• 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, August 24, 2016

    The Young One (1960)

    I've been watching quite a bit of Luis Buñuel recently and just finished watching The Young One (1960). Without giving too much away a significant part of the plot hangs on the presence of a priest, which is noteworthy for two reasons.

    Firstly because Buñuel is so often seen as anti-clerical, but here, whilst not handling things exactly as we in the 21st century would perhaps hope, the priest is still a somewhat heroic figure, who achieves some good by risking at least his own reputation and perhaps even his life. There are odd and perhaps feeble aspects to him as well, but they serve to make him more human and realistic, rather than despicable. I'm reminded of the way that so many see Buñuel's critique of the priesthood/idealised religion as solely negative but here, this is a primarily positive impact. This rather bolsters my position on Nazarin (1959) which is that Nazarin is a three-dimensional impression of a religious leader - albeit a very flawed one.

    The other pint of interest here is that the actor playing the priest is none other than Claudio Brook who also starred in Exterminating Angel (1962) and Simón del desierto [Simon of the Desert] (1965) for Buñuel and then as Jesus in the Mexican Jesus film Jesús, nuestro Señor (1969). Simón del desierto is next in my next destination for my Buñuel journey and I really must get around to seeing (and reviewing) Jesús, nuestro Señor sometime soon.

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    Tuesday, August 23, 2016

    Book Review: Bigger than Ben-Hur
    The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences

    Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences
    Edited by Barbara Ryan & Milette Shamir

    Syracuse University Press
    269 pages
    ISBN 978-0815634034 (Paperback)

    With the latest cinematic version of in cinemas at the moment, readers might be interested to read Barbara Ryan & Milette Shamir's "Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences, which looks at the forerunners to the latest version, from the book, through stage plays to some of the other filmed versions, including Fred Niblo's 1925 silent movie and the, now more famous, 1959 adaptation, directed by William Wyler. (See all my Ben-Hur related posts)

    There's a good range of experts here from Ancient World in film scholars such as Jon Solomon, whose work will be familiar to many readers here, through to historians such as Eran Shalev. As Ryan and Shamir put it in their introduction "They offer insights to students of popular Christianity and Judaism; to scholars of reading, reception and fandom; to those who investigate the a United States' sense of the Middle East and of Zionism; to researchers who probe the intersection of education and entertainment on stage and on screen; to chroniclers of ways of imaging Jesus Christ, femme fatales, and masculine performance" (p.2) Certainly it's interesting reading scholars from different pools coming together to offer their own insights on different facets of the phenomenon that is all things Ben-Hur.

    The book's subtitle suggests a two or three fold division between the book and its adaptations (and their audiences) but in fact things are much more fluid than that. Whilst Eran Shalev in the book's first main chapter, "Ben-Hur's and America's Rome: From Virtuous Republic to Tyrannous Empire" restricts herself to the book, some of its forerunners and the changes in cultural context in the century or so before the books release, other chapters are content to switch from talking about the book to talking about one of the stage or screen adaptations. Despite Milette Shamir's "Ben-Hur's Mother: Narrative Time, Nostalgia, and Progress in the Protestant Historical Romance" being only the second chapter it ends with a coda reflecting on how the subsequent 1925 and 1959 film adaptations built on the book's portrayals of women as discussed in the rest of the chapter (pp.50-51).

    Not dissimilarly whilst the primary thrust of the first four chapters is to explore key issues relating to the book, both chapters three ("Retelling and Untelling the Christmas story: Ben-Hur, Uncle Midas, and the Sunday-School Movement" by Jefferson J. A. Gatrall) and four ("Holy Lands, Restoration, and Zionism in Ben-Hur" by Hilton Obenzinger) touch on screen adaptations. Obenzinger offers some interesting observations on Wylers mise en scène in the 1959 film and Gatrall discusses the portrayals of Jesus in the 1925, 1959 and 2010 versions (pp.71-72).

    Indeed whilst various essays mention the 2010 Television adaptation in passing (pp.xi,14 and 181) Gatrall is the only one to offer any brief analysis of it. This is something of a strange omission, not least given that the book has ended up as a part of the "Television and Popular Culture" series. Whilst the 2010 adaptation ultimately reached only a limited audience, it would have been nice to see some more, in depth analysis of it.

    The impression left by this omission is that diverse and developing Ben-Hur tradition ground to a halt shortly after 1959, rather than being something that continues to evolve. Similarly the 1988 animated version and the recent arena adaptation (p.14), complete with it's own chariot race round the venue's massive internal space, are important continuity markers in this developing tradition but are again, largely overlooked. This is particularly disappointing given Ryan and Shamir's excellent observation in their introduction that "As each Ben-Hur builds on the last, and strives to top it, the results move ever further from Wallace's years of study toward treating his fiction as an historical narrative to rework." (p.14). It certainly raises the question of how this is true for the biblical epic genre in general and the distance between adapting the text and seeking to outdo previous epic movie for size and spectacle grows and grows.

    Whilst more recent film adaptations of biblical narratives might, at first, appear a far cry from the book's next chapter ("In the Service of Christianity: Ben-Hur and the 'Redemption' of the American Theatre, 1899-1929" by Howard Miller), it could hardly be more relevant. Miller details the extensive marketing strategy utilised by the stage-show's producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger in order to promote their film to the widest possible audience. Klaw and Erlanger realised that the key to making a strong return on what was a hefty financial investment was to entice the devout Protestant / Evangelical population to overcome their principled objections to the theatre as a whole.

    Miller's account will resonate with anyone who has watched the marketing of faith-based films from The Passion of the Christ through to Timur Bekmambetov's latest cinematic adaptation of Ben-Hur (2016). The tactics used, reassurances provided, endorsements given and success achieved are eerily familiar and whilst no film has since come close to reproducing the success of The Passion, it seems that much of the tickets sales the various biblical films have achieved in the intervening period, has been due, in part to production companies employing these tactics.

    Chapters six to nine, then, deal with the film adaptations, though as with the first four chapters there's a good degree of discussion around the other, preceding, works. What's strangely absent, though is any substantial discussion of Kalem's 1907 film adaptation. Again a few of the chapters mention it in passing, it was after all a landmark case that cast it's shadow across all subsequent adaptations in general, but the collection of essays would feel more complete had there been a chapter on some aspect of this ill-fasted production. For example, Ryan and Shamir's introduction references Ted Hovet Jr.'s paper on "The Case of Kalem's Ben-Hur (1907)" (pp. 12-13). Whilst it may not have been possible to reproduce this particular essay, some analysis of the case and its enduring impact would have been most welcome.

    The four chapters begin instead with couple of essays on the 1925 film. In "June Matthis's Ben-Hur: A Tale of Corporate Change and the Decline of Woman's Influence in Hollywood", Thomas J. Slater details the way the movie's original producer and screenwriter, June Matthis, became a scapegoat (p.119) for the struggling production having been given an "impossible task". Matthis had previously enjoyed great success and her successor on Ben-Hur was given a far greater budget with which to create a profitable film. For Slater Matthis's tale is a microcosm of a wider trend that was happening in Hollywood at the time where the numbers of women in significant and influential positions declined substantially.

    It's a very interesting chapter, not least because Matthis struggled to find work at the same level from then onwards, despite the fact "the number of her productions and critical successes easily matched those of almost any male director of her era" (p.110). Indeed many today are surprised when they learn of the far greater levels of equality in the film industry in the first two decades of the twentieth century. My only quibble would be that as interesting as Slater's observations are, ultimately they are about a different film, that is a film that is not Niblo's 1925 Ben-Hur, but another film that, sadly, never got made.

    In contrast, Richard Walsh's "Getting Judas Right: The 1925 Ben-Hur as Jesus Film and Biblical Epic" focuses squarely on the final adaptation. Walsh points out the similarity between the two names Judah and Judas - effectively "English versions of the same Hebrew name" (p.125). Walsh's point is that Niblo's film "'gets Judas right' by offering an empathetic, modern account of Judah/Judas" (p.136).

    The key similarity between the Judas of most Jesus films and the Judah of Niblo's film is the way Judas is often portrayed as a revolutionary trying to raise an army to overthrow Rome. A similar subplot features in both Wallace's novel and Niblo's 1925 adaptation (though not in Wyler's). The pivotal contrast however is that whereas in the Jesus films judas carries on trying to force Jesus' hand, in Ben-Hur (1925) Judah submits his rebellion to the will of Jesus and halts the revolt. The chapter also contains a table comparing the novel, Klaw and Erlanger's play and both film adaptations (p.128-131).

    The following chapter is Ryan's own "Take Up The White Man's Burden: Race and Resistance to Ben-Hur". Ryan investigates the ways in which a John Buchan's 1941 novel "Sick Heart River" resists "Ben-Hur" as well demonstrating that "some Christians have trouble seeing Jesus as Jewish (p.143). Rather than being about either film in particular it focuses on the time between Niblo and Wyler's versions

    Whilst it raises some interesting points it does not, even by its own admission, "offer irrefutable evidence" of the link between the two novels (p.143). Personally I'd go further, far from being "irrefutable" the link seems rather tenuous, and very little evidence for it is offered. This isn't to say the hypothesis isn't interesting and it's good to have a chapter chronicling some of the dissent to Wallace's novel in contrast to overall positive reception by the Christian community.

    This leaves the only essay primarily about the 1959 adaptation, which will, of course, be the first access point to the 'Ben-Hur tradition' Ina Rae Hark's "The Erotics of the Galley Slave: Male Desire and Christian Sacrifice in the 1959 a Film Version of Ben-Hur". This offers a closer inspection of Wyler's film, in particular how it makes Judah "an erotic spectacle and attracts the desiring gazes of other men in the film" (p.178). In doing so, Hark observes how doing this is effectively "deflecting Christ's eroticism" (p.166) as well as delineating the complex network of "fathers and sons" that the story presents"

    So much has been said about Wyler's film, not least in the volume in question, that it's good to have an essay that covers the film in detail, but from a specific angle, albeit one that is mentioned at several other points in the book. As Wyler expert Neil Sinyard points out in the foreword, the film's "homoerotic subtext" overcomes the problem inherent in the novel of how to "explain the motivation behind Messala's malicious treatment of his firmer close friend" (p.xv).

    As someone approaching the subject from the discipline of film rather than literature it would also have been good to have heard a little more from Sinyard whose recent book "A Wonderful Heart: The Films of William Wyler" (2013) is amongst those seeking to rehabilitate the reputation of as one of the finest American directors. He offers some great insights here.

    The tenth chapter, David Mayer's "Challenging a Default Ben-Hur: A Wish List" hopes to persuade future adaptations to rehabilitate several aspects of the novel that all of the previous screen adaptations have overlooked. The first is to ask for a bigger focus on the investment skills of Simonides and Malluch whose wise investments mean that towards the end of the novel Judah Ben-Hur has become one of the richest men in the Roman Empire. The other main area Mayer puts on his wish list is the character of Ira, the "adventuress" who is absent from screen productions ("deliberately pushed aside" p.186). This daughter of the wise man Balthasar contrast strongly with the three other female principals, Judah's mother, sister and wife (Esther) and their seemingly infallible purity.

    Finally Jon Solomon's quirky, yet illuminating "Coda: A Timeline of Ben-Hur Companies, a Brands and Products" forces home the extent to which the name Ben-Hur has far outgrown the significance of Wallace's fairly unremarkable novel. As well providing a little light relief it also amply illustrates the breadth of the impact the novel has had from its initial publication in 1880 to the present day. There's also an additional list of various aspects of Ben-Hur paraphernalia and places that gave been named after it on page 4. Evidence indeed that the 'Ben-Hur tradition' has truly become far, far "bigger than Ben-Hur".

    Ryan and Shamir have pulled together an interesting collections of essays, which will particularly appeal to those who have already studied some more introductory literature on the book or its various adaptations. Overall it's good that they don't spend long retreading basic analysis, particularly given that space is always at a premium. Whilst above I've suggested certain aspects that perhaps ought to have been covered by this volume, I do concede that space is nearly always limited. And the two editors manage to strike a good balance between avoiding tedious repetition from essay to essay, but managing to give the impression of collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas from the impressive range of disciplines represented by this enjoyable book.

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    Saturday, August 06, 2016

    The Shadow of Nazareth (1913)

    Shadow of Nazareth is unusual amongst Jesus films because it sits, somewhat awkwardly between films that are primarily about Jesus, and those where Jesus is a peripheral player, making the odd cameo appearance in an occasional scene.

    The opening credits give us a clue - only the actors playing Barabbas and the fictional Judith Iscariot (sister of Jesus' infamous betrayer) are named. Instead of the focus being Jesus it is on these two, whose role and relationship with Judas are pivotal in the events leading to Jesus's death. Jesus himself is a principal, but in terms of screen time he is far from the lead.

    Whilst the full film runs to only a little over 30 minutes, it manages to include a reasonably complicated plot. Judith is very much the principal character, with whom not only Barabbas, but also a pharisee called Gabrias as well as Caiaphas are in love. An altercation between the three men results in both Barabbas and Caiaphas stabbing Gabrias, and then to further blacken the high priest's character he has Barabbas arrested for the murder. 18 months later and Caiaphas decides that the now imprisoned Barabbas is less of a threat than Jesus and so he persuades Judith to convince Judas to betray him. Jesus is condemned, Judas hangs himself and the liberated Barabbas heads to the nearest tavern.

    That scene instantly reminded me of a similar one from Richard Fleischer's Barabbas (1961)  starring Anthony Quinn. Quinn returns from his ordeal confused but joyful, that is until he spies the now condemned Jesus dragging his cross past the inn's window. His mood darkens instantly. Whilst this later film lacks an obvious homage shot a combination of the actor's demeanour, the joyous bunch of Barabbas's friends surrounding him and the tavern location suggest a certain degree of connectivity.

    Given the antiquity of this film, and the almost 50 year gap between the two it's perhaps unlikely that the Quinn film was directly influenced by Shadow. However, according to Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, there is another connection between the two films.1

    Whilst it is uncredited, the plot for the film, right down to the inclusion of a character named Judith of Nazareth, is taken from an 1893 novel "Barabbas: A Dream of the World's Tragedy" by Marie Correlli. The lack of acknowledgement for Correlli's novel is all the more interesting given the, then still recent, verdict against the producers of the 1907 adaptation of Ben Hur. In that case the film used the novel's title, but was little more than a set up for a glorified chariot race. Shadow of Nazareth seems to have escaped any such censure so it's curious that not only did the filmmakers think the way to stay on the right side of this ruling was to use the plot but not the title, but that they also got away with it.

    Correlli's novel was "a spectacular commercial success" in its own day, being "published in fifty-four editions...and...translated into over forty languages".2, so it's not not unlikely that it influenced Pär Lagerkvist when he wrote his 1950 novel "Barabbas" and perhaps the similarity stems from there. However neither Burnette-Bletsch nor Larry Kreitzer3, who writes about Fleischer's adaptation of Lagerkvist's novel, mention the link. Curiously though Kreitzer does discuss a more recent work on Barabbas, Gerd Thiessen's piece of narrative exegesis "The Shadow of the Galilean".4

    Given the ready made audience for this film, then, it's perhaps not surprising that Shadow of Nazareth performed fairly well. It was slated by many critics, and there is a certain self-seriousness about it, but whilst the film didn't make the link to the novel explicit, its fans nevertheless appear to have turned out to see the film version. There are a couple of nice shots, notably the one captured above which works far better as a moving shot than as a still, though several compound bad composition with over zealous cropping. There are also a few bits of symbolism and imagery, most notably the cross shaped twig that a repentant Judith finds in the garden where Judas has hanged himself, and of a cross symbol being imposed at the front of one shot. This was three years before Griffith would do something similar in Intolerance.

    It could I suppose, be argued that, like this film, Griffith's film's comparatively short treatment of his Jerusalem story is another example of Jesus as a minor principal. Not dissimilar in this respect was L'Aveugle de Jérusalem four years before in 1909. Yet in the modern era there have been very few such films. Perhaps the closest is this year's Risen though there Jesus becomes more and more central as the film progresses, not unlike The Third Man's Harry Lime.

    It's hard to escape the feeling that the disappearance of this cinema of the religious middle ground is the result of market economics coming more to the fore as producers became more sure footed in their understanding of different audiences, perhaps particularly in the context of evolving secularisation and a growing polarisation between those of faith and those without. Over time audiences have separated out into a segment of practising Christians who want to watch filmmakers adapt the Bible, and the rest of society, or at least the portion who want to just enjoy the spectacle and excess of the epic genre without the pluses and minuses that religion brings with it. Films like Risen are perhaps an attempt to build a bridge between the two groups: it's failure at the box office suggests that much has changed since 1913.

    Whilst the entire film is not currently available outside of film archives, the first reel is available to view at archive.org

    1 - Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda. "The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016). p.132-157
    2 - Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda. The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016). p.140
    3 - Kreitzer, Larry J., "The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow." (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). p.67-87
    4 - Thiessen, Gerd. "The Shadow of the Galilean" (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987) and subsequent reprints.

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    Wednesday, August 03, 2016

    Slaves of Babylon (1953)

    Despite having been the subject of some of the very earliest Bible films, the various stories from the Book of Daniel rather fell from favour, to the extent that Slaves of Babylon is the only feature length take on one of the Israel's most iconic prophets (barring a handful of operas and musicals). Even on this occasion the filmmakers didn't take a huge amount of interest in the biblical subject matter and instead shift the focus to a fictional character called Nahum (Richard Conte). Nahum is one of the more rebellious Jewish slaves in post-exilic Babylon and so, after a couple of early skirmishes with the Babylonian authorities, Daniel sends to convey God's message to Cyrus (Terry Kilburn).

    By this stage Daniel (Jewish actor Maurice Schwartz who would also feature in Salome in the same year) is now getting on in years and perhaps, given the filmmakers were clearly happy to use creative licence with the text, it might have been better to have been more relaxed on this point and create an all round action hero than to introduce a whole new character who inevitably steals the show. Nahum's mission is to find Cyrus who at this point is still just a shepherd, convince him of his divine mandate, teach him in the art of becoming a king, manage his campaign to make him and lead his attack on Babylon.

    Various obstacles stand in Cyrus's way, not least and attempted assassination at the hands of a exotic dancer played by future Catwoman Julie Newmar who uses her feline charms to attempt to take Cyrus' life. It's a plan that not even Newmar's most famous role would have dared to pull off and is thwarted by the ever alert Nahum. Cyrus does seem to have an eye for the ladies though and his obsession with Linda Christian's princess does rather distract him from the task at hand.

    Interspersed with this main plot are various stories from the early part of the Book of Daniel, his night, unharmed in the lion's den; Nebuchadnezzar's madness resulting in him eating grass; and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego being saved from the flames of the furnace. And of course there's the pivotal moment where Belshazzar's feast is interrupted by a giant hand writing "Mene, mene, tekel upharsin" on the walls of the banquet hall to prophesy his downfall. The special effects leave something to be desired - this latter scene relying on broadly the same technique (projection) as Pathé's Le Festin de Balthazar from 1905).

    One of the episodes from the Book of Daniel that the film does leave out is the story about how Daniel and his colleagues choose not to eat the Babylonian's food, opting instead for a diet based largely on vegetables. It's not a story rich in dramatic potential, but it does really set Daniel and his friends apart from modern Christians. The film's costume design does place a very prominent Star of David across Daniel's chest, but otherwise Daniel is not particularly Jewish (as opposed to proto-Christian). But then also missing is the incident where Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a statue and none of his advisers can decipher it. None, that is, except, Daniel. It's perhaps not surprising that the second half of the Book of Daniel - the apocalyptic part - is absent, but this first omission does rather strip him of the gift that caused him to rise to prominence in the first place - the gift of interpreting dreams.

    Whilst Slaves of Babylon was the product of a major studio (Columbia) it's fairly low budget and it shows. None of the male stars have any charisma, though Christian and Newmar do make up for the deficit to some extent, and whilst the plot adds a little excitement and allows a more tangential exploration of the story, it ends up compressing both stories so much that neither retains that much interest.

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