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The Big Fisherman

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The Big Fisherman

The Big Fisherman
Directed by Frank Borzage
Produced by Rowland V. Lee
Screenplay by Howard Estabrook
and Rowland V. Lee
Based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas
Starring Howard Keel
Susan Kohner
John Saxon
Martha Hyer
Herbert Lom
Music by Albert Hay Malotte
Cinematography Lee Garmes, A.S.C.
Edited by Paul Weatherwax, A.C.E.
Centurion Films, Inc.
Rowland V. Lee Production
Distributed by Buena Vista Distribution
Release dates August 4, 1959 (US)
Running time 180 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $3,000,000 (US/Canada rentals)[1]

The Big Fisherman is a 1959 American film directed by Frank Borzage about the life of Saint Peter, one of the closest disciples of Jesus. Starring Howard Keel, Susan Kohner and John Saxon, the production is adapted from the 1948 novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, which is closely related to Douglas' previous book, 1942's The Robe which, six years earlier, in 1953, had also been adapted for the screen under the same title, The Robe. The film was shot at Universal-International studios but released by Buena Vista, the film releasing company of Walt Disney Productions.

The Robe ends with "the Big Fisherman" as a nickname for Peter;[2] Jesus called him "the fisher of men" and "the Rock".


The story traces Peter's journey from self-sufficient fisherman to his dependency on a risen Christ. It also presents another story of redemption and forgiveness, as he takes in a young Arab/Jewish girl, Fara. As they both learn of Jesus, it changes their lives.

The young Fara discovers that she is the daughter of Herod Antipas who married and shortly discarded her Arab mother Arnon in favor of Herodias. Her half Arab ancestry makes her marriage to the future King Deran impossible. Disguised as a boy Fara goes to Galilee to assassinate Herod in revenge, though Herod has survived eight previous assassination attempts from the Arabs who are described as people with a short temper and a long memory. She is followed by Voldi, an Arab prince who wishes to marry her and take her back home, however Voldi is captured by the Romans.

Robbed by bandits, Fara is discovered by John the Baptist who advises her to listen to the great teacher, Jesus. She comes under the protection of Peter but vows to kill Herod. She manages to be employed in Herod's household as she can translate Greek, in particular a series of prophecies written in the language that have been given to Herod.



The film was shot in Super Panavision 70 (the first film so credited) by Lee Garmes. The original music score was composed by Albert Hay Malotte, an American composer who is best known for his musical setting of The Lord's Prayer, composed in 1935, and introduced on radio that year by John Charles Thomas.

Though originally rejected by Walt Disney because of its religious tone, the film was supported by Roy Disney, and was distributed by Buena Vista, making it one of the few religious films ever associated with the Disney Company.

It was shot on location in the San Fernando Valley in California. Portions were also shot at La Quinta, California.[3]:168–71[4]

After having starred in a number of MGM film musicals from 1950 (Annie Get Your Gun) to 1955 (Kismet), Howard Keel switched to straight acting roles with the 1958 British noir thriller Floods of Fear, followed by The Big Fisherman. He starred or co-starred in six additional features (four of which were westerns) between 1961 and 1968 and made his final appearance in a 2002 film, playing a supporting role.

Evaluation in film guides

Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide (2012 edition) gave The Big Fisherman 2½ stars (out of 4), describing it as a "sprawling religious epic" and deciding that it is "seldom dull, but not terribly inspiring." Maltin also adds that it is "Borzage's last film" and that at "149m.", it was "originally 184m., then cut to 164m." Steven H. Scheuer's Movies on TV and Videocassette (1993–1994 edition) also settled on 2½ stars (out of 4), writing that "the story of Simon called Peter" "unfolds with predictable pageantry and uplifting sermonizing". Scheuer gives the running time as "166 mins".

Assigning 2 stars (out of 5), The Motion Picture Guide (1987 edition) found it to be "long, often-enraging and totally miscast" with "a nonsinging Keel as Saint Peter". Evaluating the presentation as "just so much biblical nonsense because such liberties are taken that any serious student of the life and surrounding events will take exception, the write-up decides that "Douglas wrote the novel but made the mistake of entrusting it to the wrong people." After pointing out the film's "numerous technical mistakes: microphone boom shadows, klieg lights, Martha Hyer's vaccination mark", the Guide concludes that "to make a love story the focal point of such a potentially dynamic saga of history's most memorable era was a bad decision. One of the rare bummers by Disney in those years."[5]

Among British references, Leslie Halliwell in his Film and Video Guide (5th edition, 1985) gave no stars (Halliwell's top rating is 4), dismissing it as a "well-meaning but leaden adaptation of a bestselling novel which followed on from The Robe. He concluded that it is "too reverent by half, and in many respects surprisingly incompetent." Also appended were quotes from MFB [Monthly Film Bulletin] ("its overall flatness of conception and execution is a stiff price to pay for the lack of spectacular sensationalism characterizing its fellow-epics") and Hollywood Reporter ("the picture is three hours long, and, except for those who can be dazzled by big gatherings of props, horses and camels, it is hard to find three minutes of entertainment in it").

Awards and honors

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards:


  1. ^ "Rental Potentials of 1960", Variety, 4 January 1961, p. 47. Please note figures are rentals as opposed to total gross.
  2. ^ (last revised 6 November 2009)Widescreen Movies Magazine" The Big FishermanHayes, John. "The Epic That Disappeared:
  3. ^ Niemann, Greg (2006). Palm Springs Legends: creation of a desert oasis. San Diego, CA:   (here for Table of Contents)
  4. ^ The Big Fisherman at the American Film Institute Catalog
  5. ^ The Motion Picture Guide (Chicago, 1987), volume I, page 193

External links

  • The Big Fisherman (e-book) available freely at the Project Gutenberg of Australia website.
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