• 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


    Wednesday, May 30, 2018

    David and Goliath (2015)

    Back in 2013-14 I wrote a chapter for the book "The Bible in Motion" about film portrayals of David (and, by extension, Goliath). There are two problems with committing this kind of thing to paper. Firstly, you will inevitably come across an odd portrayal that you had somehow not discovered before and secondly, the moment you're done, someone releases a new version and your work looks outdated.

    So I must admit that I hardly leapt for joy back in 2015 when I heard that Tim Chey was producing a film called David and Goliath and I must admit that given the David film fatigue I was experiencing, when the trailer came out and looked pretty bad then I decided not to exert the effort needed to try and track it down.

    But then of course Netflix picked it up, their not always entirely effective algorithm suggested it might be my kind of thing and I added it to my list. And there it stayed, at least until last week when I realised it was about to disappear and that I needed to see it before it would cost me good money to do so.

    I have to say my initial hunch was right. David and Goliath is probably the worst Bible film I've ever seen, and, as anyone who knows anything about this subject will be aware, it's a very competitive category. It starts with a script that feels like it was never submitted to serious scrutiny. It's a little unfair to pick on an historical screenplay for anachronistic dialogue, but then I can't remember another film where soldiers talk about their percentage chance of winning, or dismiss those to be executed by saying "Have a nice day". True some films have entirely tried to use modern style dialogue (and probably been praised here for doing it), but here the more modern sounding dialogue clashes with the parts which use epic-movie-speak.

    Elsewhere Goliath's pre-fight challenge to David sounds like a cliche from ringside at the WWF:
    "Your God can't save you little rat...I'll eat your head. Nobody can defeat ME…You coward, you little maggot, you little weasel. I am God, you are nothing. I hate your guts. You moron. I'll show you. I'll destroy you..."
    Is it being contemporary? Is it comedy? Perhaps it's making the point that Goliath was unlikely to have been very articulate, but the film is full of this kind of clunky dialogue. "Let me get this through your THICK, STUBBORN SKULL!" David's brother yells at him at one point, "that man was created to kill people!"

    The problems with the dialogue are exacerbated by acting that is almost universally poor, with the cast seemingly resorting to shouting in almost every scenario from attempting intimidation, to being mildly annoyed. There's also repeated use of time lapse scenery footage, but bizarrely the bright lush scenery used in these sequences neither matches the geography of the action sequences, nor their style.

    To be fair this is a low budget effort, and. given that, some of costuming works quite well, the red cloth and leather tunics worn by the Israelites give a tip of the cap to Rome, whilst still being distinct.

    Usually I like to write positive reviews; flaming films rarely does much to improve the world, and other people do that far better. So I focus on what a film does well, what I learnt from it and so on. I try and understand what the filmmakers were trying to do and write about that. Here, however, it's almost impossible to do that. It does do much well and it's difficult to discern what the filmmakers were trying to do. It doesn't even provide a new angle on the story, or have a strong message - indeed, perhaps most damningly of all for an evangelical, faith-based project, it doesn't even make decent propaganda.

    Having said all that, on going to IMDb to add some quotes from the film, I found that far more people had been there before me and done the same. So some people are clearly not only watching it, but also connect with the movie enough to post the quotes. I don't know whether this is a sign that I'm overlooking the extent to which some people will cherish even films that I think are very poor, or an indication that it's beginning to gain a cult following of the so-bad-it's-good variety. I can certainly see the appeal of the latter option. Now that David and Goliath has disappeared from Netflix I find myself wanting to watch bits again one more time or show them to others. After all, where else can you get to see a giant call his diminutive foe both a rat and a maggot and still fel the need to add "weasel" to the list as well?


    Saturday, May 26, 2018

    Salomé (1922)

    Alla Nazimova was one of the leading figures of 1920s cinema, not just in her native Russia, but throughout the film-viewing world. Not only was she an actor of some repute but she also wrote, edited, produced and directed. Indeed, whilst her husband Charles Bryant was given the directing credit for Salomé, many consider that Nazimova is, at the very least, worthy of consideration as a co-director. Certainly she, in combination with her friend Natacha Rambova oversaw the film's art-direction and had a hand in the design of the costumes and sets,. The costumes and sets were based on the original drawings Aubrey Beardsley created to accompany Oscar Wilde's play.

    Whilst the film lacks Strauss' music and omits most of Wilde's text, it is very much an adaptation of Wilde's 1891 play, itself drawing on numerous writers and artists stretching back from Flaubert and Moreau all the way to the New Testament. David Thomson records that Nazimova herself called it "a pantomime of the play", and there's a certain appeal to that description (624). Wilde's plot and sense of decadence are clearly at the forefront, much of the film's dialogue belongs to him, and the film retains the occasional Wilde innovation, such as calling John the Baptist 'Jokanaan'.

    Another aspect of Wilde's work that remains is the production's atypical sexuality. Numerous sources testify to Nazimova's lesbianism or bisexual (e.g. Lambert 162), and the result of her bold choices with respect to costume and set design was to create one of the earliest pioneering works of queer cinema. With its androgynous characters, stylised costumes and phallic props, Salomé is perhaps the most camp of all biblical films - a category with no shortage of competition - and it's influence can be seen in an array of subsequent films based on the New and Old Testaments, from 1933's Lot in Sodom, through to more macho efforts such as The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    The visual impact of Navimova's work is breathtaking, with avant garde, art deco, sets and strangely alien-esque costumes. Herod looks like a cross between Bacchus and a circus clown, Herodias like one of Macbeth's witches and Nazimova herself looking like she had just stepped off the set of Metropolis, itself still half a decade from completion.

    But its emotional impact is no less powerful. Whilst there seems very little interest in Ulderico Marcelli's original musical arrangement, contemporary versions of the score are well and truly in abundance. Recent soundtracks such as those by Mike Frank or P. Emerson Williams or The Bad Plus have revitalised the movie bringing it new-found popularity in the modern age.Indeed it's one of the finest examples of Silent film music coming full circle: just as in the early days a movie might be accompanied by anything from a single pianist to a full-scale orchestra, depending on the size of the venue and the grandeur of the production, today live showings feature an inspiring array of accompaniments from canned music on a DVD, through small collectives, right up to 70-piece orchestras.

    In a version of Salomé that I saw recently, Hayley Fohr's drone inspired score combined violin and double bass with drums and manipulated vocals to give an ethereal power to Bryant, Nazimova and Rambova's images. Paul Joyce described it as "a mix of avant rock, post-rock, electronica and trace elements of folk/country" which captures it nicely. The music gave heightened the emotional impact of the film, but it's clear from the fact that this is such a popular film to screen that this is not a two-way street. Even watching the film in silence the power of its imagery is clear.

    Fohr chose to omit the film's intertitles, a decision which proved controversial with some. Watching the film again, this time with the intertitles included, I'm not convinced they move the plot on a great deal, although their design and their use of Wilde's dialogue give them a certain aesthetic pleasure. It would have been better had the missing intertitles simply been cut, rather than replaced with several seconds of black screen. Nevertheless, I'm reminded of the famous dictum of another key director of the silent era, Alfred Hitchcock: "Show, don't tell". If nothing else, Fohr's the wordless approach does underline the film's ability to convey its story and its meaning based purely on its imagery.

    What lies at the heart of all this emotion are the film's themes of desire, rejection and unrequited love. Herod desire's his step daughter oblivious to the pain he is causing Herodias. But Salomé has no eyes for him, only for John, who in turn is too pure for the sultry dancer. Instead Jokanaan gazes only towards the heavens. Meanwhile two of Herod and Herodias' servants (Herodias's unnamed page and Narraboth the Syrian guard) are similarly entangled. The former has eyes only for the moon - which looms large in numerous shots - the latter keeps an overly attached eye on the princess. Salomé is oblivious to both. In a desperate attempt to keep Salomé away from the Baptist, Narraboth takes his own life, but when his body falls at Salomé's feet she barely even notices, stepping over his body to continue her attempt to win a kiss from the prophet (see above). When the princess finally gets her kiss, once Jokanaan's head has been removed from his body, it so enrages Herod that he has her immediately executed.

    Sadly the film's pioneering expression of sexuality proved similarly fatal to its performance at the box office. In addition to its unconventional style, rumours that the film had "employed only homosexual actors" (Anger 163) and tales of on-set debauchery, hurt the film at a time when the industry was still suffering from the fallout from the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. Yet somehow it was this film, rather than some of Nazimova's more commercially successful films that has survived. No doubt this is partly because it became cherished by a community that was still very much living underground in the early 1920s, but perhaps it was also because, in a field where still few, if any, women are known primarily by their surname in the way that many men are, this film, more than any other expressed a purity of artistic vision and single-minded determination to make the film the way she imagined it.

    In addition to Joyce's review, readers may also like to read those by Martin Turnbull and God is in the TV.

    - Anger, Kenneth (1981 [1975]) Hollywood Babylon New York: Dell Publishing
    - Joyce, Paul (2018) "Under the Moon… Salomé (1923) with Haley Fohr Ensemble, Barbican" at ithankyou. Available online at:
    - Lambert, Gavin (1997) Nazimova: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
    - 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.
    - Theophano, Teresa (2002) "Film Actors: Lesbian" at glbtq.com. Available online at
    - Thomson, David (2002) The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, LONDON (Little Brown), Fourth Edition.

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    Thursday, May 24, 2018

    Judas (2004)

    This review was originally posted on 7th April 2005, and I've been meaning to post it here ever since they deleted all my reviews a few years back. As someone emailed me this week asking about it I thought perhaps now was a good time to do so. I've not revised the text of what I wrote so please don't judge me on it too harshly. And if you enjoy reading it please consider a donation to web.archive.org as without them, you wouldn't be reading it. For another, similarly old, take on this film try Jugu Abraham's review

    It’s funny how you don’t get any Jesus films for a while and then three come along all at once. *Last year's The Passion of the Christ (my review) was preceded by the Visual Bible’s word for word rendition of The Gospel of John. Once The Passion proved to be the surprise hit of the year, US TV network ABC was quick to dust off it’s film Judas, (which had sat unloved on their shelves for a couple of years), and screen it shortly afterwards. It’s quite a surprise, then, to find it released for rent, in the UK – few American TV shows have made it so far.

    Thematically, Judas is similar to Jesus Christ, Superstar, even if its considerably more orthodox in its theology. As the title would suggest, it’s mainly focused on Judas, and how he ended up becoming one of history’s most reviled villains. Interestingly, whereas most Jesus films, except perhaps The Passion, try to whitewash Judas, this film presents a more complex character. It’s true that he ends up becoming a political pawn in a first century Roman-Jewish power struggle, but the character’s manipulative tendencies, uncompromising stance and social awkwardness are clearly shown as factors in his downfall. Yet unlike most other Jesus films, there is a glimmer of hope that Judas finds last minute salvation.

    In comparison to Judas, the flaws of which largely aid the intended portrayal, the depiction of Jesus falls well short. It is unfortunate that Jonathan Scarfe, who plays Jesus, has a similar face and expression to Matthew Lillard’s irritating reality TV D-lister in high school drama She’s All That, but even so, a casting director chose that face nevertheless. What is Scarfe’s fault is that he plays Jesus as a whiny spoilt child who is still to grow up. The turning of the tables in the temple, unusually included at the start (preferring John’s chronology to the Synoptics), is portrayed as a temper tantrum. The "get behind me Satan" incident is shown similarly. Whilst there are few other so direct examples, the "it’s not fair" look and the "if you don’t do what I say I’m going to tell my dad" glare are never far away. Whilst not as bad as Glen Carter’s disastrous, pouting, Jesus in the 1999 filmed for video version of Jesus Christ, Superstar, it runs a close second. If Jesus really was like that, Judas must have had the patience of a saint to put up with him as long as he did. I would have shopped him long before, and spent my 30 pieces of silver on a grandstand seat.

    It is a shame that that Jesus’s role is portrayed so woefully. Judas’ emphasis on Jesus as a miracle worker would otherwise have been a welcome relief to the scores of versions which have focused only on the ‘great teacher’ while marginalising the signs and wonders which the gospels suggest were the key to Jesus’s popularity.

    Like its protagonist, Judas is certainly not all bad. The sets and costumes are fairly impressive, even if you get the impression that this was the only pocket of the Roman Empire where dentistry was flourishing. And the modernising of the dialogue is a worthy effort, even if it fails a few times.

    However, such a weak portrayal of Jesus will undermine any story he features in. Jesus is such a crucial figure in human history that we are only aware of characters such as Judas because of how they impacted his life. So whichever executive consigned this to an early ABC grave prior to its unexpected resurrection as a shameless cash-in was probably right. Leave this at Blockbuster and go watch, the Jesus mini-series, The Gospel of John or Jesus Christ Superstar live on stage instead.

    *Like I said above, this was originally written in 2005, so I left the chronology in to reflect the era it was from.


    Wednesday, May 16, 2018

    Salome (1953)

    Salome (1953) was the last biblical epic to be made before the advent of widescreen later that same year, and it remains a fine example of what could be achieved with the academy aspect ratio, not least because of director of photography Charles Lang's compositions and striking use of technicolor. Yet for all that, it's a film that is easily, and indeed often, sneered at. For many, it seems it has become the poster-child for all that is 'wrong' with biblical epics: the camp; the excess; the fake piety; cheesy dialogue and bad acting; not to mention a plot that bears little resemblance to the scant source material. Yet on closer inspection it is a different film, a better film, than its reputation suggests.

    It's true that, in contrast to many biblical epics, Salome seems to rather relish the lowness of its brow, in particular the elements of camp. Alan Badel portrays John the Baptist in super serious fashion, his clipped English accent and wide-eyed staring into the distance, contrasting with his camel-hair costume like Jeeves in leopard skin. In contrast Charles Laughton dusts off his performance as Nero in Sign of the Cross (1932) and "plays Herod like a giant, randy eunuch" (Lindsay, 107). And then there's the earnestness with which Rita Hayworth, once the forces sweetheart, plays a character fifteen years her junior.

    Hayworth's role is particularly interesting. Tragically, as a star she is beginning to be remembered less for her movies than for her posters. Even amongst serious film students, the pivotal role of posters of her in The Bicycle Theives (1948) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) seems to be overtaking her fine performances in films such as Gilda (1946) and The Lady From Shangai (1947).

    Whilst it's true that at 35 she was perhaps a little too old to play a coming of age princess, it's certainly no worse than Henry Winkler playing "The Fonz" at almost forty, or, more recently, 31 year old Andrew Garfield playing the teenager Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Indeed with this role there was even historical precedence; Alla Nazimova was 43 when she played the eponymous role in the 1922 version of the story. In contrast to all of those actors, Hayworth appeared fresh-faced and bright-eyed and was perhaps 'never lovelier', than as the princess who finds her homeland has more to offer her than Rome. Sadly Hayworth's career never really recovered from the film's critical mauling, though she continued working for another twenty years.

    Salome also had a similar affect on director William Dieterle's career. One of many Jewish directors to flee 1920s Germany, his career never reached the peaks of Robert Siodmak or Billy Wilder, even though his 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola won the Academy Award for best film. After Salome he produced only a few more films over a twenty-year period, eventually returning to his native country in the late 1950s.

    Yet the film was not the financial disaster all this suggests, going on gross $137 million at the box office. The film's success was, in part, down to a controversial billboard campaign featuring the Salome's love interest Claudius (Stewart Granger) leaning over a scantily clad Hayworth. The city council in Los Angeles claimed to have received "over 150 letters of protest" about the posters and so forced them to be taken down (Variety 1953a), although the subsequent court case was dismissed, finding that "(p)ublic morals were not shocked" (Variety 1953b). The controversy and resulting publicity only appears to have piqued interest at the box office, to the extent that in May 1953 Columbia were reportedly thinking of casting Hayworth in another biblical picture this time about Mary Magdalene (Variety 1953c).

    However, contrary to what the controversy suggests, the film's real surprise, was the way it tried to redeem Salome and, by extension, Hayworth's image. In contrast to the marketing images of Salome, in her opening scenes she appears clad in a virginal white gown, dancing an innocent, rather than seductive, dance. It's interesting that whereas the filmmakers were taken to court but ultimately vindicated over the use of Hayworth's image, in the film Salome herself is exiled without any kind of trial or due process, an innocent victim.

    This portrayal as Salome as a misunderstood innocent continues throughout the film. Forced out primarily on the grounds of "being a barbarian", her only real crime throughout the film is taht she is initially a little put out at her mistreatment. The male characters, and indeed, her own mother, consistently judge her based on little more than her appearance: Caesar banishes her, Pilate assumes she will be trouble, Herod lusts after her, the Baptist condemns her (or at least her family) and her mother deceives and uses her. Ultimately even the audience's primary expectation - that Salome will dance to condemn John the Baptist - is proven to be false. In a revision of the basic plot breathtakingly out of keeping with the traditional story, Salome dances not to condemn John, but to save him. Ultimately, John dies not because Salome is too corrupted, but because she proves to be too innocent, outwitted by her mother's machinations.

    It's difficult to know what to make of the film's revisionist take on the story. Previous film adaptations, such as the 1922 silent Salomé, tended to take their lead from Oscar Wilde's 1891 play (and, to a lesser extent, Strauss's 1905 opera). Wilde provides a different motive for Herodias' daughter to the biblical story, where Herodias encourages her daughter to ask for the Baptist's head to silence his criticism of her affair with Herod. In Wilde's play, Salomé falls in love with John, but when he rejects her advances, she turns on him and dances for Herod in order to exact her revenge. However when finally presented with the Baptist's severed head, her old feelings return and she kisses it, an act that so appals Herod that he has her killed. Wilde's Salome, then, is presented as the archetypal femme fatale: attractive, lustful, capable of furious anger such that the cycle of the story can only be completed by her death. In other words it's a noir plot where a women is punished for her failure to conform.

    Of course, aside from her posters, Hayworth is best remembered for her role in Gilda (1946) a typical film noir where she plays a typical femme fatale. It's not hard to imagine, then, that audiences expected her to undergo a similar comeuppance. Yet instead of a biblical Gilda they get treated to an innocent Hayworth who only agrees to use her sexuality when pressured by various characters, and for the noble cause of saving John. Thus whilst Forshey is correct to note that the curious revision of the plot still manages to appeal "simultaneously to the religious sensibilities and the prurience of the audience", it was surely not in the manner in which they were expecting. This is no doubt why even though the famous dance of the seven veils scene is more or less as might be expected, it ultimately feels out of keeping with the rest of the film.

    Commentators on the Bible on film have tended to judge the film harshly for this very reason. For Babington and Evans the "wildly inventive" narrative is the result of "deformation piled upon deformation...producing an exhibition of the sub-genre's intrinsic interests, motifs and themes, though at the cost of historical plausibility" (186). Be that as it may, the revisionist plot does join together particular biblical details in an interesting fashion. The gospel accounts of John the Baptist's death never mention Salome by name - that detail is left to Josephus. Yet the name Salome does occur in Mark 15:40 and 16:1 as one of the women at the crucifixion and the empty tomb. This is usually taken to be an entirely different woman, as is perhaps likely, but there's a certain poetry to the theory that the daughter of Herodias did somehow become one of the followers of Jesus, possibly even one of the women of means who supported him.

    Whilst the film doesn't explicitly make this claim, the final shot we see of Salome is her, again dressed in white, stood next to Claudius and listening to Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount. Christ's face is not shown, only his back is visible, both here, and in an earlier scene where he restores a man's sight (where we get a close up of his hand). As is typical for the Roman-Christian epic, we're left to infer the rest.

    I can't help wondering, however, if the reason the subversion of the original story is so notorious is not so much because it diverges from the Bible - it would hardly be the first epic to be guilty of that - but because they've failed to properly smooth out the plot around the edges of the transplant. In particular, it's not really clear how come Granger's Claudius shifts from being banned from returning to Galilee in one scene, to turning up there hoping to save the day in the next. Nor is it clear why, when he does arrive, he's unable to do so. I imagine there's a cutting room floor somewhere that could tell a tale, but without scenes explaining this, the ending comes across as a bit of a mess.

    Ultimately, though, I still can't decide about Salome. Is it a cynically exploitative take on the story made in the knowledge that, provided they could keep the censors at bay, the prospect of Rita Hayworth stripping off would prove to be box office gold? Or is it bold revision of the traditional story which not only attempts to rehabilitate the biblical character, but also the star that played her. Either way it provides an opportunity to revisit the biblical story in the light of the #MeToo movement. A girl of unknown age coerced into trading her body. If that's not a metaphor for the Hollywood of yesteryear, I don't know what is.

    -Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    -Forshey, Gerald E. (1992) American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars Westport CT: Praeger
    -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.
    Variety (1953a) "
    Rita Shows Too Much ‘Salome’ to Suit LA." May 5 
    Variety (1953b) "Solon’s Not Hot ‘Salome’" May 19 
    Variety (1953c) "Widescreen, Stereo Sound For Coronation Tinter" May 26

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    Wednesday, May 02, 2018

    Jesus' Female Disciples (2018)

    About ten years ago, Channel Four was a reliable source of documentary films about the Bible. In particular Robert Beckford hosted various programmes that enabled the station to cover both it's mandate to include some religious content and it's charge to produce provocative work and promote alternative points of view. Sadly, eventually things ran out of steam; for a while Channel 5 took on 4's mantle and churned out the odd religious conspiracy doc; and then that too seemed to pass. The last few Christmases and Easters have seen rather threadbare.

    It's a welcome return then, to see that this year Channel 4 broadcast Jesus' Female Disciples: The New Evidence as its Easter offering. Fronted by Prof. Joan Taylor (Biblical Adviser for this year's Mary Magdalene movie) and regular contributor to biblical documentaries, Prof Helen Bond, the programme takes a look at the first female followers of Jesus.

    As would be expected much is made of the first few verses of Luke 8 which names Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna as those who "provided" for Jesus and his followers "out of their resources". Unsurprisingly then the first section focuses on Mary Magdalene. It does well here to avoid getting bogged down to much in Pope Gregory and the Da Vinci code, the presenters dismiss the smear job on Mary with a few good-humoured eye rolls. Instead it looks more at Mary's origins. Mary's name may indicate that she haled from Magdala, but which of the many? Having journeyed to one of the more likely candidates they go on to talk about how Magdala is Aramaic for tower. This leads to a particularly interesting point. Just as Simon was called Simon Peter, the rock, and James and John were known as Boanerges (the sons of thunder), might "tower" be Jesus' affectionate name for Mary?

    After the break move onto the next woman on Luke's list, Joanna. Joanna, Luke tells us was the wife of Herod's steward Chuza. This takes Taylor and Bond to the city of Tiberias, the location of Herod's palace, a place we have no record of Jesus visiting and, as is pointed out, somewhere very different to the small towns and villages Jesus is normally found in. Bond also suggests, a little speculatively, that it was probably Joanna (rather than Mary) who provided the lion's share of the money for Jesus and his followers.

    At this point I was rather expecting the programme to move onto Susanna, but of course little else is known about her other than her name. Instead Bond and Taylor move on to another passage of the Bible, Mark 6:7-9. This is the passage where Jesus sends his followers out to spread his message two by two. Noting how the phrase "two by two" recalls the story of Noah's ark, where the words very much mean one male and one female, Taylor suggests that this would be the natural interpretation here as well. After all, given cultural boundaries between men and women, it would hardly be appropriate for men to be ministering and baptizing women.

    Having looked at the texts the presenters then move on to look at some of the archaeological evidence for female followers, disciples and leaders. First of all they find an early shrine to St Salome (The Cave of Holy Salome), who the Gospels identify as being at both the crucifixion and the resurrection. The cave - one of the earliest remaining Christian churches - where they find a graffitied prayer to the saint. They then relocate to Napoli where they find late 5th century paintings of Cerula complete with evidence suggesting she was a bishop.

    Having opened with a volley of Jesus film clips, this documentary got off to the perfect start, but the rest of it was well worth staying around for. Having watched many of these films over the years, as well as being involved in biblical studies for most of my adult life, it's always good to come away with something new; this time there was a good deal I hadn't heard before. As you would expect from the Middle East and Rome the visuals were pretty good and the traits that I suppose should really be thought of as the genre conventions (going on a "journey", academics pretending for the camera they don't know stuff they plainly do, the overly dramatic language) were largely kept under control.

    What's more whilst the majority of TV documentaries still tend to have only a single presenter, or two men (the buddy-doc) it was good to see two female presenters working together and playing off each other to get their respective points across. Some will find it too speculative, but this is the nature of working around the margins of ancient texts that are, even at best only a partial reflection of what really happened. To that end, the programme explored some interesting and fresh ideas and theories based on the limited evidence: It's good to have Channel Four doing this kind of thing once again.

    Available on catch-up for 7 more days

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    Tuesday, May 01, 2018

    Xena: Warrior Princess - The Giant Killer (1996)

    Over the years makers of biblical films have often been at pains to stress the historical and/or biblical accuracy of their particular portrayals. There have always been exceptions however and, as would be no surprise to fans of the show, one adaptation that is cheerfully anachronistic is the episode of Xena: Warrior Princess called The Giant Killer (Series 2 episode 3, 1996).

    As the title suggests, this is the episode where Xena meets up with an old friend of hers, a giant called Goliath, only to find themselves on opposing sides of the conflict between Israel and the Philistines. Like the biblical story Israel is still being led by King Saul, seconded by his son Jonathan, but unlike 'the original' David is already a valued member of the Israelite army, such as it is, and good friends with Jonathan (who dies before Goliath does).

    For their part, the Philistines are led by a king called Dagon, (in the Bible the name of a Philistine god rather than their king) who sees Saul as a "petty criminal". Dagon also claims that the land "was an unproductive desert when we got here, and now, it's a thriving area!", which echoes the claims often made about how the kibbutz movement transformed the landscape of modern Israel.

    Goliath here is given a far more significant back story than in any other dramatisation that I can recall. He has known Xena from her time before the series began. Not only is he familiar with her metanoiabut it emerges that the last time the two of them saw each other they were fighting together against another giant called Gareth. On that occasion Goliath saved Xena from Gareth's army only to see their enemy kill Goliath's family.

    A decade on and Goliath is still hunting Gareth. It's for this reason that he is working as Dagon's muscle - despite his apparent misgivings about the Philistine king - yet when he finds out that he will be opposing Xena he almost considers deserting the Philistine army. Dagon however convinces Goliath to stay by promising to tell him where he can find Gareth if he stays.

    Reluctantly the two former comrades end up on opposite sides of the battle and unfortunately for the Philistine hero, Xena tells David about his weak spot and helps him plan how to bring the giant down. Goliath's death, then, has a sense of tragedy about it. Not only do we, at least, appreciate his motives, but Goliath dies in vain, with his family still unavenged.

    By coincidence, I happened to watch this film, Mary Magdalene (2018) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2012) within a week of each other and I could but be struck by the parallels between them. (Minor Spoilers for all three) All three feature a male protagonist who is mourning the death of his family and is now driven to action by that sense of loss. Here, as with Guardians it's too gain revenge on the person that murdered them. In Mary Magdalene it was to bring about the kingdom, which, one could argue was still a form of revenge, only a kinder, gentler form, with God doing the avenging. Nevertheless, all three characters suffer a cinematic "death" of sorts, with a sense of them being united with their families in death. And, of course, the audience gets the sense that ultimately they will get their wish (sort of). In Guardians it comes sooner than the others. In Mary it depends on how you view the Jesus movement and your faith for the future. Here, Goliath's revenge storyline reaches a conclusion later in the series when Xena causes Gareth to be struck by a bolt of lightning (end of spoilers).

    Either way, this redeeming of Goliath is a radical departure from the Bible, and even his portrayal in most other David films, although films such as David e Golia (1959) do this to a certain extent. This is thoroughly in keeping with the way Xena's "lack of historical accuracy" is a "running joke" throughout the series.2 "Xena's self-parody" and "her mismatched style" reinforcing that her "storyline never really happened".3 The series repeatedly subverts the myths in it's path, through it's humorous tongue in cheek style. By revisiting each story, playfully exaggerating and reimagining them, and developing characters beyond the details we find in the 'original' myths, it simultaneously presents a made-up version of the story which was definitely not how it happened, but nevertheless highlights the incomplete, and typically one-sided, nature of the traditional version of the stories. 

    In this particular episode it's interesting that in addition to the aspects of the dialogue and script (available online) that alter and exaggerate the story from the first Book of Samuel, it also does it visually. When we first encounter Goliath he is already taller than the 9'9" (or 6'6") that the Bible credits him with. However, as the episode goes on he grows taller and taller relative to the other characters, moving from perhaps 12 foot to about 18th by the end of the episode.

    There is also some toying with the idea of God. Being more familiar with the Greek pantheon, Xena's sidekick Gabrielle struggles to get her head around her new found friends' monotheism. At one point she tells David "This one God stuff is a new concept for me". David tries explaining that his god is "the ultimate power the highest Being there is", before employing a metaphor or two, "try to think of him as a sort of caretaker to the world, like our shepherd". This reminds David of a song he had just thought of, which he then recites which is, of course, Psalm 23. Shortly afterwards, on the morning of the battle, Xena sees David with his head bowed, sidles up to him and says "You might want to mention the weather to, you know, Him"

    But perhaps one of the most interesting things the episode does is with David, and his rise to power. Whilst Saul remains king, Jonathan's death creates something of a vacuum. Initially it seems like Xena, who has sided with the Israelites due to Dagon's oppression of them, will be the one to take down Goliath and liberate them. Yet after Jonathan's death both Xena and David independently come to the same conclusion that it has to be David that kills Goliath and defeats Dagon, not Xena. What the Israelites need is "a leader", "someone to believe in". Thus Xena advises, equips, emboldens and fights alongside David, but ultimately it is he who leads the people and he who takes on and defeats Goliath.

    Ultimately, then, for all the show's subversion, it leaves the story's primary structure more or less intact. David becomes the hero, defeats Goliath and ultimately becomes their leader. It's an approach nicely summed up by a final disclaimer in the credits: "No Bible myths or icons were irreparably mangled during the production of this motion picture". Well quite.

    1 - My understanding is that Xena first appeared in the Hercules TV series starring Kevin Sorbo as an anti-heroine, before having a change of heart after her dealings with Hercules. The redeemed Xena then began her own series as a hero with a past.
    2 - Frankel, Valerie Estelle (2018), "Hercules, Xena and Genre: The Methodology Behind the Mashup" in Diak, Nicholas (ed.) The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Since the 1990s, pp.115-134. Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland. p.116
    3 - ibid. p.123
    4 - I'm grateful for Grantman Brown's transcript of this episode provided at SpringfieldSpringfield: