Wednesday, July 21, 2010


In 2nd century Rome, the kindly tailor Androcles is trying to escape a round-up of Christians by Caesar Antoninus, but soldiers catch up with him when he stops to pull a thorn out of a lion's paw; the fierce lion becomes friendly and licks his face in gratitude (and Androcles nicknames him Tommy), but Androcles is captured and labeled a sorcerer for his seemingly unnatural power over the wild beast. He winds up in a group of Christian prisoners being led to sacrifice in the arena; the Roman captain in charge becomes friendly with the lovely young Lavinia and soon they are in love. The Christian Ferrovius, a strong and hot-tempered man, is sent out to be slaughtered by gladiators, but when he kills them all, Caesar is impressed enough to free all the Christians until he is reminded that the bloodthirsty crowds will be disappointed, so he sends Androcles out to be killed by the lions. Of course, the lion he has to face is Tommy and the two wind up dancing before the confused crowd. Ultimately, Androcles and the lion are freed, Ferrovius becomes a member of the guard, and Lavinia and her converted soldier are happy ever after.

This film, adapted from a play by George Bernard Shaw, is a bit odd, being more a piece of ideas about tolerance than an action film or character drama, and its stagy sets give it the look of a TV adaptation (and in fact it was done that way in 1967, with Noel Coward as Caesar). It's rather unusual in that it's one of the few films about Christians and lions that doesn't end in either gloomy tragedy or tragic piety, or both (see THE SIGN OF THE CROSS). The lion is mostly "played by" a real lion, though Alan Young (Androcles) and the lion don't share the same frame very often, and the dance in the arena, though charming, is clearly being done with a man in a lion suit (see picture above). The reasons for watching the film are the occasionally witty dialogue and the acting, especially by Maurice Evans as Caesar and Robert Newton as the strong man. Young, better known on TV as the owner of the talking horse Mr. Ed, has no real comic spark--I hate to say this, but someone like Danny Kaye (not one of my favorites) would have been more interesting. Jean Simmons is fine as Lavinia, and Victor Mature (the soldier) is his usual flat, wooden self. A nice gallery of supporting players includes Elsa Lanchester as Androcles' nasty wife, Reginald Gardiner as a foppish Roman who almost gets his ass whooped by Newton, Gene Lockhart as a lion keeper, and John Hoyt as the head of the Christian hunters. Enjoyable if not compelling, and a rare chance to see Evans, the well-regarded Shakespearean actor who did more work on the stage and TV than in movies. The Criterion print is, of course, beautiful. [DVD]

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