Yep—that's a pale horse. But is that Judge Brett Cullum standing next to it?
Pedro: Why are you going back?
Behold a Pale Horse is a star-filled, moody, existential black and white flick from the Oscar winning director of High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and Julia. Fred Zinneman was working from a script (based on a short story from Emeric Pressburger) about an aging Spanish expatriate rebel who wants to run one last mission to prove he hasn't been defeated by Franco and his police state. Here is a perfect example of where the studio system hindered a production that could have worked better with a smaller budget and a less-recognizable cast. Today it easily would have been deemed worthy of a tight independent production with real Spanish actors, but in 1964 we found Gregory Peck (To Kill A Mockingbird), Anthony Quinn (Zorba the Greek), and Omar Sharif (Dr. Zhivago) playing various Spanish roles with hardly a trace (nor effort) of an accent or make-up to hide their true ethnic identity. It's a somber piece that has a melancholy conclusion and a protracted, slow, thoughtful first half.
Manuel Artiguez (Peck) is an expatriate rebel leader from the Spanish Civil War living in France. A young orphan named Paco (Italian star Marietto Angeletti, Angel in a Taxi) seeks him out to beg him to return to his country and kill the man who murdered the boy's father (an old comrade of Artiguez). The murderous villain is Chief Vinolas (Quinn), the head of the oppressive police. At first Artiguez is reluctant to go, but when he learns his mother is dying in a hospital he decides to make the arduous trek to see her one last time. Vinolas sees an opportunity to set a trap for the rebel, and quickly sends an informer (Italian star Raymond Pellegrin) to feed him false information that the coast is clear and his mother is waiting. Omar Sharif plays a priest who knows the truth about the trap, and the mother has already passed away. He goes to great lengths to warn Artiguez of what is waiting for him. Artiguez decides he should go anyway, even if it could very well be suicide to walk into Vinolas's trap. But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
Behold a Pale Horse is a great character study of all three leads. Peck plays the crusty, fatalistic Artiguez with gusto, even if he is never convincing as a Spaniard. Sharif was fresh off his gung ho role in Lawrence of Arabia, so he seems to relish the chance to play meek and mild as a man of the cloth. Quinn is completely understated as the ruthless Vinolas, but he creates a believable portrait of a man who thinks he has all the power in the world. If there is any reason to grab a copy of Behold a Pale Horse it would be for its leads. Ironically, they are also part of the reason why the movie ultimately does not succeed.
Unfortunately the movie seems slow, and never gets to the really dark places it so desperately wants to go. It's too pretty and doesn't explain the ugly parts. The black and white photography sets the right mood, but all the studio glamour and the idealized shots of France undermine the darkness of the source material. The cast is too glamorous, the scenery is too big, and there is no sense of gritty realism to hang the story on. It's a little too Hollywood to ever make us feel any real tension or angst, and that is exactly where Behold a Pale Horse falls down. It is established that Artiguez hates the clergy, and he gives Sharif's young priest a terrible time when he arrives. But unless you know Spanish history—or read the original source story—you don't understand that Franco's revolution in Spain was in part led by the clergy, which is why both Artiguez and his mother are suspicious of priests. Missing details like this pull some of the heft out of the movie. It's not a total failure by any means, but it certainly isn't all that it could be, either.
Columbia has provided a pretty good anamorphic transfer of Behold a Pale Horse. It seems a little dark, and the murky contrast levels are off somewhat throughout the presentation. The overly dark look came from the original print, so no real need to take them to task for that. There's a nice Maurice Jarre score that is delivered quite nicely through the Dolby mono mix, which also conveys dialogue well. The disc has no extras, save for a collection of vintage trailers of important films from director Fred Zinneman. It's a solid release devoid of any real "wow" factor.
Behold a Pale Horse is an angst-filled political drama with a great cast. It probably started out as an ambitious look at the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, but the studio system seems to have stripped it of any political statements. So what are we really left with? Peck acting gruff, Sharif acting meek, and Quinn delivering a fine reserved performance. Also in the mix are some great shots of the European countryside. There are some great looks at Lourdes as part of a poignant hunt for the priest, who is traveling there. But in the end we don't get to see what all of this is really about—the political ramifications of the Spanish Civil War. Strangely Behold a Pale Horse feels like a dinner made of all potatoes, and we're left asking the age old question "Where's the beef?"
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