Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
The filming of the movie was relatively ad hoc. In 1973 Cash was interviewed by Country Music Magazine about the film, and recalled the way the film was made:
When we went to Israel we had two songs that we thought would probably be in the film...We hired an Israeli film crew to supplement our crew that we took over there, and we decided since we'd gone to all the expense to take a bunch of people to Israel that we were gonna shoot the moon, and we were gonna make as good a film and spend whatever it took for the month that we had to spend over there. And that's what we did. We hired extras. We didn't try to make a little big movie. We didn't try to make a Cecil B. DeMille film. We used as few extras as we could, and at the times when there should have been a multitude of people, we didn't use anybody. We used sound effects, to try to make it seem like there was a multitude of people. Well, when we came back and started editing the film and putting it together, we saw the need of a song to help tell the story here and there.Furthermore, the decision to cast director Robert Elstrom as director was only made the day before filming2. It was perhaps a rash decision. All the good work of authentically filming the documentary in the Holy Land, was undone by this ultra-blond Jesus, the lightest-haired Jesus ever committed to celluloid. Elfstrom's acting was weak too, and never really created the empathy that the role usually acquires.
That is not to say it is an entirely poor portrayal. Elfstrom's Jesus is as beatific as they come, and has clearly been very influential. The scenes of him playing with a group of children on the beach to the tune of Joe South's "Children" would set a standard that other smiley Jesus films, notably those made by more conservative Christians, would aspire to. In particular, the 1979 Jesus film, the Visual Bible's Matthew and the 1999 Jesus mini-series all appear to have been influenced (perhaps indirectly) by this film.
Actually the film both draws on older Jesus films as well as influencing later films, although many of these may well be coincidental. Since this film and Jesus Christ Superstar were made at the same time it must be an accident that both films are made in Israel and combine a mixture of historical and contemporary commentary. That said the scene of the woman caught in adultery must surely be influenced b DeMille's 1927 epic - in both films when Jesus writes on the ground he is writing the sins of those standing nearby. The final scene where Jesus is reconciled to his disciples on a beach is reminiscent of the ending of King of Kings (1961). In terms of possible influence, Mary Magdalene (June Carter Cash) is the only character in the film we hear speaking, when she retells her first meeting with Jesus. Another popular female singer, PJ Harvey, would reprise the role in Book of Life (1998) and similarly give an account of her conversion experience.
The role of Carter Cash in this movie is interesting, both given how she was viewed at the time and her role in Walk The Line. As Lesa Bellevie notes
I can understand to some degree why June Carter Cash would have wanted to play Mary Magdalene on film. Judged harshly for her divorces, perhaps she felt some kinship with the haunted Mary Magdalene whose sexuality had become the focus of her entire existence.There are a number of interesting points in relation to this. Firstly, probably the majority of Jesus films have combined Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery in John 8. By contrast, The Gospel Road shows that incident but uses a different actress, and when it comes to Magdalene's speech stresses the seven demons aspect. Secondly, in light of the Da Vinci Code, it is hard to resist looking whether a particular Jesus films suggest some form of romantic interest between Magdalene and Jesus, and in this case, the casting of the producer's wife in the role is somewhat suggestive. Finally, in Walk The Line she is cast as Johnny's salvation, and so it is interesting that this film is, to an extent, examining her salvation.
Like the other 1973 Jesus Musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell) the film has dated terribly, and much of it seems twee and bland today. Even in it's own day it was probably the safest of the three films. Godspell was a bold re-contextualisation which dared to show Jesus as a clown. Whilst Superstar was also set primarily in the past, it used Rock music rather than the "safer" country music of Cash.
That said the film has a number of strengths that are often overlooked. The use of natural light, and voiceless characters give the film a naturalistic cine-camera feel which feels less about a performance, or a DeMille-like spectacle, and more about genuine faith. Despite the fact that we generally do not hear the characters speak, we are drawn closer to them, and relate to them more freely. The movie has a "from the heart" feel which is generally lost in Jesus films. It serves as a testament to Christian faith from that era, no doubt due to it being Cash's labour of love.
The natural light effect is emphasised by the low camera angles and inclusion of the rising or setting sun in many scenes. Whilst the deference implied by such low camera work has been discussed elsewhere, these scenes also introduce a simplistic beauty into the film.
Another strength is the space that the movie creates. Given a tiny budget (from Cash's own pocket), the film uses only a few extras who are sparsely distributed around the various locations. In the quote above, Cash notes how at the times where there was a requirement for a multitude they went to the opposite extreme and had no-one present yet used the sounds of a multitude. This creates an eerie effect placing the viewer at the centre of events.
Such budgetary limitations were no doubt also part of the decision to depict the three trials of Jesus all at the same time. Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas stand in adjacent arches and Jesus moves from one to the other. This crystallises the often confusing sequence of events into a single moment. The three stand together, and Cash's narration cleverly draws out how each represents a particular grouping.
Perhaps the film's strongest moment is the crucifixion where the camera first encircles the dying Jesus, before cutting to a number of close ups which gradually pan out to reveal a modern location (see top picture). The focus of these scenes, like the film in general is very much on the "gospel" road of faith, rather than on historical reconstruction or exploration like the majority of other Jesus films. This has infuriated some, whilst inspired many others. One assumes these reactions are more in the past than the present. The years have dulled the impact of the film, and left itself something of a historical artefact - a monument to Johnny Cash's faith.
There's another review at Film Brain, plus my earlier comments on the film
1 - Dave Urbanski, "The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash", p.67-73, Lake Mary, Florida, Relevant Books (2003)
2 - ibid p.113
Friday, May 26, 2006
So I was slightly disappointed to find out when the DVD arrived that it appeared to be a poor quality version of 1912's From the Manger to the Cross starring Robert Henderson-Bland. However, I decided to go through the film anyway just to see if there were any extra scenes added at all. The beauty of watching silent films on DVD is that you can play through at double or quadruple speed and still catch most things that are going on. Sadly it seemed that there was no new material.
That is, until the film got to the end. One of the things that is notable about the 1912 film is that there is no resurrection. This is a useful bit of trivia to quote to people from time who moan that modern(!) films about Jesus such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Last Temptation of Christ don't include the resurrection. This has in fact gone back as far as the earliest feature length Jesus films.
Yet in this 1916 re-issue, all of a sudden there is a resurrection scene, not to mention a burial scene and an ascension scene. None of these scenes were present in the original 1912 film which literally looked at the life of Jesus from the manger to the cross.
The second thing that was notable about these scenes was that the actor playing Jesus had changed. In the first part of the film the actor was Robert Henderson-Bland(see right), just as in From the Manger to the Cross. But in the final part it is a while before we even see Jesus's face - one shot even chops off the top of his head(see below) and when we finally do, it is clearly the face of a different actor (see above).
Furthermore, the intertitles have changed replacing the gothic font with something more art deco, and dropping the bible quotations and references for a simple explanation of the scene.
So it appears that we have a later re-issue of the film which decided to add in extra scenes on to the end. Theologically speaking this is very interesting. A few months back I was looking at two early Jesus films, The Life of Christ and The Death of Christ which appeared to bear some relation to The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1905). It was difficult to work out how the various films related to one another hence it dubbed it the Early Jesus Film Synoptic Problem.
This film two seems to parallel another theological conundrum the ending of Mark's gospel. Whilst most translations still retain Mark 16:9-20 they usually acknowledge that it is absent in the most reliable manuscripts. Sadly, only a few include the various other endings that are found amongst the various manuscripts. It is generally agreed that both because these verses are often absent, and because they exhibit a dramatically different writing style that this is not the original ending to Mark. There are a number of different opinions on what actually happened. One theory is that Mark's gospel only ever went as far as 16:8 and was deliberately ended with things up in the air to form a theological challenge to the readers / hearers. Others, such as Tom Wright, suggest that there was an alternative ending that is lost to us. Both theories suggest that the Christian community (communities?) found the abrupt ending of Mark's gospel to be inadequate in some way and someone penned an ending which gradually gained acceptance.
The parallels with the ending of this film should be obvious. Interestingly W. Barnes Tatum considered that From the Manger to the Cross was most similar to Mark's gospel. It appears that the abrupt ending of the film was later considered inadequate, perhaps because of similar criticisms to Jesus Christ Superstar, and so a new ending was concocted, with a markedly different Jesus, and a different writing style.
At some stage I plan to draw out the parallels here in more detail and see what light the relationship between these two films may shed on the debate about the ending of Mark's gospel.
Sadly, anyone wanting to buy a copy of this film will find that the eBay trader I bought mine from no longer sees to be offering any. However, you can get it on VHS from this eBay trader, although they consider this to be from 1928. It may, of course, be that the film I've been looking at was not re-issued in this form in 1916, but rather was released in 1928, coincidentally the same year as the Philip van Loan film with the same title.
Unfortunately, despite a number of enquiries, I've yet to find anyone that is able to guarantee that they sell the 1928 van Loan film, and not this Henderson-Bland one. Having tried to buy the van Loan one twice, I am a little hesitant to part with more money without such a guarantee. If anyone knows where it can be bought for definite, I'd appreciate knowing.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Author Anne Rice, who wrote Interview with a Vampire thinks Johnny Depp would be the ideal actor to play Jesus. Rice was interviewed by Cathleen Falsani (Chicago Sun Times) for a chapter in her book The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, where she interviews 32 celebrities on their views about spirituality.
Rice is currently trying to develop her novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt into a film and revealed that she think Depp would be ideal for the lead role.
I haven't told Johnny Depp yet, but wouldn't he be perfect?... Strong. Beautiful. Edgy. Soulful eyes. A graceful person but not effeminate. Roguish yet strangely wise. Yes, Depp as Jesus -- I can see it".You can read the entire chapter at the Chicago Sun Times website.
Personally, I'm not sure how well Depp would work. He has great talent, and would bring some interesting things to the role, but he'd also bring association from all his previous work, and his absent father roles, in particular, might not be that appropriate. that said, I'm sure that even so, he would probably turn in a performance worthy of my top ten.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
[extra-biblical episodes]A Few Notes
Prophecy about Jesus - (Is 9:6)
Annunciation - (Luke 1-26-38)
Elizabeth and Zechariah - (Luke 1:11-25)
Mary visits Elizabeth - (Luke 1:39-44)
Magnificat - (Luke 1:46-49)
Joseph's Dream - (Matt 1:18-24)
Birth of Jesus - (Luke 2:1-7)
Shepherds and the Angels - (Luke 2:8-16)
Prophecy about Jesus - (Is 9:6)
Circumcision of Jesus - (Luke 2:21-24)
Simeon and Anna - (Luke 2:25-40)
Wise Men and Herod - (Matt 2:1-8)
Wise Men and Jesus - (Matt 2:9-12)
Escape to Egypt - (Matt 2:13-15)
Slaughter of the Infants - (Matt 2:16)
Return to Nazareth - (Matt 2:19-23)
The Boy Jesus - (Luke 2:41-52)
As with the Old Testament stories filmed in this series, the adaptations are very unimaginative, which is partly why the film is able to cover so much ground in such a short space of time. There's no attempt to get behind the characters that come onto the screen. Mary finds out she is with child and simply says "behold the hand-maiden of the Lord", and that's that.
The film shows 5 supernatural dreams or appearances in these sequences - the only two which the gospels mention which are not shown is that to Zechariah, and that to the wise men. In other words all of the appearances / dreams that Jesus's parents receive are shown as well as the heavenly host that greet the shepherds. These supernatural scenes are all shown in a similar manner, with the angels shown off screen, and the camera focussing solely on the recipient of the vision - although several times they were given extra lighting. Whilst this is no doubt partly due to budgetary constraints, and to avoid difficult decisions over what an angel would look like anyway, later, higher-budget films also adopted this approach, which emphasises the response of the recipient. This is actually where scripture's concern is. The approach also leaves open the possibility that such revelations were all in the head of the person in question. These scenes also made me realise the link between the Old Testament Joseph - who received and interpreted many dreams - more so than anyone else, and the Joseph of the New Testament, who has 3 prophetic dreams in Matthew's gospel alone.
Some of these scenes in this film are really terrible. The opening scene where the narrator is letting us know just how bad the Romans were is accompanied by a shot of two soldiers pushing an old man off his stool for no apparent reason, causing others to shake their fists. Hilariously terrible.
In addition to the Living Christ's treatment of the Wise Men scene, which I prematurely dubbed the only film to show the Magi arriving at a house rather than the stable, this film, made at a similar time, also shows this.
Watching the scene where Jesus's parents lose him at the temple when he is twelve provided a couple of new insights. No doubt this is due to my impending fatherhood, but I was struck by what a human touch this is, how often parents lose their children, and how terrifying this must have been - particularly as it lasted over 3 whole days. Not surprising that it is the only event from Jesus's childhood to make it into the bible.
Secondly I was struck by how this scene pre-figures Jesus' death and resurrection. Then too Jesus's mother will think he is lost for three days before finding him alive and well and about his father's business.
Monday, May 22, 2006
So, having decided to see and review the film, it was something of a relief to find that it was not as bad as I'd been lead to believe. It's no classic of course, but on the whole it's a reasonably entertaining thriller as Dan Brown's novel is. It's unlikely to do as well as the book - its opening night was only 12th in the list of biggest first nights, and it's difficult to imagine that word of mouth will give it a long cinema run, particularly given the critical slating it has received.
For those who are still unaware of the plot, the following should provide a rough overview. Harvard Professor of Symbology Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is summoned to the scene of a murder in the Louvre - the corpse in question being its curator Jacques Saunière who was due to meet Langdon around the time of his death. This, and the strange clues left by the dying curator, lead the police to suspect that Langdon is the killer. We of course know different because not only do we witness the murder, but we all know that nice Tom Hanks would never murder anyone. Instead, we're encouraged to identify with him through a number of camera shots from his point of view.
Langdon is promptly rescued by Sophie Neveu who is played by Audrey Tautou (Amélie) who also turns out to be the dead curator's estranged Granddaughter. Hence the two of them flee police captain Fache (Jean Reno) and try to find out why Saunière died and why. They are helped by a trail of cryptic clues left by Sauniere leading them onward.
En route they enlist the help of Langdon's friend Sir Leigh Teabing (Sir Ian McKellen). The clues seem to be pointing towards the legend of the Holy Grail and Teabing is the world expert. In the most infamous part of the book Teabing reveals how the Holy Grail is actually the still-existing bloodline of Jesus, who fathered a child by Mary Magdalene just before he died. Magdalene escaped plots by the early church to kill her and her daughter, fled to France and helped by secret organisation The Priory of Sion the knowledge of all this has remained hidden, but in tact.
Perhaps, the thing that is most intriguing about the film is its the process of adaptation. The movie is fairly faithful to the book, but it's always interesting to see how the film-makers have changed the original work whether for practical reasons (like reduced time), or to eliminate weaknesses within the original work, or to alter why or what it says. Whilst alterations are fairly minimal, all three types exist, and, as a result, have rendered a stronger work of art that the original novel.
There was always a sense with the novel that there was just too much information. Dan Brown had done a fair bit of research, and he wanted everyone to know exactly how much, hence the book was crammed with irrelevant bits of trivia that just felt a bit like someone was showing off. Screen writer Akiva Goldsman has sensibly trimmed many of these excess leaving only the meat of the film's controversial claims.
Furthermore, Goldsman has also removed many of the weakness of the original work. For example the scene where Neveu, a professional cryptologist, discovers the meaning of her name is, mercifully, excluded. Not only does this remove one of the books silliest implausibilities, it also removes that sense of one riddle too many. Most impressively, the film delivers a decent ending - the most disappointing part of the book, is brought up to the standard of the rest of the story in the film.
The most interesting type of alteration are the deliberate changes to the ideology of the movie. Lest, anyone gets carried away thinking the film might not challenge Jesus's divinity, or might not bash the Catholic church at every available opportunity, let me be clear. This is still one of the most anti-Christian, and particularly anti-Catholic, films of all time. However it is noticeable that the film tries to soften the blow slightly.
The pivotal scene in this regard is the one in Teabing's study. In the novel, Teabing and Langdon team up to make their outrageous claims. Langdon himself is there to be convinced. Suddenly, all that identification with honest Tom slots into place. We are meant to see these theories through his eyes. Some have seen Langdon's partial conversion to Teabing's theories as evidence that this film is more church-sceptical than the book. I would argue the latter. Brown condescends to his audience such that the novel is almost saying "of course this is all so obvious that we all agree on it don't we"? Director Ron Howard's film puts the audience in the place where they can choose for themselves. Langdon is convinced, we need not be.
The film blunts the edge of the controversy in other ways too. Ian McKellan's performance as Teabing is so wonderfully over the top that he comes across as slightly batty. In the novel, much of what says has already been hinted at or validated by Langdon. When Teabing appears and provides all the answers he fills the role of wise old sage, exposing history's "greatest cover-up" in a way that far surpasses what Langdon is able to offer. In the movie, he is equally as knowledgeable, but somehow he just comes across as an obsessed conspiracy theorist, and (plot spoiler) as we find out he is the villain the question is raised as to how reliable he is.
The movie also removes some of the book's historical errors, and challenges others, yet at the same time introduces new ones, for example actually suggesting that the pagan Christian violence in 4th century Rome was started by the Christians. Langdon questions that version of history but it's the former that is given the greater weight as it is the version that is shown happening. A little further on though, Hanks' character cites a more realistic (although still shocking) statistic for the number of women killed on suspicion of being witches, and there are various other attempts to remove the film's more glaring errors. It's difficult to know how to respond to this. It's good that these inaccuracies are not being spread further, but unfortunate that some of the more difficult to explain historical distortions are made more plausible.
The other interesting ideological change is in the role of the sacred feminine. In the book this is a key theme. Langdon himself has just published a book on it. But other than the odd mention early on, this theme is conveniently suppressed. For Christian's and Jews alike, the offensive suggestion that pagan sexual fertility rites were practised in Solomon's temple is absent. The level of pagan activity in Sauniere's life is similarly reduced.
Perhaps, most significantly in this regard is the way the role of Sophie Neveu is altered. In the novel, Neveu is a modern, 21st century heroine, beautiful, resourceful brave, but also highly intelligent, matching Langdon step for step with her ingenuity and her riddle solving abilities. Here she is far more the typical Hollywood female. Undoubtedly brilliant, capable of making the male hero look worried, but reduced by the end of the film to little more than something pretty for the boys to look at. Somehow this brilliant cryptographer is unable to solve any of the codes her grandfather left her, despite the fact she has been trained by him, and Audrey Tautou has to settle for staring admiringly as clever Tom Hanks solves all the puzzles.
The other major character whose role is diminished is that of self-flagellating monk Silas - a member of conservative extremist Catholic organisation Opus Dei. He has been charged with destroying the grail at all costs, and we know him to be the murderer from the start. Whilst the film retains much of his perverse self-flagellating, it compresses the story of his past life to a very brief flashback. This reduces Silas (Paul Bettany) to an unsympathetic one-dimensional character. The other Christian characters are similarly one dimensional, and universally wicked that it's difficult to see how anyone could defend the film against the charge of being anti-Catholic.
So the film modifies the role of religion in the story, and ends up with a horrifyingly clichéd Hollywoodism "what matters is what you believe". It tries to reduce the offensiveness and controversial nature of the novel, but seems, almost inadvertently, to increase this in other places as well. Visually there is some interesting work, the scene in Teabing's study where he reveals the clues allegedly hidden in Leonardo's Last Supper is a triumph, and there are a few other interesting shots. However, the sense of tension and action that made the book such a page-turner is dissipated - the action sequences are a little dull, and the puzzles are solved a little too quickly. Perhaps it will be this, rather than the swathes of discussion and protests surrounding the film, will be what subjects this controversial story to the confines of history.
Labels: Mary Magdalene
Friday, May 19, 2006
[extra-biblical episode] - based on Josephus
Bethlehem - (Luke 1:26-38)
Nativity - (Luke 2:1-7)
Wise Men - (Matt 2:1-12)
Death of the Infants - (Matt 2:13-16)
John the Baptist - (Mark 1:2-8)
Jesus' Baptism - (Mark 1:9-11)
Temptations - (Matt 4:1-11)
Calling of the Four - (Mark 1:16-20)
John and Herod - (Mark 6:18-20)
Various Miracles - (Mark 1:32-34)
Adulterous Woman - (John 8:2-11)
Deliverance of Madman - (Mark 1:23-28)
Death of John - (Mark 6:21-28)
Sermon on the Mount - (Matt 5-7)
Beatitudes - (Matt 5:2-12)Calling/Training of 12 - (Mark 6:6-13)
Kingdom within you - (Luke 17:20-21)
Love your neighbour - (Mark 12:28-31)
Good Shepherd - (John 10:1-15)
Law & Prophets - (Matt 5:17-20)
Love Enemies - (Matt 5:43-48)
Sinners & Taxmen - (Mark 2:16-17)
Can't serve two masters - (Matt 6:24)
Consider the lilies - (Matt 6:25-30)
Weak & heavy laden - (Matt 11:28-30)
Lord's Prayer - (Matt 6:9-15)
Triumphal entry - (Mark 11:7-11a)
Last Supper - (Mark 14:16-25,27-31)
Gethsemane - (Mark 14:32-42)
Jesus's Arrest - (Mark 14:43-50)
Peter Denies Jesus – (Luke 22:54-62)
Sanhedrin Trial - (Mark 14:53-64)
Pilate 1st trial - (Luke 23:1-7)
Before Herod - (Luke 23:8-12)
Pilate 2nd trial - (Luke 23:13-25)
Road to the Cross – (Mark 15:20-22)
Crucifixion – (Mark 15:22-32)
Two Robbers on the cross - (Luke 23:39-43)
Jesus's Death - (Mark 15:33-41)
Appearance to Mary - (John 20:11-17)
Great Commission - (Matt 28:18-20)
A Few Notes
This is one of the few films that actually shows how Jesus involved the disciples in spreading his message. The final scene before the interval is Jesus commissioning the twelve shortly after the Sermon on the Mount. It's an interesting juxtaposition of the two blocks of teaching which Matthew's gospel (the nearest literary parallel) separates by several chapters. In the film, it's as if Jesus is saying "this is the basic information for the masses, and now this is the real meat for my closest followers".
One of the most notable set design features of the film is the Y-shaped table at the Last Supper. It's an interesting prop which is surprisingly discussed. The initial decision facing the film-makers at this point is whether or not to mirror Leonardo's famous painting, as this is the definitive artistic image of the Last Supper. However, in most cases, where a Leonardo derived composition has been rejected, a more modern arrangement is taken with all the disciples around two or more sides of long tables. It's noticeable for example that Jesus films never show all the disciples eating at separate tables all within the same room, even though John's gospel happily accepts Jesus did not treat all his disciples equally (John 13:23-25). Almost without exception the disciples are pretty much treated equally. However, film-makers are also at pains to visually highlight the other-ness of Jesus, so, as far as I am aware, no film-maker has ever located the Lat Supper on round table as per King Arthur - in fact Jesus is always seated centrally, even though that is only assumption based on traditional Christian Art and the assumptions drawn from our culture.
Ray's Y shaped table is interesting then as maintains the centrality of Jesus, whilst being strikingly anti-Leonardo. Visually it is like three arrows all pointing to Jesus in the middle.
Whilst this book is part of the harmonising tradition, it is almost entirely based on the synoptics. Only three references from John feature in the entire 3 hours; The teaching about the good shepherd, the appearance to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and the woman caught in adultery. Furthermore although this last episode is taken from John, it is excluded in many early texts of John, and included in some early texts of Luke.
In "Reading the Gospels in the Dark", Richard Walsh devotes a chapter to this film comparing it to the Gospel of Luke. It's an interesting comparison, although I am not entirely convinced as the major point of comparison appears to its function. From the point of view of form, the centrality of the Sermon of the Mount is difficult to ascribe to any of the canonical gospels. The book's cover is based on an image of actor Jeffrey Hunter though.
Lastly, It is noticeable that Jesus spends so little time on screen. Peter Chattaway has done some serious analysis on this, which is reproduced in the second half of this post at the Arts and Faith discussion forum.
Thursday, May 18, 2006
Labels: Nativity - Mary Joseph
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
In that sense then, David and Bathsheba (1951), starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, is distinctly different. Admittedly the film is bracketed by the briefest of fights, and does contain a seemingly out of place exotic dancer scene, but both of these play a notable part in the psychological exploration that the film lays before us.
Initially, Peck's David seems to be a disappointment. As usual, Peck is attractive, heroic, and yet emotionally guarded. The result is a David that lacks the passion of the famed psalmist, or of the unwavering confidence of the shepherd boy who slew a giant. In fact, the first time viewer may wonder if this is going too be the most secular bible film ever produced. Is it simply an excuse to bring together two of Hollywood's handsomest actors?
Thankfully, there is far more going on here. The low key portrayal of faith in the first part of the film reflects not a lack of interest on the part of director Henry King, but David's estrangement from the faith of his childhood. His responsibilities, his loveless marriages, the death of his best friend, and no doubt his time fleeing Saul have blunted his relationship with God, and left him feeling distant from him. His early incursion into enemy territory betrays an internal crisis as he strives for the life of excitement he has left behind. Visually his old life in the open countryside is contrasted with his new life trapped in his new place of work, the palace. It's no surprise then that he first spies Bathsheba when taking in the fresh breeze afforded by the roof of his palace, nor that their relationship only really becomes emotionally intimate when they escape to the country. Indeed thematically, Bathsheba is, indirectly, his route back to God.
That is not to say that their relationship is bathed in glory. The film shows both David and Bathsheba as culpable for both their adultery and for the subsequent death of Bathsheba's husband Uriah. In an era when often film-makers attempted to redeem biblical characters and turn the story around, so that even Salome was dancing to save John the Baptist, it is happy to popularise the weakness of one of the Hebrew bible's favourite heroes.
Nevertheless, it does soften the blow somewhat. Whilst David wastes no time in getting acquainted with Bathsheba, we learn it is she who had deliberately put herself in his view. Furthermore Uriah is painted as a criminally disinterested husband, spending only 6 nights with his wife in 7 months, and refusing to visit her when he is strongly encouraged to by his hero David. Even the exotic dancer mentioned above fails to stir in him a great deal of interest. Furthermore, David's fatal instructions to Joab are, to a great extent, based on Uriah's own wishes and martyr complex. As David observes "His dreams of glory are his wife in tears".
As with the biblical accounts, David and Bathsheba's adultery leads to God's judgement, the subsequent death of their child, and their exposure by the prophet Nathan (although as the scene guide shows these two incidents are in reverse order here compared to the scriptural account). The result is that the people recognise that the drought they have been suffering is a result of David and Bathsheba's sin and they are eager to punish them according to the law. David meanwhile has been forced by Bathsheba to glimpse into his past and re-enact his relationship with God. His performance of Psalm 23 is strangely emotionless and stoic. Yet as it ends on "and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" it is like something clicks inside David and he returns, not to face the people inside the city but to face God in the tabernacle which remains outside it. Therein, David both confesses his weakness, but also pleads with God for mercy - mercy which has been in little supply so far. Earlier David was clearly deeply disturbed by the death of Uzzah as he reached out to prevent the ark from falling. Yet now his plea culminates in him repeating the action, forcing God to decide whether to continue as he did previously, or become more merciful.
What is remarkable about the film is that God responds to David's almost suicidal attempt to receive God's mercy. As David touches the ark, lightening strikes and David's life flashes before his eyes, yet this is not David's death by electrocution, but his resuscitation. As Babington and Evans note "David has moved God by his superior perception of him to a phase of higher activity". The trip into David's youth complete, David's release from his spiritual drought is mirrored by Israel's release from their physical drought as the rain finally pours down declaring David's forgiveness to his subjects.
It is noticeable that whilst David and Bathsheba is primarily a biblical epic it also touches on a variety of other genres and other films in particular. Most notably the film recalls another Peck film, the psychoanalytical thriller, Spellbound (1945) by Alfred Hitchcock. There, Peck's character is emotionally estranged, partly as a result of the death of his actual brother. There to the film culminates in a revelation of the past which provides drive and direction for the future as it restores the hero to wholeness.
Yet the film also reflects genre's such as Film Noir (Bathsheba as a femme fatale, the murder of a husband, a cover up, and the dark brooding interiors), and Romance (especially the picnic scene in the countryside). Modern viewers may also find some points of comparison with the recent Brokeback Mountain with it's tale of a forbidden love found in an unlikely place that goes far beyond the depth of relationship the film's protagonists are able to find elsewhere. In both films the lead characters are driven to more desperate actions due to the unbearable pressure the wider society puts upon them. The notable difference is that both David and Bathsheba recognise that they have crossed a line in their adultery.
Ultimately however, the film seems to support David's scepticism and unease with the current revelation of God, and points to a future, greater revelation of God in the form of one of David's descendants. Most notably this is highlighted in a scene where an adulteress (dressed appropriately in red) is stoned, very much in the style of John 8:2-11. Yet here there is no reprieve, David is compromised and does not intervene even though the audience's familiarity with the Johannine story makes his inaction unbearable. The tension created by this scene, occurring as it does so shortly after the equalling troubling death of Uzzah, forms the question that dominate the film. Is God forgiving and merciful? Whilst its final resolution gives an emphatic yes, it also points beyond this story to the greater act of love and forgiveness that was to come.
See also my scene guide for this film
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
War with the Ammonites - (2 Sam 11:1)A Few Notes
[extra-biblical episodes] - (ref to 1 Sam 18:7)
God rejects David's temple plans - (2 Sam 7:1-7)
David and Michal - (loosely 1 Sam 19:11-17; 25:44)
David and Bathsheba commit adultery - (2 Sam 11:2-4)
Death of Saul & Jonathan recounted - (1 Sam 31:1-6)
Ark brought to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:1-5)
Uzzah dies touching the ark (2 Sam 6:6-7)
Bathsheba declares her pregnancy - (2 Sam 11:5)
David brings Uriah's home - (2 Sam 11:6-13)
David arranges Uriah's death - (2 Sam 11:14-17)
Joab's account of Uriah's death - (2 Sam 11:18-25)
Famine in Israel (2 Sam 21:1)
David questions Uzzah's death - (2 Sam 6:8)
Absalom's starts a conspiracy - (2 Sam 15:1-6)
David marries Bathsheba - (2 Sam 11:26-27)
David and Bathsheba's son dies - (2 Sam 12:15-23)
Nathan confronts David - (2 Sam 12:1-10)
David plays his harp - (Psalm 23)
Samuel anoints David - (1 Sam 16:1-13)
David and Goliath - (1 Sam 17:1-51)
I've tried to include allusions where I could (e.g. 1 Sam 18:7), but I suspect I have missed a number of others. In particular, David's final prayer in the tabernacle is doubtless crammed with them. However, it isn't a single complete unit - more a patchwork quilt affair.
Although the film inserts a few extra-biblical scenes, such as David and Bathsheba going on a picnic in the desert (!) it generally stays fairly closely to the text, although it embellishes the various incidents significantly to make the film last almost two hours. In particular, extra dialogue between David and the other major players (Michal, Bathsheba and Uriah) is inserted. It is noticeable that other than the opening scene, and a brief telling of David and Goliath, there are no battle scenes - very unusual for a 50s biblical epic.
One of the strengths of the film is the way it stresses the time difference between the young David, and the fallen king of these stories. Its often hard to imagine how this gulf grew - even though we find people moving towards faith and drifting away from it quite frequently in real life.
Monday, May 15, 2006
She was born in Grimsby, Lincolnshire in 1917 to Ray and Ethel Barrett who moved to Althorne, Essex two years later. She had a sister, Yvonne, and two brothers Charles and William. She was always very sporty, winning a medal aged 17 for a yachting race across the North Sea to Heligoland (off the North East German coast) which enabled her to become the youngest ever female member of the Royal Ocean Racing Club (you had to have completed an ocean race to become a member).
She was also a great tennis player, winning a number of trophies in her youth, and continuing to play at her local club St. Chad's until she was 70. She had a hip replacement operation the following year. That didn't prevent her, however, from taking a ride in a hot air balloon on a visit to Egypt - one of her many recent trips around the world.
She married (Cuthbert) Ernest Page on 23rd April 1938, and they had five children, Stephen (28/2/1939), Cath (5/8/1942), Andrew (3/12/1948), Julia (born and died in 1958), and Pippa (2/5/1960). Ernest died in 1988, shortly after their 50th Wedding anniversary.
Writing this, it's hard to think of anyone who had more zest for life, joy, generosity and warmth than Granny. Laughter was always present at family gatherings, even this Easter bringing the house down with her entry in our spur of the moment "guess the game" game. She will be sadly missed, but joyfully remembered.
I thought I'd end with the first and last verses of what I remember her once calling her favourite hymn, Charles Wesley's Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
Friday, May 12, 2006
It's based around the central observation that the sacrifice at the heart of the Christian gospel is essentially kind of illogical, and whilst it doesn't really intend itself to be taken that seriously there are a couple of observations I'd like to share.
Firstly, I'm reminded of the parallels with Spock's sacrificial death in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. There, Spock, who I assume would think roughly in the same way as the Terminator, sees the bigger picture and bases his decision, logically, on that. (This is notably different from the Terminator's own self-sacrifice at the end of Terminator 2). Here, however, under a narrower set of orders (to preserve the life of Jesus), Jesus's actions make no sense to him. I guess he's not the first person to struggle with that.
Secondly, the film highlights a theological / humorous point I've seen made elsewhere (by Lee and Herring's Sunday Heroes) about the role of Judas, who, as both films claim, Jesus actually needed to betray him. Lee and Herring are, unsurprisingly, a little more cynical about this. I think, though, that both miss the point. From a historical point of view Jesus died because it was politically expedient for him to. So had Judas not betrayed him, it is highly likely that his opponents would have found a way.
As for the film itself, whilst it was mildly amusing, I'm getting a little weary of popular culture's conviction that stuff like this is utterly hilarious. "Look it's someone in a sheet and a beard NOT being holy". Side-splitting. I guess there's just something in the triteness of films like this that I just feel uncomfortable with (and I say that as someone who's a big fan of Life of Brian - in fact it's probably because I'm a fan of Life of Brian).
For anyone who is interested, there's another Lee and Herring Sunday Heroes episode here, although some may find this offensive.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Anyway, here is the scene guide for the film
Extra-biblical episodes (loosely Genesis 11:26-32)
Call of Abram - (Gen 12:1-3)
Abram and Sarai leave Haran - (Gen 12:4)
Altar built at Bethel - (Gen 12:7)
Clash with the Amorites - (Gen 12:6)
Famine in the land - (Gen 12:10)
Sarai given to Pharaoh - (Gen 12:10-16)
Pharaoh falls ill and expels Abram - (Gen 12:17-20)
Abram allied with Mamre the Amorite- (Gen 14:13b)
Abram and Lot separate - (Gen 13:5-18)
Lot captured - (Gen 14:11-12)
Abram recounts Tower of Babel - (Gen 11:1-9)
Abram rescues Lot - (Gen 14:13-16)
Abram and the king of Sodom - (Gen 14:17)
God's covenant with Abraham - (Gen 15:1-20)
Abram and Melchizedek - (Gen 14:18-20)
Hagar and Sarai - (Gen 16:1-16)
Covanent of Circumcision - (Gen 17:1-27)
The Three Visitors - (Gen 18:1-15)
Abraham bargains for Sodom - (Gen 18:16-33)
Sodom sins and is destroyed - (Gen 19:1-28)
Birth of Isaac - (Gen 21:1-7)
Hagar and Ishmael sent away - (Gen 21:8-14)
Hagar and Ishmael in the desert - (Gen 21:15-21)
God tests Abraham - (Gen 22:1-19)
A Few Notes
It's noticeable that the film takes 50% of its runtime on just two and a half chapters (and even then only 2 verses from the half). By contrast the second half of the film covers seven and a half chapters worth of narrative.
The only major incident not included in this film is that from Gen 20 where Abraham again tries to pass of Sarai as his sister. This may well be because some scholars consider this to be an alternative version of the same story. Such an interpretation certainly seems to make Abram's repeated disowning of his wife more understandable. That said, the differences are also significant - differences of location, the man in question, the way Abimelech hears from God rather than getting a disease first, and the way Abraham prays for Abimelech's wife and slave girls at the story's end. This last incident is one of my favourites in the whole story. Sarah is still without her own son, at this point, which must have pained both her and Abraham. Yet Abraham finds the strength to lay these feelings aside and pray for Abimelech's wife and slave girls that they would receive the miracle that has eluded Abraham and Sarah all these years. I wonder how many times Abraham must have prayed this prayer for his own wife?
By contrast to it's exclusion of the Abimelech story, the film does include each of the occasions when God speaks to Abraham, even though there is some repetition here also.
Finally, its interesting how the portrays the crimes of Sodom. these are first depicted early on after Abraham rescues Lot, when some sort of homosexuality is awkwardly displayed. This is repeated once the two angels visit the city. However, the crime itself, still seems to be the more likely scriptural interpretation of "attempted gang rape". In some ways, then, the film wants to have it's cake and eat it, neither offending the homosexual community by showing homosexual acts as the sin that condemns Sodom, whilst failing to remove the suggestion that homosexual acts were a part of the problem. Reading this on a deeper level, this resultant linking of homosexuality to gang rape is potentially far more offensive than either of those on its own. It's also interesting how the film shows Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salf (right). This is shown but receives very little comment. There's some subtle suggestion that what happens to Sodom is linked to volcanic activity, but this is never explicitly shown or stated.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
It was an auspicious start. Abraham has generally been neglected in film, with only a handful of portrayals over the 110 or so years the cinematic medium has been around. Director Joseph Sargent's (most well known for Jaws: The Revenge) acquisition of Richard Harris and Barbara Hershey (just five years after Last Temptation of Christ) to play his leads must have been a major triumph. Sargent himself shows far more ability here than in his dead-in-the-water shark flick, with interesting camera angles and use of light, most notably when the newly enlightened Abram tells his father (still in the dark) that he must leave (see below right).
There is some great work by a number of other members of the team on display here as well. The score, by Ennio Morricone (The Mission and numerous other films from the Bible Collection) subtly underpins much of what we see and hear. Raffaele Mertes shimmering cinematography makes the desert feel relentless and frustrating, such that there's a tangible sense of release whenever Abraham's people find water and food.
As a group of films, the Bible Collection had three major strengths. Firstly, they tried to stress the historical context around the stories. This is somewhat unevenly achieved here, the opening scenes which include Lot's wife giving birth, covenants being broken and made, and the huge cohort that follow Abram around, certainly flesh out some of the background to this narrative. The film nicely captures the nothingness of Abram's life before God. His god was simply unknown to people prior to his call to Abram in Genesis 12.
That said, as the film progresses the histoircal strengths of the film seems to fade a little. For example, there is indication that Abraham lived in a culture where child sacrifice was not uncommon. This certainly changes the impact of the text somewhat, which never indicates an angsty reluctance on Abraham's part. Removing the story from this context, and portraying Abraham as a proto-21st century father is, of course, very common, but it politicises the text into form easily manipulated by preachers. "Do you love God enough to sacrifice the things you hold most dear"? It's an important question of course, but the story can be read in other ways.
Secondly, they have tried to include episodes that many bible films gloss over. Here, for example, Abraham does lie to the King of Egypt, even though here the story is spun to show that Abram needed to do this in order to save his starving, thirsty people. We also meet Melchizedek (below right), priest and king of Salem. It's important that such episodes are included in these stories, and script writer Robert McKee has worked hard to maintain the audience's empathy with Abraham, postulating plausible back stories to justify Abraham's actions.
Finally the Bible Collection films have tried to flesh out the characters involved in the stories, using a combination of extra-biblical historical sources, speculation, and good old imagination. Sometimes this has not been so successful, but here, for example, the way that the background figure of Eliezer of Damascus (Genesis 15:2) is brought into the story in such a way to explain his otherwise mysterious biblical credit is intriguing. The closing line, about Ishmael and Isaac (that "on his tomb they joined hands") seemingly based on a line in Josephus.
The relationship between Hagar and Sarai (and later Abraham) is also interestingly developed, although Hagar is painted badly so it's easy not to sympathise with her when Abraham sends her and Ishmael away. Overall the film meanders it's way through the first half of the film, taking time to explore, and familiarise itself with, its characters before putting them under the microscope of the events that occurred to them.
Arguably the most memorable passage from the various stories of Abraham and Lot is his aborted attempt to sacrifice Isaac. This forms the pinnacle of this film that the rest of it builds towards. Whereas Genesis continues to look at how Abraham arranges Isaac's marriage, buries Sarah, and marries Keturah, this film climaxes with God's timely intervention. The narrative has flowed surely but steadily towards such a climax. Abraham and Sarah's desperation for a son through the first three-quarters of the film is unrelenting. Several of the transitions between the various episodes show Abraham alone, burning various sacrifices to his god. On one occasion we even see Abraham teaching Ishmael about sacrifice in a way that hauntingly pre-figures Abraham's near sacrifice of that held most dear to him.
Perhaps the weakest are of the film are the battle scenes, which feel a little drawn out, and disrupt the rhythm of the film. Whilst the film pre-dates Braveheart and the revival of the epic film, and so cannot be called for being yet another copycat job, it still seems to lack the necessary tension to make them interesting. These scenes never seem to carry any sense of danger.
Overall though, Abraham is a worthy telling of the life of the father of the three great monotheistic faiths, finding both strength and weakness in it's lead character, and providing much of the context that surrounded him.
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Anyway, I finally got hold of a copy in the post, and hope to watch it soon, and offer some thoughts here. However, there are a few articles around to read about the film which, thus far, has mainly been used for evangelism, (almost entirely inside India). The film is distributed in India by Dayspring International and they have a couple of articles on the film, including a "documentary" which features a couple of clips from the film. There's also a useful article at Christianity Today , and it has it's own website of sorts
I've already had a few people contacting me to ask if I know where you can buy a DVD. There are one or two places, most notably indiaplaza.com. There's also an IMDb page which has very little information at the moment other than the filming locations which included Calcutta and Mumbai. There's also a few notes on the film at expressindia.com (under the heading "God Speed") including the following.
Produced by Radha Chitra, in collaboration with Amruthrani Communications and Day Spring and CBN (USA), it's directed by Dr Vijaya Chander who also plays Christ. Earlier, he had also done a Telugu film on Christ called Karunamayudu in 1978...Dharmesh Tiwari, Suresh Chatural, Girija Shankar, Sana, Ashwini Kalsikar play key roles in this epic which is also being dubbed in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu.Finally, there will be a paper given on the film at the Fifth International Conference on Media, Religion, and Culture by Dwight Friesen called "Karunamayudu: A Vision of Jesus in Indian Cinema".
Monday, May 08, 2006
Firstly, the most famous incident in Abraham's life is his aborted sacrifice of Isaac. In thinking about this film over the weekend I can't help wondering what Sarah's knowledge of the situation was. Did Abraham tell her before what he was planning? Did she give her consent? Did either Isaac or Abraham tell her afterwards. For some reason my mind wandered onto an image of Terry Jones playing Sarah hearing an account from Abraham of the events of the afternoon. "You were going to do what?!!? 60 years it took me...".*
On a more serious note, the more I consider this story, the more it only makes sense within a context where child sacrifice is common. This is subtly hinted at in Genesis 19 where Lot is all too willing to metaphorically sacrifice his daughters in order to preserve the dignity of his angelic gifts. Sadly this was one area of weakness for this film, which I'll go into more later on. Personally, I find Girard's insights into this story fascinating as the moment that God breaks through the universally accepted practice of child sacrifice, and shows it is not the way to please him. This God is different. I don't know how wholly convincing I find the argument, but it certainly sheds fresh light on the story.
*In a similar vein I also pictured God saying to Abraham, "Dude, I was like totally joking. Man, you'll believe anything".
Friday, May 05, 2006
It's worth reading FilmForce's article in full, so I'll not cut and paste lots of quotes from it here, but there were a couple of things I was pleased to read. Firstly,
First, her father arranges for her betrothal to an older, shy carpenter named Joseph. In accordance with Hebrew law, Mary is now Joseph's wife in all ways except for that which leads to family (they must wait another year).The article also notes how Mary "hardly knows" Joseph at the point of their betrothal. It very interesting that the film is going to give a lot of the historical context that is usually missed out from movie versions of the nativity story. Mary and Joseph's was most likely an arranged marriage and it's good to see a film reflect that. Not only that but the ceremony, and the precise meaning of betrothal is noticeably different from how marriage takes place in today's western world. It will be interesting to see the reaction of the townspeople to Mary's pregnancy. Will they assume that Joseph is the father or someone else? It's also nice to see Joseph described as "a blue collar laborer" (although one assumes not literally - after all this is not Goddard's Hail Mary). However, I'm not sure whether this is screen writer Mike Rich's wording, or whether the phrase belongs to FilmForce's Stax.
Secondly, we already knew that this film was going to depict a young Mary because Whale Rider's Keisha Castle-Hughes has been chosen to play Mary. FilmForce specifies that Mary is only "a fifteen-year-old" at the time of the story.
On the downside it appears that we're still going to get the traditional three wise men, (who are named Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar as well). I'd have really liked to see something different done with this part of the text. Still, Stax notes that their ""mission" is also followed throughout the story", so perhaps we will at least see them portrayed as magi-astrologers, rather than the more usual beard-stroking ponders of other Jesus films.
Finally a word on casting. In addition to Castle-Hughes, it's been confirmed that Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) and Shaun Toub (Crash) will play Mary's mother and father Anna and Joaquim. Jeffrey Overstreet also noted last month that "Ciaran Hinds will play King Herod and Oscar Isaac will play Joseph".
All in all thought this project is still sounding exciting. FilmForce notes that the "details about life in Judea under his rule added an extra dimension to Nativity", and the few pieces of information I've read have, on the whole, made me excited about how this film will turn out.
Labels: Nativity - Mary Joseph