BEHOLD A PALE HORSE, with a respected director and three hot stars, got a big rollout from Columbia studios in 1964, but critics sloughed it off and the public didn’t evince enough interest in the subject matter to raise the $3,900,000 drama above 55th place, with a gross of just $5,100,000. Hindsight reveals that the critics who said they knew films and the crowds who didn’t know history from hairballs were both wrong. It’s a serious, well-crafted picture that’s aged well.
FRANCISCO: “The Lord giveth and taketh.” PILAR: “Mostly taketh.”
1959. Twenty years after the Spanish Civil War has ended, longtime anti-Fascist exile ‘Manuel Artiguez’ (Gregory Peck) has ceased his legendary guerrilla raids into Franco’s Spain from a safe haven across the border in France. A young boy, whose father was tortured by Manuel’s old enemy, Guardia Civil ‘Captain Viñolas (Anthony Quinn), tries to get the aging resistance fighter to make another crossing and revenge-kill the policeman. Viñolas, wishing to end his career with a win, hopes the wily Artiguez will try and sets a trap. A conscientious Spanish priest (Omar Sharif), on his way to visit Lourdes in France, has essential, confidential information that may affect them all. Loyalty, duty, honor, vengeance and fate are primed to collide.
Fred Zinnemann directed, with a screenplay written by JP Miller (Days Of Wine And Roses) from the novel “Killing A Mouse On Sunday”, by noted screenwriter Emeric Pressberger. The book was based on real-life rebel-bandit Francisco Sabaté ,known as ‘El Quico’.
No way that dictator Francisco Franco’s government was going to allow such heresy filming privileges in España. Not only that, they banned the movie from their theaters, then all of Columbia’s releases, costing the studio millions. Shooting—100 days worth—was therefore accomplished in France, mostly in the picturesque Basque region towns of the Pyrenees, also including striking use made of “Roland’s Breach”, a dramatic gap in the mountains at 9,199 feet. Jean Badel was cinematographer; his moody black & white compositions are suitably dramatic.
Zinnemann made a shrewd choice (critics and writer Miller disagreed) to have Peck and Quinn swap the roles they were cast for, having the ordinarily upright and deliberate Peck play the earthy, crusty, volatile brigand-hero and Quinn, generally fixed in explosive, “play it big/man of the earth” parts, essay the cool and methodical representative of “official justice”. Rising star Sharif shoulders mid-ground as a decent man of faith wracked by indecision and caught between politically inspired hatreds. No easy answers for anyone.
Colorful international supporting cast all get their moments to shine: Marietto Angeletti, Raymond Pellegrin, Paolo Stoppa, Mildred Dunnock, Christian Marquand, Daniela Rocca, Rosalie Crutchley, Michael Lonsdale. Maurice Jarre composed the score. 118 minutes, with one of the most abrupt “The End” conclusions you can find.