Can the Biblical Epic Be Resurrected?

Several years ago, it appeared as though the Biblical Epic had risen in Hollywood. After all, it once reigned over all...

Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Photo: 20th Century Fox

At this point, the genesis of the Hollywood Noah’s Ark adaptation is almost as famous as the biblical flood narrative itself: a legendary director takes on one of the Bible’s most famous Old Testament stories from Genesis, one with an angry God, an angrier flood, and a lot of requisite special effects that are essential to pull off the proper disaster. The movie is big, the movie is controversial, and the movie costs so much that the studio is demanding multiple edits of the picture for the most effective commercial appeal.

I’m of course referring to Noah’s Ark, the 1928 early talkie directed by Michael Curtiz, the man who would go on to make such Hollywood masterpieces as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1942), and White Christmas (1954). As all good stories find themselves passed on from one generation to the next, it is almost shocking that, save for the ridiculous The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), there has not been another big budget go at Noah and his majestic ark until Russell Crowe grew the big bushy beard for Noah. Of course, despite the controversy surrounding the already infamous director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) and his over-budgeted take of the Bible story, as well as Ari Handel’s graphic novel, it ultimately remained a tale as old as the movies. Long before Russell Crowe’s Noah had a vision of God and a whole lot of H2O, burgeoning Californian studios were also seeing the signs, golden calves or otherwise.

Frankly, compared to the drama Curtiz’s Noah underwent—three extras allegedly drowned during the shooting of the flood scenes (John Wayne was also on the set that day), talking sequences were reshot after the success of The Jazz Singer, and Warner Bros. ended up cutting over half an hour out of the film following an anemic premiere—the complaints that Aronofsky’s approach to the material was not biblical enough or that he spiced up the story by making a minor Genesis character (Tubal-cain) into a villainous, war-loving Ray Winstone seem quaint. Still, these very public qualms faith-based viewers had with Noah, and then Exodus: Gods and Kings’ own subsequent criticisms raises a fair question: can the Biblical Epic be resurrected?

Given the large number of faith-oriented moviegoers in the U.S. alone, a vocal demographic that has risen in cultural prominence since the 2000 presidential election, it feels somewhat belated that the studio system has come back around to the Bible. And by that, I do not mean the History Channel and Mark Burnett re-cutting their Bible miniseries for the umpteenth time for a quick, if impressive, cash grab at movie theaters in February 2014. Rather, the studios are finally cashing in on at least a certain type of Bible story in a way that has not been seen in decades.

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Hit or miss, Paramount and Aronofsky’s Noah should have opened the floodgates for others to pursue likely less controversial tactics in their biblical passion plays. There was Ridley Scott of Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven fame tackling the story of Moses for the 21st century in 20th Century Fox’s Exodus, complete with Christian Bale at the height of movie stardom in the role of another orphaned hero who will not give up on his people. And then there’s also Burnett and Roma Downey’s Ben-Hur remake in 2016 with Jack Houston. Neither of these landed, but they should have given the precedent of Hollywood’s previous history with the Good Book.

For the last 35 years, American cinema (for better or worse) has been built around cultivating a tentpole system that offers heavy spectacle in the summer to finance the prestige in the winter. The advent of the internet, smartphones, truly brilliant television, and a myriad of other competitive distractions has accelerated this system’s growth and urgency, which in the last 10 years could be summed up as a plethora of superhero movies, a few micro-budgeted horror flicks, and a little left over to finance the distribution of someone else’s already completed and audience-friendly picture.

As the genre du jour of the last decade—fantastical stories of caped and robed men doing miraculous things for the betterment of mankind—are mostly being consolidated either at Disney or Warner Bros., the rest of the studios are forced to look for another brand with instant name recognition and mass-market appeal. Consider that the first film ever shot in cinemascope, the widescreen format that would forever change the way people watched movies and even the shapes of their television sets, was 1953’s pious howler The Robe. Not unlike when Hollywood turned to the Good Book during the first decade of television’s popularity, the time appeared to come again for Tinsletown to find religion.

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And it is a perfect marriage, despite the always vocally displeased religious leaders who view the supposed modern day Sodom and Gomorrah as an unworthy outlet for the sacred texts. In general, whatever misgivings artistic license creates to the most faithful, the Bible is a perfect excuse for the congregation to soak in some big screen entertainment. Indeed, despite the teachings of the book being ever so devout and insistently well intentioned, both the Old Testament and the New are crawling with sex, violence, and the other vices that Hollywood movies are normally denounced for under any other secular circumstance. For those worried about sinfully smutty entertainment, Bible-themed movies allow one to embrace those inclinations sin-free.

The Passion of the Christ made $370 million at the 2004 U.S. box office (only $3 million behind Spider-Man 2), and that was largely thanks to church leaders encouraging congregations to see the movie, even booking tickets for worshippers, children included, embracing a film that Roger Ebert called the most violent he’d ever seen, and far exceeding the graphic nature of previously denounced hot button pictures like Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, and Gibson’s very own Braveheart. Yet, that movie is far and beyond the norm of most Biblical Epics, which besides usually being in English, can offer more mainstream enticements than 120 minutes of flogging and impalement.

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At the start of her career, icy blonde Lana Turner made her name by playing demure good girls, a bemusing feat in retrospect given her taste in men, and an ability to knock them dead. While that visage of virtue came crashing down when she played the femme fatale in 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, she maintained a certain level of mainstream accessibility until her private life cut sharply into the headlines. This is probably why she was cast in 1955’s The Prodigal, a Hollywood expansion on the New Testament parable found in the Gospel of Luke.

A rather short and sweet story about the wayward son returning home to his father’s non-judging arms, the MGM picture turned it into a vision of lustful seduction when a pagan priestess, who does not appear in the Bible, named Samarra (Turner) convinces the younger son Micah to waste his inheritance on the local Pagan cult who die in fire and brimstone. Not unlike creating a villain in Aronofsky’s Noah that undoubtedly will be in need of smiting before the end credits, the inclusion of a popular female movie star, and the sex she might sell, is a staple of almost any successful Hollywood movie, be she Scarlett O’Hara or Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. And it still may work, as seen in Noah’s last trailer, which was introduced by current Hollywood sweetheart Emma Watson, before it cuts to her character of Ila, Noah’s adopted daughter, frolicking in the woods with Shem (Douglas Booth), Noah’s genetic son. But they aren’t playing like brothers and sisters.

As with the violence associated in most biblical tales, the appearance of women in the Bible, not the most feminist of books, has been expanded into many theatrical tickets sales for decades. It’s worth noting that John the Baptist is one of the New Testament’s greatest heroes. He foretold the Christ’s arrival before the messiah appeared and is believed to be the man who baptized Jesus Christ as an early follower of his teachings. And yet, while appearing in many films, including in one as biblical triple-threat Charlton Heston with The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), there is not a single movie named after pious John or his journeys. Conversely, Salome, the woman believed to order John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter after an erotic dance performed for father King Herod’s court, has had at least six films made where she is the titular star. It is a remarkable achievement when she is not even actually named in the Bible as the female dancer who ordered John’s head à la carte, but like the myth of Mary Magdalene being a prostitute, many know the story of the devilishly dangerous succubus named Salome.

In fact, she was a box office draw when she got the glam treatment as played by Rita Hayworth in 1953’s Salome. Based on the 1891 Oscar Wilde play of the same name, the auburn-haired star, who turned Gilda into a classic simply with the suggestive flick of a glove off her wrist, played Salome as a tragic heroine, one whose sexy “Dance of the Seven Veils” was performed to save John the Baptist’s life! It may not have been scripture, but it was a hit, just like the movie that inspired it, Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), a picture that turned Delilah’s (Hedy Lemarr) seductive manipulation of Hebrew judge Samson into an epic love story, and the biggest hit of that year.

Like the binary role of women in counterculture’s film noir movement, as well as mainstream Hollywood’s big budget Westerns, the post-war Bible films depicted the fairer sex in one of two roles: the virtuous good girl that the hero should end up with (but usually doesn’t in noir) and the tempestuous siren selling pleasure on a silver plate. Whether it is Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), an Egyptian queen who never appears to know Moses in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus, or Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward in David and Bathsheba (Darryl Zanuck’s 1951 rebuttal to Samson and Delilah), Hollywood’s biggest Biblical Epics had a habit of extrapolating minor or non-existent characters into the most popular films of yesteryear. The importance of this is that it reveals the Bible as a treasure trove of storied material that audiences once, and likely would again, get behind as it indulges in behavior that certain moviegoers would otherwise avoid or condemn. It is especially paramount in adapting New Testament stories, because unlike 2014’s big budget Noah and Exodus stories, “the greatest story ever told,” is one of the hardest to sell to mainstream moviegoers.

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The most successful and easily the best film to derive from the New Testament is the 1959 remake of Ben-Hur. The biggest selling American novel of the late 19th century, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) was written by former American Civil War Union General Lew Wallace and is an extravagant literary rationalization for becoming a follower of Christ (with a healthy dose of The Count of Monte Cristo thrown in). And William Wyler’s 1959 vision of the film is a stunning realization of that story with Charlton Heston at his most earnest as Judah Ben-Hur, a marble statue given something approximating life and a deep well of stoic charisma by the silverscreen icon. Betrayed by a boyhood friend, Heston’s Jewish prince is sentenced to death on the high seas as a slave for the Roman Empire with only a helping hand given by a passing carpenter holding a divine cup of water.

Ben-Hur’s story of revenge, redemption, and transcendence follows that of Jesus Christ from his Sermon on the Mount to finally his crucifixion on the vacillating and complicit order of Pontius Pilate (a wonderfully effete performance by Frank Thring). The movie did boffo box office and won a record 11 Academy Awards. And like the earlier 1925 silent Ben-Hur, everyone only remembers the dazzling chariot chase where Ben-Hur defeats his vengeful nemesis Messala (Stephen Boyd) in staggering 70mm photography.

It is a prime example of adapting “A Tale of the Christ” without ever having to fully show his face. While the Christian Messiah has been a popular subject for moviemaking ever since From the Manger to the Cross (1912), the first-ever Jesus movie and one of the first feature-length films, his story has also been one usually deferred to in favor of Old Testament cinema.

The first Hollywood account of the carpenter from Nazareth was Intolerance (1917), a production overseen by the woefully wrong messenger, D.W. Griffith. As the filmmaker responsible for the KKK renaissance of the 1920s with his cinematic opus Birth of a Nation (1915), Griffith tried to make it a point that he wasn’t that racist with Intolerance, a three-and-a-half hour epic that intercuts between four moments of “historic” intolerance, including the crucifying of Jesus Christ. After the script was labeled Anti-Semitic by certain Jewish groups, Griffith found himself changing the slant of the film to place emphasis on Romans for the execution of Christ. The movie was a financial flop and marked the subject as a matter that future filmmakers would largely choose to avoid (or to hit-up with a whip in the most medieval of ways in Gibson’s 2004 case).

Indeed, the Biblical Epic was on its way out in the 1960s, but two of the most high-profile flops in the genre were King of Kings (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). The first of which was Nicholas Ray’s ham-fisted remake of the equally stuffy Cecil B. DeMille 1927 silent movie of the same name. The prospect of Ray, a filmmaker best known for early realist pieces like Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and hard-hitting noir that hit even too hard for star Humphrey Bogart with In a Lonely Place (1950), making an earnest Jesus picture sounded like a bad idea from the word go. This is a man who blacklisted his ex-wife Gloria Grahame after he found her in bed with his 13-year-old son from another marriage. And the general consensus ultimately agreed about this woeful material choice when King of Kings had a not-so-kingly box office and critical response.

The Greatest Story faired a little better creatively as directed by George Stevens and an uncredited David Lean. Importing Swedish acting heavyweight Max von Sydow, still only eight years out from his star-turn in The Seventh Seal, to play Jesus was a creative coup too. The picture also featured Heston in his biblical hat trick. Nonetheless, the movie was a financial flop that nearly sank United Artists as its biggest misfire…until Heaven’s Gate finished the job in 1980, sending UA into the corporate afterlife of MGM’s celestial arms.

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Secular moviegoers and Christians alike delight in tales stemming from the New Testament, but like an Easter Day celebration, many would prefer it without the Jesus-themed sermon. The 1953 box office juggernaut The Robe introduced audiences to CinemaScope in a big way by proving that television was not the end-all-be-all, and that Jesus is a moneymaker, in literal passing.

Following the hand-offs of the robe Jesus wore on the day of his execution, like in Ben-Hur, Christ is mostly an off-screen presence. After Richard Burton’s Marcellus Gallio, a Roman tribute and ladies man, wins Christ’s robe in a dice game, he finds himself drawn to save virtuous good girl genre trope Jean Simmons from the evils of her betrothed Caligula (Jay Robinson) and also from Roman paganism since they both convert to Christianity by the film’s end. Rather than the teachings of what Christ promised, moviegoers have long preferred a focus on what Jesus proposed humanity not to do. The biggest New Testament stories are therefore the ones that focus on the might, as well as hedonism, of the Roman Empire.

Besides Ben-Hur, the biggest New Testament movie likely remains Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, a 1932 pre-Code epic about devout early Christians and the lions that ate them. In Emperor Nero’s (Charles Laughton) Rome, DeMille could tease audiences with every imaginable salacious pagan fantasy. Scandalously lurid with its gladiatorial fights, Christian-devouring lions, lesbian dances, implied orgies, monkey-Christian fondling, and a naked Claudette Colbert taking a barely-obscured bath, the movie is cited as one of the most notorious 1930s Hollywood horrors that led to the Hays Code in 1934 (and the later censoring of The Sign of the Cross). But since DeMille ended the tale with Roman patrician Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) falling in love with a young Christian girl (Elissa Landi), who he then chooses to die with in the lion’s pit, the movie had audience approval from the less stiff moviegoers, thereby cementing DeMille as the go-to Biblical Epic director.

When looking at the vast expanse of cinema’s Biblical Epic genre, DeMille’s name ascends higher than any not called Yahweh. Born in 1881 to an Episcopalian lay minister from North Carolina and a Sephardic Jewish mother of German heritage, DeMille’s parents shared a love for drama and theatre. All of those values were instilled in DeMille at a young age, as he later credited attending an Episcopal church in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey as the location where he dreamed of dramatizing the Book of Exodus, leading to two separate films called The Ten Commandments.

Becoming a stage actor in 1900 and one of Hollywood’s earliest pioneer directors by 1914, DeMille would go on to carve out an immortal niche in Hollywood for larger than life epics, many with more than a hint of his religious upbringing: The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), The Sign of the Cross (1932), The Crusades (1935), Samson and Delilah (1949), and The Ten Commandments again in 1956. As much the progenitor of the silent film trope (along with Griffith’s Intolerance) of pairing a contemporary story with a biblical one, therein sneaking in the sermon most vividly as seen with his first Ten Commandments, DeMille could be argued as the one who ushered in the Biblical Epic at its peak in the 1950s.

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When Samson and Delilah became the biggest hit of 1949, the scale and pageantry associated with a Cecil B. DeMille movie became synonymous with the Bible. In the first age of television’s vast invasion of popular consciousness, it was the widescreen Biblical Epics, along with Westerns and Musicals, that stood tallest in theatrical Hollywood’s desperation for mass entertainment attention. Movies got bigger, longer, and more visually decadent than Rome’s bread and circuses. The biggest New Testament films took a page from DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross by focusing on everything but that Cross until the obligatory come to Jesus finale, and the Old Testament movies got bigger and bawdier. But none were bigger than The Ten Commandments in 1956.

The two films that mark the height of the genre, sharing the same star and only three years of separation, could not be more different. While Ben-Hur was a big screen spectacle meant to exhilarate with populist entertainment—like Chariot races and mutinous battles on the high seas, shot in gorgeously bright colors that reveled in the Roman exterior sunlight as much as the earthy browns of the film’s Libyan locations—The Ten Commandments was a darker and almost apocalyptic movie that dived right into DeMille’s reading of the Gospels. Unlike William Wyler, who later said Ben-Hur was meant to be a thinking man’s biblical [i.e. Cecil B. DeMille] movie, DeMille painstakingly observed what he thought was true to the scripture that marked his first Biblical Epic, and now his last.

Despite being shot on location in Egypt and Mount Sinai, DeMille’s second Ten Commandments is a dark, ominous film filled with stylized lighting for an ancient world long gone, struck away by each lightning strike thrown from the Creator. Well past the third hour mark, when Moses comes down from the mountain to see that his followers have made a mockery of God by worshipping a golden idol, the film takes on disastrous proportions far greater than any parting of the Red Sea.

Intended to be DeMille’s final masterpiece, the movie feels like a stark judgment on human failure, even if DeMille sees every frame as nothing short of incredible achievement. Casting his previous collaborator Charlton Heston of The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) as Moses, DeMille made public comparisons between the actor’s physique and righteousness with Michelangelo’s marble likeness of the Hebrew chain-breaker. In fact, that was his introduction to the film with his 10-minute trailer dedicated to showing off fidelity to the material that he is introducing. It is also likely why he served as the omnipresent narrator bearing witness to this tale of Jewish liberation. One could almost wish he also dubbed himself over Anne Baxter’s line readings as well.

Revisiting The Ten Commandments with sound, color, and Heston was meant to be DeMille’s final magnum opus on this mortal coil, which became a reality when the director died of a heart attack three years later. And as he passed, so too did his genre of choice.

In the decade of Vietnam, civil rights, and Woodstock, the stories that once offered a sense of stability and moral fortitude became increasingly dated and out of touch for the boomer generation. Beyond the encroachment of television, the Biblical Epic like the mythic Western offered a comforting parable for the supposedly war-weary generation that won WWII. Tired of combat and modern horrors, Hollywood’s biggest budgets were dedicated to either completely obscuring reality’s strife or placing the lens on “good versus evil” and “us versus them.” White hats and black hats, American GIs and Nazis, or Christians and Romans, it was always at least partially about reminding audiences of moral certainty.

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DeMille even compared Moses’ struggle against Ramesses II and the Egyptians as the fight of freedom-lovers everywhere against the tyranny of communism. However, after that supposed struggle sank Americans into a needless war in Southeast Asia, one that was costing the next generation thousands of lives, the parents’ entertainments and diversions—including Westerns, Musicals, and the Biblical Epic—became more than passé; they were offensive. The Italian-American collaboration of The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), which attempted to recount the entire Book of Genesis through pretty European things gallivanting around the Garden of Eden and director John Huston humbly casting himself as Noah, the savior of humanity during the Great Flood, proved to be an even greater flop.

The naturalism ushered in by Marlon Brando, James Dean, and the plethora of other graduates from Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio made the noble strutting of Heston, DeMille’s Michelangelo statue, seem antiquated. By the time The Greatest Story Ever Told nearly capsized UA, younger moviegoers were deserting Hollywood tropes in droves. Ironically, Greatest Story’s Jesus Christ, the eternally wizened and world-weary Max von Sydow, would have far better luck at bringing moviegoers to Jesus in the ensuing decade by scaring the Hell out of them. Playing old and decrepit again while still in his youth, von Sydow was The Exorcist in the 1973 religious horror movie directed by the notoriously agnostic William Friedkin. Modern, cold, and disturbingly naturalized in its presentation of demonic activity within the confines of everyday Georgetown, the movie earned $400 million worldwide despite its hard, hard R-rating. In the stripped down, insistently authentic era of the film school generation that ruled the roost in imploded 1970s Hollywood, this is as far as serious religious filmmaking would go.

And yet… that brief shining moment of auteurism running Hollywood has long ended. Somewhere between the release of Star Wars in 1977 and UA finally going under with the beautifully boring Heaven’s Gate in 1980, the studio system bounced back by demonizing creativity in favor of the reliably recognizable blockbuster. And what could be more recognized than the Bible?

So, here we are again, on the proverbial cusp of what should be the first biblical blockbuster hits of the modern era. And unlike the gospels of Marvel, DC, or George Lucas, these are characters that have no licensing and copyright fees. The only major intervening Hollywood Bible studies since the reemergence of a (corporate) studio business model were Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Gibson’s Passion project. Those both broke the unwritten rule of filming Christ’s story that goes back to the heyday of Griffith, yet even the latter still proved to be a box office juggernaut despite no major studio financing and being performed entirely in Aramaic and Latin.

An English-spoken Old Testament tale with movie stars like Russell Crowe and starlets like Emma Watson is so out of Cecil B. DeMille’s playbook that Anthony Hopkins may as well be doing a Charlton Heston impersonation. New CGI creatures and Tubal-cain may not be in “Noah’s Ark,” but such minor fine print details haven’t silenced the choir in the past from hallelujah-ing over the inconsistencies; I am surprised they aren’t as loud now in an era where golden, red, blue, and green idols of every stripe are worshipped each summer by moviegoers making their annual pilgrimage to the next masked avenger movie.

The modern box office has not reflected a new conversion from religious moviegoers, but it still seems like the studio system’s Biblical Epic is on the cusp of a Second Coming if they got the right filmmaker in touch with the right material.

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*** A version of this article was first published on March 31, 2014. 

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.