• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Sunday, March 12, 2017

    The Characteristics of the Biblical Epic: Part 2 - Defining Attributes


    This is the third in a series looking at the Biblical Epic Genre
    In my last post in this series I was looking at the criteria that various scholars have come up with to help classify the biblical epic. In this post I'm going to draw up my own "list" before going on, in the next post, to explain why this approach isn't really particularly useful. Given that, then, this post might be a rough around the edges. Anyway here are a few characteristics that tend to be present in almost all of the Biblical Epics.

    Adapting a Biblical Narrative
    This one is so obvious that I almost just left a sarcastic remark, but I do think a few points are worth making here. Firstly, that this is by no means the sole qualification. There is more to a biblical epic than it being based on one of the biblical narratives. It follows then, that not all Bible films let alone all 'biblical films' are Biblical Epics. Jesus of Montreal (1989) is clearly a biblical film, but no-one would classify it as an epic.

    At the other end of the scale there's also the question of how much biblical content is required to classify an epic as 'biblical'. My own definition is that it should be a dramatisation of one or more characters who appear in the biblical narratives. At the thin end of the wedge this would include The Silver Chalice (1954), but exclude Spartacus despite the prologue's attempts to link to the story of Jesus.

    The Moral Victory
    It seems to me that one aspect of the Biblical Epic that sets it apart as a genre from other sub-genres of Historical Epics is the inevitable moral victory. Sometimes this coincides with a more quantifiable victory as in The Ten Commandments (1956) and Samson and Delilah (1949), but oftentimes the hero may lose in the eyes of "the world" but from a moral, or indeed a historical, point of view they are a winner. Such examples include The Robe (1953) where in the final moments Marcellus completes his moral transformation, but is sent for execution; nearly all of the Jesus films where Jesus is executed, but stays true to his cause; and David and Bathsheba (1951) where David ends the film significantly weakened in the eyes of his people, but nevertheless restored in the eyes of God. This perhaps reflects Michael Wood's point that the true hero of these films is God rather than his human agency. Ultimately, no matter how things turn out for the film's protagonists, the audience knows from its historically-privileged position that they are on the side that will prove to be victorious in the long run.

    The 'Moral Victory' theme can also be read as a response to the nihilistic pessimism of Film Noir, a genre where the leading characters are frequently unwilling or unable to make the right choices and where the pull towards wrong is, at times, seemingly inescapable. In Biblical Epics 'good' always pulls through, with the leading characters, at least making the 'right' moral choices.

    Analogy and shared pasts
    Closely linked to the above is the manner in which biblical epics seek to draw analogies with the modern day, either representing the events of that day in such a way to draw parallels with this day or suggesting the roots of Israel have much in common with the shared past of America. Whilst the famous example of the former is the presence of cold war themes in The Ten Commandments (1956), this film is also an example of the latter as the Israelites leaving Egypt is narrated in terms that would not be out of place accompanying the story of the Pilgrim Fathers leaving to found America. Another common example is the suggestion that Israel then and America now have both lost their way and need to turn back to God before disaster strikes. The message is that just as doing right in the ages depicted lead to a better future (which vindicated their actions in their 'present') if modern day Americans will make the right choices then they too will be on the right side of history.

    Sex/no sex
    One of the most common ways these films attempt illustrate the lack of godliness is in many characters' more liberal attitude to sex, often, um, climaxing in an orgy scene. This trait is most distinct in the 50s epics due to the curious relationship the epics had with the production code. One the one hand the code was more lenient with the Biblical Epics than with any other genre. Their view seems to have been that the amount of flesh on display, the portrayal of orgies and the loose morals of many of the characters is tempered by both the films' moral message and their historical verisimilitude. On the other hand however the code did prevent the films from depicting any actual sex. Participants in the orgies kept their underwear on and the leading characters never really got to consummate their love. Add to this, of course, the fact that in all of the Jesus epics (bar Last Temptation and many of the other epics the central character is seemingly celibate. In this way, then, there is a paradox between the promise of movie sex - a promise the films' marketing teams were all to happy to use to aid promotion - and the amount that actually occurred. In essence, in the Biblical Epics, sex is something that happens to other people. Even in Solomon and Sheba (1959) the two leads' attempt to sneak off to a quiet spot in the middle of the orgy to try and consummate their relationship is foiled by God destructing his own temple to prevent them.

    Self-seriousness
    There is an incredible earnestness about Biblical Epics. Whether it's the tone of the narrator's voice, or written into the characters faces, these films seemingly take themselves incredibly seriously. It is perhaps the main reason why the genre is so ripe for parody by those no longer held by its spell.

    It can be argued that humour, or it's absence, is one of the aspects of a genre that is most embedded, but also most overlooked. Take, for example all the action movies where the hero makes a "pun" after he has just killed an opponent. In the cold light of day this would seem an unlikely response, but it's a way of reminding the audience that this character is simultaneously both like them and not like them. In Biblical Epics seemingly the opposite is true. Aside from the occasional wry comment, usually by one of the campier characters the majority of the audience is unlikely to identify with, the genre is extremely self-serious. Consider the puns James Bond would have made on witnessing just one of the ten plagues of Egypt, for example. The fact that there is very little joking around or attempts at humour is a mechanism for reminding the audience, lest they forget, of the extreme importance of the events they are witnessing. These are not mere stories, they intended to be earth-shattering events of huge significance.

    Even the Roman-Christian epics, where the nature of the films and their heroes is closest to the action movie, lack this sense of humour. Strangely, then, the two recent epics that have attempted to inject some humour by their leading characters have both been Jesus films. As with the action films the humour in both Jesus (1999) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) signifies that the character, in this case Jesus, is both like and unlike the audience. On the one hand he likes a water fight, or to share a laugh about a kitchen table (Emphasising Jesus's humanity), but at the same time these happen in-between extreme incidents that emphasise Jesus' otherness (his divinity). Perhaps this breaking of genre codes explains my own reaction to these attempts at humour. To me they simultaneous feel both like a brief breath of fresh air yet rather awkward and our-of-place.

    The other kind of self-seriousness these films exhibit is almost a kind of opposite. Critics of the genre in general, or a specific film in general frequently cite terrible, "corny" lines of dialogue. Usually the question they ask is "How can anyone say that with a straight face?". "How?" indeed. The answer again seems to be that these overblown, overly earnest lines, are again examples where normal reactions ought to be suspended. These are not just stories, the filmmakers are at pains to remind us, they are accounts about the very birth of civilisation/salvation.

    Camp
    Linked to the above point about corny dialogue, and that about the characters that are permitted to make humorous comments is the fact that another of the key distinctives of many Biblical Epics is camp. This is very much at the foremost of my mind at the moment as I'm reading Richard Lindsay's "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day". Lindsay cites Susan Sontag's descriptions of camp as "Failed seriousness" (p.xxix) and the "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration" (p.xxx) before adding something Sontage excludes, namely that camp "is often specifically queer, but it need not be exclusively queer" (p.xxxi, emphasis his). Ultimately he agrees with Philip Core's definition of "camp as an expression of what is simultaneously hidden and revealed about the personality"(p.xxx).

    Even to those unfamiliar with academic definitions of camp, it is fairly plain that it is a feature of most of the major Biblical Epics from Mary Magdalene's zebra-powered chariot in The King of Kings, to Jay Robinson's portrayal of Caligula in The Robe to the underlying scorned-lover motivation behind Boyd's depiction of Messala in Ben-Hur, through to Richard Gere dancing in his underpants in 1985's King David. But it's even present in The Passion of the Christ a point that is, at first, surprising and then rather obvious. As Lindsay puts it "The androgynous Satan figure and the gay Herod figure suggest the kind of decadent society that would put the Son of God to death" (p.46).

    Indeed Biblical Epics are not just about the existence of camp, but usually camp of the kind of wrong in the world which, one way or another, God is intent on rectifying. Thus ultimately Magdalene covers up her gold bikini, the smug sneer is wiped of Caligula's face and Satan descends into hell; camp orgies are terminated by "acts of God" such as earthquakes and lightning and huge pagan temples and idols crumble into the dust. It's a mark against the genre that the 'more-godly' world at the end of these films is usually one that is more heterosexual.

    Excess
    Closely linked to the above is the degree and the sense of excess in the Biblical Epics. As Wood explains "(o)nly epics, I think, insist on our thinking so much about money while we are in the cinema. Every gesture, every set piece bespeaks fantastic excess." (p.169) However, this excess is not simply about good storytelling or attractive marketing it also serves to bolster the film's moral message. This is closely tied to the points made above about "Moral Victory" and "Camp". Often the epics' excess is a way of signifying decadence, or the might of the empire against which God's people are to stand against. However, perhaps, it receives its fullest expression in the large scale destruction that occurs at the end of many Biblical Epics. Wood again ((178-182):
    ...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.
    Of course 'Excess' is not just linked to destruction in the Epics it's often used to underscore the supposed momentousness of the events that are being depicted. The moment of Exodus in both versions of The Ten Commandments, the Hallelujah Chorus in The Greatest Story Ever Told and the ark in the various epic adaptations of the Noah story.

    Divine Activity
    One of the key factors that distinguishes the Biblical Epics from other historical epics is the presence of divine intervention. This takes different forms in different films. Whilst Grace describes this as "the miracles and the sense of the nearness of the heavenly realm" (p.13) this varies depending on the type of story which is being adapted. As a description it best fits the Roman-Christian Epics where Peter sees a vision (Quo Vadis?), Marcellus is haunted (The Robe) and Miriam and Tirzah are healed (Ben-Hur). However, in the Old Testament Epics "nearness of the heavenly realm" seems a little cosy compared to the acts of judgement and destruction which typify God's decisive action in the film. In the Jesus films it is not so much about a connection to another "realm" as the presence of God made man and walking among mortals.

    What is striking is that whilst divine activity is far from unique amongst ancient writings, very few other historical epics (at least within the Hollywood tradition) include such incidents, without moving into the fantasy genre where the aspects of self-seriousness and contemporary resonance are also absent. To put it another way, only the only form of divine activity that Hollywood cinema takes seriously is that which affirms Judeo-Christian belief. More recently characters have been allowed to believe in other gods - there were mentions of the supernatural in the early twenty-first century epics Gladiator (2000) and Troy (2004) - but in such cases their faith remains strictly a personal affair. The divine does not appear to have a decisive effect on the lives of mortals.

    --

    Having said all of this, I'm no longer sure having lists of genre characteristics is particularly helpful. When I started researching this series of posts I was very much hoping to come up with a list of criteria that would more or less indicate which films were part of the genre and which weren't. However as I have looked into more I have learned that not only is such a process widely practised it is also rather problematic. The reason I went down this path in the first place is because two of the early pieces I read, many years ago now, did offer such list based classifications. The first was in the very first general film studies text I read, Warren Buckland's "Teach Yourself Film Studies" where the author briefly examines Film Noir and lists seven of Noir's main attributes.

    The second was in Gaye Ortiz and Clive Marsh's "Explorations in Theology and Film: An Introduction" which is now 20 years old and which has not dated as well as some of its contemporaries. The chapter in question was Robert Banks' "The Drama of Salvation in George Stevens's Shane" which started by listing the key characteristics of the Western. Both pieces very much caught my attention and have acted as doorways to discovering two genres that I have a real love for. Nevertheless, I've only read one subsequent piece of scholarship on these genres that attempts genre classification by list, and crucially I was not able to rediscover it to mention it here.

    Anyway, this approach is not generally favoured by most authors on genre studies. One of the main reasons for this is that such lists are inevitably part of a self-fulfilling circle. If I define a genre, I do so with reference to a particular list of films that qualify for that genre, but if I start with a list of films and seek to draw out their shared characteristics then the question arises as to on what basis these particular films were selected in the first place. There's more I could say on this, but for a footnote this has already gone on quite a lot and I should probably press on and wrap it up.

    =================
    - Banks, Robert (1997) “The Drama of Salvation in George Stevens’s Shane,” in Explorations in Theology and Film, Marsh & Ortiz (eds.), Oxford: Blackwell, 59-65
    - Buckland, Warren (1998) "Teach Yourself Film Studies", London: Hodder & Stoughton.
    - 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.
    - Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press

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