Movie Review: Androcles and The Lion
A few months back I got the craving to watch a movie that was both historically important to film culture and cinematic in its approach. In other words, I was in the mood for a Criterion film, as I normally am after partaking of a fair sampling of more modern film fare. It was time to cleanse the palate, so to speak. One movie in particular caught my eye: Androcles & The Lion, directed by Chester Erskine and based on the play by George Bernard Shaw.
The story in a nutshell is about a Christian man named Androcles (Alan Young), living during the time of the Roman persecution. While escaping Rome with his wife (who is clearly not a Christian, based on the way she belittles and berates him), he comes across a lion with a wicked thorn in its paw. Upon removing the thorn, the lion becomes quite gentle and friendly with him. Unfortunately, they both are captured by Roman soldiers. Androcles is transported back to his fate at the Coliseum by a Roman captain (Victor Mature), along with the beautiful Lavinia (Jean Simmons) and the formerly violent Ferrovius (Robert Newton). The captain pines for Lavinia and tries to convince her to denounce her Christianity. Ferrovius finds that he still struggles with his rage issues and is fearful of losing control. A lot more happens, as all of Rome, including Caesar, debate about the Christian religion. In the end, Androcles is sentenced to be thrown out to the lions for the Emperor’s enjoyment. There he faces the very lion he helped before, who embraces him, causing the Emperor to rethink his stance on Christianity and spare the life of Androcles.
That is the story in a nutshell, and if only that was all there was to it. Unfortunately, Hollywood has never quite understood or favored very highly Christianity, even in the 1950’s. Additionally, the play by Shaw was notoriously anti-Christian. He wrote an introduction to the play that was longer than the play itself, in which he examined the Gospels and explains his analysis. It was not favorable. He is very adamant in his belief that Jesus was (just) a man who developed an incredibly genius social, economic, and moral system to transform mankind, and who later became persuaded by those around him that he was indeed divine and that his teachings were lost and twisted by the early church leaders. He was particularly turned off by Christians who didn’t live out the teachings of Jesus.
The play itself was rooted in a well known fable that is often credited to Aesop (though not definitively) and was actually not about a Christian but a runaway slave. Shaw added that in for sake of religious critique. Needless to say, as a believer watching this film, it came off as a huge letdown in its portrayal of the serious spiritual devotion that was the hallmark of the martyrs of the early church.
That misunderstanding and confusion extends to the varied portrayal of the key Christian figures we are introduced to. Androcles comes off in the movie as more dimwit than devout. Lavinia sees her earnest devotion and lack of hypocrisy as the source of her hope, rather than where her hope is placed (Jesus). Ferrovius thinks he is doing God’s work by bullying people into faith through threats of physical violence. And Spintho (Noel Willman) plays the final Christian featured, a member of Caesar’s court who secretly follows Christ. When found out and sentenced to death, he spends his screen-time whimpering and whining, terrified of death. He clings to his only hope that to die as a martyr gives him a free pass to heaven (not because of the grace given to him by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross). Ultimately though, his cowardice wins out and he tries to denounce Christ and escape, inadvertently winding up in the lion pits and meeting his ignoble end but “guaranteeing” that he made it to heaven. The theology and beliefs of these four caricatures is wonky at best and it paints a pretty dismal picture of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Caesar has the foresight to see the ultimate impact his persecution of the Christian religion will have, stoking the fires in Roman hearts as they witness the supernatural calm with which these believers quietly and passionately follow their “Lord” and “Savior”. Unfortunately, because of the acts of these “Christians” we follow throughout the course of the movie, human history is changed (or at the very least, sped up) by their failure to truly carry out the words of 1 Peter 4. When Ferrovius loses control and defeats 6 gladiators in the arena, Caesar orders a reprieve for the Christians because he has finally witnessed traits that he can identify with: rage, bloodlust, selfishness, love for life over love for God. He states that if this is how Christians fight, then he wants only Christians in his army fighting for him. He then decrees to his soldiers and the members of his court that they all must become “Christians”. Because of the lack of true spiritual virtue in our “believers”, it leads to a sort of government-enforced fake devotion to Jesus Christ, going through the motions outwardly without any inner regeneration.
I can recognize the cinematic traits of this movie that, under other circumstances, would have made this a very enjoyable film. Alan Young turns in a wonderfully comic performance as Androcles. And it is clear that this film is meant to be both a biting satire of the crazy convictions Christians adhere to, but also just an entertaining comedy, and in that second regard it wholly succeeds. Harpo Marx was even considered for the role of Androcles, if that tells you anything. Marx filmed for about a month before he was pulled by studio executive Howard Hughes (you know, the crazed film and aviation tycoon that would later devolve into an obsessive-compulsive recluse, as depicted through the performance of Leonardo DiCaprio in the Martin Scorsese film, The Aviator). It has become the center of one of the great mysteries of the cinema: just what would have been seen in the performance of Harpo Marx as Androcles? Would he have portrayed the role through his infamous pantomime, or would this have been the first and only role in which he spoke on camera? We may never know for sure. Instead the part went to Young, who turns in a very admirable and simplistic performance on screen. Of course, you know Young better in another role as an animal lover – Wilbur, the exasperated owner of Mister Ed, the talking horse.
What can only be considered beneficial to the endearing and enjoyable quality of this film, and is often touted as one of the most positive performances found in it, is Maurice Evans as Caesar. (He would later go on to even greater movie dictatorial greatness as Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes !) Interestingly enough, I could see a huge influence in Evans portrayal of Caesar in the work of Ian McDiarmid as Senator-Chancellor-Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious in the Star Wars films. They look a lot a like, with similar expressions and mannerisms. But in particular, it is his ability to jovially spout off the most menacing of lines with a smile as he condemns the Christians to death in blatant animosity that reminds me the most of McDiarmid’s Palpatine. He refuses to be uncivilized about the whole thing, declaring their death sentence with the utmost camaraderie.
This film could have been an opportunity to really examine what Christianity is all about, how the sacrifice of Jesus influences radical transformation and devotion in those who understand the full importance of what He accomplished on the cross. Instead it is a tragic study of the struggles of people blindly marching toward oblivion with an unsure hope derived from a lack of understanding of Scripture. These characters move ever closer to their martyrdom driven by personal notions of pride and honor rather than the humility and love and whole-hearted passion of people who are in love with the Savior. In fact, any mention of the cross is almost non-existent. I don’t believe the name Jesus was ever spoken, and the term Christ is only present in seed form within the designation of Christian. Occasionally there is reference to the Master, or to God, but the lack of acknowledgement of the cross cuts out the heart of why anyone would willing accept the fate of martyrdom, and demonstrates a complete lack of comprehension of Christianity.
I think I’ve made it clear that the film should not be taken as any kind of serious depiction of Christianity, or as anything serious in general. I was amused by the little humorous quirks of the characters, but lost it completely when at the pivotal end scene in the Coliseum that ANDROCLES DANCES WITH THE LION! Or to be more precise, with a man in a lion suit. It was perhaps a step too far into the absurd.
Pictures from the film were almost non-existent to find on the internet, although oddly enough, when searching for them I was instead directed to posters of the Patrick Dempsey romantic comedy Made of Honor, as well as VERY detailed pictures posted by a Spanish woman named Androcles giving birth to her newborn daughter. Frightening stuff either way.