Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
USA, 1952. RKO Radio Pictures. Screenplay by Chester Erskine, Ken Englund, based on the play by George Bernard Shaw. Cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr.. Produced by Gabriel Pascal. Music by Friedrich Hollaender. Production Design by Harry Horner. Costume Design by Emile Santiago. Film Editing by Roland Gross.
Producer Gabriel Pascal’s devotion to bringing Shaw to the big screen was a lifelong passion that ended with this adaptation of the great writer’s 1912 play, incorporating Aesop’s fable with Christian history and Shaw’s own contemplation on the place of religion in an increasingly industrial world. It begins with sweet and simple Androcles (Alan Young) escaping persecution in Rome with his shrewish, nagging wife (Elsa Lanchester), wandering the woods outside the city where they encounter a vicious lion with, of course, a thorn painfully wedged in its paw.
As he’s the only person ridiculous enough to get cozy with a fully grown wildcat, Androcles helps the animal with its problem, before being scooped up and brought back to the city where he is thrown into prison with others who are to be sacrificed in the coliseum. There we also meet a new convert to Christianity who is conflicted between his beliefs and his love of swordplay, as well as a beautiful young woman (Jean Simmons) who catches the eye of a Roman captain (Victor Mature) who longs to save her.
Pascal was still reeling from the box office failure of his mammoth production of Caesar and Cleopatra and made this one on a greatly reduced budget, proceeding with production despite Shaw himself dropping out of participating in any further adaptations of his work. The compromises show and the sets and cinematography look cheap, while the smart and contemplative dialogue feels shoe-horned into a movie that feels determined to appeal to an audience wider than just the intellectually ironic (producer Howard Hughes reportedly had new sequences shot after early screenings in the United States failed to connect with audiences, and it reportedly did not help much).
The performances are all delightful despite the uneven direction and screenplay, with Simmons the brightest of them all as the principled Lavinia. Pascal died only two years after the film’s release, at which point he was working on putting together his harebrained idea for a musical version of Pygmalion.