• 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, October 24, 2016

    The Canon Around the Millennium

    The impending arrival of the new millennium was accompanied by an unprecedented volume of productions in a surprisingly short amount of time. The Golden Era of biblical epics had produced over 90 Old Testament films in just a seventeen year period; the experimental era a similar number in 22 years. But between the start of 1990 and the start of 2004 there were around 120 different productions to gain some kind of significant release based on the Hebrew Bible alone, not to mention the 25 or so films to feature Jesus in some form and a handful of productions based on Acts.

    The numbers of films getting a mainstream cinema release was fairly low. The Prince of Egypt (1998) enjoyed box office success, but no other film enjoyed such a wide release. That said there were many more independent films produced for the cinema. In addition to The Prince of Egypt the three years from 1998 to 2000 also saw the release of Hal Hartley's millennium reflection Book of Life (1998); Superstar (dir. Bruce McCulloch, 1999), featuring comic cameos from Will Ferrell as Jesus; Mary, Mother of Jesus (dir. Kevin Connor, 1999) starring a young Christian Bale as Jesus; and the Welsh-Russian animated collaboration The Miracle Maker (2000) directed by Derek W. Hayes and Stanislav Sokolov.

    Whilst the ever increasing costs of producing successful mainstream movies, for a audience that was perceived - perhaps incorrectly - to be shrinking, meant that big cinematic releases were few and far between, the genre was thriving in other areas. Production arrangements were changing radically, most significantly in the area of collaboration. Television companies from different countries would come together and pool their budgets to produce films that could be broadcast on their different networks at home, often with some dubbed dialogue. Following release they could also be sold on DVD. This was the model used by Luxe Vide for their expansive Bible Collection series which ran to seventeen episodes.

    Another new area of development were films made more for Christian audiences might be broadcast on Christian television networks as well as enjoying a DVD release. Indeed the preponderance of animated series aimed more at children in this era (including The Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible (fourteen biblical entries), Animated Stories from the Bible (thirty-six entries) and Veggie Tales, whose more fluid adaptations make them harder to quantify.

    A few years into this period cinema celebrated its hundredth birthday and the centenary of the first Bible film followed a few years later, so by this point, few of the main stories from the Bible had not been covered at least once. However many of those that had only been sparsely covered in the past - not least when compared to their prior significance in the Bible, interpretative teaching from the Bible and church art - began to gain greater coverage. Just as the filmic canon was beginning to be established, it began to be challenged.

    The most significant challenge to the established order was The Bible Collection's 1998 adaptation Jeremiah (dir. Harry Winer). Whilst a few films had touched on the fall of Jerusalem only the 1922 German film Der Kampf um Jerusalem1 had previously given any real significance to the prophet associated with the Bible's longest book.2 Along similar lines the "Animated Stories from the Bible" series produced cartoon versions of Daniel (dir. Richard Rich, 1993) and Elisha: Man of God (dir. Richard Rich, 1994). Daniel was also included as an episode in the Testament: The Bible in Animation series of short films aimed at a more grown-up section of the market. It is undoubtedly significant that all of these projects had strong links with the church and perhaps saw part of their mandate more as popularising the stories of the Bible than continuing cinematic tradition.

    However, there were also filmmakers from outside of Christianity seeking to re-engage with the stories that filmmakers had appeared to forget such as Israeli director Einat Kapach's film Bat Yiftach (Jephtah's Daughter, 1996). One other interesting development in this period was the release of the Liken Bible Series which contained both episodes based on biblical stories and other based on the Book of Mormon such as Nephi & Laban (dirs. Dennis Agle Jr., Aaron Edson, 2003) and Ammon and Lamoni (dirs. Dennis Agle Jr., Aaron Edson, 2004).

    1 - For an interesting paper about the history about this once unknown, then found "orphan" film read Jan Christopher Horak's paper, "The Strange Case of The Fall of Jerusalem : Orphans and Film Identification"
    2 - Based on number of words in the original language.


    Monday, October 17, 2016

    The Canon in the "Experimental" Era

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.
    The "Golden Era" of Bile films ended with a series of perceived failures leading the major studios to be cautious about investing more money into opulent epics that were unlikely to provide a good return, yet amongst writers, directors, evangelists and actors there was no shortage of interest in adapting the Bible. This led to a more experimental age. Forced to work with lower budgets, filmmakers devised more creative ways to explore the biblical text. Furthermore, liberated from the pressure of having to recoup massive budgets, meant that filmmakers no longer had to aim for the middle-of-the-road lowest common denominator. They could more boldly pursue their own artistic vision, pose their own questions and explore issues that more mainstream movies simply could not risk.

    The difference between these two eras is perhaps most starkly illustrated in the contrast between the Jesus movies of the two ages. 1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir. George Stevens) was a big budget, yet respectful and deferential, epic which presented a Jesus who conformed to, rather than questioned, the establishment view of Jesus. Just eight years later, three very different Jesus films were battling it out at the box office, all with startling different portrayals of Jesus, all of which had clearly departed from the traditional funding model.

    The most famous of the three films was Jesus Christ, Superstar. Superstar started life out as a single in 1968, which then led to a concept album (1970), and then to an arena tour and wildly successful theatre productions on both sides of the Atlantic.1 Thus by the time the film was released in 1973 there was already a ready made audience for the film, and indeed much of the phenomenal support that the previous incarnations had enjoyed, transferred to the movie. As a result the production's portrayal of Jesus - as a visionary who loses his way in the adulation that accompanies his growing popularity - was able to be far more radical than anything that had preceded it and whilst it was set in the Israeli desert it blurred the boundaries between Roman Judea and modern-day America.

    In a not dissimilar fashion, another musical - Stephen Schwarz's Godspell - also appeared on Broadway in the early seventies before being adapted for the silver screen. Here however the adaption was more innovative from a formal angle setting the story firmly in modern-day New York and dressing Jesus and his disciples in clown suits. Whilst the film's theology was not quite as radical as Superstar, it nevertheless ended the film without a traditional resurrection scene (which is present in both stage-shows in a fashion at Jesus's gleaming reappearance at the final curtain).

    The third Jesus film of 1973 is also one that is primarily about the music, The Gospel Road (dir. Robert Elfstrom) starring Johnny Cash. This film also relied on an unconventional funding model and utilised a combination of star-power and enthusiasm amongst religious groups to bring in its audience. Whereas Superstar and Godspell had used their degrees of liberty to offer unorthodox takes on the gospel narratives, The Gospel Road used its relative freedom to push a more overtly evangelistic agenda. This was even more the case with Jesus (1979) which was specifically produced with an evangelistic use in mind. The very same year the most controversial film to portray events from the gospels was released. Monty Python's Life of Brian, which followed the character Brian of Nazareth whose life coincided at key with that of his town's most famous citizen, proved hugely controversial on its release for it's supposedly blasphemous portrayal of Jesus. The following decade two even more unconventional films about the life of Christ emerged - Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Jesus of Montreal by Denys Arcand. Not all cinema releases chose such an unconventional path; King David (dir. Bruce Beresford, 1985) was arguably less, rather than more, controversial than its 1951 predecessor David and Bathsheba.

    The move of biblical films to outside of the mainstream was also reflected in the range of countries which made films during this period. If Hollywood's golden era had also been reflected in a growing interest in countries further afield, that tendency only increased during the late sixties, seventies and eighties. In particular in Europe where Greece, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands all released their maiden Bible films. However, many of these productions were not made to be viewed in cinemas, but at home on their respective television networks.

    Whilst television had emerged during, and perhaps even been a catalyst for, the golden age of Bible films, it was in this period that it really came of age as a medium for producing biblical films. There are a number of notable trends in this respect. Firstly that, at times, television could be far safer even than the epics of the major studios. Programmes made by commercial channels seeking to gain an even higher audience for their advertisers, not only had an incentive to take fewer risks, but often needed to break stories down into bite-sized pieces such that commercial breaks could interrupt the programme regularly. This was not always the case, of course, Rossellini's two New Testament productions - Acts of the Apostles (1969) and The Messiah (1975) - are fine examples from a director who was convinced of the artistic importance and potential of television. It's interesting to note however that in an era that served up Jesus Christ Superstar, Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ that the Jesus film that drew the widest audience was Franco Zefferelli's made for TV Jesus of Nazareth.2

    The other notable trend in this era was that it gave filmmakers the potential for to explore their given subject at far greater length. Sometimes this is with regard to the length of time available for just one story, such as Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth, but other times it allowed a greater number of stories, covered as separate episodes. The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series, for example, spanned 17 episodes including lesser covered stories such as Joshua, the Tower of Babel, Daniel and Esther.

    Another series was produced during this time frame that also covered multiple episodes. The similarly named The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible contained seven stories from the Hebrew Bible, but rather than being produced for the cinema or live action television they were cartoons which came to prominence more through their release on video. This was the start of a new trend which came to expand greatly over the final two eras.

    But whilst some of these series might have covered some of the stories that had proved less popular, for the first time the number of stories being adapted for the first time almost became non-existent. Muharrem Gürses' Nemrud (Nimrod, 1979) may have been the first director to have made a film about the man frequently associated with the building of the Tower of Babel, but the story itself was first covered in 1921's La Sacra Bibbia and more recently in Hustons' 1966 film The Bible: In the Beginning as well as the aforementioned episode from The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series.

    Indeed only one story that had not been covered before was given its first outing during this period; The story of Tamar, Er, Onan and Judah was covered in the Italian/German/Swiss production La salamandra del deserto, released in English speaking countries as Tamar, Wife of Er (dir. Riccardo Freda, 1970). Whilst this is doubtless due to the sheer quantities of biblical stories that had been covered previously it does also suggest that by this stage the "canon" was beginning to close.


    1 - This is widely attested but this 2012 interview sums it up nicely and is worth a read anyway.
    2 - It's worthin noting however that the production team behind Jesus of Nazareth had earlier been involved in producing the rather more revisionist Moses the Lawgiver which perhaps goes someway to explaining the controversy the project faced in its earliest days, despite the fact it was ultimately to provide a rather bland portrayal.


    Saturday, October 08, 2016

    The Canon in "the Golden Era"

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.
    Just as cinema saw off the challenges of the great depression and the second world war, it faced a new problem - the rise of the television set. Whilst during the late forties and early fifties the ownership of television sets was still fairly low, filmmakers began to realise that if cinema was to survive it was going to have to offer audiences something they couldn't get at home. If the forties were typified by low-budget, black and white noir, the fifties and sixties would become defined by opulence and spectacle. Technicolor - which had been available since the late silent era - finally began to become the norm. By 1960 cinema finally reached the point whereby more films were being recorded in colour than in black and white. And then there was the development of various widescreen formats - a bigger and better canvas on which cinemas artists and showmen could tell their tales.

    No-one had a better nose for the opportunity for spectacle than Cecil B. DeMille and so it's perhaps no surprise that it was he who was amongst the first to respond to these new challenges and opportunities. His 1949 Samson and Delilah was such a game changer that it kickstarted a twenty year period that became synonymous with the historical epic, particularly those based on the Bible. DeMille's film, including its style, approach and its politics would be much copied, though few films would surpass its box office success, turning a $3 million budget into $11 million income in 1950 alone, and almost $29 million overall.1

    Seven years later DeMille was at it again, producing the movie that would become the most totemic Bible film of all time. The Ten Commandments, in some ways a remake of his own 1923 adaptation, made $65 million in the US alone and it remains the 6th highest grossing film in the all-time adjusted chart.2.

    Two other films from this era are particularly noteworthy, though their dependence on the actual biblical text is somewhat more tangential. The Robe (dir. Henry Koster, 1953) was the first film to adapt the CinemaScope process which remains the most notable landmark in film history after the introduction of sound. Koster would later develop the lesser known biblical epic The Story of Ruth (1960). The other is of course 1959's Ben-Hur (1959) which went on to sweep the OscarsTM with a, still unsurpassed, 11 awards. These notable, but occasional, peaks proved enough to sustain the genre through a myriad of films that were less successful - either at the box-office, or with critics, or with both.

    The sheer volume of films made during this period is particularly noteworthy. In just seventeen years between Samson and Delilah and 1966's The Bible, 92 films were produced based on the Hebrew Bible and at least 25 films that featured Jesus. And this excludes films such as The Silver Chalice and Demetrius and the Gladiators, both 1954, which took the lightest touch on the Bible, or others such as the various Italian Samson films which were really only about the Old Testament strongman in name alone.

    Indeed a significant part of the reason for the number of epics during this era was due to the re-emergence of the Italian film industry. Whilst on the one hand it's artistic wing re-emerged under the banner of neorealism, it's studios churned out sword and sandal movies at a tremendous rate including multiple entry series based on figures such as Hercules, Goliath and Samson. Of course this era was also the one where these two strands merged together in perhaps the most unlikely of ways, in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964).

    Sadly the majority of Bible films made in Italy during this period were not up to the same quality, tending to be cheaply and quickly made. That said they did give profile to some of the stoties that, by that time, were being ignored by Hollywood. Marcello Baldi, Francisco Pérez-Dolz's I grandi condottieri (Gideon and Samson, 1965) was the first film to feature Gideon and there were also rare outings for the stories of Athalia [Atalia (dir. Mario Ferrero, 1964)] and the Macabees [Il Vecchio Testamento (dir. Gianfranco Parolini, 1962)] all from Italian studios.

    This wider range of stories was also boosted by the emergence of smaller independent/church-based filmmakers and, of course, television. The Living Bible series not only covered a high proportion of the stories from the gospels, but it also expanded to cover most of the book of Acts and many of the stories from the Old Testament. Indeed it's coverage of the Old Testament was perhaps the first time a group of filmmakers had selected a group of stories they wished to adapt on the basis of their biblical prominence and importance, rather than on artistic or financial merit. Given such a premise it's perhaps not surprising that the films are poor artistically, for reasons beyond just their low budget, but across the genre as a whole they also fill a vital role being the first time that characters such as Joshua and Isaiah had been depicted on screen. Elsewhere TV's Matinee theatre brought us The Prophet Hosea (1958).

    Another significant development in this period was the explosion of Bible films being produced from outside of Europe and North America. Whilst research into the development of Bible film outside of "the West" lags behind, this era saw the first Bible films being released in Catholic Southern American countries (Brazil & Argentina), Israel, India, the Philippines and a number of predominantly Muslim countries (Egypt, Iran and Turkey).

    Of course many of the usual stories continued to prove popular, with films about Adam & Eve (6), David (12), Joseph (9), Moses (10), Samson (7) and Solomon (7) all proving popular and it's striking that these correlate fairly closely with the hugely successful films of the 1920s. There's the odd exception: Having proved popular with the very earliest filmmakers the story of Joseph had not been covered much during the late silent / early sound period, conversely other than forming a key section of Huston's The Bible (1966), the story of Noah was only covered in Disney's animated short Noah's Ark and the Belgian Noah (1964).

    Indeed it was perhaps the perceived failure of Huston's film (which did eventually turn a profit) that signalled the end of this era. The film was released the year after the more high profile failure of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and the traditional biblical epic limped off seemingly fatally wounded. Yet whilst the major studios opted to give the Bible a wide berth the subject was to continue to prove popular with smaller filmmakers, who, liberated from the pressure of having to recoup a huge budget were able to produce more challenging and experimental adaptations of the biblical text. It's to them I'll turn next...

    1 - the-numbers.com - retrieved 5th October 2016
    2 - Box Office Mojo - retrieved 5th October 2016


    Sunday, October 02, 2016

    Joshua Films Redux

    Back in 2009 I wrote a post on films about Joshua but I was a little short on ideas. Since then, however, I've become aware of several more, and indeed thought of several I should have included in the first place, so I thought it was about time I revisited the subject.

    Filmmakers have approached the character of Joshua and the book that bears his name in three main ways: metaphorically, as a minor character in films about Moses and as the "hero" in adaptations of the Book of Joshua.

    The earliest film to evoke Joshua was the silent film The Walls of Jericho (dir. Lloyd B. Carleton, 1914) but this was a modern day drama that used a story from the book of Joshua as a metaphorical reference point. A more famous example of this approach occurs in It Happened One Night (dir. Frank Capra, 1934) where Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are forced to share a room together. To preserve propriety Gable hangs a blanket between their beds, but when the blanket comes down in the morning it's clear that Colbert's defences have too. She is now in love with him.

    A more popular approach has been to include Joshua as a minor character in the story of Moses, as
    Joshua also appears fleetingly in the Pentateuch. The two most famous filmic appearances of Joshua are John Derek's portrayal of him in DeMille's 1956 version of The Ten Commandments and Aaron Paul's in Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott, 2014). In both films Joshua is portrayed as a upright, likeable and loyal assistant to Moses. In many ways however Joshua functions as a semi-fictional character - neither film features Pentateuchal episodes and he acts more as a stand-in for the audience. This is particularly true of Paul who poses the kinds of questions that the audience might also be asking.

    The more extensive adaptations of Moses have featured incidents such as the victory over the Amalekites or his spying mission into Canaan. Moses the Lawgiver (dir. Gianfranco de Bosio, 1975) includes both of these incidents although the former is curiously unlike the biblical account. Instead of a battle led by Joshua whilst Aaron and Hur hold Moses' arms aloft, a fictional character comes up with a plan, which is then executed in the middle of the night Joshua's role is minimised. He is shown as one of the twelve spies however, and the closing scenes feature a montage of his victories over the Canaanites.

    Also notable are Moses (dir.Roger Young, 1996) which includes ends with Joshua being commissioned, making his speech from the start of the Book of Joshua and then flashes forward to Joshua's final speech; and The Ten Commandments (dir. Robert Dornhelm, 2006) which includes the defeat of the Amalekites.

    Given the controversy surrounding the Israelite's conquest in Canaan it's perhaps not surprising that filmmakers have tended to avoid portraying either Joshua the man, or any of the episodes from the book that bears his name. The only episode from the Book of Joshua to have been adapted – with the exception of The Living Bible's Joshua - The Conqueror (dir. Edward Dew, 1958) - is the fall of Jericho. Portrayals of this incident have handled the question of divinely authorised violence in very different ways.

    Dew's unvarnished film offers little interpretation aside from choosing not to show any of the inhabitants of Jericho other than Rahab's family, denying their voice and their humanity. The effect of not doing so becomes apparent moments later when Achan is stoned for theft. Giving him a voice makes the sentence seem unfair, a voice those from Jericho were denied.

    Nine years later Joshua appeared again in the US TV series The Time Tunnel where each week two scientists materialised in a different historical period. The only story from the Bible to be covered by the series is The Walls of Jericho (1967), but crucially here the scientists are transported to their next adventure before the walls of the city come tumbling down.

    A different appraoch is that of Joshua at Jericho (dir. James L. Conway, 1978) from the Greatest Heroes of the Bible series which significantly distorts the biblical text to make the divinely sanctioned violence less unpalatable. Jericho is "controlled by ruthless Hittites" who commit human sacrifices; various ethically dubious acts occur inside the city; Jericho's pudgy king is childish, whining and irritating, whilst the head of his army is proud, stubborn and arrogant. There's even a scene where the Hittites steal the Israelites' children in order to sacrifice them to their gods. In essence, the film does everything it possibly can to demonise the residents of Jericho and paint them in a negative light, such that it's almost impossible to feel sympathy for them.

    In contrast the episode Homeland (dir. Tony Mitchell, 2013) from the History Channel's dramatised series The Bible does not seem to find the idea of divine violence particularly troubling. Indeed, many other episodes in the series enhance existing violent elements in the various stories, or invent them where none is to be found in the text. Such invention is minimised in this episode however, normalising the actions of Joshua and his soldiers. It also emphasises God's role in the city's destruction, not only sending an angel to inform Joshua of his mission, but also heavily use of special effects as Jericho's walls come tumbling down. Joshua himself is portrayed as an affable, calm and approachable general.

    Surprisingly given the subject matter there are also several animated versions of the story including those from The Greatest Heroes and Legends in the Bible series narrated by Charlton Heston's voice, Hannah-Barbera's Greatest Adventure Stories of the Bible, the Beginners Bible, an entry from the "Bible Stories for Children" series called Joshua and the Promised Land and Veggie Tales' version Josh and the Big Wall! (1997).

    There is a potential fourth approach which has not yet been tried, namely making a subversive version adaptation of this story, in a similar vein to Aronofsky's Noah, which portrays Joshua as a villain overseeing a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the indigenous Canaanites. However, it would likely alienate a lot of the key target audience and given the furore around Noah and the fact that Joshua's story is less well known such an adaptation seems unlikely at the moment. Furthermore the most recent adaptation from The Bible series suggests that, far from finding Joshua's campaign in Canaan troubling, the likely target audience for a further adaptation of this story might find the violence more palatable than previous generations, rather than less.

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