You've seen them on TV--you know, those epic costume dramas, lots of them starring Victor Mature.
Some are about Greek heroes ("Jason and the Argonauts"); some are about ancient history ("Cleopatra"); some are religious ("The Robe"); and some are tangentially religious ("Demetrius and the Gladiators").
The biblical ones show up by the chariotload at this Easter/Passover time of year, and plenty will be broadcast this weekend, including "Barabbus," "David and Bathsheba," "Sodom and Gomorrah" and, last but not least, that unofficial king of the genre, mega-Oscar winner "Ben-Hur."
By today's standards, sword-and-sandal movies belong mostly in what I call the nacho hall of fame: "so cheesy, so delicious."
I still love 'em and not because I'm making fun of anybody's religion. I'm talking about them here as pure entertainment, and as such they are wildly amusing. The best sword-and-sandal flicks have some or all of these wacky elements:
1. Ridiculous costumes. Women in diaphanous gowns and headdresses that look like Roger's Gardens Christmas trees. Men in miniskirt tunics and shoulder-length helmets that flip up like Gidget hairdos. Animal extras wearing gold and feathers.
2. Heraldic trumpet blasts. Usually they come out of nowhere. Sometimes they come from fanciful prop instruments that would sound like kazoos if actually played.
3. Exotic dances. Often performed by slaves in scanty attire to frenetic oboe and English horn solos accompanied by drums, finger cymbals and tambourines.
4. Stiff, biblical dialogue that sounds portentous yet meaningless. As in "The Ten Commandments," when Yul Brynner as Ramses shouts, "So let it be written, so let it be done!"
5. Wondrous miracle moments. Like the parting of the Red Sea in "Commandments." Or Jesus' death in "The Greatest Story Ever Told": When the lightning, thunder and earthquakes hit, John Wayne, a Roman centurion, says, "This truly must have been [insert big William Shatner breath here] the Son of God."
Still not a believer? Come with me on a short tour of two of these Technicolor wonders.
"David and Bathsheba" (1951). Thank the Almighty that Gregory Peck accepted the part and never disavowed it. (Paul Newman took out an ad in the trades apologizing for his role in "The Silver Chalice" . Lighten up, spaghetti-sauce guy, it was your first movie.)
But I digress. Here's the setup for "D&B": When we first see Super Dave, he's in a bit of a slump. It's been years since he slew Goliath. His bratty sons are fighting over the vineyards. He and the wife get into it early on, and it goes something like this: He only married her because she was Saul's daughter, and he had to keep factions of the chosen people together. She says, You never come see me anymore. He says Look, I'm busy. Gotta lotta wives. Gotta lotta stone tablets to read.
His real reason for avoiding her is Bathsheba (Susan Hayward). From his terrace, David can see into her bathing quarters. What a Betty!
He sends for her and seduces her with a kingly, macho swagger, even though he's wearing a shirt that looks like it was bought at a Tijuana border-crossing and a fringe-edged wraparound skirt that could have been stolen from Dale Evans.
Sheba gives in after he plies her with Phoenician wine and a ruby as big as a cherry Tootsie pop. Their affair leads to juicy love scenes as well as to gossip, famine, Santa Ana winds and droughts. Eventually Dave repents, gets his groove back and is once again whole in the eyes of God and his people. Phew!
A fallen leader is also the theme of "Sodom and Gomorrah" (1963). This time, Stewart Granger as Lot leads his people into the desert in search of fertile land. He decides the river Jordan makes a great camping spot. But what's that across the water? The most swinging devil-may-care movie town since Frank Capra's vision of Potterville in "It's a Wonderful Life"--the bright lights of Sodom. And boy, is it ever tempting to a bunch of parched Hebrews who have been walking their feet off and are down to their last sheep.
They make nice with the Sodomites. Agree to peacefully coexist. But it's just too inviting. Red velour caftans, wine like nectar, whole pigs roasting on spits. Soon Lot's people are living in town. Everyone gets seduced, even Lot's innocent daughters.
Dad slays the handsome bad guy. But it's clear the party's over. Lot sentences himself to jail. Prays. Then his miracle moment comes in the form of echoing voice-overs. Gnarled old prophets tell him to walk out of the city. If 10 righteous men follow and don't look back, he's forgiven.
He starts his march amid hundreds of "You gotta be kidding" looks from his people. But as the earth quakes and nasty weather sets in, more and more join the procession. Pretty soon he's at the gates. The cardboard set is crumbling, looking like Legoland in quicksand.
His wife, a nonbeliever from the get-go, turns back for a little peek at the destruction and--BA-DA-BING!--she's a pillar of salt. Lot weeps and wails like Ralph Fiennes in "The English Patient." He's consoled by his daughters, who have found their faith and some cool Barbie-esque blue eye shadow in the better boutiques of Sodom. His people walk off into the sunset to sin no more, at least until they hit Gomorrah.
So, as you can see, there's plenty to ogle in these epic beauties. Catch just a couple and you may get hooked too. Sure, it's a guilty pleasure, but last time I checked it wasn't against any of those commandments. Of course, I haven't seen that one in a while. Maybe I need to rent it one more time.
* Anne Valdespino is Calendar Weekend editor for the Los Angeles Times Orange County Edition.