The Bootleg Files: The Big Fisherman

BOOTLEG FILES 791: “The Big Fisherman” (1959 Biblical epic starring Howard Keel).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


No one is rushing to get it into home entertainment release.


During the 1950s, Biblical epics came back into vogue with a vengeance. Some of these films were monster box office hits – widescreen epics such as “The Robe” (1953), “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and “Ben-Hur” (1959) generated millions of dollars in ticket sales.

But not every Biblical film was a success. A notable flop in that genre was “The Big Fisherman,” a 1959 work whose backstory was far more interesting than anything that occurred on the big screen.

“The Big Fisherman” was based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, a minister who wrote his first novel when he was 50. That book, the 1929 “Magnificent Obsession,” was a best-seller and Douglas was inspired to concentrate on writing rather than the ministry.

Douglas’ 1942 historical novel “The Robe” wove a story around the Crucifixion of Jesus by imagining the fate of the Roman tribune who came into possession of the robe that Jesus wore on His way to Calvary. He followed that up with “The Big Fisherman,” which used St. Peter as a central character in somewhat convoluted novel about revenge and redemption during the reign of Herod Antipas.

The success of the film version of “The Robe” and the other Biblically-inspired films of the 1950s inspired Rowland V. Lee, a retired director-producer, to come back to work and bring “The Big Fisherman” to life. Lee managed to pique the interest of Roy Disney, brother of Walt Disney, who became involved in the production.

Roy Disney tried to cajole his brother to produce “The Big Fisherman,” but Walt Disney was reluctant to veer into religious-themed films because his bread-and-butter was in family-friendly entertainment of a decidedly secular nature – the closest he ever came to anything that was even vaguely religious was when Donald Duck wound up getting accidentally crucified in a blacksmith shop in the cartoon “The Village Smithy.”

However, Walt Disney agreed to put “The Big Fisherman” into theaters through his Buena Vista Distribution subsidiary, provided that it was not marketed as a Disney film. Roy Disney invested in the film, but his name was absent from the credits.

To sell the film, a big star was needed to play St. Peter. John Wayne was approached, but he turned down the role, which went to a very different star: Howard Keel, the leading man of MGM musicals who was eager to establish himself as a non-singing dramatic actor. Frank Borzage, an Oscar-winning director whose career stretched far back into the silent movie era, was hired to direct the film, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Lee Garmes was brought in to handle the massive 70mm Panavision camera that was acquired to capture the spectacle for the widescreen.

Yet the resulting production was beneath the talents involved. Much of the problem was that “The Big Fisherman” made St. Peter a supporting player in the story, with too much of the plot dominated by a cockamamie story about an Arab-Jewish princess named Fara (played by Susan Kohner of “Imitation of Life” fame) who discovers she is the daughter of Herod Antipas, who abandoned her and her Arab mother in favor of a Jewish wife. Disguising herself as a boy, she travels to assassinate her father, only to cross paths with Simon the fisherman (played by Keel wearing a rather elaborate bouffant hairdo). Together with Simon’s mother (played by the perennially ancient Beulah Bondi), they encounter Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount. We don’t know who plays Jesus – he is mostly an off-screen voice, although his right hand a portion of his robe briefly appears on screen.

Meanwhile, an Arab prince (played by John Saxon) is seeking this princess because he is madly in love with her. But she is conflicted between her desire for revenge against Herod and Jesus’ nonviolent teaching. Simon is also increasingly focused on Jesus, who changes his name to Peter.

Except for the Sermon on the Mount and Simon becoming Peter, none of “The Big Fisherman” resembles anything in the New Testament. At times, it seems like a parody of Biblical epics, especially when Jonathan Harris (him from “Oh, the pain! The Pain!” fame) comes mincing on-screen as a Herod aide who serves as a human resources officer to Fara when she tries to gain entrance at the palace by posing as an interpreter. Herbert Lom is the appropriately villainous Herod and Broadway actress Marian Seldes gives one of her rare film appearances at Fara’s mother – never mind that she was eight years older than Kohner and the two looked like siblings rather than mother and daughter.

“The Big Fisherman” gained notoriety for some surprisingly sloppy production values – Garmes’ Panavision camera caught klieg lights and boom microphones and clearly showed a vaccination mark on the arm of actress Martha Hyer.

Even worse, “The Big Fisherman” found itself competing for audience attention against an infinitely superior film, MGM’s “Ben-Hur.” The three-hour running time of “The Big Fisherman” was cut twice during its theatrical run with the hope of getting more audiences, but the $4 million film only grossed $3 million at the box office and its failure validated Walt Disney’s fear that the production would not be successful.

Although “The Big Fisherman” has turned up on television over the years, it has never been released in a commercial home video format. I am not certain who owns the rights to the film – after all, Disney only distributed it theatrically – but for whatever reason it is among the conspicuous missing-in-actions among the era’s widescreen Biblical films.

A couple of unauthorized postings of washed-out prints can be found on YouTube, and these appear to be from the edited versions rather than the three-hour original. For the time being, this is the best that can be enjoyed of this strange and elusive work.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with new episodes every Monday. Phil Hall’s new book “Jesus Christ Movie Star” is now available from BearManor Media.