• 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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    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.



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