• 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


    Thursday, August 27, 2020

    Lamentations of Judas (2020): Podcast

    It's been 11½ years since I last posted on the Bible Films podcast. Podcasting has come an awful long way in that time - to the extent that I'm somewhat embarrassed by the older entries, but I've been wanting to return to it for a long time, and to try a new, more conversational approach.

    So I'm delighted to have just posted a discussion about the recently released Lamentations of Judas a fantastic part drama-part documentary which tells both the story of Jesus and the modern(ish) day story of some of the combatants in the Angolan Civil War. 

    It's a very special film typified by the kind of natural lighting and straw-tinted landscapes that made films such as Timbuktu (2014) and Wallay (2017) so special.

    This time round I'm in discussion with Melanie Pegge most widely known as an artist, musician, but an art psychotherapist by profession. As some of the film's publicity talked about how it was the process of re-enacting the story of Jesus' betrayal that enabled these former soldiers to open up about their experiences and subsequent rejection I thought Mel would bring a fascinating perspective to the film and indeed she does.

    Please have a listen and please, if you could, "like and share" that would be fantastic. My old podcast channel currently only has a couple of votes and, as one of those is a "one-starrer", it doesn't encourage others to give it a chance! You can find it at one of these places:



    Monday, August 17, 2020

    The Ten Commandments (1923)

    Nearly 20 years ago now I started writing a book about portrayals of Moses on Film. I abandoned it long ago, even the few chapters I had written would pretty much writing from scratch were I to pick it up again, so whilst I've written and reviewed it extensively in the past, I've never actually posted anything here on it, so I figured it was time to remedy that. Much of what follows was written back then so is not my best work, but nevertheless hopefully it's useful.

    Given his reputation today it seems hard to believe that there was a time when Cecil B. DeMille was a leading figure in Hollywood but had not yet made a biblical epic. By 1923 he already had 45 films to his name and only decided to make a film on the Ten Commandments after running a competition to "get the idea for his next picture” .Eight entrants snagged the $1000 prize money, but one stood out for its hookline “You cannot break the Ten Commandments - they will break you".

    DeMille’s and his screenwriter Jeanie MacPherson decided to split the film into two parts, with a Prologue concentrates on the story of the Exodus giving way to a modern morality tale, for the remainder of the filmDeMille and his built and then subsequently buried the massive sets in Guadalupe, Santa Maria in California's Mojave Desert 

    Among the film's many distinctions are that it was amongst the first to use of Two Strip Technicolor. DeMille put it to good use, in particular as a device for highlighting the emotions of the Hebrews as they left the promised land. The use of the Technicolor, the orthodox refugees and the soundtrack at this point make this scene one of the movie’s most enduring.

    Amongst DeMille's motives for the film was perhaps a desire to inject some much needed morality into Hollywood which was in danger of being engulfed by the scandal surrounding (the wrongly accused) Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. It worked Photoplay, amongst others, described it as "wonderful entertainment and a marvellous sermon” and was said to have inspired large numbers of people to become rabbis, priests and ministers. More significantly the film's opening titles explicitly referenced "the shattering thunder of the World War" arguing that following the Commandments was the only "way out" of the situation happening again.

    The ‘Prologue’ concentrates on the story of the exodus, from the oppression of the Hebrews through to the giving of the Ten Commandments  getting as far as the worship of the golden calf.Just as the confrontation between the Israelites and Moses is just about to reach its climax the story fades and the viewer is transported to the dinner table of a 1920’s mother telling the story to her two adult sons. The younger son, Dan declares the commandments to be “bunk" and sets about breaking as many as he can. This upsets both his fiercely religious mother and his more even-handed brother (who accuses her of using the Bible "like a whip") Of course Dan ultimately gets his comeuppance when a church he has built using shoddy materials collapses and kills his mother. Dan is forced to flee to Mexico with the authorities in hot pursuit, but is caught in a storm, ultimately, like the Egyptians being dashed into the sea.

    DeMille uses lighting effectively elsewhere in the film, most notably within Pharaoh’s palace which despite its grandeur is shot as dark and dingy. It may be filled with reproductions of the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb, but by making it seem shadowy and gloomy DeMille further stresses his point.

    DeMille also uses two recurring motifs to tell his story. The most obvious is his use of the tablets which the Ten Commandments are given on. In addition to the actual tablets being seen in the story, as well as appearing as a backdrop to the intertitles on three different occasions their shape is made by light shining on stone.  The first of these is when God is about to reveal the commandments to Moses. Although it is possible that this is linked to the sin of the Hebrews below, it is more likely that it is drawing attention to the motif for use in the second half of the film. When it does occur in the second half of the film it appears to signify God’s impending judgement - firstly before the church collapses on Mrs. McTavish, and just before Dan’s boat crashes in to the rocks.

    The other recurring motif is that of leprosy. The first character in the film to catch leprosy is Miriam who contracts the disease as she worships and caresses the golden calf. She repents to Moses she is seemingly healed. Leprosy enters the film again in the second half where the titles announce that Dan’s smuggled jute has come via a leper colony. A figure is shown escaping from the bags of jute, which turns out to be Sally Lang who infects Dan, who infects Mary Leigh. Sally Lang and Dan are killed as a result of the phobia generated by the disease, but Mary Leigh finds healing and redemption through listening to the words Jesus said to another leper in John’s story.

    DeMille chose his long time friend Theodore Roberts to play the part of Moses, their ninth and final film with DeMille ending the relationship between the two that had stretched back to the days of DeMille’s acting career. Roberts’s Moses is portrayed as a supremely confident man, assured in the certain success of his mission. He first appears striding into Pharaoh's throne room, and is far closer to the prince of the realm that he was brought up as, than the fugitive shepherd he later became.

    However, in seeking to establish the most important feature about the portrayal in Moses it is vital to remember that it is not he who is the biggest star of the film but the commandments themselves (The film is after all named in their honour). By comparison the Moses character operates only as a delivery boy/midwife. Although he seems the most important character once he has delivered the commandments into the world there is little more for him to do than to fade out and watch the decalogue take over. (This interesting device, of creating a character who appears to be the star of the film, only for them to disappear and be superseded by another, was later used to great effect by Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho). 

    For the remainder of the film the other characters play their part but it is the commandments that are the real hero. Ultimately they win out and the strap line that inspired the film (“You cannot break the commandments , they will break you.”) proves its point. When the role of Moses is compared to the prominence of the commandments it becomes apparent that the major role of Moses in this film is that of a lawgiver

    The result of all these elements is that we have a Moses who has nowhere left to go. He is the epitome of wisdom, trust in God. To anyone that does not know the story well he appears faultless, perhaps even sinless. Certainly incidents such as the fit of anger that saw him murder an Egyptian, or the doubts that loomed so large at the burning bush have been excluded from the film to portray Moses in the most positive light possible. What else would be appropriate for the giver of God’s laws?

    Sadly the outcome is a rather one dimensional, whitewashed image of Moses, which despite its no doubt intended piety leaves him lacking any real depth. Except for a momentary look of horror when Pharaoh orders the Israelites to make their bricks without straw Moses constantly stands firm, unswayed by the situations around him. In reality the bible presents us with a very different Moses who when called by God in the opening chapters of Exodus comes up with a string of excuses rather than a confident knowing smile.

    God’s role in the film however, is markedly different. Seemingly absent from the film. The idea of an unseen God is not an unusual one, but as this is a silent film he is also unheard. The only real manifestation of him is as the parter of the Red Sea, and as creator of the fireworks that accompany the unveiling of the commandments. 

    Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that The Ten Commandments fails to see the idiosyncrasies in the way it proposes its remedy. Whilst it highlights God’s law as the solution to the bloodshed of the war, it inadvertently shows God killing thousands of Egyptians in the process. The irony of these deaths (of these nameless, faceless Egyptians) in a film about how God’s law can save us from the horrors of the First World War, is lost. 

    polarisation occurs with Pharaoh's son. When he appears he is clearly a spoilt, objectionable child such that the audience can have very little compassion for him when he dies in the tenth plague. Yet the bible reveals nothing of his character. It would have been equally faithful to the biblical text if the son of Pharaoh had been played by a wide-eyed ‘cute’ child, and yet the death of such a child would be considerably less palatable. Regardless of the character of Pharaoh’s child, the death of the first born children, once stripped of religious triumphalism, is one of the most troubling stories in the bible.

    It is in the second half of the film that God’s implied character shows through the most vividly. 

    “you cannot break the ten commandments, they will break you”.

    Do McTavish’s buildings fall down because he has cheated on his building materials, or because God is punishing him for doing so? The same ambiguity also surrounds the other events in the last scenes of the film. A similar question might be raised regarding Dan’s leprosy.

    It is no until the penultimate scene in the film that DeMille resolves the issue for us. As the Dan’s boat is dashed against the rocks we see a light shining on them in the shape of the tablet motif. Significantly, this is the only incident in the second half of the film that could not be explained away by scientific reasoning, implying that not only did God not prevent Danny’s tragic accident, but that he specifically ordained it. God’s vengeance is meted out and the one who broke all of the commandments appears to be killed for it.

    This path is presumably best illustrated by Mrs McTavish’s other son John, who, as noted above, is something of a Christ figure in the story. On the one hand he is righteous and good, but he is also loving and considerate. Perhaps more importantly for viewers in a post modern age, he is not afraid to speak out when he sees things wrong, challenging both mother and his brother in the course of the film. It is often stated that it is much harder to play a supremely good character than an evil one, and it is to the credit of both DeMille and actor Richard Dix that apart from moments of tweeness John is the most attractive character in the movie.

    If DeMille intended his audience to aspire to John’s character, he perhaps also anticipated that they would best relate to the character of Mary Leigh. Essentially she is the only character in the film whose views change, moving from indifference in the opening scenes to finding forgiveness and healing in the later ones. Although she is mislead at the start of the second half, when she turns to the Christ figure for help she finds God’s grace and forgiveness. DeMille’ then essentially presents his viewers with a choice. Will they chose secularism and modernity, blinkered religious extremism, or aspire to be good, honest and compassionate?

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