Prodigal, The (1955): Thrope’s Biblical Epos, Starring Lana Turner

Richard Thorpe directed The Prodigal, a preposterous Eastmancolor biblical epic in CinemaScope, starring Lana Turner and Edmund Purdom.

It was based on the New Testament parable about a selfish son who leaves his family to pursue a life of pleasure.

The film also features James Mitchell, Louis Calhern, Joseph Wiseman, Cecil Kellaway and Walter Hampden, and Taina Elg (in film debut).

Before Christianity, few people believed in one God, it was mainly the believers in Jehovah who stood against some 65,000 strange and different gods. Two of the most notorious were Baal and Astarte, the male and the female, Gods of the flesh, not of the soul. They were supposed to renew the fertility, in exchange of which they demanded the sacrifice of money, jewelry and human life.

The story is loosely based on Jesus Christ’s parable of the prodigal son, from the Gospel According to Luke 15:11-32, with liberties taken with the source material, including the addition of a female lead, high priestess of Astarte, Samarra.

When Micah, a young Hebrew farm boy, sees Samarra, he’s determined to have her. He demands his father’s inheritance and journeys to Damascus, where Samarra seduces him into losing his inheritance and betraying his religious faith.

Enduring difficulties, Micah finally realizes where he belongs and returns home to his father, who forgives all of his sins and orders lavish celebration of his return.

 

In the early 1950s, there was a cycle of biblical-themed movies that did well at the box-office.

Sam Larson and Joseph Breen Jnr became interested in the cinematic potential of the famous parable. Larson had muscular dystrophy and thought the story had resonance to the problems of young people; he was also interested in setting of Damascus and Joppa in 70 BC, an ear rarely seen on screen. They wrote a 60-page treatment together and took it to Dore Schary, head of MGM production, who was assigned Charles Schnee to produce and Maurice Zimm to write.

The film was originally to star Edmund Purdom, Ava Gardner and Vittorio Gassman. Maurice Zimm’s script was based on the original parable but was technically an original work, set in Syria and Palestine in 79 BC.

Dore Schary later said he “hustled Lana Turner into playing it” and “the sorry fact is I liked the script. I thought it would draw an audience. What I forgot was that C.B. De Mille had an exclusive on the Bible. Poor Lana swayed her way through the film but it was a hopeless task. The script was lifeless.”

After two weeks of shooting, Schary realized “we were in quicksand” and asked the MGM production office to calculate the cost of abandoning it. Since the sets had been built, costumes designed and contracts signed, the studio would have incurred a loss of $1.2 million. Schary decided to finish the picture on accelerated schedule.

The movie earned $2,153,000 in the US and $1,990,000 elsewhere, and MGM declared a loss of $771,000. Schary later called the film “the biggest and most embarrassing failure” and “the worst film I ever supported.”

Cast
Lana Turner as Samarra
Edmund Purdom as Micah
Louis Calhern as Nahreeb
Audrey Dalton as Ruth
James Mitchell as Asham
Neville Brand as Rhakim
Walter Hampden as Eli
Taina Elg as Elissa
Francis L. Sullivan as Bosra
Joseph Wiseman as Carmish
Sandy Descher as Yasmin
John Dehner as Joram
Cecil Kellaway as the Governor
Gordon Richards as Nahreeb’s Scribe