• 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


    Wednesday, September 30, 2009

    Paul Flesher on Jesus Christ, Superstar and Ten Commandments

    Having enjoyed Paul Flesher and Robert Torry's "Film and Religion: An Introduction" it's been a shame that they have used their blog so sparingly. Indeed Flesher's two recent posts, on Jesus Christ, Superstar and The Ten Commandments (1956), are the first entries for 2009.

    Unfortunately, I've not got time to go into the details (it's just turned midnight as I write), but to summarise, his piece on The Ten Commandments compares it to the work of Melito of Sardis, whilst his post on Jesus Christ, Superstar looks at the love triangle at the core of the film. It's interesting stuff so here's hoping these posts mark the start of more frequent blog posts from Paul Flesher.

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    Friday, September 25, 2009

    Kings is Officially Cancelled

    I've been meaning to post this up for a while. NBC's modernised version of the David story, Kings, has officially been cancelled. It's hardly surprising for anyone that has been following the show; halfway through it's initial broadcast the rest of the series got delayed until the summer. So on what was the news section of the show's official website there's a note from Kings creator, Michael Green. The jist of what Green says seems to be that NBC were great, but that if they'd promoted the show a little more then perhaps it might have been a hit.

    Incidentally, the show is released on DVD on Tuesday.

    Thanks to Brendan O'Regan for the tip off. Brendan's own write ups of the show have reached episode 9.


    Wednesday, September 23, 2009

    Ben Hur, Ben Hur, Ben Hur

    What is it with Ben Hur at the moment? Firstly, following the première of the live show on Thursday last week, there have been a few reviews, most notably from The Guardian who have produced a glut of articles about the production.

    Their main review gives it a paltry 2 stars out of 5, but there's also a review on their theatre blog called "Ben Hur Live: Big Ideas Add Up To A Big Yawn". On top of that there's another preview article on it from their Mark Epsiner, and then yesterday, racing commentator Graham Goode added another view. Oh, and Friday's Guardian featured "What to Say About... Ben Hur Live at the O2 Arena" which also sums up the reviews from Liam Steel in the Independent, Nick Curtis of the London Evening Standard and the Times', Benedict Nightingale. And just as The Guardian's Michael Billington gave this only two stars, so to does The Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer. There's also a review come press round up at The Stage.

    Aside from the goings on at the former Millennium Dome, Lew Wallace's novel is also popping up in various other places. I've already made various posts on the Ben Hur mini-series which is coming to the end of filming, but I got word last week from German Jesus films expert Thomas Langkau that the series will air on the German TV station Pro7 at Easter.

    Lastly, Juliette Harrisson has also posted some classical thoughts on the 1959 movie adaptation of Wallace's novel.


    Monday, September 21, 2009

    Death of Frank Deasy

    I was very sorry to hear about the death of Frank Deasy, writer of the BBC/HBO mini-series The Passion. Deasy did a great job on that programme - crafting a compelling account without resorting to the usual anti-Semitic Jesus film stereotypes - but will best be remembered for his work on Prime Suspect 7.

    Deasy was sadly only 49 when he died. He had been fighting a long battle with liver cancer, and died during a transplant operation on Thursday. Just a few days before he had an article published in the Observer explaining his difficulties in finding a donor, which combined with a similar plea on Irish radio saw a leap of 10,000 people asking for organ donor cards. Fittingly, there's a follow up to that article in yesterday's Observer along with an Obituary. There's a brief paragraph on The Passion therein:
    The Passion, the gospel according to Deasy, which the BBC screened at Easter 2008, seemed in contrast to his other work, except for the strong human values. "What I personally was fascinated by was the duality of Jesus in his divinity and his humanity," Deasy told Christian Today. "This is essentially a mystery, but his humanity has to be total, otherwise he is somewhat of a tourist in his own Passion. I've tried to find a human truth that feels real and that is not always the same as a theological truth, and so I would hope that people would be open to the fact they are watching a piece of drama rather than a theological treatise."
    Various other news outlets are recording this including the BBC. I actually heard about this first from Mark Goodacre who, as historical consultant to The Passion, know Deasy quite well, and he talks a little bit about Deasy's work in his appearance on Duke University TV's Online Office Hours, which is now available to watch for anyone who missed it live. Mark also mentions that the show is due to air on HBO next year, most likely with a different title.

    Deasy's interviews about The Passion are still available to listen to at rejesus.co.uk.


    Thursday, September 17, 2009

    More on Ben Hur Première

    Following on from yesterday's post about the live version of "Ben Hur", The Guardian website has a video feature about the show. The $14 million production premières tonight and has gained a fair bit of media attention. The Guardian's video talks to some of the key members of the production team including creator Franz Abraham, who talks very passionately about his show. There's also some footage (presumably from some of the rehearsals).

    I still find it difficult to imagine what it will be like to watch. I imagine the audience will be so far away that it will be totally different to watching theatre, and so I can understand director Philip McKinley's description of it as an "operatic sports event".

    I'm hoping it runs long enough for the ticket price to come down a bit, as I am certainly intrigued. Even if they don't, Abraham talks about being ruined if this fails to come off, so hopefully it will run long enough for it not to be a total disaster for him, even if it doesn't run for 50 years.


    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Ben Hur Live Premières Tomorrow

    Back in November I mentioned plans to produce a live version of "Ben Hur" at the O2 Arena. The show is set to première tomorrow, and news of the production has found its way onto the front page of the BBC website. This follows an article about the show in Variety last month.

    For those not in the know, the O2 arena is the former Millennium Dome, which is big enough to allow the show to feature a live chariot race, with the horses apparently reaching 55km/h. That, however, is not the productions only bold move. Inspired by The Passion of the Christ the film's actors will speak in Aramaic and Latin. The production's creator, Franz Abraham, has spent 15 years making the show reality but is predicting that it will run for "50 years".

    The score has been composed by former drummer in "The Police", Stewart Copeland. Copeland' early months were spent in the Middle East,so it's no surprise to hear that his music for the show will have an Arabic feel.

    Tickets for the show are still available from the O2 website.

    Monday, September 14, 2009

    La Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba)

    Henri Andréani, Pathé, France, 1913, 19 mins
    One of the things that has changed as a result of the birth and growth of film is a universalising in standards of beauty. Whereas, in the past, curvy women were seen as the ideal in some cultures and but not in others, and different skin tones were championed from place to place, today such variety has largely disappeared and been replaced by a standardising of ideas as to what is and is not beautiful.

    This effect is something that is simply demonstrated by La Reine de Saba (1913) based on the story of Solomon and the glamorous Queen of Sheba. It's a a well-loved biblical tale which has inspired a wealth of romantic interpretations from Handel's "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" to the 1959 film Solomon and Sheba starring Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida. But, in the biblical text, there's actually no specific indication of a romance between the two monarchs. Of course Solomon had 700 wives, most of which were royalty from foreign tribes, but using there are two major objections to such conjecture. Firstly, it is doubtful that many of these marriages contained any actual romance. The majority of them would have been made for political purposes, treaties etc., and whilst lust may also have been a factor, this is also distinct from romance. Secondly, whilst this story is included immediately before the statistics about Solomon's marriages, this does not necessarily mean that this is an example of one of them. Indeed, the absence of any suggestion that the two were married may actually indicate that this is intended as a(n ironic?) contrast.

    What's also interesting about the original story is that it's a rare example in scripture of the female gaze. Obviously we also find this in Song of Solomon, but these are rare examples. Even Ruth and Esther are written from a more male point of view. So perhaps this is why the story has generally been interpreted as romantic despite any specific statement to that effect.

    It's not surprising, then, to find indications of romantic attraction in La Reine de Saba: she hears of his greatness and comes to visit; when she meets Solomon she, very symbolically, removes her veil; she wonders at his wisdom and building programme and showers him with gifts; Solomon gives her gifts in return; the two are clearly smitten; a jealous lover (Horam) is introduced and plans to kill Solomon; Solomon and the queen kiss, but when the queen is called back to her own country Solomon refuses to kiss her goodbye; finally, the queen replaces her veil as she leaves.

    Yet, to the modern viewer, the source of Solomon's attraction is not particularly obvious. The queen is far from early 20th century perceptions of beauty. She is probably at least a (UK) size 16 and, gasp, has hairy armpits. These days this actress would struggle to find a job as a villainous school teacher. The hairy armpits, of not only the queen but also of her courtiers, is particularly interesting because this is something that seems to have changed even in my own lifetime. I clearly remember at school discussing the perception that continental European women had hairy armpits - born out by meeting actual German girls on my exchange trip there in the late 80s. Nowadays, this is very rare. Aside from a the shock caused by Julia Roberts, once (!), I can't remember the last time I saw a picture on the media of a woman with hairy armpits. Thus two previous opposing standards of beauty have become one during my lifetime alone. It seems a shame to me that what is considered beautiful has become quite so standardised, particularly given that in reality, even within the same culture, different men like different things and different women like different things. I should add that the photo used above is actually from the now lost 1921 Fox film The Queen of Sheba starring Betty Blythe.

    Body hair and beauty aside, the film's biggest set piece is another particularly notable moment, showing the queen's journey to Jerusalem. The procession is huge and seems to incorporate a number of ethic groups. There are Arab men wearing typically "Islamic" hats, including a handful of snake charmers, and there are sub-Saharan African men in conventional dress for that region including spears and so forth. My guess is that this is an attempt to incorporate the disparate theories as to the location of Sheba, though to be either somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula or from around modern day Ethiopia. It's notable, however, that the queen herself, is white.

    The plot summary provided by the organisers of the "Ancient World in Silent Cinema II" event gave the film the following synopsis:
    King Solomon displays his judgement and wisdom in and around Jerusalem. The Queen of Sheba hears of the fame of Solomon and, following an exchange of letters between them, travels to Jerusalem in a great procession to meet him. She is awed by his wisdom and wealth. Solomon reciprocates with gifts. The jealousy of the queen’s follower Horam is aroused by the feasts given by Solomon. Horam is killed by Solomon’s guards outside the royal bedroom. Messengers from the queen’s court bring news of disorder in her country, so King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba are forced to part.
    Campbell and Pitts don't cover this film, and the BFI database only has a single sentence by way of summary. "Costume epic drama based on the biblical story of Queen Sheba and King Solomon."

    Photo used above is from the now lost 1921 Fox film The Queen of Sheba.

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    Friday, September 11, 2009

    Films and 90 Days Through the Bible

    RC of Strange Culture is trying to read the Bible in 90 days. As he does so, he's posting a few thoughts on the cinematic potential in what he reads. So far he's written on Genesis and Exodus. I've written quite a bit on films about Genesis and Exodus, though frustratingly I can't work out a way to track my older posts for these labels. I also wrote an article a few years ago on Genesis films.

    It looks like I've seen a few more films from Genesis than RC. I'm a big fan of the African La Genesse (pictured), Green Pastures, Huston's The Bible and the various films in The Bible Collection that touch on stories from the Bible's opening book. As for Exodus films, I started writing a book on that years ago, but only got halfway before I lost my weekly writing day. I think Moses the Lawgiver is my favourite, though I'm still in awe of watching L'exode a couple of months back.

    Anyway, I look forward to reading RC's thought on the rest of the Bible as he progresses.

    Thursday, September 10, 2009

    Pop Classics: Jesus Christ Superstar

    I'm very much enjoying Juliette Harrisson's Pop Classics blog, particularly when she turns her attention to Bible films. The latest film based on the scriptures to which she's turned her attention is 1973's Jesus Christ, Superstar (all my posts on this film). Juliette seems to be very good at finding a new angle, and in this case her analysis of the film's costumes are very interesting. They are much commented on, of course, but few writers go beyond noting the mix of ancient and "modern" (and the datedness of the "modern"). Here's a brief excerpt:
    He [Pilate] also wears a rather lovely golden laurel wreath. Laural wreaths were prizes in much older Greek athletic competitions, while Caesar made a point of refusing a crown in public to avoid looking like a monarch (although he was a dictator, he was careful never to call himself a king). Like the rest of Pilate's costume, this is not related to actual Roman dress, but to modern perceptions of what it is to be Roman.
    Incidentally, my other favourite female writing informatively about the accuracy of historical films, The Guardian's Alex von Tunzelmann recently posted an amusing piece on The Mission. Her conclusion? "It might all have been avoided if they'd had some karaoke bars"...Well quite.


    Tuesday, September 08, 2009

    Ron Reed on Whistle Down the Wind

    Over at Soul Food Movies, Ron Reed has written a nice piece on Whistle Down the Wind. It's been a while since I've seen this film, but the black and white images and the stark, rugged backdrops keep it fresh in the meory. In particular, Ron talks about the performance of Alan Barnes who plays the scene-stealing young boy.

    Thinking about the film almost 50 years later, it seems to me that Barnes' performance embodies the film itself. His wide-eyed innocence matches the nostalgic simplicity of this low-budget, film. Not only was it not shot in a sumptuous Hollywood studio, but it was shot in Britain, and rural northern Britain at that. The rugged Pennine landscapes may remain to this day, but the make up of the farms and villages are long gone. Likewise, it's hard to imagine this story happening today. Barnes would most likely be shut inside playing on his Wii, not allowed to go to the barn alone in case he ran into, well, an unsavoury character hiding therein. And doubtless Bates would be far too scared of being caught and branded a paedophile to hang around enjoying the children's hospitality.

    Even were such a movie to be made today, it would be difficult for the filmmakers to avoid an uncomfortable, suspicious atmosphere in showing a relationship between a young boy and a unrelated, hitherto unknown man. You only have to look at how little evidence the makers of Doubt required to perfectly balance the "did he / didn't he" question that dominated post-viewing discussions.

    Anyway, Ron's conclusion is particularly worth quoting:
    But the world of the film is unique, and for all its simplicity it grows richer on repeat viewings. Perhaps the film escapes the expected coyness because we are constantly aware that the man in the barn is not Jesus – he may even be an escaped criminal – and the convolutions the children indulge to sustain belief take the piss out of adult "true believers." At the same time their simple loving concern for this man has an undeniable sacredness about it. There's a thin line between serving Jesus and visiting a criminal, whether in a stable or in a prison.

    Monday, September 07, 2009

    My Greenbelt Talk Available Online

    I've had a number of people ask about getting hold of my Greenbelt talk. The majority of Greenbelt seminars are recorded, but I was on at one of the venues where that wasn't possible. So the bad news is that the quality isn't great here, as I had to record this on my laptop, but the good news is that it's free! (Greenbelt seminar downloads usually cost £2). Feel free to post any comments below or email me.

    Anyway, you can download my talk - Biblical Horror Stories for Children - from my (currently hibernating) Jesus Films podcast site.

    [To save a copy click on the download link under the "Audio MP3" icon. That will take you through to another page. Right click on the "download" button and chose "Save Target As" (Internet Explorer) or "Save Link As" (Firefox) or similar for other browsers.]

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    Friday, September 04, 2009

    Greenbelt 2009

    I've been meaning to write a little bit about Greenbelt ever since I got back on Tuesday, but haven't quite managed it. Having not gone since 2007 due to having a 2 week old baby and no cash, it had felt like a long wait, but ultimately it proved to be well worth it.

    The main thing for me was, I guess, my talk, something I had wanted to do for a long time. Inevitably I ended up speaking at the same time as (but in a different venue to) Greenbelt's biggest named speaker - Rob Bell. It was Bell's only speaking date in the UK for all of 2009, and though he was doing three talks, this was the only one that wasn't in a limited-number-of-seats venue, thereby guaranteeing everyone the opportunity to hear him. This was inevitable I suppose. I was the anti-Bell - an almost entirely unknown speaker discussing a difficult topic. Obviously it made sense to have me fill one of the least popular slots. Thankfully, I got a bit of perspective after a while. If, back in February, the Greenbelt team had offered me the chance to talk at Greenbelt, but told me this was the slot I would have had, I would have taken it with both hands and a big smile. And, as it turned out, my venue was reasonably full, so everything worked out well in the end.

    The talk itself went well. There was a desperate, last minute, scramble to find something to put my notes on, and some background noise that made it hard initially to pick up the audience's reactions, but I felt I communicated reasonably well. The questions and comments at the end were interesting and positive, and one old lady made a comment about how the session resolved an issue she'd been struggling with for a long, long time. I almost shed a tear at that point, but thankfully avoided turning into a blubbering wreck.

    Anyway, now I've blown all of my egomaniac chips all in one go, I should probably talk about the rest of the festival. I didn't actually get to a lot else this year. Having two, very active, kids made it quite hard work. I can tell you, though, that Bubble Inc. is cool, though not, apparently, as much fun as playing in the toy tents on your own.

    I did get to a few grown-up things, mainly talks by two friends - Simon Hall and Stu Jesson. Simon's talk was called "The Thoughtful 'Charismatic'" and was an examination of the Charismatic movement 15 or so years after the Toronto Blessing. He made a number of interesting points, which I'd like to go over again. Stu's talk was "Simone Weil and the Search for Undivided Attention", and was, in honesty, too complex for me to sum up without the risk of getting it totally wrong.

    The only other talk I went to was Symon Hill's "What Would Jesus Spin?" about Christians and the media. Given that Hill is the associate director of the Ekklesia thinktank, I was surprised that this was sparsely attended. I was tempted to ask him whether this was a reflection on his ability to communicate with a mass audience or simply an indication of how lightly most Christians take this subject. Hill's main point seemed to be that it is possible to get good media coverage, but it often doesn't happen, and it's usually the result of very creative hard work.

    Sadly, I didn't get to much film stuff, having already seen Son of Man plenty of times. I'd have liked to introduce it actually, but assumed that someone else was already filling that role.

    The good thing about going to Greenbelt with a large group is that you do tend to pick up what's going on in the festival. Often people speaking there pass comments as well, all of which gives you a good sense of what's happening even if you miss the events themselves. So, in no particular order: Rob Bell was very good and very full (or at least his sessions were); Ockham's Razor was apparently amazing; Musical highlights were Foy Vance, Duke Special and The Welcome Wagon. I also enjoyed hearing Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me" and Cornershop's "Brimful of Asha" drift across the fields to my tent whilst I babysat the kids and finally finished James Crossley's "Jesus in an Age of Terror". More on that another time.

    Sadly, just when I was getting into the swing of things, it all had to end, and so we packed up our tent, whilst some friends pegged down the kids, and drove back home somehow trying to communicate to Nina (3) just how long it would be until Greenbelt next year. Sad to say, I'm already pondering my talk proposal...

    (Photos of Mel, Nina and Digory (left) and me (right) are thanks to Anna Purver)

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    Wednesday, September 02, 2009

    Biblical Studies Carnival 45

    Photo by Tim Parkinson, used under a Creative Commons Licence

    Over at The Golden Rule Michael Kok has posted the 45th Biblical Studies Carnival. It's a got a Simpson's-esque theme and mentions my piece on Elisha, God and the Bears.

    And according to the Biblical Studies Carnival website, Biblical Studies Carnival XLVI will be compiled by Daniel & Tonya of the Hebrew and Greek Reader - October 2009).


    Tuesday, September 01, 2009

    Variety on Dino De Laurentiis

    One of my favourite Old Testament films is 1966's The Bible: In the Beginning. It's famous for being directed by John Huston (pictured above) of course, but it owed a tremendous debt to it's producer Dino De Laurentiis. De Laurentiis turned 90 last month, though he's still involved in making films, returning to historical epics as recently as 2007 when he produced The Last Legion.

    Anyway, Variety marked the occasion by publishing a good-sized quotation from the 2004's "Dino" - a biography of De Laurentiis by Tullio Kezich and Alessandra Levantes. It's a great indication of what filmproducers have to go through to get their pictures made, or at least an interesting insight into how this one went about things.

    Thanks to Peter Chattaway for the link.