• 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


    Friday, February 17, 2017

    The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)

    The Last Days of Pompeii is one of the few Bible movies that is also a disaster movie. From the moment it start we know how it's going to end - badly. It's title is the ultimate spoiler, in a genre hardly renown for its unexpected plot twists. Indeed perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is how it manages to span the time from well before the death of Christ circa 30 A.D. to the eruption of Vesuvius 49 years later within the adult lifetime of its leading character, Marcus (Preston Foster).

    Marcus is already reasonably old when we first encounter him several years before the death of Jesus. His wife is run over by a chariot and Marcus ends up having to accept a fight in the gladiatorial arena to pay her medical bills. Yet despite his victory as a gladiator, when he returns home he is too late to save her life. Angered and grieving Marcus returns to the arena, works his way up the pecking order with success after success until he is able to retire and diversify into supplying fresh slaves for the arena.

    Throughout the early part of the film Marcus maintains something of a moral core, even though he is pulled this way and that by anger, grief and the need to overcome poverty. So when his victory over an opponent leaves a young boy orphaned, Marcus decides to adopt him. Yet in order to be able to support the boy (Flavius) he takes a job capturing slaves and making orphans of their children - a point that is nicely underlined by a fade between a shot of a captured slave holding his son and one of Marcus back in Rome holding Flavius in a similar pose.

    All of this is part of Marcus' transition from all round good, but tough, guy in the opening scenes to someone with a good heart increasingly trapped and shaped by their decisions, decisions made based on very limited options (at least that is what we are led to believe). But this is never really very convincing on either front. For someone with a supposedly good heart Marcus is persuaded to commit atrocities all too easily. Conversely, for someone struggling to make even a basic living honestly, he seems to climb to the top of the greasy pole, with all its wealth and power, with consummate ease.

    Crucially, Marcus has a chance encounter with an old woman who precedes to tell him, (whilst ominously starring at the ceiling), that he must take Flavius to meet "the greatest man in Judea". So based on little more than the advice of her and one of her comrades, Marcus and Flavius head to Judea intent on going to meet Pontius Pilate. Before he gets to Jerusalem, however, they almost have a chance encounter with Jesus, except this time he's not quite in the mood for taking vaguely sage-like pronouncements from total strangers, so he presses on to the capital. The filmmakers offer little plausible reason for this inconsistency; it's just an eye-rollingly clumsy plot device, scantily clad in some cod-theology about fate and determinism. No-one quite walks on and says "Ah, but God moves in mysterious ways", but someone definitely thought it. At some point. For at least about two seconds before deciding to worry about something else instead.

    Not dissimilarly Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone) is sat musing about his his need to find someone to covertly infiltrate and hamstring the Ammonites. "If I could only find a man" he utters, seconds before his servant mentions that our former champion gladiator turned horse-trader is coincidentally waiting in the lobby. Marcus agrees to go out stealing Ammonite horses for Pilate, but when he returns Flavius has been in an accident with a horse and is almost dead. As luck would have it, though, there's "a young man, a wandering healer passing through the village..." and so Marcus and his son get to have their chance encounter with Jesus after all.

    Despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) had only debuted eight years previously, and was probably still doing the rounds here and there, the film opts not to show the face of Jesus. It's possible that this decision was based purely on artistic motives, but it's far more likely that it was indicative of the level of outrage that had been unleashed by Claudette Colbert's nipple popping out of that bath of milk in The Sign of the Cross three years previously. Things had certainly soured and it's striking to see how quickly the atmosphere had changed.

    Instead of filming Jesus, the filmmakers shot much of the healing sequence (sorry about the plot spoiler, but it was never going to turn out another way) from Jesus' point of view. Marcus carries Flavius to the front of the crowd with his eyes, and the eyes of the crowd, all transfixed on the camera. The heavenly music kicks in, there's a wide, reverse shot from a distance behind the crowd, and then they and Jesus obligingly wander stage left, leaving Marcus on his knees and Flavius back on his feet.

    Flavius's healing, though, appears to have been more or less Jesus' last. By the time Marcus has returned to Jerusalem Jesus is already on trial. Pilate washes his hands of it all, of course, and his duplicitous dealings with Marcus could easily have been spun into suggesting it was all for show. But the film opts instead for a shell-shocked Pilate putting his head in his freshly washed hands and murmuring "What have I done? What have I done?". There's some nice double meanings in their initial conversation, as Marcus nice-but-dim fails to appreciate that his new found friend is somewhat shell-shocked, but soon Pilate is complaining that he was "forced" to condemn that "poor man" and coming out with banalities such as "Oh, let men wallow in the quicksand they have made of life" and "Pin your faith to gold, Marcus". Whilst there's hardly any mention of the fact that the "mob" is predominantly Jewish the description of them, and the exaggerated extrapolation of their actions (to looting and violence) is certainly troubling from an anti-Semitism point of view.

    In trying to circumvent this still-angry mob, Marcus inadvertently gets spotted by the man who led him to Jesus in the first place, who begs him to intervene to prevent him being crucified. When Marcus asks what he, one man, can do, all his friend can suggest is "You can die for him" without really explaining what that would do to help. He does lay a good guilt trip on him though. "When your world crumbles about you, you'll understand what you have done today". "Crumbles" geddit? I wonder how this is going to end...

    Two contrasting shots of hilltops (three crosses atop Golgotha versus a smoking Vesuvius) lead to a jump ten or so years into the future. Flavius is almost grown up (and played now by John Wood) and Marcus, who now runs the arena, is wearing a greyish-looking wig. Unbeknown to his father Flavius is stashing away runaway slaves, intending to transport them to an uninhabited island, before a major celebration in the arena the next day. Flavius is somewhat haunted by his memory of Jesus, an encounter his guilt-hardened father is trying to pass off as a dream.

    Things come to a head when Pontius Pilate turns up for dinner amid news that a slave has been captured who is going to reveal the hiding place of the others. Flavius refuses to "keep silent forever in the face of injustice and brutality" recalling his 'dream' of Jesus saying "You shall love your neighbour as yourself". Marcus tries to reassert his lie. Pilate cannot. Shame falls upon the two of them and suddenly everyone remembers exact quotations from their wordless encounter a decade (or five) before. Flavius returns to the slaves' hiding place, in undoubtedly the best photographed scenes of the entire film; the tight compositions and moody lighting perfectly supplementing the slaves' fear and paranoia. Flavius is accused of being a spy just as the soldiers arrive to capture them

    The re-capture of the slaves is good news however for Marcus and the rest of the town's elite, deemed a better omen than smoke from Vesuvius. The games contain the most spectacular scenes of the movie, the grand arena, replete with a giant statue of a naked soldier with only a sword to preserve his dignity. When Vesuvius 'unexpectedly' explodes, initially with all the special effects expertise of a high-school chemistry set, the statue is the first thing to go, crumbling like a sandcastle on a spin-dryer. The scenes of the eruption are spectacular, howver, not least for the sheer scale of their destructiveness. DeMille's falling masonry of 1949 has nothing on this in terms of spectacle. If these scenes could have, perhaps, used more meaningfully human interactions, then the shots of people drowning in the choppy waters as they attempt to escape the lava pouring down the hill are, nevertheless, rather chilling.

    I'm reminded of what Michael Wood ([1975] 1989: 178-182) says about "what is perhaps the most interesting of all the set scenes in the epic: the great crash." I'll quote at length (albeit abbreviating where possible).
    ...the idea of waste in these movies receives its fullest expression here...Here are costly sets, carefully built constructions, going up in smoke or toppling down in ruins, the very feats of engineering we have just been admiring are now thrown away. This is visible expense, like the crowd of extras, only more startling. This is money being burned...It is pure excess, a ritual expression of lack of need...Having all that cash to throw away is a sign of (apparent) financial health. But actually throwing it away is a sign of moral health, a sign that you are not hampered by your riches...I don't think this is a reaction against a past of puritan prescriptions. It is rather the oblique expression of a faith. Here is God's plenty...to save money or gasoline or energy is to doubt the profusion of Gods gifts...For many modern Americans worldly goods are so abundant that that it becomes a form of scandal to want to hang on to any of them for very long.
    Here, in particular, the scale of this destruction is particularly suited to the story (or should it be vice-versa). Marcus starts the film care free and poor. It is only when he learns to worry about the future that he gets dragged down into immoral behavious. The message of Pompeii's destruction at the end of the film -- and it is a destruction quite in contrast to what actually happened. In real life Pompeii was preserved intact by falling lava, mud and ash; here it is levelled, destroyed by a shaking from below rather than above -- the destruction is Marcus' world being destroyed, along with his false gods and, I suppose, his idol of money. (SPOILER: Only once this happens is he liberated and able to see a vision of Jesus welcoming and accepting him with open arms. END SPOILER).

    From a historical angle the few nice historical touches (like Marcus burning a pinch of incense to the gods) do nothing to paper over the monumental gaps in the historical masonry - the gleefully disregarded for credible chronology being only one fault line among many.

    The directors of this film (Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper) came to it having had great success with King Kong (1933) and their ability to create iconic spectacle and destruction comes good again. Combining models with live action footage is again very much to the fore. The impressive nature of these few final spectacular scenes is not enough, however, to rescue the film from its tiresome, overly earnest performances and the paper-thin characterisations. The plot of Kong was so extreme that weaknesses in these areas didn't matter. But this is an epic and the demands of believable plot and half-decent characterisations are greater (albeit only a little bit greater). Making a giant gorilla both terrifying and sympathetic is one thing. Doing the same for Foster and Wood is entirely another. Ultimately last Days is more giant turkey than great ape.


    Thursday, February 16, 2017

    How The Passion of the Christ Wrong-footed Hollywood

    Whilst the late nineties had proved a fruitful time for television and church backed projects, by the turn of the century the major studios had considered the Bible film genre was dead. The experimental period had provided some success with smaller projects, but the vitriol, and indeed threat to life, faced by the makers of Last Temptation of Christ had led them to the conclusion that any similar projects were extremely risky; if anything the Christian right which mobilised itself in response to the film had grown in size, influence and power. Yet at the same time, with falling church attendances and subject matter so significantly at odds with the zeitgeist of the new millennium, it seemed unlikely that a Biblical Epic could find a large enough audience to cover its production costs, let alone prove profitable.

    Such was the degree of scepticism that even a major Hollywood star, who had enjoyed success with an historical epic at the box office and with critics, was unable to find backing for film about the death of Jesus. Part of this was perhaps due to the uncompromising vision of Gibson's film. Rather than a family friendly, bland Jesus film such as The Greatest Story Ever Told it would be ultra violent and in a foreign language. If Hollywood Execs had even considered the possibilities for a moment, they would have swiftly dismissed the possibility of a Christian audience turning up en masse for a violent, R-rated film.

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, and we now all know the end of the story. Rejected by every major studio, and no doubt a few minor ones along the way, Gibson decided to fund the project himself. He spun the studios rejection into a David and Goliath story, worked tirelessly to pitch it to church audiences and gain the support of their leaders, and, as a result, the film made a huge profit. The resulting success spawned a myriad of new Biblical Epics, both at the cinema and on television, but, as with the supposed Golden Era, whilst some proved successful many have failed to find an audience.

    In many cases this is because the studios that failed to predict The Passion's success, continued to mis-diagnose the reasons why it proved successful. Much of the failure of the subsequent films suggests that those responsible for green-lighting these projects had drawn the wrong conclusions. I want to highlight some (and I stress "some") of the reasons why The Passion did well and perhaps why subsequent releases did not.

    Fragmentation and Tribal Identities
    If 2016 taught us anything (and it seems clear that for many people it did not) it's that we're living in increasingly factionalised times, times where the different factions are not only becoming more and more distinct from those in other factions, but where each is starting to get caught in a self-reinforcing bubble, where the stories, news, beliefs and practice of those within one bubble bear very little relation to those of other factions.

    For decades filmmakers and promoters tried to try and hold the different factions together in the hope of appealing to enough of them to make their product worthwhile. What Gibson did however was to ignore very large sectors of the market in order to focus more squarely on other factions. So very few of the middle class, city-dwelling, younger audience have seen Gibson's film. Indeed I get the impression that the majority look at it with disdain. But for practising Christians from more conservative households, Gibson's uncompromising vision was exactly what they felt they had not been served by the Hollywood system.

    One of Gibson's key approaches, then, was not to bother to court the whole population, but to focus on the conservative, church-going population. He figured if he could get them on side in sufficiently large numbers then he didn't need to attract those from ourside that demographic. This was the basket into which he put all his eggs, and it paid off.

    Grassroots, word of mouth and social media
    Gibson also rejected the more traditional top-down marketing approach of spending a huge amount in buying premium media advertising space and reinforcing the message again and again. Instead he practically reinvented the grassroots campaign. Focusing in on his demographic he realised that church leaders held the key. By both dazzling them with his star power (humbly attending their conferences), focusing on their common ground (e.g. a "manly" Jesus, a traditional version of the story), building a strongly persausive case for the areas where their preferences may have differed initially (e.g. using original languages) and speaking their language ("The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film...I was just directing traffic."), he got church leaders on board. Not only were they interested in his project, but they were fully on board, convinced that this created an opportunity to forward their agenda ("an evangelistic opportunity"). Ultimately they were so convinced that not only did they encourage, and in some cases direct, their congregations to buy tickets for the film (thus doing the job of marketing) they also booked out cinemas and sold tickets en masse (thus also doing the job of sales).

    Whist this was before the advent of social media as we know it today (before the emergence of Facebook and Twitter) there was still an enormous amount of sharing on websites, blogs and discussion fora. For example, the Arts and Faith forum where I was active at the time had both a -pre-release thread and a post-release thread adding up to over 1150 posts between them. And the film's marketing team didn't need to buy advertising space in the various glossy Christian magazines, as they were all covering the film in their features sections. It was, after all, what everyone was talking about.

    Subsequent Bible filmmakers have also tried to promote their films by these routes, by emulating much of what Gibson did. Whilst it was unlikely that any film would reproduce The Passion's success, there have been very few real successes and it is notable that when the two big Bible films of 2014 were released this strategy was relegated to being only a minor player. Part of this is due to audience fatigue - as the novelty of being courted wore off each new appeal generated less interest - but also a lot of the subsequent pitches to churches failed to capture what Gibson brought. Yes some of that was the kind of star power that very few could bring, but there were other aspects of the appeal to churches that were not picked up on that might have been easier to reproduce and I want to look at one or two of those now.

    Muscular Christianity
    As alluded to above, Gibson's Jesus was a "manly" Jesus. In the run up to the film's release he talked several times about the weaknesses of previous silver-screen Christs and it was not hard to imagine that he was often referring to the slender Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth (see the various quotes in my old piece "Film: A New Passion"). Instead Gibson produced the most violent Jesus film ever made and presented his hero as a figure who was not unlike the Martin Riggs character that Gibson played in Lethal Weapon (1987). Like Riggs Gibson's Jesus could suffer immense pain and yet instead of giving up would come back for more (such as the flagellation scene where Jesus defiantly drags himself to his feet after an already heavy beating). Gibson's William Wallace also comes to mind.

    What's interesting about this is that certain sections of the church have traditionally protested against sex and violence on our screens. There's an argument to say that these are not all the same groups of people, and certainly there's some truth in that. At the same time think there are many who would hold to that argument in general but would make exceptions in certain cases such as this.

    Later Bible films, like The Nativity Story (2006) reverted to the model of Bible Films as family friendly fare. It flopped. In contrast one of the few productions to take a more violent approach to the scriptures, 2013's The Bible proved more successful. It's perhaps an uncomfortable conclusion but, for me, the Passion's violence was part of the reason it was so successful with the Christian market. That might seem like a shocking thing to say, and is perhaps an uncomfortable opinion, yet the filmmakers could not have been more clear about the film's level of violence. "By the time [audiences] get to the crucifixion scene, I believe there will be many who can't take it and will have to walk out - I guarantee it" actor Jim Caviezel said as part of the film's promotion and there is a profusion of similar quotes.1 Indeed most of the claims about the film's historical accuracy were really claims about the film's 'accurate' depiction of the violence to which Jesus was subjected.

    This was a message that strong appealed to many Christians. Fed up of being seem as effeminate for following Jesus they yearned for a films such as Gibson's which reaffirmed that following Christ was not a slur on one's manhood. This leads nicely into the next reason for the film's success.

    The Religious Right's Persecution Complex
    For years now many parts of evangelical Christianity - on both sides of the Atlantic - have had something of a persecution complex. This seems to exist in spite of the fact that many Christians in other parts of the world are actually being persecuted and tortured for their faith. So the incredibly rare stories of staff being asked not to wear religious symbols, or not being allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexuality have been used to stir up tremendous feeling in the UK. In the US there's been no shortage of claims that Christianity is under attack. It's no coincidence that the most visited article on my whole blog is the one that explains that the rumours about a film being made about a gay Jesus are false.

    To an audience soaked in this mindset Gibson's tale of his struggle to find funding for his pet project struck a familiar chord. How typical of the liberal elitist Hollywood to reject such a film, and so it quickly rallied people to Gibson's "cause". A similar things happened recently with Donald Trump's ascent to the presidency. Trump played the card of Christian persecution and found an evangelical base that voted 81% in his favour. He continues to claim he is being persecuted even though he is now the most powerful man in the world.

    By pitting himself as some sort of David against an anti-Christian Hollywood Goliath, Gibson grew a huge base of support all who shared his passion to see a decent portrayal of Jesus to supplant the weak film Christs of King of Kings and Jesus Christ, Superstar. No-one really stopped to ask what kind of David had enough personal wealth to be able to sink £25 million dollars into making the film on their own. Nor what he would do with all the profit if it proved to be successful.

    What is most troubling about this reason behind the film's success is not the opposition Gibson faced initially, when trying to make the film, but the way he handled the questions people raised about the content of the film. Many, on hearing that Gibson had used Katherine Emmerich's ant-Semitic "Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ" as one of his major sources, were concerned that the film too would be anti-Semitic. Instead of listening to these voices, seeking to learn from them, act, amend any content that he'd not previously realised would prove troubling and promote the film with even greater endorsement, he chose instead to go to war. He again played the persecution card, marking out those who questioned the film's potential for anti-Semitism as a powerful enemy when they lacked even a fraction of the resources he possessed. Sadly this further rallied many parts of the church to his defence, many of whom failed even to see the significant difference between the words in scripture and the interpretation of those words in a film. Buying a ticket for the film became seen as a way of supporting Gibson, and by extension the Bible, against those who would criticise it.

    Supernatural Endorsement
    One other thing which is notable about the marketing of this film, which has tended to be absent in later biblical films is the way Gibson used different forms of supernatural endorsement for his film. This is in fact nothing new and goes back to several of the Jesus films from the silent era. DeMille for example used some of the self-same methods. There are at least four different strands here.

    Firstly there are the claims for inspiration. The most famous is Gibson's claim "The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic"2. Even at the time I remember there being debate about whether this was a 'pitch' or Gibson's genuine belief (and perhaps it was both), but certainly it had the effect of persuading people that it was something they should go and see. Enough people believed the film was, in some way God inspired.

    Secondly there were the accounts of miracles as well as what will have sounded, to many, as attacks from the enemy. The most memorable of these are the claims that twice people were struck by lightning during the filming of the crucifixion (including leading actor Jim Caviezel). In previous generations that might have been seen as God being against the film rather than in favour of it, but here the fact that one of them "just got up and walked away" was taken as evidence that God was protecting the cast and crew.3. In the same piece Gibson also talked about "people being healed of diseases".4

    The third way, which also crops up in on of the pieces that was circulated long before the film's release, is the mention of conversions during filming. "Everyone who worked on this movie was changed. There were agnostics and Muslims on set converting to Christianity".5 this ties in with Gibson's hope that the film would have the "power to evangelise"6. This later theme was picked up by church leaders who began to market the film, on Gibson's behalf, as an evangelistic tool.

    Lastly there is that infamous almost-endorsement by the Pope. Whether or not the Pope really said "It is as it was" and the story behind the quotes hasty retraction is irrelevant, that became the story and the endorsement of it from the church's high office. Even though the majority of those buying tickets may not have been Roman Catholics, the words attributed to the Pope became gospel and even if he didn't actually say them, his team weren't fighting too desperately to retract them. This combined with Gibson's unsubstantiated claims for historical accuracy gave the film further credibility - a crucial criterion for many evangelicals.

    In addition to these three factors there are also three further lessons that could be picked up from The Passion's success.

    The Growing Christian Audience
    Gibson's genius was to realise that there was a growing Christian audience out there who would respond positively to the right product. This audience had not had a great deal of specifically tailored quality content in the years leading up to The Passion's release and it's questionable as to whether they've had a great deal of it since. America's culture wars and the emergence of a more vocal form of Christianity, prepared to show its loyalty to the brand had created a growing, and in some ways new, market. Whilst many of the films that have subsequently sought to exploit that market have failed, a greater number have succeeded than ever did before.

    Diminishing Influence of (Liberal) Experts
    One of the quotes that so typified the Brexit debate in the UK was the pronouncement of the (then) Lord Chancellor Michael Gove that the "people in this country have had enough of experts". With similar sentiments being felt on the other side of the Atlantic as well it reminds me of how many people spoke out about the more problematic aspects of the film (the excessive violence, the anti-Semitism, etc.) without causing any change in the final film, or any significant impact on its box office success. The not-at-that-point disgraced Ted Haggard's claim that the film "conveys, more accurately than any other film, who Jesus was"7 was repeated far more times than those of biblical scholars, with their expert knowledge of the gospels and the world in which Jesus lived and ministered. Many objections by those who had a greater knowledge of the relevant issues were waved away in the rush to endorse such a powerful evangelistic tool. The article I had written for a Christian magazine weighing the pros and cons of the forthcoming film (available here), for example, was dropped at the last minute for one talking about how it was going to usher thousands of new converts to Christianity. Not that I'm bitter (I am).

    Diminishing Influence of Film Critics
    Not unrelated to the above, a pattern has emerged subsequently in the Christian press surrounding the release of major new Bible films. When such a film is released numerous Christian magazines turn not to their in-house film critic, or even to an experienced Christian film critic, but to a popular/influential leader and/or speaker instead who will give their opinions on the likelihood of the film "reaching" those outside the church or how the film coincides with their own personal idea of what Jesus was like.

    But this is not just a problem with the church. In the decade and a bit since the release of the film it has become increasingly clear that the majority of people don't really care, or even agree with, what film critics say. Few, if any, of the top performing films at the box office will appear on critics' end of year lists and whilst Oscar nominations will boost a film's earnings, they are hardly a predictor for financial success (and many critics look down on the Oscar nominations which the general population often considers too highbrow). Back in early 2004 critics were not exactly expecting great things from The Passion. The studios valued such opinions then and perhaps even shared them. Today they would be unlikely to take them seriously. Film critics no longer have the power to derail a movie let alone one with the power to evangelise.

    1 - Holly McClure - New York Daily News - A very violent 'Passion' (reproduced here). January 26, 2003.
    2 - Kamon Simpson - Colorado Springs Gazette - "Mel Gibson brings movie to city's church leaders" - June 28, 2003
    3 - Holly McClure - New York Daily News - A very violent 'Passion' (reproduced here). January 26, 2003.
    4 - Holly McClure - ibid.
    5 - Kamon Simpson - Colorado Springs Gazette - "Mel Gibson brings movie to city's church leaders" - June 28, 2003
    6 - Kamon Simpson - ibid.
    7 - Kamon Simpson - ibid.


    Wednesday, February 08, 2017

    The Characteristics of the Biblical Epic: Part 1 - What the Experts Say

    This is the second in a series looking at the Biblical Epic Genre
    In my last post in this series I was looking at the arguments for and against there being a Biblical Epic genre. In this posts I want to consider what the defining characteristics of that genre might be if it is to be accepted that said genre exists.

    Wood (1989: 173) describes how the "ancient world of the epics was a huge, many-faceted metaphor for Hollywood itself" and how the heroes of these films are not Moses or Ben-Hur, but DeMille and Wyler. For him one of the key characteristics is the "myth of excess" (1989: 174). He also lists several others:
    "The basic elements of the epic seem to run from the minor ones like the music....to relatively major ones like certain sturdy , straight-faced acting styles to absolutely essential elements like the big scenes (the orgy, the ceremonial entry into the city, the great battle, the individual combat, and where possible, a miracle or two) and the big, earthshaking themes." (Wood 1989: 175).
    Wood is writing about the epic genre in general however, rather than the Biblical Epic specifically so some of these may be less essential than others.

    Like Wood, Grace (2009) is also concerned with a broader genre, only in her case it is the "Hagiopic" (a religious biopic which could be set in a relatively modern era such as 1943's The Song of Bernadette) rather than the (historical) epic. She lists "several of the most striking characteristics of the traditional hagiopic" as follows:
    "...the typical locations, characters, and sounds; the genre-specific interweaving of chronological tome and a sense of eternity; the concern with suffering; the miracles and the sense of the nearness of the heavenly realm; the nostalgia for an earlier era; and the depiction of persecution and painful death of an innocent person. There are also generic narrative patterns. One typical narrative element involves sceptics, doubters, or cynical characters, who make snide comments about religious belief near the beginning of the film, only to be proved wrong at the end..." Grace (2009: 13)
    In contrast Babington and Evans (1993: 4) take a different approach, dividing the genre into "three sub-types of film: the Old Testament Epic; The Christ Film; and the Roman/Christian Epic" they do also note a few characteristics that cover all three genres. For example, "every production is a 'unique', costly, much-advertised affair" (1993: 6). Related to that is that "the genre only exists in the superlative mode" (1993: 6). One further characteristic were the "pressures towards conformity and ecumenical blandness" (1993: 8).

    They also note the contradictory attitudes of fascination and repulsion towards the (supposedly) heightened sexual content and the manner in which, typically, neither of which is ultimately fulfilled (1993: 11). This is similar to the more frequently discussed technique, popularised by DeMille, of dressing up the wolf of a greater amount of sexual content, in the sheep's clothing of a pious moral message and biblical content.

    Ultimately Babington and Evans list the following as the key characteristics of each of these sub-genres:

    The Old Testament Epic
    Culture heroes/villains, (50)
    Contemporary allusion, (53)
    American matters [i.e. parallels], (55)
    The battle of the gods , (57)
    Patterns of scepticism, (58)
    Spectacle (60)
    Law and Orgy (65)

    The Christ Film
    Miracles, (103)
    The Resurrection, (105
    The Jews, (105)
    The women, (107)

    The Roman/Christian Epic
    Shadow of the Galilean [i.e. Jesus Cameo only], (179)
    Prologues to what is possible, (181)
    Prologue into plot, (185)
    Christianity & Romantic love, (197)
    The Disappearing Jew, (199)
    Earthly powers, (202)

    There isn't really space here to go into the definitions of each of these, but it's worth pointing out how different these characteristics are of these more specific sub-genres.

    In his recent work "Hollywood Biblical Epics" (2015) Richard Lindsay is mainly concerned with the one obvious characteristic of biblical epics that no-one else seems to mention – camp.
    "...a good story, a romance of biblical proportions, push the boundaries of spectacle and special effects, let them see the events of biblical history played out on the big screen as a grand pageant --furthermore, in the hypnotic-suggestive state of movie watching..." Lindsay (2015: xxi-xxii)
    There's also this summary from later in the book.
    "I am defining the biblical epic more broadly as films that are American in origin, were released in movie theatres, that are treated historically (not as parody, satire, or paraphrase of biblical text), which feature biblical characters, and are set in the period of the Old Testament, the time of Christ, or immediately after Christ." Lindsay (2015: 55)
    Lindsay also cites the work of Douglas K. Mikkelson (2004) on the "silver screen gospels", most notably The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Mikkelson lists three criteria for such films:

    1 - "The film's main focus is to present a dramatized biography of Jesus in his historical time and place"
    2 - "The film is based on one or more of the New Testament Gospels"
    3 - The film must have been "released as a major motion picture or a major television movie"

    Surprisingly the only author I'm aware of who tries to systematically lay out the main criteria is Adele Reinhartz in her chapter "The Biblical Epic" in last year's "The Bible in Motion" (2016: 179-182). She lists the following four characteristics:

    1 - Scope and Scale,
    2 - Allusionism,
    3 - Romance, and
    4 - Markers of Biblical Authenticity

    She then takes a closer look at two further "features", "adapting the Bible to film" and “'then as now,' that is, the use of the past to reflect on the present" (2016: 184) where she examines the treatment of: gender, science and medicine, civil rights, cold war America, communism, atheism and idolatry, and epic religion.

    In a future post I'm going to propose my own criteria, based on the wealth of ideas above but also my own thoughts on the matter.

    - Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    - Grace, Pamela. (2009) The Religious Film:Christianity and the Hagiopic, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
    - Lindsay, Richard A. (2015), Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    - Mikkelson, Douglas K. (2004) "The Greatest Story Ever Told": A Silver-Screen Gospel". Lanham, MD ; Oxford: University Press of America
    - Reinhartz, Adele (2016), 'The Biblical Epic', in Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (ed.), The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of Biblical Reception in Film, vol. 1, 175-92, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter
    - Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press


    Wednesday, February 01, 2017

    Is There a 'Biblical Epic' Genre?

    This is the first in a series looking at the Biblical Epic genre
    I want to look at the question of if there is a 'Biblical Epic' genre? It's a question where it's tempting to jump to snap answers, but on closer inspection the issues blur a little. Certainly if the genre 'Biblical Epic' exists then the case is less clear cut than, say the 'Musical' genre, but that shouldn't necessarily mean that the answer to the question is a 'no'. After all, every genre is a little fuzzy around the edges. So I'm going to discuss some of the possible reasons why this might not be a legitimate genre and then mop up a few other points from there.

    Biblical epics are grouped together because of their common source, rather than on the basis of cinematic common ground
    I can certainly see the appeal of this point however I think three points should be made in response. Firstly, that whilst this objection might hold for all biblical films, the biblical epic is a smaller subset of that overall group. Godspell is clearly a biblical film, but many would argue that it is not a biblical epic. Secondly, whilst this genre is unique in this respect, many other genres share a common conglomeration of sources. Musicals are largely adaptions of Broadway shows. War films are usually based on the accounts of those who fought in these modern conflicts. Films Noir often come from 'pulp fiction' novels. Admittedly this is not quite the same, but neither is the point entirely irrelevant. Finally, whilst biblical epics do share the common ground of the biblical narratives, often what sprouts from it has been uprooted and replanted several times before it reaches us. Ben-Hur, to name but one example, is undoubtedly a biblical epic, but its links to the gospels are very slight indeed. Really it's an adaptation of nineteenth century historical fiction.

    Biblical epics are really just a sub-division of historical epics
    ...but then they are just a sub-division of all historical films (i.e. films not set in the present or future) and yet the differences between a 40s-era romance and a biblical epic are clearly considerable. It's true that these things can divide and divide - Babington and Evans, for example, divide the biblical epic into three further sub-groupings - however this is relatively consistent with genre theory which focuses on what different films hold in common and what audience expectations are. The audience for 300 would not have the same appetite for The Nativity Story (2006) as they would for Robin Hood (2010) for example. Their expectations from what each of those films would deliver is quite different.

    Overlap with other genres
    It can be argued that certain biblical epics also clearly meet the criteria for another genre. Jesus Christ, Superstar is a musical. Various adaptations of Noah qualify as disaster movies. The observation has been made several times that The Passion of the Christ is heavily reliant on the horror genre.

    However, this is not unique to the biblical epic genre. There are various westerns that are also musicals. The crossover between the woman's picture and film noir is frequently discussed, not to mention all those science fiction disaster movies. So this is just what we would expect, often resulting in some of the films around the fringes of one particular genre meeting the criteria for another.

    What arguments are there in favour of a biblical epic genre?
    The classic understanding of genre is that whilst the auteur theory centres around the filmmakers' perspective, genre theory is all to do with the audience. Genres function as a signpost for the potential audience to quickly understand the kind of film they are likely to see. A film of a particular genre will meet certain expectations. Some of these expectations might be subverted, but essentially the audience will broadly know what to expect. As James Monaco (2000: 300), looking back at the fifties and sixties when genres and biblical epics were both in their heyday, puts it:
    The elements were well known: there was a litany to each popular genre. Part of their pleasure lay in seeing how those basic elements would be treated this time around.1
    If this is, indeed, the key point then clearly biblical epics meet this criterion. Fans of biblical epics know the kind of thing they are going to get. Indeed, if anything it was the genre's failure to adapt and subvert itself that lead to the 'death' of the genre in the late sixties.

    The other classic definition of genre is that it is essentially a gathering together of a group of films with common characteristics. This essentially cuts both ways. On the one hand if this was the sole criterion then a certain group of films could indeed be grouped together and called a biblical epic, or whatever someone wanted. However this can also be seen as a weakness as it does rather undermine the whole premise. If there is little more to genre than a subjective grouping of films based on perceived similarities, then what exactly is the point? Suffice to say, that this is where the second element comes in, that of audience expectations and marketeers' shorthand. Indeed some argue that the point of genres is their predictability. "(T)here are a limited and predictable range of features; where characters and events are more predictable and where our expectations are more likely to be fulfilled" (Phillips 1999: 166).

    In a future post I'm going to look at what some of those characteristics might be for the biblical epic genre and later still I hope to look at a few more modern biblical epics to see if the genre characteristics of the traditional epics still hold in the twenty-first century.

    - Monaco, James ([1981] 2000), How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, Multimedia, Third Edition, New York: Oxford University Press
    - Phillips, Patrick ([1996] 1999), 'Genre, Star and Auteur - Critical Approaches to Hollywood Cinema' in Jill Nelmes (ed.), An Introduction to Film Studies, Second Edition, 161-208, New York: Routledge