British cinema in the early 1950s appears to have been fond of experimenting with other art forms. Powell and Pressburger were transplanting opera and dance into the form in their colour zoetrope Offenbach amalgamation, The Tales Of Hoffmann (1951) (and slightly earlier in The Red Shoes (1948)) whilst Laurence Olivier was continuing his melding of Shakespearean theatre with celluloid in Richard III (1955). The great examples of British cinema from this period is therefore more indebted to other art forms than usual, often using them as starting points to try and push the boundaries of the popular, mechanised medium. In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising then to find a British film looking to the form of theatrical poetic verse in order to restructure the medium and George Hoellering’s Murder In The Cathedral (1952) is an attempt at just that.
Murder In the Cathedral is an intriguing film in that it is both uniquely interesting and hampered by its desire to stay true to the authenticity of its source material. Hoellering earnestly sticks as close as possible to the verse drama of T.S. Eliot on which the film is based on, making it seem intensely experimental and cloyingly puritanical depending on the scenario in question. Eliot’s verses are of course telling the story of Thomas Becket, his complex feuding friendship with King Henry II and the dramatic, ultimate cost of falling out with a king in such an era. The narrative of the drama itself has been called upon most famously in Peter Glenville’s Becket (1964) but Murder In The Cathedral is an entirely different way of conveying the story and is an unfair comparison to make.
By relying so much on Eliot’s verses, Hoellering is forced to innovate visually and the strongest moments of the film are when it slips into total abstraction and away from the performances. By aligning several voices into the nondiegetic realm (including Eliot himself as Becket’s fourth tempter), there’s ample opportunity for the film to indulge in landscapes, textures and faces which reflect the poetry of the words in a way that is both loyal to their rhythm and meter but also rises above simply burdening the language with heavy symbolism. The film’s early attempts at this are especially strong, often using chants to add an aptly mantra-like quality to the theological content over rural images. When the film does emphasise these moments, it seems in hindsight to call upon the cinematic grammar of Hoellering’s short films also included on this BFI release.
Heavily invoking the spirit of Humphrey Jennings, these shorts (three in total: Message from Canterbury (1944), Shapes and Forms (1950), Glasgow Orpheus Choir (1951)) showcase the same technique of using the aural realm to provide a wider (often spiritual) context for the rural imagery. It works especially well in Murder In The Cathedral where, like Eliot’s poetry as a whole, images of contrast flash by, melding into a language montage of multiple readings. Shapes and Forms as a short is the odd one out in this sense, documenting an early ICA exhibition with an artists’ roll call of staggering quality (Picasso, Rouault, Klee etc.) rather than seeking a more complex melding of sound and vision.
Murder In The Cathedral is, however, scuppered as a successful experiment by the more dramatic elements of the film and it can’t be helped but to wonder what the project would have looked like in the hands of a more adept director such as Michael Powell. Whilst Hoellering called upon a number of performers from the Old Vic (including the wonderful Leo McKern, who’s in his first film role here), he also opted for a large number of non-professionals to take up roles, including for the lead player of Becket himself who is performed by the vicar of an east end church, Father John Groser. The drama of the words when in the hands of the non-professionals falls flat to a bare reading and lacks the metered kinetics clearly required and on show when Eliot or the Old Vic performers speak; it is the ability to apply dramatic dynamics to the verses that is lacking in the lead. Having this problem with the main character in question undermines the film’s central idea though is made-up for by its tenacity to see the aesthetic idea to its full conclusion and by some of its wonderful designs for which it won several awards at the Venice Film Festival.
Though some of these creative choices have fallen flat, there’s little doubt as to the potential on show in regards to the poetic verse form finding some foothold in the cinematic. Murder In The Cathedral is worthy of praise for seeing this and taking the idea to its very core at all costs. Hoellering and Eliot’s collaboration may not have resulted in the new amalgamated form that seems so close to being conceived here, but their commitment to each other’s creativity and their absolute unbending desire to do justice to the language is admirable and worthy of some celebration.
Murder In the Cathedral is released by the BFI on 23/11/1963