The Prodigal (1955)

(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

The seaport of Joppa is home to a busy marketplace, but it isn’t a prosperous place. It is, instead, a place of slavery and violence. The year is 70 BC.

When a mute slave named Asham (James Mitchell) tries to escape and is targeted by a marketplace guard, a faithful Hebrew man named Micah (Edmund Purdom) intervenes, buying the slave’s freedom.

Asham has been injured by the guard’s spear, so Micah and his older brother Joram (John Dehner) bring Asham back to the family farm to heal. Micah learns that Asham became a slave due to outstanding debts, so he gives the man some money.

In between saving lives and generously helping others, Micah spends his time flirting with the beautiful Ruth (Audrey Dalton). Their fathers are negotiating a betrothal contract, so they’ll soon be married. Both are very happy with the arrangement and looking forward to a wonderful life together.

Micah’s life is about to take a turn, though, when he meets Samarra (Lana Turner), a pagan priestess. Micah is at first disgusted to see Samarra and the rest of her caravan worshiping idols, but he quickly falls under Samarra’s spell and decides that he must win her affection… at any cost.

Samarra has a flair for the fancy, wearing gold-accented outfits and decorating her house in purple silks. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Samarra has a flair for the fancy, wearing gold-accented outfits and decorating her house in purple silks. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

The Prodigal was directed by Richard Thorpe and is inspired by the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The film has been released on DVD as a part of Warner’s “Cult Camp Classics” series, featuring commentary by film historian Drew Casper.

This film’s script takes the parable and turns it into a stretched-thin romantic drama of a scheming woman and the obsessive but once-respectable man whose life is ruined by her. Throughout most of its run time, The Prodigal moves along at a pace equivalent to that of a turtle having a lazy day.

I think the story of the prodigal son could easily work on screen. It’s one of my favorite biblical stories, and it has inspired many a powerful painting. It could inspire a very good film, too… but The Prodigal is not that film. I appreciate the attempt to flesh out the details a bit with the creation of the Samarra character, but the addition of a big action sequence near the end lessens the lesson of humility that the son learns in the parable.

In Damascus, Micah takes to wearing gaudy clothes and spending his nights at the gamblin' table. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

In Damascus, Micah takes to wearing gaudy clothes and spending his nights at the gamblin’ table. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Beyond kind of missing the point of the parable, the film is just neither here nor there in becoming the type of epic it wishes to be. It’s not campy enough to be a fun, over-the-top epic, but not well-written enough to be taken seriously as one of the “great” epics. (There is one very cheesy bird attack which would warrant entry into the “Classics of the Corn” Hall of Fame/Shame if cut into a short film, haha.) It’s a middle-of-the-road film, stronger in its visual appeal than anything else.

That’s one thing I did love about The Prodigal: its visuals. In typical mid-century fashion, a historical period is filtered through a cotton candy lens with lavish costumes and sets. Bright colors, luxurious fabrics, and elaborate details in gold or jewels make up Samarra’s world in particular. The film is, at the very least, a total feast for the eyes.

Speaking of Samarra, the decision to cast Lana Turner in that role was a good one. Few actresses ooze “glamour” like that golden-haired lady. Samarra is supposed to be irresistibly beautiful and charming, a priestess who has earned the admiration of everyone in Damascus. As Turner struts around in her beaded gowns, there’s no question as to why or how she captures the attention of the people so easily. She has a very commanding presence.

Samarra's kneeling admirers greet her at the temple. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Samarra’s kneeling admirers greet her at the temple. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Edmund Purdom also does quite well in his role of Micah. In particular, he does a great job of portraying the frenzied and obsessive nature of Micah’s growing greed, his loss of faith. James Mitchell is very good in the role of Asham, a role with no dialogue!

When I decided to watch The Prodigal, I was hoping for a little bit of ridiculousness and a whole lot of camp. The film achieves neither of those things, instead existing as a minor spectacle of big visuals and small story. I can’t say I’d recommend it very highly, though it may be of interest to those who enjoy exploring the biblical epics of the mid-century.

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