• 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


    Saturday, May 02, 2020

    Intertextuality: Red Dwarf and King of Kings

    I've been thinking about intertextuality and biblical films a lot this week. It's a key issue for biblical films, because they have even more potential sources of influence than your average film (see below). Anyway, I also happened to watch an episode of the BBC 1990s sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf and a couple of things which featured a reference to King of Kings.

    What particularly interested me in this clip was that here was a biblical film that was being referred to in a science fiction sit-com. The juxtaposition of genres here is interesting enough, but also the futuristic element of the conversation suggests a level of cultural cache, something still referred to by people in the twenty-second century still remember.

    For those unfamiliar with the show at it's heart lies the classic British double act, Rimmer the somewhat socially awkward, uptight, one who follows the rules but secretly envies his tormentor. Lister, the more popular, relaxed, laid back and amiable one, who teases his colleague and gives the audience a laugh. Interestingly here the roles are reversed slightly, but you get the picture. The episode in question Holoship (series 5 episode 1) begins with the four crew mates watching an old film (that film is a made up one, but has a very Casablanca feel - a film that has an episode dedicated to it in series 4). Lister is in tears. Rimmer sits there sneering at it and when it ends describes it as a "pile of blubbery school-girl mush". When he also adds that he found it "unrealistic" Lister responds in his defence:

    Lister: Rimmer, you said that about King of Kings, the story of Jesus.
    Rimmer: Well, it's true! A simple carpenter's son who learns how to do magic tricks like that and doesn't go into show-business? Do any of us believe that, even for a second?
    Lister: He was supposed to be the Son of God.
    Rimmer: And when he was carrying that cross up the hill, any normal, realistic bloke would have mule-kicked the guy on the left, clobbered the one on the right, and been over that green hill and far away before you could say "Pontius Pilate".

    I guess there are a few things I love about this clip. Firstly, it's a rare insight into the reception of biblical films by ordinary people, people who don't consider themselves Christians, not indeed who are film experts - though Lister is a loves to watch the occasional classic film, very much channelling the scriptwriter's love of classic cinema. Elsewhere they reference Casablanca and It's a Wonderful Life, indeed I learned about all three of these films through this show before I had ever seen them.

    Secondly, it's a great example of multiple layers of intertextuality at play regarding a biblical film. As noted above on top of the reference points available to an average film, biblical films are not only adaptations but often adaptations of multiple biblical accounts (especially in the case of the Gospels where filmmakers harmonise the four Gospel accounts). Furthermore, they are often adaptations of fictionalised biblical novels, or remakes of previous films on the subject, as well as having two millennia of biblical art to allude to, the many layers of Christian history and biblical interpretation and, of course, all the other films which may have influenced the final work. Assuming the film to which Rimmer and Lister are referring is Nicholas Ray's 1961 effort then this film also interacts with contemporary history of the Romans such as Josephus, Philo and perhaps one or two other historians of the Roman era. Ray's film also makes distinct visual references to DeMille's earlier Jesus biopic The King of Kings, reproducing a shot of the foot of the cross bumping on the flagstones as Jesus drags it to Golgotha.

    Red Dwarf goes further, however, not only referring to this composite visual text, but also introducing it's own reference, to the hymn "There is a Green Hill Far Away" which Rimmer riffs on in the last line". As this is not the only time the series refers to Jesus or God, all of that is in the mix too.

    Finally, the natural assumption is that this film is the one that Nicholas Ray directed in 1961, but that is only an assumption. For example, it's possible that Rimmer and Lister are referring to DeMille's 1927 The King of Kings, who is to say which version would have survived into the latter part of the 22nd century. Alternatively, it provides the possibility that the film in question is a later remake - one that hasn't happened even in our own time 25 years after this episode was first broadcast. Indeed it's reasonably likely that another popular Jesus film with the title King of Kings will be produced in at some point in the future and therefore more natural that Lister and Rimmer would refer to it rather than a historical artefact from almost 200 years before they are born. The possibility, then, of a Jesus film from the 22nd century is an intriguing thought.

    Red Dwarf: Holoship is currently available to view on Netflix (in the UK at least).


    • At 10:14 pm, May 03, 2020, Blogger Peter T Chattaway said…

      Here's an even weirder bit of intertextuality in a sci-fi series, from an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise that I saw for the first time a year and a half ago. This is how my recap of that episode began:


      ENT Season 1 Episode 26: "Just like those old Bible movies, Malcolm. 'It wasn't written.' " I... think Archer is actually quoting (or paraphrasing) Lawrence of Arabia here? The closest thing I can think of to a Bible-movie quote that matches what Archer says here is that refrain from The Ten Commandments, "So let it be written, so let it be done." But of course, the point *there* is that it *was* written, not that it wasn't. In Lawrence of Arabia, on the other hand, there are entire scenes dealing with the question of whether one's destiny is "written" and, if so, who does the writing.


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