Monday, April 27, 2020

G-d Week: Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.


Directed by Henry Koster
Written by Norman Corwin

Spoiler alert: as inapplicable as ever

Now we arrive at yet another problem with doing these Bible adaptations in canonical order: namely, whose canon?  The Book of Ruth is set in the time that judges judged; accordingly, in the Christian Old Testament, it's placed in historical order, between Judges and Samuel.  In the Tanakh, it's in the Ketuvim in the back.  I think, just this once, we'll go Christian.  It's confusing enough just to keep bouncing back across the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

And, indeed, The Story of Ruth brings us back to the 1960s, which is to say, long enough for the Hollywood Bible epic to have established itself, and maybe long enough for people to have started getting sick of it.  This partly explains why The Story of Ruth was given a modest welcome as a vastly smaller-scale iteration of a typically-indulgent genre.  Time called it "commendably unepic."  The snarky response is "they were half right!"  But I don't know; I like The Story of Ruth, despite its comparative low-keyness.  A fuller Time quote would read, "the Old Testament's four brief chapters are souped up, padded out, and somehow made into a movie," and that's true, too, though that's hardly unique.  Structurally, it's very much of a piece with several other contemporary Bible movies, including the twin lights of the genre, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur.  Like those films, its first and arguably better part involves conflict amidst a visually-striking pagan landscape, telling a story that is almost entirely screenwriterly invention; whereas it's not until the second part, which is finally arrived at only after exhausting the dramatic possibilities of the first, that the movie somewhat reluctantly gets on with the Bible stuff it can't very well avoid.  However, in The Story of Ruth's case, Norman Corwin's screenplay just keeps inventing.  In fact, while it gets more strictly Biblical as it goes on, it also gets less accurate: in a number of its particulars, it flatly contradicts scripture.  This is obviously for the best, though, as the Book of Ruth would otherwise be unadaptably dry work; the very closest thing it has to any action whatsoever is a euphemistic handjob.  Sadly, this is not replicated in the 1960 production.  But at least it makes up for it with some gnarly violence.

The Story of Ruth, of course, is the story of Ruth of Moab, and we begin many years before her book does, going all the way back to when Ruth was a child (Chrystine Jordan), sold by her father into service as a temple maiden of Kemosh, the chief god of the Moabites, who might be easier to take seriously if his graven image weren't that of a goofy bug-eyed cartoon.  Still, the Moabites themselves take him seriously enough, for every spring one of his maidens is selected to be sacrificed and thrown upon his fiery topheth.  Such would've been Ruth's fate, except upon her selection a curious rash develops, lasting just long enough for the priest to reject her in favor of an unblemished sacrifice.  And so it is that, instead, Ruth grows to adulthood (Elana Eden), a novitiate charged with the education of other prospective offerings, like little Tebah (Daphna Einhorn).  It is in preparation for Tebah's sacrifice that Ruth meets a certain Judean immigrant, Mahlon (Tom Tyron), an artisan in the shop of his parents Elimelech (Les Tremayne) and Naomi (Peggy Wood), and presently working on a glittering crown for Kemosh's bride.  Mahlon is struck by the beautiful Moabitess—and why not? his family's already got one, his sister-in-law Orpah (Ziva Rodann).  For her part, Ruth is intrigued by his disapproval of the Moabites' most salient cultural practices, which leads to the film's most absurdly funny flirtation with camp silliness, when Mahlon earns his family's reproach: "You know how sensitive they are about human sacrifice!"

Mahlon pursues Ruth regardless, and it turns out her dedication to Kemosh is so fragile that it collapses in the face of the kind of basic theological questions that you'd think a temple upbringing would've prepared her to answer, like "If Kemosh is so great, then why do I have to repair his idols?" and "isn't child murder wrong?", though it's worth pointing out that The Story of Ruth still prosecutes a more winning argument in this regard than Samson and Delilah.  I mean, that movie opens with a narrator who excoriates the pagans of the ancient Levant as a gaggle of superstitious savages who invented their gods to explain the terrors of the natural world, and apparently the irony was lost on him.  The Story of Ruth at least manages to find a distinction more credible than "yeah, but Yahweh is actually real"—though, on this count, it did save its heroine with a bona fide miracle.

In any event, Ruth finds Mahlon's words sufficiently persuasive that when the time for Tebah's sacrifice comes, she has a very public freakout.  The Moabites, incensed by Mahlon's corruption of their priestess, murder his dad, his brother, and him, and there's just enough time in the interim for Ruth to marry Mahlon on his deathbed.  This leaves the women fugitives, and obliged to flee back to Naomi's old home in Bethlehem.  This is where the Bible kicks in: Orpah accedes to Naomi's blandishments to return to her Moabite family; but Ruth refuses to be dismissed, doubling down on her assertions of Jewishness.  Then the screenplay's embroidery picks back up: for once arrived in Judah, Ruth becomes the subject of xenophobic scorn, not least from Elimelech's kinsman Boaz (Stuart Whitman), though Boaz softens considerably, particularly once his elder brother Tob (Jeff Morrow) takes a shine of his own to the Moabitess.

It bears something of the spirit of the Book of Ruth, which is often taken as an anti-racist parable, and that's nice.  Nevertheless, the first, extrabiblical half of this movie clearly has the more overtly interesting material, what with its forbidden loves, its daring slave escapes, its sets more lavish than a destitute widow's long-abandoned house, and so on.  It's still terribly schematic, and The Story of Ruth, not short at 131 minutes, is one of the few Bible movies that potentially needed more time, at least so that the driving force of its narrative, Ruth's spiritual awakening/circumcision curiosity, did not arise out of two or three facile conversations.  But it's never pacey; Eden and Tyron have surprisingly decent chemistry for two people who spend most of their time debating the relative merits of Yahweh and Kemosh; it's splendidly melodramatic (they complete their marriage vows literally five seconds before Mahlon dies); it's not chickenshit about child sacrifice; and when it arrives at Ruth's declarations of fidelity to Naomi, it's even suddenly and surprisingly moving.

The latter half, then, must make do with being much less obviously fun.  Yet, on the quieter new terms it presents, it functions better as a drama; it at least does not depend on us believing in a relationship born mostly of snide proselytization, if, by the same token, it never quite satisfactorily answers the question of why Ruth fell in love with Boaz, either.  This is less of a problem than it sounds, because it's only nominally their "love story," anyway.  Somehow, it's more of a legal drama about ancient immigration, and this is just weird enough to make The Story of Ruth fascinating.  In braving the prejudices of her new Judean neighbors, Ruth is required to be sharper on their own law than they are—every turn demands the invocation of yet another Biblical rule—and she navigates her new home with a combination of confidence and vulnerability that's oddly appealing.

Eden herself does better with this second phase, though that's not necessarily saying much; she was cast mostly so 20th Century Fox could use her Israeli nationality in the marketing, and what wasn't "she's from there!" was doubtless "she's also 19 and pretty!"  It's not unfair to say that Eden never delivers a noticeably good performance except, perhaps, in a handful of her scenes with Wood, whose generous turn as the mother-in-law every wife wishes she had is soulful and humane in ways that nothing else here comes close to matching.  Eden, though, is mostly just a one-size-fits-all glare of faintly-confused defiance.  Luckily, The Story of Ruth manages to use Eden's limitations for its purposes, marshalling both her thick accent and her stiffness as an actor to explicitly mark her out as a stranger in this land.  And the resonance of casting an Israeli as the foreign mother of Jewish kings—in an ancient Holy Land that otherwise makes no distinction whatsoever between American gentile (Morrow) and American Jew (Whitman)—is worth at least a little consideration.

The fellow putting this together, meanwhile, was surely no stranger to this genre: Henry Koster's career, though considerably varied, is tied to the Hollywood Bible epic more than almost anybody's, with his 1953 film The Robe being a particularly iconic example of the form.  Koster makes a bid for being the single coolest guy to ever direct a Bible movie, too: before leaving Germany in the mid-1930s for some reason—can you guess why?—he punched an SA officer so hard he knocked him unconscious.  Hey, William Wyler never did that.  As for his actual filmmaking, Koster is... fine?  Maybe?  If anything, The Story of Ruth may represent a bit of a slip downward even from The Robe, which famously had its teething troubles with its own CinemaScope frame (where to put the actors? how to do close-ups? is this overlit, or just not overlit enough? etc.), but that was still mostly invisible, given the richness of that film's production design of a fantastically decadent Rome.  The Story of Ruth sort-of lives up to this in its Moabite first half, which also has noticeably punchier editing.

But even there the seed is planted that will grow into the tree of extremely repetitive interior scenes in Judah.  They have all the flair and imagination of a television sitcom—a contemporary television sitcom—only with the potential awkwardness of composing for 'Scope.  Almost literally every other scene in the back half of The Story of Ruth involves a knock on the door, an entry into Elimelech's decrepit old home from stage-left, and a single-angle conversation that, incrementally, advances the plot.  Naturally, this somewhat sucks the energy out of a film that wasn't too energetic already (the energy it maintains is largely thanks to Franz Waxman's strong score, which absolutely—and anachronistically—screams "look! the Middle East!" to an unusual degree for a Bible movie, but, like Eden, it works).  You almost wonder if this pattern was on purpose, though, because it does have a payoff, at least a small one: Koster winds up managing a hint of the uncanny simply by slightly modifying his basic-ass blocking, whereupon Naomi opens her door to find a messenger of God outside, and there's something off about this guy even before he drops a prophecy on her head regarding Ruth's regal womb.  (It's a pretty good scene: theologically, it even gets to square its Jewish and Christian impulses.)

Now, The Story of Ruth has some trouble managing to keep its subdued drama going into the finale, and it undeniably peaks early, because "oh man, will Ruth be stoned as an idolatress?" is obviously more compelling than "which interchangeable landowner will she bang?"  The fungibility of the boazim is an impression helped along by Whitman and Morrow's substantial physical resemblance (dudes look more like brothers than most actual brothers), and while I credit Morrow and the screenplay's resistance to making Tob some kind of ravenous villain, it does lower the stakes right into invisibility.  But it's entertaining enough, for long enough, that I didn't mind seeing how things shook out for Ruth, and overall it's a surprisingly-gentle, somewhat left-of-center example of the mid-century Bible film.  If nothing else, this one might pass the Bechdel test.  Does talking about dead men still count?

Score: 6/10

Reviews in this series:
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)
Samson and Delilah (1949) (שופטים/Judges)
The Story of Ruth (1960) (רות/Ruth)
David and Bathsheba (1951) (שְׁמוּאֵל/Samuel)
Solomon and Sheba (1959) (מלכים/Kings)
Esther and the King (1960) (אֶסְתֵּר/Esther)
The Prodigal (1955) (Λουκᾶν/Luke)
Salome (1953) (Ματθαῖον καί Μᾶρκον/Matthew and Mark)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) (Ἰωάννην/John)
The Robe (1953) (Ρωμαιους/Romans)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) (Κορινθίους/Corinthians)
Barabbas (1962) (Ἑβραίους/Hebrews)
Quo Vadis (1951) (Αποκάλυψις/Revelation)! Ben-Hur (1959)

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