Over the years there have been various books and articles written on the development of Bible films some of which have attempted to sub-divide the material in some way. Whilst some have done this thematically (e.g. Adele Reinhartz's "Jesus of Hollywood") the majority have sought to present films in chronological order and then, if they have attempted to sub-divide them at all, have tended to go by decade (e.g. Kinnard and Davis' "Divine Images").
However, the more I think about this subject the more I find that whilst the by-decades approach might work well in certain contexts, it doesn't work as well as it might in others. So I'd like to propose a new sub-division into seven periods which link the films to both social forces outside of the industry but also to do with key developments directly related to particular Bible films and their reception.
I think the history breaks down into these categories fairly naturally, but it's kind of nice that it breaks into seven - a number with far more significance in the Bible rather than say eight or six. But I'd be interested to hear what people think about this - both the number of eras and the points of transition from one to the next. Anyway, enough pre-amble - here they are:
The Early Silent Era
No shocking revelations as to where to start this initial period, but I'd suggest that this era runs through the various series of films from Pathé, Gaumont and Vitagraph to the first "feature length" films such as Olcott's From the Manger to the Cross (1912) and Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (1914). However it would be another film from D.W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation, that launched a new era in silent film in general such that his follow up would mark the start of a new period.
From Intolerance to the End of the Silent Era.
Whilst some would argue Griffith's work is not as influential as is sometimes claimed, Intolerance was an important film for Bible movies. Before it they were largely small, pious affairs adapting the stories from the Bible in a fairly simple manner. Afterwards they became grand spectacles, like the works of DeMille and Curtiz. And when the silent ea ended Bible films went back into their shell for a little while.
The Early Talkie Period
The first talkies largely bypassed the Bible. The depression meant that the large budgets now required were no longer so readily available; industry regulation clipped the wings even of films which served up their overt sexuality with a morality tale. And then World War Two started and budgets tightened still further. A few notable Bible films were made in this period chief among them Golgotha but it was not until 1949 that a new Bible film would really make a splash.
From Samson and Delilah to Greatest Story Ever Told
The fourth period is often dubbed the Golden Era of Bible films, but that is perhaps to give too little credit to earlier periods when biblical films did tremendous business. Nevertheless, DeMille's 1949 epic Samson and Delilah triumphed at the box office and suddenly everyone wanted to make, and watch, a Bible film. It worked well for about ten years, aided by the arrival of widescreen aspect ratios, but by the time that King of Kings was released in 1961 the tide was beginning to turn and 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told put the final nail in the coffin. John Huston's The Bible squeezed through after that, but to no better results, and it is very much a part of this era rather than the one which would follow the fall of the big-budget biblical epic.
The Experimental Period
The failure of the traditional, largely faithful adaptations of the Bible resulted in an unprecedented time of creative freedom, as filmmakers were freed from the restraints of having to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to get a decent return on their huge budgets. Whilst a few conservative and traditional films snuck through during this period, the more controversial films that were released during this period speak for themselves - Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Il Messia, Life of Brian. Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal. Eventually though religious groups began to organise themselves in protest against what they perceived as an attack on their beliefs. The campaigns went off the scale with Last Temptation and even lowish budget but controversial films like that became too risky.
The Millennial Period
The impending arrival of the new millennium brought with it an increase of interest in the man at the centre of the celebration. This combined with the pressures brought upon studios led to the arrival of a whole host of more faithful, but (largely) less artistically challenging adaptations. The Bible Collection tweaked the story round the edges, sometimes trivialising the story somewhat, but it became the most extensive selection of film based on the Bible. Not far behind it was the Visual Bible's word for word adaptations of Matthew and Acts. Whilst a few more creatively interesting films got made (The Cross, The Miracle Maker) and the odd more controversial film (Book of Life) still got through overall the tone was fairly traditional a move that came to a head with the 2004 release of The Passion of the Christ, in many ways the epitome of this move to a more traditional portrayal of the Bible on film.
After The Passion of the Christ
To say the runaway success of The Passion of the Christ was unexpected is an understatement, but it lead to two different groups of people seeking to make Bible films, but with largely disappointing results (from both a creative and financial point of view). One the one hand were conservative Christians trying to get Hollywood to finance their pet projects. A huge proportion of the films announced failed to make it onto the big screen and those that did were panned by critics. On the other were the money men, who smelt the opportunity, but lacked the necessary understanding of the landscape that was required to make money. There were a few successes - The History Channel's The Bible drew better than expected audiences - but overall he two groups failed to find projects that would satisfy both their objectives. Typical of this phenomena is 2014's Noah - too experimental to do well with Christians, yet too biblical to do well with fans of Aronofsky's previous films, the film failed to find a big enough audience. No surprise then that 2015 and 2016's seem to have approved with lower budgets but only needing to appeal to a more niche demographic in order to make a return on its investment.
It will be interesting to revisit this post in the years to come to see if, and indeed when, a new era arrives and in which direction if moves.