• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Thursday, August 23, 2007

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Joshua at Jericho

    I've been running a course with a few of my friends called Through the Bible in Five and a Half Years where we spend an evening looking at a different book of the Bible each month. This Monday we were looking at Joshua. One of the things I like to do is use clips from Bible films (assuming they tie in with what we're discussing), but Joshua is surprisingly under-represented in this respect. I'm currently reading Stephen Lang's "Bible on the Big Screen" and one of his theories is that the stories that were made into movies in the early days, and were successful have tended to be remade because of it, whilst others that didn't get covered in that early period have never quite made their mark, and have thus tended to be ignored. I also wonder with Joshua whether the subject matter has been considered too unpalatable for a wider audiences, particularly since the Holocaust.

    In any case the only film version of the Joshua story I have is from the "Greatest Heroes of the Bible" TV series which aired on NBC in late 1978 and early 1979. I've only seen a few of this series, but they are generally very low budget. This episode pulls out a few special effects when Jericho's walls finally fall, but it's mainly in the form of drawn on lightning and a few pyrotechnics.

    Despite the all round poor production values of this series it did provide me with a clip. One of the things I wanted to look at was how the biblical account is often altered in order to make some of these stories more palatable. They essentially load the dice in favour of the Israelites/God in order to make the death of God's "enemies" less troubling.

    This film is perhaps the best example of this tendency I have ever seen. I used the opening piece of narration to show this tendency. It talks of Jericho being
    impregnable, says it was controlled by ruthless Hittites controlled area, that the people had grown fat, become debased and filthy and that they committed human sacrifices. This is followed by a scene inside the city where we see children stealing and various of ethically dubious acts occuring. Whilst some of this is true, it's noticeably absent in the Jericho narrative itself.

    As it happens I could have used various sections of this film for exactly the same purpose. Jericho's King - King Agadiz (Sidney Lassick) - is extremely hard to like. He is instantly annoying, childish, overweight, whining and super, super camp. Sidney Lassick is best known for his earlier role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and those who saw him in that film will find it influences their perception of this role also.

    Agadiz relies a great deal on his commander, Assurabi (Cameron Mitchell) who by contrast is proud, stubborn and arrogant. Whilst Agadiz flaps around wondering what to do Assurabi hatches a plot to lure the Israelites to the city (unaware that that is Israel's plan anyway by stealing their children (from a convenient canvas day nursery) and sacrificing them to their Gods. This episode is unacceptably fictional, being true to neither the letter nor the spirit of the book in question. When we're shown one of the children being sacrificed it is the cutest most passive child one could imagine. Later one of Jericho's ordinary citizen's is shown celebrating his sacrificing one of the Israelite children.

    When the Israelites finally come to attack the city Assurabi and his comrades mock them and entice them further, whilst the priests and the king sacrifice a goat to their God that they have named Jehovah. In short, the film does everything it possibly can to demonise the residents of Jericho and paint them in a negative light. The portrayal of the Israelites and the Canaanites in the Bible is hardly balanced, but it is much more shades of grey. Joshua's people have just emerged from 40 years in the desert typified by moaning and their lack of faithfulness - we're told little of the Canaanites other than that they worship the wrong Gods and that they possess the land assigned for Israel. The changes made to the film polarise the respective camps into shades black and white. It's abundantly clear who the goodies are and who the baddies are, and almost impossible to feel sympathy for the residents of Jericho who's major crime is living in the wrong place.

    In order to really do this, and to clarify why Rahab is saved the film spends an awfully large proportion of the film on fictional episodes, and doesn't really get to the meat of the story until towards the end of the film. The scenes work something like this:
    [extra-biblical episode - Introduction]
    Sending of the spies - (Josh 2:1)
    [extra-biblical episode - King and commander plot]
    [extra-biblical episode - Jericho attacks Israel]
    [extra-biblical episode - Child sacrifice]
    King hears of the spies - (Josh 2:2)
    [extra-biblical episode - Rahab summons the spies]
    Rahab's deal with the spies - (Josh 2:8-14)
    Rahab covers for the spies - (Josh 2:3-6)
    The spies escape - (Josh 2:15-21)
    Spies report back - (Josh 2:23-24)
    Joshua prays - (Josh 6:2)
    Jericho locks its gates - (Josh 6:1)
    Israelites march around Jericho - (Josh 6:6-14)
    [extra-biblical episode - Joshua and his generals confer]
    Fall of Jericho - (Josh 6:15-25)
    One of the things that occurred to me whilst watching this is that the biblical Rahab's designation as a prostitute almost certainly meant she was a cult prostitute, so her inclusion not only in the people of Israel, but in the ancestors of both David and, therefore, Jesus is quite incredible. Unfortunately, the film isn't able to convey the radical turn around required here. When Rahab first appears it is immediately obvious who she is - she is the only red haired person in all of Jericho. By showing compassion right at the start of the film her character arc is somewhat truncated and her role in the film is much more temple dancer than temple prostitute.

    As the film reaches it's conclusion it gets even more ridiculous. Assurabi's taunts degenerate to the point where he can only shout at Joshua "Let me hack you into bits…BIIIIIIITS!" Joshua isn't phased he's already seen God speak in a manner somewhat reminiscent of plume of polluted smoke billowing from the clouds. Besides he has to risk exhausting his troops by having them inexplicably jog on the spot for 10 minutes before they make their final charge. This is made all the stranger by the fact that the walls begin to fall when Joshua throws his sword into the ground. Like something out of a bad King Arthur movie (and goodness knows there have been plenty of them) the moment it lands point-in into the ground it's struck by lightning which sends a tremor along the ground which eventually fells the walls. Once inside it turns out that soldiers of Jericho don't actually have any ability with the sword. This is just as well for the Israelites - they are more than content to stick their swords under their enemies arms and hope the camera isn't watching too closely.

    All in all then, this is a terrible, terrible film, and whilst it's a particularly pertinent example of the dice-loading tendency inherent in many Bible films, it has little value in and of itself.

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    • At 7:11 pm, August 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Hi Matt! This takes me back. I remember seeing a few episodes of "Greatest Heroes of the Bible." I still recall the episodes about Abraham (?), Joshua, Daniel (?) and Esther. I was in Grade 2 at that time, so I had no idea as to whether they were cheesy or not, but I think I enjoyed the Joshua episode. Is the series on DVD? I'd love to see it again. Could be one of those "it's so bad, it's good" type of things, you know.

      BTW, the "Masada" DVD is coming out September 11. I know it's not "biblical," strictly speaking, but its story happened within the biblical era -- the uprising of the last Zealots after the First Jewish Revolt. It's a great mini series, so I hope you'll feature it in your blog when it comes out.

    • At 9:04 am, August 26, 2007, Blogger Witlessd said…

      There is a DVD which includes eight episodes. It can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Greatest-Heroes-Bible-Collection/dp/B0000633T8/ref=pd_bbs_1/102-9737711-4784969?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1188114930&sr=8-1.

      However, the "Joshua" epsiode is not included in this compliation, so I am wondering, Matt, how you gotto see the "Joshua" episode - and get those screencaps. This suggests that there is another DVD somewhere that I'm unaware of. Can you advise?

    • At 2:37 pm, August 28, 2007, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for your comments

      Edmund - I was going to point you in the same direction as David has done.

      I don't actually own this DVD, and I'm not aware of Joshua being released on DVD either. The screen captures are taken using a digital camera whilst I was playing my VHS copy - hence the poor quality. I do hope to get the full set of this series one day, but, at present, it's not a high priority.


    • At 10:51 pm, September 08, 2007, Blogger Witlessd said…

      That explains it then! I can understand why getting the whole collection on DVD is not a high priority. A most curious series altogether.


    • At 1:06 pm, March 12, 2009, Blogger Devid said…

      Hi Friends, Jericho is my Favorite tv show. I got a wonderful source here to watch Jericho episodes.This is American serial drama centers on a town named Jericho in Kansas. Peaceful life of Jericho residents’ faces a scare when a nuclear explosion threatens to destroy everything.

    • At 7:44 pm, October 24, 2010, Blogger Unknown said…

      I watch Jericho TV Show online. Its my favorite show and I like it very much. The plot of the show is very interesting.

    • At 12:35 pm, December 22, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Its really a good show and must be continued but unfortunately this show has been canceled after completing its 1st season. I have seen Jericho Season 1 online.


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