In a film about the antichrist and the end of days, the real revelation is having Gregory Peck as the lead. Getting him on board, however, may have required a bit of devilry.
Peck brought real gravitas to his role as American diplomat Robert Thorn in Richard Donner’s The Omen. As Brian Helgeland says on the DVD commentary, “The thing that grounded the whole movie was that Gregory Peck was the star of it, because he’s such a respected kind of solid guy that when he believes that something’s going on, everyone’s gonna believe it” (00:01:27).
But Peck may have needed some convincing in the first place. Last time we shared the few interesting points about practical effects and source materials made by Richard Donner and Brian Helgeland in their otherwise dull commentary on The Omen. However, the interpretation of the film that Donner shared with Peck is also worth noting, if only because it’s so outrageous.
Donner is blunt in explaining that he and Peck approached the material as if the horror were psychological rather than biblical. “This is not a reality. You can’t believe your wife was taken by a jackal and that your son is an antichrist. But it was that these were all just terrible mass coincidences in one family’s life. Like how many times have you gone home at night and said this is the worst day of my life? This was the worst three or four days of his life to the point that he was driven insane and he would take a knife to a child. So we didn’t believe these things, but we believed that we were victims of circumstance.” (00:02:00)
In the context of The Omen, this seems like a blasphemous claim that simply doesn’t hold up under examination. The ambiguity required to substantiate this interpretation just isn’t there.
For starters, if this were the story of Thorn’s psychological breakdown, these events would have to be shown through his subjective perspective, or at least present some evidence of a disjuncture between his interpretation and reality. Instead, we’re shown events that take place in Thorn’s absence; since they are not seen through his eyes, or even in his presence, there does not seem to be any opportunity for him to distort them. For example, Peck’s character is not present when Damien’s first nanny stares intently at the Rottweiler. He’s likewise absent when the priest is caught in a freak storm and nearly struck by lightening twice while running to a nearby church, where a third bolt breaks a lightening rod which then impales him. Also, there are far too many such events to pass them off as “coincidence.”
When Thorn does witness something, there are often many people around to corroborate his account. There are dozens of witnesses at Damien’s birthday party when the nanny shouts “Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you!” before hanging herself. Likewise, Jennings (David Warner) is with Thorn for some key events and becomes so convinced that he decides that he’s prepared to kill Damien himself. Unless madness is contagious, this suggests that what we’re seeing is in fact reality.
Finally, the non-diegetic elements Donner includes leave no room for the ambiguity that he claims the film contains. The two most prominent examples here are the inverted cross shown throughout the opening credits, and the piece titled “Ave Satani,” Latin for “Hail Satan,” featured on the soundtrack.
So what gives? Donner has a fair-sized list of diverse and highly successful films under his belt, so he clearly knows how to make a movie and convey the desired effect. If he wanted to offer psychological ambiguity, he’d know how to do it, which makes me think there’s something else going on here. I can’t help thinking that this supposed ambiguity was a bit of devilry Donner cooked up to get Peck on board, and one of Donner’s comments seems to back this up. “When you’re working with somebody like Gregory Peck…to get him to play this role, it’s gotta be coincidence,” he says. “You can’t ask Gregory Peck at that time to play a role where demonic beings existed and that the devil was out there and fighting the church…” (00:57:55).
In any case, the heft that Peck brings to the role is a key part of The Omen’s success, and I can’t imagine anyone else from that era in the role. If it took a bit of black magic to get him involved, so be it.
What do you think? Does The Omen have the psychological ambiguity that Donner claims? Are there any actors or filmmakers out there who want to share their reaction to this article? Leave some comments below and let us know!