• 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


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    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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