• 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


    Monday, February 22, 2010

    Symbolism and Colour in Bible Films

    Many people think that colour only arrived in cinema only arrived sometime after the Second World War. However, the use of colour in moving pictures goes right back to cinema's earliest days. Early films like The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ had no Technicolour processes, so resorted to hand colouring significant elements of each shot. Another technique, used to great effect, was to employ coloured filters, not only to add interest visually, but also to convey the mood of any given moment. Hence a blue filter is used for a shot of Jesus peacefully praying in From the Manager to the Cross, and a red filter anticipates the danger Saul is exposing himself to in Death of Saul 1913.

    Some of the earliest films to experiment with colour were in fact films based on the Bible, Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). Again, the colour in these films was not used merely to impress, but also to stress particular high points. In Ten Commandments DeMille experimented with the new process for the scenes of the exodus - capturing both the joy and the sense of entering a whole new world. With the latter film he saved the colour for the resurrection, and, initially at least, for the opening scene. Later cuts of the film reverted to black and white footage at the beginning, suggesting that DeMille concluded that it was best to save the technique for the story's theological climax.

    The epic scale of many Bible films meant that they were often ideal productions in which to use expensive, but profitable, colour film stock. Movies such as Samson and Delilah (1949), David and Bathsheba (1951) and DeMille's 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments helped forge a trend in particularly vivid colours.

    One Bible film to make particularly good use of these colours was Nicholas Ray's 1961 King of Kings (pictured above). One notable example is Jesus' outer garments which change from brown prior to ministry, to red when he is at the peak of his powers, and then again to white as he becomes the spotless sacrificial lamb.

    The significance of different colours of clothing is also used well in La Genèse (1998). Whereas Jacob and his family wear predominantly wear bright blue, Hamor and his people wear orange. The use of these two complementary colours highlights the gulf that exists between the two peoples, but when God arrives he does so in a dazzling display of white.

    In contrast to the bold colours of the epics, Last Temptation of Christ (1988) uses a very monochrome brown colour palette to stress Jesus' humanity and to contrast Jesus the peasant with the riches and power of Rome. But like most films by Martin Scorsese, red is another prominent colour symbolising the final spilling of Jesus' blood. Of course in this respect, red is a prominent colour in many Jesus films, none more than The Passion of the Christ. Whilst the film opens under an eerie blue filter, the rest of the film is dominated by red blood.

    More recent films have seen another innovation in the use of colour. Son of Man (2006) and Colour of the Cross (2006) both used actors of colour to portray Jesus. This choice not only highlights Jesus' relevance to all peoples, but also the completeness of his incarnation, not only coming as a person, but also as a person from a specific race, place time and culture.

    Labels: ,


    • At 7:10 pm, February 23, 2010, Blogger Peter T Chattaway said…

      Re: the red robe that Jesus wears in King of Kings, remember this? :)

    • At 4:19 pm, March 19, 2010, Blogger Matt Page said…

      I did remember that post actually, though I'd forgotten the way it reinforced the rebel with a cause thing.

      I wonder how closely this matches up on a scene by scene basis. Are these red scenes on a micro level scenes where Jesus is in some way rebelling, or is it just an overall type thing.



    Post a Comment

    << Home