Samuel Bronston, Part I

November 24, 2011 | By

CHARLTON HESTON thinks: 'How the blazes do I get away from this drunken bitch?' — AVA GARDNER aspires: 'If I run RIGHT NOW, neither Nick nor Sam will see me escape this mess!' — DAVID NIVEN fantasizes facetiously : 'There must be some way to feed Yordan a slice of broken glass pizza for making me sound like Heston.'

The career of Samuel Bronston may be short and tragic, and while many might not recognize the name, the handful of titles that bore his imprimateur represent the top historical epics ever made: King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and Circus World (1964).

Yes, Kings is bizarre, El Cid has a cadaver saving Spain, Peking killed its director’s career, Roman Empire killed the Bronston empire, and Circus World tests the mettle of audiences who found Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) an interminable melodramatic bore, but these are epics in the fullest sense of visual scope, physical production values of extreme nature, a cast of the best actors around, and thousands of extras on the payroll.

This past Sunday, as part of the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s series Hollywood Classics: The Cinema is Nicholas Ray, a print of Peking was screened to a small but generally appreciative audience. Most seemed to know what they were in for; a few took extra w.c. breaks, and a handful seemed to walk out, perhaps thinking Peking was supposed to be an epic drama about the origins of soylent green.

I’d made a point in holding off seeing the film on DVD (available everywhere in Europe) in the hope that maybe it would one day appear in a rep cinema.

Originally released in 70mm, Peking, along with Circus World, should’ve been part of the next two films released on DVD by the distribution rights holders of the Bronston catalogue – the Weinsteins – and while they did come through with El Cid and Roman Empire, they’ve fallen back on their old habit of just…sitting… on… properties… and… doing… absolutely… nothing… with… them, a practice going back to the brothers snapping up Asian action films and locking them up for years or worse – as in the case of the modern slasher All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) – letting it rot for 5 years.

Hopefully their rights agreement for the Bronston catalogue will expire soon, and allow a company with greater finesse to handle the remaining two titles, because while Europe has enjoyed the aforementioned pair on DVD, they’ve yet to make their debut here. Even more ridiculous: El Cid and Roman Empire being available on Blu-ray in Germany and Britain, bearing the same extras produced for the Region 1 DVD release.

The problem is that while Peking is deeply flawed, it is deserving of a proper restoration like its brethren. Issues may lie in the cost of restoring its obsolete exhibition film format – Super Technirama 70mm – not to mention restoring the original film mix elements and ironing out its distribution agreements. I’m actually going to hold off on a lengthy essay because there will be a Part II in this series, featuring a review of Circus World and Mel Martin’s 2007 biography of Bronston, The Magnificent Showman. That’s when formal blather will commence.



Also related: while the Weinsteins, via their Genius Products (ahem) have yet to touch Peking, the folks at La-La Land Records have just released a new 2-CD set featuring every note of Dimitri Tiomkin’s eruptive score. I have a soundtrack album review [M] of that baby, and YouTube links to clips of Tiomkin’s appearance on the Jack Benny Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Tiomkin really was the prototype for Hans Zimmerlisch bombast, you know.



I’ve also uploaded a film review [M] of Peking, based on the recent TBL screening. The available print was a 35mm ‘scope knock-down from the 70mm version, but contained the Roadshow Overture and most of the Exit Music. The film was unfortunately in mono, but that seems to be the thing with some of the vintage knock-downs I’ve seen, such as the shorter version of Raintree County (1957), or even The Young Lions (1958).

Print quality was pretty good, considering it was vintage, and besides the obvious scratch marks at the reel changes, the images were stable, colours were mostly strong (if not a bit muted), and only one reel showed an inconsistency in timing.

Downside: one scene was missing due to print damage, so for those puzzled as to why Capt. Lewis (Charlton Heston) appears as a witness to the killing of some German dude, it’s because he did see it: the MIA scene has Heston grabbing binoculars in his hotel suite and seeing Prince Qing silently dispatching a coterie of Boxers with large swords to hack up the German minister. After Heston sees the dead German, he tells Ava Gardner he can’t leave Peking with her, and heads off to see the British minister, played by David Niven, who escorts him to the Empress’s court.

There. Now you know the full story!


More Nicholas Ray

Coming soon: reviews of videogame soundtracks, and film reviews of the remaining Nicholas Ray flicks in the TBL series: In a Lonely Place (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), and Party Girl (1958).



Mark R. Hasan, Editor ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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