Saturday, January 28, 2012


Two film adaptations of the Sophocles play "Oedipus the King" were done within a year of each other, both taking very different approaches to the material. The 1968 British film follows the play's action and dialogue closely. It's stagy even though it's filmed on outdoor locations in Greece, but it records a very theatrical and effective performance by Christopher Plummer in the title role. The film begins with Thebes in the throes of a plague that is killing off people, crops and animals. Oedipus, who arrived in town years ago not long after the unsolved murder of King Laius and became King (and husband to Queen Jocasta) thanks to his defeat of the monstrous Sphinx, has sent his brother-in-law Creon to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi to get advice from the gods. Creon (Richard Johnson) returns around the same time as the blind prophet Tiresias (Orson Welles) shows up and both have essentially the same message: the killer of Laius is still in Thebes and must be exposed. The story that eventually comes out is that Oedipus himself is the killer of Laius; in trying to escape a foretold fate that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he left Corinth so as not to hurt his parents and wound up in Thebes. What he didn’t know is that Laius and Jocasta were actually his parents; when Laius was told that his child would kill him, he tied the baby's ankles together and left him in the wilderness to die. Little Oedipus was found by a shepherd, taken to Corinth, and adopted by the King and Queen. So in trying to escape his fate by leaving his adopted parents (thinking they were his real parents), he actually sealed his fate: he killed Laius in self-defense and married his real mother, Queen Jocasta. When all is made clear, Jocasta (Lilli Palmer) hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself by thrusting her hair pins in his eyes.

This version was certainly not produced with the intention of being a commercial blockbuster, but a movie tie-in edition of the play was published in 1968 with photographs from the Plummer film—and I owned a copy at the tender age of 12. As it follows the play very closely, and is well acted, even if it never quite achieves the tragic power the material calls for, this would be a good teaching tool, but the film is very difficult to find today. After over 40 years of trying to see it, I finally found it posted in several parts on YouTube. It’s not the ideal venue but it’s better than not seeing the film at all. Plummer is excellent, the other lead actors are fine, and the device of having various men speak the lines of the chorus works nicely. Less effective is when all the townsmen say some lines in unison, but it’s not done too often. The suicide and blinding are powerful without being unduly graphic. Indeed if this were on DVD, I imagine it would be being viewed in classrooms all over the country. [YouTube]

A year before, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini adapted the same material in a very different style, with the title OEDIPUS REX. The biggest change is that Oedipus’s story is told chronologically, beginning with his birth, so that the first half of the movie is material that, in the ’68 version, is not presented onscreen. The first few minutes are set in modern dress and setting (as is the last scene); Laius seems to simply sense that his child will kill him (the information is conveyed on a title card) so ties the kid’s ankles, hangs him upside down like a pig, and has him taken to the desert. The rest of the story (Oedipus going to the oracle, heading to Thebes, killing Laius, and bedding his mother) is acted out in a desert-like surrounding, in more or less period dress. The sexy Jocasta (Silvana Mangano) doesn’t seem to be that much older than Oedipus (Franco Citti, pictured), and their sex scenes, while not graphic, do generate some heat. The defeat of the Sphinx, which in tradition occurs by Oedipus answering a riddle, is presented here as a physical battle. When the truth of his fate begins to dawn on Oedipus, the story bogs down as he keeps denying the truth of what he has done. Citti is not a Shakespearean actor like Plummer, and tends to bounce between sullenness and hysteria, but he does have a certain physical power. Like many Pasolini films, this occasionally feels like an amateur or avant-garde production—shots held too long, use of non-pro actors (though Living Theater co-founder Julian Beck plays Tiresias)—but it’s interesting for its presentation of the entire narrative as drama rather than half of it being told as exposition. If you’re a Pasolini fan, this film will seem very familiar to you. If not, you might to stick to the British film. [DVD]

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