The Pride and the Passion (1957)

Prior to viewing this movie, I didn’t really know anything about it other than, vaguely, its genre (war film), its director (Stanley Kramer) and its star (Frank Sinatra, since the film had been part of a Sinatra box set). Partly, I wanted to watch it for the rush of experiencing something I knew so little about, but also because I was curious what attracted Kramer, a director more famous for his socially-conscious issue dramas, to an historical war epic. He was his own, independent producer, so it can’t have been a desire to prove to others that he could direct large-scale combat (of which there aren’t many scenes in the film, anyway, unless you count a handful of extras dying of not even to close to being hit by cannon balls) or set-ups more complicated than those needed for an intimate character drama (which doesn’t succeed all that well either, with numerous continuity issues and noticeable mismatched cuts). It’s possible he wanted to prove it to himself (Pride and the Passion earned him only his second credit as director, after many years of being a hands-on producer). Or maybe he just liked the book the movie was based on.

Whatever the case, this is the film Kramer made: Its lead character is a British officer sent to Spain to prevent a one-of-a-kind, gigantic cannon from falling into the hands of dastardly French soldiers acting as proxies to the unseen Napoleon. Anthony Trumbull, the Englishman, doesn’t have any backup at all in his quest, which means he has to rely solely on his apparently flawless command of Spanish, which we never hear, the considerable charms of the actor who plays him, Cary Grant, and the whims of a local militia leader Miguel, played by Sinatra. The Spaniard is willing to help Trumbull get the cannon to a port where it can be picked up by a British ship, but only if he’s allowed to use the weapon in a mostly symbolic gesture, bombing the walls of a city occupied by the French. Said city is far too inland for Trumbull’s comfort, but he has no choice but to tag along and take Miguel at his word. The war during which this all takes place was a real one, if somewhat obscure (it’s the one that popularised the term ‘guerilla’, describing irregular units like the one commanded by Miguel), but both the broad strokes and the details of the story are basically pure fiction. The film’s pretend-Iberian geography is similarly mangled, and that was obvious even to me, who has never been to Spain, unlike the production team.


—Some spoilers were spotted south of here—

The film stretches over over two hours, most of which is spent hauling the cannon across Spain. It’s a weird strategy for a supposed guerrilla, though Miguel actually seems to believe that a breach of the walls of the town of Avila would rouse the Spanish populace en masse. I’m not sure whether the movie wants us to side with Miguel or take seriously its subtle hints that Miguel is kind of a terrible militia leader who is being followed either because the Spanish villagers are afraid of his inconsistently and counter-productively brutal, brutish or amateurish methods, or because they don’t have anything better to do. Even his girlfriend, played by Sophia Loren (whose supposed sex appeal I’m afraid I can’t relate to, at least not in this movie), eventually gets the hots for Trumbull, launching a love triangle the ultimate message of which is that love of country must trump love for a person, and also that neither of the two male leads has any chemistry with Loren.

The movie’s fourth co-star is the cannon. Even if it’s sometimes obvious that the giant gun is made out of wood, at other times it looks suitably impressive. Pride doesn’t fall on the adventury side of the war film genre. It’s taken seriously that a cannon like that would be heavy, problematic to manoeuvre, prone to damage and in constant need of maintenance. That’s the most interesting part, really, seeing the difficulties involved in such an endeavour portrayed more or less realistically. How do you get the cannon out of a ravine it’s fallen into, across a river, straight through an enemy encampment, up a mountain, down a mountain, into and out of a city where it can be repaired without attracting the attention of the French? That last point develops into a remarkable scene progression, entailing a church, a strikingly beautiful Easter procession, and a recasting of a weapon of war as a symbol of hope.

That’s certainly more interesting than the aforementioned love triangle that none of the people involved can get all that worked up over, or Cary Grant’s hero, who is rather boring already and gets more boring by failing to exhibit any flaws in judgement or character (unless you count stealing another man’s girlfriend, I guess). Grant plays a familiar type of character and certainly doesn’t need to stretch himself as an actor, here. He might get points for his sorta British accent, but those points get docked for the inconsistent way the movie deals with languages. Everyone except the French (who presumably use French when talking amongst themselves) supposedly speaks Spanish, but they all exhibit a range of variously dodgily-accented English.

Much of the above sounds rather negative, and it would certainly be a stretch to call Pride and the Passion a good movie. But despite its flaws, it remains reasonably watchable throughout. In an age of CGI hordes, it’s a nice change of pace to see several scenes involving over a thousand real human beings. There are individual moments of humour in the film that work quite well, and even if the battle scenes are somewhat laughably staged, I like that Kramer doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to the carnage produced by cannon warfare. The trek to Avila is a dangerous journey that kills several people, both odious and innocent. The ending’s not all that triumphant either, leaving most of the main, supporting and background characters dead, and the question “for what?” isn’t just implicit. The rest of the film is too muddled to really drive that home as a message, but moments like that reminded me of the Kramer who liked to shock his audience’s consciences more than just a little bit.

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