THE PRINCE OF PEACE
distributed by K. Gordon Murray Productions
THE LAWTON STORY
(1949/1951), Color, Hallmark Productions/Principle Films, Inc., 100/120 minutes
Produced by Kroger Babb, J.S. Jossey
Directed by William Beaudine, Harold Daniels
Story: Mildred Horn, Milton Raison, Reverend A. Mark Wallock
Screenplay: W. Scott Darling, DeVallon Scott
Music: Lee ‘Lasses’ White
Cinematography: Henry Sharp
Editing: Richard C. Currier
Art Direction Dave Milton
Musical Director: Edward J. Kay
Lyricist: Vachel Lindsay
CAST: Ginger Prince (Ginger), Forrest Taylor (Uncle Mark), Millard Coody (Himself/Jesus), Ferris Taylor (Uncle Jonathan), Maude Eburne (Henrietta), Gwynne Shipman (Jane), Darlene Bridges (Herself/Virgin Mary), Willa Pearl Curtis (Willa Pearl), Raymond Largay (Dr. Martin), A.S. Fischer (Himself/Simon), Hazel Lee Becker (Herself/Mary Magdalene), Lee ‘Lasses’ White
This is K GORDON MURRAY’s religious feature, a retouching of THE LAWTON STORY. transferred from a crummy VHS tape, the quality is brelow my usual standard. but this rare gem is rare than rare, so here it is! color, mono, fullscreen, 72 minutes + the black & white religious short THE DOOR TO HEAVEN, which is quite a surreal affair. a holy and interesting double feature!
THE PRINCE OF PEACE starts off like any number of industrial or educational (instructional?) films of the era, with silent, home-movie footage of downtown Lawton, Oklahoma narrated to tell us all about the special charms of this special town on this most special of days: the faithful from everywhere are congregating in Lawton, to see Reverend Wallock’s annual Passion Play: the life and death of Jesus Christ!
There’s even a strained effort at (staged) comic relief, as four teens in a battered jalopy stall out on Main Street, and an angry cop has to help push the junk heap off the road, to let the stream of incoming tourists continue unabated.
The main players are introduced by name, and shown to be good, upstanding members of their community. There’s something endearing, even political, about local entrepreneurs and small-town heroes being called upon to play historic religious figures; it makes both of their screen incarnations seem somehow mythic, even iconographic, and certainly suggest that contemporary small-town America could be seen as metaphoric for any historical religious setting, as the timeless forces of faith and persecution play out amongst those living there.
As we witness the faithful masses descending upon Lil ole Lawton like a swarm of locusts, one is struck by the mass appeal of the spectacle; with 10,000 participants coming from all over, and camping on an open field, this annual Passion Play is definitely a Christian precursor to the ubiquitous 1960’s phenomena, the outdoor rock concert. Think “Jesus at Woodstock!”
We then segway into a pastoral hillside, bursting with greenery and enthusiastic patrons. As the Passion Play proper starts, we realize we are about to witness something rare in cinema: a theatrical performance enacted out of doors, on largely natural settings, featuring non-professional actors in period costume.
Sort of a low-rent “Shakespeare in the Park”, a local cabaret theatrical done on Memorial Field, U.S.A., POP is a most remarkable and unusual film in that regard to begin with. The actors wear brightly colored uniforms, further enhanced by the effervescent Cinecolor of the period (and likely augmented by video color correction), as this heartfelt play literally bursts onto the screen.
Now, we all know the plot of the Passion Play. But, as a wise man once declared about any good film, “It’s all in the script”. And with a director such as Harold Daniels, this means everything. For producer-director Daniels directs with an eye for dramatic authenticity to the story, which is his artistic legacy. In other classics such as POOR WHITE TRASH and DATE WITH DEATH, Daniels directs the most farfetched or outrageous screenplay completely deadpan, thus with more plausibility than nearly any other B-Movie director of the period. Daniels is able to create a familiar, completely identifiable universe even with the most fantastic plot twists or lurid dialogue, and POP is no exception. POP, like other Daniels classics, thus becomes ultra-real, like a cinematic capturing of an authentic Greek drama; gripping and larger-than-life, yet never tongue-in-cheek or surreal. Although THE PRINCE OF PEACE is at times threadbare, and usually highly theatrical, Daniels films with full eye on cinema aesthetic, again one of Daniel’s strengths with unusual material.
As we progress, we admit that the stiff reading of classic biblical passages by non-professionals with strong Midwestern accents does have some camp value, certainly, but the intended theological impact is not lost, even so.
A close-up of the baby Jesus looks like any postwar American baby, which is perhaps the point, as this film represents Americana, as well as postwar Christianity, at its most reverent. The long-awaited, and somehow shocking close-up, comes across as almost anti-climatic, perhaps even sacrilegious, as the mug looks like he could be anybody’s kid, the offspring of “Mr. & Mrs. Joe Bagadonuts”.
This close-up segways into the only time warp in the film, where “Jesus grew to manhood”, and we now see the adult JC walking through some attractive natural landscapes including a dry riverbed and rolling hills. Outstanding is Millard Coody as Jesus Christ. He certainly was inspired by the role; some might even say obsessed.
Admittedly, certain set pieces suffer more than others from the avowedly amateur theatrics, yet that is part of the singular charm of this most rare and precious chronicle of theological devotion. For instance, a scene with the thieves and the Samaritan suffers from some truly over-the-top histrionics; the raising of Lazarus contains a surreal filmic touch, as Lazarus emerges from tomb as a gauze-wrapped mummy worthy of a Bowery-Boys horror-comedy; Jesus gives sight to a woefully underacting Artemius, in a scene which borders on the comical. Judas’ hanging scene is also hastily drawn, but not unmoving.
Yet, just when we are about to label the film low-brow, we are witness to a breathtaking, marvelous scene, such as that at the 40-minute mark, wherein “the multitudes” parade through the gates of the city, in an impressive, long take with literally hundreds of cast members, an uplifting scene worthy of any medium-budget Hollywood epic. THE PRINCE OF PEACE is full of such surprises, and refuses thus to be categorized.
Another of our favorite “Wow!” scenes is the claustrophobic (one might say microcosmic?) Last Supper, a low-budget moment of brilliance, filmed in a literal style, yet conveying the mythic nature of this most important historical moment with great energy.
Every single shot of this film takes place outdoors, and Daniels uses the green, green fields, lush woods and glorious foliage to good advantage. The use of natural settings is often stunning; a scene in which Jesus walks through virtually glowing fields of cherry blossoms literally made us gasp.
The hand-made architecture, including realistic stone temples and facades, is also visually fetching. Even cooler, someone constructed an incredible, intricate scale model of the entire city of Jerusalem. This is a magnificent work of miniatures craftsmanship, and one wonders what ever became of this amazing work of art. The optical effects are few, and primitive, such as trick lenses, gauzy filters and matte paintings, but effective all.
Some footage appears to be slowed down from full speed, giving these scenes an ethereal, supernatural quality. It also appears that much of the dialogue was overdubbed, as witness the strong winds which occurred during much of the filming.
Cast members wear extraordinary multi-colored gowns, so they are easily identifiable. The effect, in a crowd scene, is one of gay carnival, a veritable kaleidoscope of color. (Judas, of course, is dressed in deep purple.) Less effective are some of the very fake beards and goofy (though probably accurate) wigs worn primarily by the village men and the priests.
A point worth noting occurs when Jesus carries his cross to Calvary, followed by a crowd both friend and foe. In a truly Brechtian touch, J’s “walking” cross looks completely unreal and propish, perhaps round aluminum tubes welded together, or possibly even cardboard carpet rolls, painted black. The effect is both cartoonish and symbolic, and is the only jarring note to the visuals in the whole film.
We are thus disarmed when, on the hill, we witness a fairly realistic crucifixion scene, replete with three suffering martyrs. Here, our martyrs hang on large wooden crosses, which are clearly crafted from old telephone poles, replete with spike holes! This scene is disturbing and ultra-real, especially in contrast to the previous, slightly parodic scene. And Coody-as-Jesus, seems realistically emaciated (scrawny?) which adds to the palpable essence of suffering in the moment.
A hasty resurrection scene with Mary Magdalene is stunningly brief and uplifting, and ends the film on the moral high note we would expect.
THE PRINCE OF PEACE is an incredible and precious historical document of considerable aesthetic and religious significance, and we are indebted to Lewis T. Philips for restoring this lost treasure to the world. As Jean Luc-Godard would say, “It’s a keeper”.