar chords. The black-and-white cinematography looks beautiful today, although Zinnemann hated working with cinematographer Jean Badal and sometimes had fantasies about lighting him on fire. The film's story, meanwhile, was adapted by J.P. Miller (scribe of Days and Wine and Roses) from the book Killing A Mouse On Sunday by the great Emeric Pressburger, although Zinnemann, fearing the title sounded too Disney-like, had it changed. The current title of the film, taken from the Book of Revelation, is just as misleading, although perhaps it makes for a more appropriate title for a political thriller.

And yet, despite the solid craftsmanship of the film, one thing has always kept Behold A Pale Horse from going down in history as the masterpiece it should have been: that damned ending. It stops the movie from taking off around the tracks, just when it’s gaining momentum.

Oh, it starts out well: Artiguez sneaks into San Martin, climbs up a rooftop, aims his sniper rifle and locates Vinolas in his sights. Then he takes aim… only to shoot Carlos instead. It’s a truly crummy anticlimax—although Zinnemann, at the time, went to great pains to defend it. “In my opinion,” he told reporters, “Manuel, when faced with the choice of killing a lifelong enemy or somebody who he considers a traitor, would kill the traitor. Perhaps in some way his enemy is an honorable adversary, but a traitor is like vermin.”

A valid defense, but Zinnemann ignored the central problem behind Artiguez’ decision: how selfish it is. By refusing to eliminate a totalitarian Spanish dictator, Artiguez is not only doing Vinolas a favor—he’s depriving the people of Spain of the democracy they won’t be getting for several more decades. His decision to shoot Carlos, instead of Vinolas, feels more inspired by stupidity than anything else.

One striking detail of the ending that is often overlooked, however, comes in the seconds just before Artiguez dies in a hail of bullets on a hospital staircase. As Zinnemann’s camera spins faster and faster around the hospital ward, the last image that pops into Artiguez’ head is the memory of young Paco kicking a soccer ball into the air. It seems like a random image, at first, but maybe it’s reminding Artiguez of a time when he was younger, and was happier—before he devoted himself to a life of crime.

In a sense, the movie is Zinnemann's most potent description of a man whose entire life has ended in failure. Manuel Artiguez had this one chance to eliminate a lifelong enemy, and he blew it. He had a grand opportunity to lead his country one step closer towards freedom, and he threw it away. Life as a bandit, it seems, has condemned him to one sorry disappointment after another. Consider that scene between him and Father Francisco, in Artiguez' darkened apartment. The young priest can do nothing more except stare in amazement at this tired, pathetic old man. “Go ahead, priest,” Artiguez raves, “tell me I’m a bandit!” And Father Francisco has a simple, five-word answer for him: “You know what you are.”