Around the World in 80 Days (winner)
The King and I
The Ten Commandments
At a quick glance 1956 is an embarrassment of riches, particularly compared with the five films listed above. It’s also a year where I am well aware that I have not seen some of the true greats yet, most notably Early Spring. Of the ones I have seen, The Searchers, which I regard to be one of the best three Westerns ever made, leaps out at me as a film that should be here. Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind was probably too racy for the time, but it’s one of my favorites of his. The same is probably true of Kubrick’s The Killing, which showed a lot of promise for a young director. On the science fiction front, 1956 is the year for both Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, two films that still have some influence today and are better than their B-movie roots. I also was impressed with both Bigger than Life and The Bad Seed, but I think only the first of those really deserves consideration here. I like The Ladykillers, too, but it’s probably not enough of a film to warrant more than its Best Original Screenplay nod. On the foreign front, both Bob le Flambeur and The Burmese Harp are from 1956, and The Burmese Harp definitely was worth a nod.
Weeding through the Nominees
4: Friendly Persuasion is a good enough film, even if it comes across to me as a very strange one. I tend to like Gary Cooper the more I see of him, and I liked him here. But this film felt disjointed to me. The message felt all over the place. We go into it with this idea of Quaker non-violence that turns into full-on Quaker violence with guns and beating soldiers with brooms. I didn’t hate the film, but I also didn’t love it, and can’t for the life of me understand what puts it on this list above a bunch of those listed above. Not bad, but certainly not one of the best five of 1956.
2: With Giant, we get something that is just as much an “Oscar” film as The King and I, albeit in the completely opposite direction. This is a grand story as well, and contains a big chunk of the sweep of history. I like how grand it is and how personal it becomes, and it’s hard to fault James Dean here in any aspect of his performance. I liked Giant more than I thought I would, which sounds like faint praise. It does feel like too much, though. A little simplifying, a little shorter, and I might push it for a win.
1: I’ve said before that I think The Greatest Show on Earth won in 1952 because the Academy wanted Cecil B. DeMille to have an Oscar. All they really had to do was wait a couple more years and they could have given it to him for The Ten Commandments. Of the five nominees, this would be my choice without too much deliberation. It’s got the pomp, the massive sets, the huge cast, the giant story, and it comes packed with the fury of an angry deity and one of my absolute favorite casting choices: Yul Brynner (again!) as Pharaoh Ramses II. If I’m limited to the five, it’s my pick.
But I’m not limited to the five in my world, and while I like some of the nominations here, none of them would be my choice. For the much-more-likely-to-win category of films made in English, I’d go with The Searchers, which is (my opinion) an objectively great Western and John Wayne’s best film. I’d probably sneak Written on the Wind as a second-place finisher. Overall, though, gun to my head, the best movie of 1956 was the one the really couldn’t have taken home the trophy: The Burmese Harp. Eventually Hollywood learned that films in other languages have merit, but they hadn’t learned it yet. And here it sits, unnominated but worthy of winning.