• 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 19, 2010

    Spartacus, Jesus and Moses

    I finally got to see Spartacus on the big screen on Friday, which was pretty incredible. Despite being a big fan of the epic films of the 50s and 60s, this was the first time I had ever seen one on the big screen, and what an experience. It was also only the second time I'd seen the film and I'd forgotten so much of it in the meantime, particularly the extent to which Jean Simmons is in the film and Peter Ustinov's hilarious turn as Batiatus. Incidentally, I got a bit of an epic-movie-geek kick out of the scenes between Ustinov and Charles Laughton because they both played Nero in early-Christian Roman epics, Ustinov in 1951's Quo Vadis and Laughton in The Sign of the Cross (1932).

    My two favourite scenes were the build up to the final battle scene - the huge Roman army gradually making its way towards the slaves looked very impressive on the big screen - and the scene with Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode waiting to go into the ring together. Most directors would have gone for the action shot here, shooting the first gladiatorial contest with, perhaps, just an occasional glance at those waiting to go out next. But Kubrick reverses this. He stays with the two men who will go out next allowing us only a very occasional glance at the two other men. The tension and build up here is wonderful, made all the more claustrophobic by the two men being penned in to a tiny shed.

    The film is well known, of course, for bookending the story with references to Jesus. The opening monologue notes that this is the century before Jesus, and that it would be his teaching that set the wheels in motion for the abolition of slavery. Of course sadly still exists in the world today, but there's much in this film's subtext that suggests it's much about the founding and development of America as it is about 1st century BC Italy. Then, of course, the film closes with the crucifixion of the heroic, freedom-preaching, rebel leader, which whilst based in real historical events is, nevertheless, an allusion to Jesus as well. It does also shed some light on the practice of crucifixion, most notably the scene were Douglas and Tony Curtis fight to try and kill each other because they would prefer their friend to die by their sword than undergo crucifixion. The fact that they didn't think to stab each other simultaneously is one of the film's few weaknesses however.

    Having said all that, I think the film is much more of a Moses film than a Jesus film. For most of the film we are with these travelling, newly-freed slaves, as they seek to organise themselves and escape to permanent freedom. In contrast to the real story, Kubrick has Spartacus march is army down to the sea, and then to get them to march back again. Was this just so he could show the freed slaves trapped by the sea against an advancing army wanting to imprison them once again?

    Spartacus also does what The Ten Commandments (1956) rarely does; give an idea of what life on the road might look like for such a large community. DeMille does, of course, show the ordinary people as they prepare to leave their homes in a magnificent sequence, but once the new nation is in motion the details are rather brushed over. Spartacus deals with the need to train his new army, plan a route and make allegiances, but it also shows the people relaxing and eating, caring for the vulnerable and progressing through the seasons. I vaguely remember there being a couple of other points I wanted to make about this as well, but, for the moment, they seem to have escaped me.


    Incidentally, the 2010 Starz mini-series Spartacus: Blood and Sand premières in the UK on Bravo on May 25th. From the clips on the Bravo website it looks like the new series is influenced much more by Gladiator and Rome than the original, but given that Gladiator was itself heavily influenced by the Kubrick film I imagine that there will be something or other to link it with the original. There was an interview with one of the show stars, John Hannah, in Monday's Guardian.

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    Wednesday, May 05, 2010

    Spartacus, Take 3

    Having had February's screening of Spartacus cancelled, and not having heard about last June's screening until it had already had past, I'm hoping it'll be third time lucky for watching Kubrick's Spartacus on the big screen. This is essentially a rescreening to compensate for the "technical difficulties" that scuppered the February showing. Anyway, the fun starts at Leicester's Phoenix Cinema at 7pm on Friday 14th May.

    Tuesday, June 01, 2010

    Charlie Brooker on Spartacus

    As far as I'm aware there's nothing that connects Spartacus: Blood and Sand to the Bible, and so this post is slightly off-topic. But it's rare that one of my favourite columnists / TV presenters even mentions an almost-Bible film, so now that Charlie Brooker actually has, I can't resist mentioning it. Readers should be aware that, like the programme itself, the column is not for the easily offended. But on the other hand it does have some very funny lines such as this:
    Make no mistake: the gladiatorial scenes are pretty brutal. Limbs are hacked off with such nonchalant frequency, it sometimes feels more like an extreme whittling contest.
    Incidentally, this was apparently covered in the first episode in the current series of Brooker's Channel 4 show You Have Been Watching, but unfortunately, that was the one episode I missed.

    Juliette Harrisson has also posted her take on the series over at Pop Classics.

    Thursday, June 18, 2009

    Spartacus (1960) UK Re-release

    It looks like I missed my chance to see Spartacus on the big screen. Kubrick's 1960 sword and sandal epic was recently released for one day only (9th June) as part of Orange's Cinema Classics season

    The release prompted brief reviews from Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian and Philip French of sister paper The Observer, as well as James CHristopher at The Times and Derek Malcolm at the London Evening Standard.

    Friday, February 26, 2010

    Spartacus Coming to Leicester

    Edit: Sadly, I've just heard that this event has been cancelled.
    Following on from last week's showing of Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter at the Phoenix Cinema, Leicester, I've just received word that they will also be playing Stanley Kubrick's classic 1960 film Spartacus.

    I think this will be related either to the film's brief run last year, or to the recent death of star Jean Simmons, or even to the Blu-ray release on May 25th which will include the following extra features:
    Deleted Scenes, Interview with Peter Ustinov, Interview with Jean Simmons, Behind-the-Scenes Footage, Vintage Newsreels, Theatrical Trailer, Production Stills, Concept Art, Costume Designs, Saul Bass Storyboards, Posters & Print Ads, My Scenes, and BD-Live.
    In any case, the film is playing at 7pm on the 12th March, and I, for one, intend to be there.

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    Wednesday, August 26, 2015

    Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (1982)

    Just as the surprise success of The Passion of the Christ inspired various producers to give the green light to a number of Bible films, a generation before another surprisingly successful Bible film also inspired a handful of copy-cat pictures. Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) may have been a comedy, and may have caused a stir upon its release, but when it performed well at the box office (returning almost $20 million on production costs of around £3 million) it inspired other film-makers to follow suit.

    The following year saw the release of the hastily made Wholly Moses. Like Brian it starred a Footlights Cambridge graduate (Dudley Moore) as Herschel, whose life strangely parallels the life of a biblical character. Despite Moore being in the middle of a gold streak - with the film being made between his big successes 10 and Arthur, the film flopped and deservedly so. Lacking both originality and wit it tried to reproduce the success of Brian with the minimum amount of effort. It failed.

    Less well known was a French film made two years later in 1982. Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (A Quarter to Two Before Jesus Christ, or 1:45 BC) opted for a more original plot, ditching any biblical parallels, and focussed more on a pastiche of the biblical epics of the 50s and 60s. This had also been part of the intention with Brian - although the link between the "I'm Brian and so's my wife" scene and Spartacus is lost on many - but here it's much more upfront and more to do with epic films in general than specifically skewering Jesus films like The Greatest Story Ever Told. So Taylor and Burton's Cleopatra is very much to the fore, as are some of the gladiator films such as Barabbas and Androcles and the Lion and, of course, Spartacus.

    But the film that is perhaps most clearly referenced is Ben Hur (1959); indeed the film's hero is even named Ben-Hur Marcel (played by Coluche). Ben-Hur Marcel is an ordinary worked, but one day his anger about his working conditions and pay end up with his leading a crowd to protest to Caesar. When the rest of the crowd edges away, Marcel is taken into custody, bound for the Colosseum. But , desperate for spies, one of Rome's commanders frees him so that he can visit the catacombs and keep an eye out for spies and plotters. Somehow however he ends up in a gay bar in the catacombs and unbeknownst to him ends up chatting up a disguised Caesar. When he tells the disguised Caesar about his plans, he is again sent to the waiting bays in the Colosseum, only to be freed again by Cleopatra who is convinced he is her long lost brother.

    Whilst the film is clearly bot on a par with the humour of the incomparable Life of Brian I'm reluctant to judge it to heavily given the differences between French and English humour. Nevertheless there were a few bits where the humour survived the subtitling. Caesar and Ben-Hur getting their wires crossed at the aforementioned bar landed somewhere between the Carry On films and a sketch from the Two Ronnies. There are a number of deliberate anachronisms which are played for laughs and well as more biting satire around advertising. And there's the multiple repetitions of the same amusing sounding phrases which works so well in Denys Arcand's Decline of the American Empire

    But in the final act, the humour turns in a more biting, satirical, direction, as the deliberate anachronisms are used to mock modern day targets. Of course this is also very much in view in the Pythons' film which mocked the disintegration of the left wing into dissident splinter groups. Given the political machinations which are emerging as voting for the Labour party's leadership election gets under-way. Likewise Deux heures manages to nail contemporary targets but still remain fresh a generations later, so jokes about sports advertising, fear of offending the energy rich Saudis and unions protesting in the face of implacable union cut backs. This is all the more impressive as many comedic films sacrifice laughs in the final act for the sake of completing a satisfactory narrative. Here the film manages to be its most coherent and its most on-target.

    Eventually the film tries to echo Brian life-affirming nihilism. "Since we're all shit, why fight?" asks the huge crowd. It's unlikely to have featured in as many funerals as "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" but its sentiment is not so very far away.

    With everyone having made their peace the previously opposing groups all settle down to an after-gladiatorial-show party. There, among the many novelties, is a television playing a news report. And the lead story? A census in Bethlehem has led to massive overcrowding. The news item goes on to focus on a lady who has given birth to her son in a stable. The guests are dismissive ("A kid born in a stable, big deal") but of course their way of life would ultimately be swept away by the kid in the stable.

    It's one last barb, this time at the film's audience, who may, through the epic films, watch the events of the Bible unfold on our screens, but often carry on unaffected by what we see.

    Whilst the humour is often quite pointed it's not really side-splittingly funny. Whilst it adopts so many of the traits of Life of Brian, the spoofing of the epics, the satire on contemporary events, the absurdity mixed up with seriousness and the attempt to land on something more positively humanistic, it never manages to be as hilarious as its predecessor. Late on in the film ons of the characters suggests we'll "still be laughing in the 20th century". Sadly that's not quite as true as it might have been.

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    Saturday, October 14, 2023

    Review: The Book of Clarence (2024)

    The Book of Clarence premiered on Wednesday at the London Film Festival, so while it won't be on general release until January I paid to see it at the festival yesterday and there was even a brief introduction by director Jeymes Samuel beforehand.

    Samuel is best known for his 2022 western The Harder They Fall which told a fictional story based on real life Black characters from the wild west.1 This time around the approach is slightly different. The Jewish characters in the story, including minor roles for Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Jesus' parents are Black.2 The Romans are white.

    Moreover the intention was slightly different too. Whereas with The Harder They Fall, the aim was to create a new story to bring together real historical characters, here he was more focused on capturing the essence of the majority Black areas of London he grew up in.  "I wanted to tell a story around that environment but translate it back 2000 years".3 It's a subtle, but significant difference. This is the 'world' that the real life characters (including Jesus) are inserted into. The film is not intending to recreate historical reality.

    The Book of Clarence and the biblical epics
    Just as important to note is the change in tone and genre. On one level the earlier film was a more serious dramatic film, albeit with occasional moments of humour. However, Clarence is more of a comedy drama. It's not an out and out comedy like Monty Python's Life of Brian (a film to which it be forever compared, nevertheless), but the tone is lighter, zany and more comic.

    Genre-wise Samuel the film is an assured move from one popular 1950s Hollywood genre – the western – to another, the biblical epic.That this is firmly the territory that Samuel (also known as The Bullits) has entered into is clear from the opening 30 seconds which tips the hat to an array of biblical epics in quick succession. The opening shot starts with not three crosses as in most Jesus films, but a sea of them as in Spartacus (1960) and Life of Brian. Then the credits begin Quo Vadis?/The Robe style with gold 3D lettering on richly coloured, cloth-texture background. Then as we cut back to Jerusalem a subtitle tells us, Python-style, the time and place with unusual precision. Moments later we're witnessing a chariot race through the streets that not only evokes The Prince of Egypt (1998) and the 1959 Ben-Hur but the 2016 version too (though that may not be so deliberate). It's so purposefully and precisely executed that it makes the Coen Bros. Hail Caesar! (2016) look like the work of fake fans. The tips of the hat continue as the film progresses. There are two references to The Passion of the Christ late on in the film one of which is hilarious and audacious, the other of which is understated and bold.

    The other aspect of the film which will stand out to Bible film aficionados is its extensive use of Matera in Italy. This was the historic site which Pasolini used for his Jesus film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) which at the time was neglected and underappreciated, now an UNESCO heritage site and popular location for biblical movies. King David (1985), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Mary Magdalene (2018) are just a few of the films that were shot there. Here, though, it appears that barring the occasional interior, the entire film was shot in Matera. This gives a far greater feel for the city itself, it's layout and stunning surrounding geography and that gives a sense of continuity to the film itself. It captures the isolated nature of the story itself. A community translated back 2000 years.

    One further way that the film recalls the biblical epics is the way it shifts the action so that Jesus is not the centre of attention but rather a fringe, and in this case fictional, character. Here that character is Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), whose twin Thomas (also  has already left their ageing mother to follow Jesus. Clarence is hardly a pious moralist, but he's annoyed by this. Now he has to provide for her on his own and having resorted to increasingly desperate measures to find income, including racing chariots against Mary Magdalene, he now finds himself in debt to local boss Jedediah. 

    Faking miracles
    Sensing safety in numbers he tries to join Jesus' followers, but finds his followers unwelcoming, even after freeing the gladiator / slave Barabbas (Lupin's Omar Sy). So he hits on the idea of forming his own mass movement. Believing Jesus to be a fraud, who fakes his miracles, Clarence decides to do likewise. It's not long before his phoney miracles (using his friends as stooges) and his slickly-rehearsed sermons are starting to pay off.

    Much of the discussion about Clarence has been around whether the film disrespects Jesus, not unlike the controversy around Life of Brian 44 years ago. This time around, it's even more clear here that Clarence is not Jesus. The two appear at numerous points in the film and even speak to one another on a few occasions. It also becomes clear that despite his unwelcoming and posturing disciples and Clarence's initial low opinion of him, Jesus does have the power to perform genuine miracles. That might be true of the Jesus of Brian as well but here it's far more clear and explicit than just the claims of an "ex-leper".

    Yet this is hardly a conventional portrayal. It's a quirky comic-drama with fantasy elements such as light bulbs appearing above Clarence's head when he has an idea and various characters floating when they puff on a hookah. The miracles of Jesus we do see are significantly differently to how they happen in the Bible. [Spoilers - select text to read] One happens when a woman, is being stoned and Jesus stops the rocks in mid-air, with a healthy nod to the Matrix. Another, which is shown somewhat misleadingly in the trailer sees him enable Clarence to walk on water. [End of spoilers]. Nevertheless it's clear that Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) is not a fake messiah, he's the real deal, preaching an important message and walking the walk. He even stands up to the Romans.

    Jesus' parents
    While still hoping to learn how Jesus is faking his miracles Clarence visits Jesus parents, making this one of the few films that show both Mary and Joseph at the end of his life. Interestingly one of the few other films to do this is another Black Jesus film, Color of the Cross (2006). This is perhaps my favourite scene in the film. Alfre Woodard's portrayal of Mary is possibly my favourite of Jesus' mother, certainly once her son has become an adult. It's sympathetic, warm and wise, while also capturing a credible mother-adult son dynamic that few takes on Mary and Jesus seem to manage. She loves him, and so lets him lead his life without feeling encroaching too far into his work.

    Joseph's role (Brian Bovell) plays against that of Mary, interjecting every so often with a cutting contempt for Clarence and his cronies contrasting Mary's compassionate outlook. He gets the film's best lines: "If you were a tool in my carpenter's box, you wouldn't be the sharpest" he sighs as Clarence struggles to grasp that their son is not faking. They even tell him the story (found in both the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Qu'ran) of Jesus making a clay bird come alive.

    Turning it around
    All of this forms a key part of Samuel's journey to becoming a better person. Yet it's certainly not just Jesus and his parents who push him in this direction. Clarence is also besotted by Jedediah's sister Varinia, who, disliking Clarence's scheme, urges him towards living a more selfless life. As Peter Chattaway has pointed out, in the 1960s version of Spartacus, Varinia is the name of Jean Simmons character.4 It's perhaps not surprising, then, that soon Clarence finds himself using his ill-gotten wealth not to save his own hide, but to buy freedom for all the other gladiator-slaves. 

    Sadly, it's just as Clarence decides to come clean. This does raise a few questions which the film rather skips over. While buying back the slaves is a good and selfless act, that might not be how those he  tricked into giving him their money see it. Secondly gang boss, Jedediah has a remarkably low key change of heart, but then that is perhaps due to the fact that just as Clarence is about to confess that he's not the messiah (just a very naughty boy), then Romans begin tracking down the city's various messiahs.

    Questions of race
    For all the film's humour it nevertheless wants to take on more serious issues too around race, religion and society. As noted above there's a clear dividing line between the Black Jews and the White Romans. Firstly this reinforces, more clearly than any other film, the fact that the Romans and the Jews were different races and both viewed the other as inferior (though this was not primarily about race as such). Part of the reason for this clarity is the almost complete lack of priests, Pharisees, teachers of the law etc. There's a brief tracking shot of a party of (Black) men dressed similarly to Pharisees and priests in other Jesus films, but that's it. It's the Romans that are hunting down messiahs and who execute Clarence and while Jesus' death is still three days in the future, there's not even a shadow of a doubt it will be down to Roman initiative. And given the genre's tendency towards reinforcing antisemitic tropes of the past blaming the Jews for Jesus' death, it's very welcome to see a film steer clear of that so deftly.

    Secondly, before that final part of the film we've already witnessed how patrols of Roman soldiers casually interrogate Clarence and his friends, and indeed Jesus, on the flimsiest of premises. Biblical epics have always been as much about the present as about the past and it's easy to draw parallels between these scenes and the numerous videos of White police officers harassing Black people on the similarly flimsy grounds. 

    The only real exception to the Black Jews / White Romans racial divide is Benedict Cumberbatch's minor role playing someone homeless. There's an extreme close-up of Cumberbatch shortly after the credits clad in grime so thick it's impossible to tell if this is just dirt, or meant to represent some critique of black-face performances. Cumberbatch role stays around the peripheries until [Spoilers - select text to read it] Clarence gives him the money to get a proper wash. When he emerges the salon staff put him in a white robe and now his hair is unmatted and his skin clean and white suddenly we, and the salon staff realise he now looks like Jesus. Suddenly everyone forgets that Jesus walks among them and starts bowing and praising this White saviour. This seems like a bit of a dig about how we have so readily accepted a fake White Jesus (even though we know that is historically inaccurate) even though we know the real Jesus was a person of colour.

    This becomes particularly interesting during the latter stages of the crucifixion where Samuel repeats a long shot from Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, taken behind the cross with Matera in the background. While it's Clarence, not Jesus that's the focus of this shot, nevertheless it feels like it's echoing to Black members of the audience the experience White people had watching The Passion. Meanwhile to White people its a reminder that Black people matter just as much and stand shoulder to shoulder in contexts such as this.[End of spoilers]

    The Book of Samuel
    This is undoubtedly a film that White and Black people will view differently. It's also a film that will resonate differently for those with some kind of faith and those without it. While there are some cursory similarities with Life of Brian, they are two quite different films. In Brian, the humour became more pointed as the film wore on. Here it's almost the opposite. Clarence ends on a more positive note, one that recognises the possibility and importance of change and self-sacrifice. And it does this without being overly saccharin or giving simplistic answers, not least the ambiguity of the final scene which will fuel discussions after the credits have rolled. 

    It's incredibly difficult to do anything in this genre that feels genuinely innovative. Yet The Book of Clarence does that. Not for its use of a Black Jesus surrounded by Black followers, films such as Color of the Cross and Jezile (both 2006) and the TV series Black Jesus (2014-9) have already done that, but as much for its social critique and the way its humour is not generated solely by cynicism. It's not perfect, by any means. Some gags don't quite land and some will struggle with the changes in tone, but nevertheless it's well worth watching, even for those who dislike traditional biblical epics. And for fans of biblical movies or of Samuel's work, it's a must see.

    Indeed, this is clearly a hugely personal film for Samuel. The musician turned director has been mulling this film over since 2003/04 and it shows. My hunch is that in a few years time when he has a string of movies behind him, this will be the one that his fans come back to as best encapsulating his themes and outlook.

    1 - Kelley, Sonaiya (2022) "How ‘The Harder They Fall’ corrects Hollywood’s historical record of Black cowboys", Los Angeles Times, Nov. 3. Available online – https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2021-11-03/harder-they-fall-netflix-jeymes-samuel 

    2 - There's one notable exception , but it comes I won't spoil the 

    3 - Quote from pre-screening introduction by Jeymes Samuel at the Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall, 12th October 2023. Words transcribed by me at the time without the chance to play them back so may contain minor errors. I believe Samuel may have misspoke and said 3000 years rather than 2000 years, but as I wasn't certain that was exactly what he said and so as it was clearly his intention I have put 2000 above.

    4 - I was reminded of this connection by Peter Chattaway in this post on his Substack – https://petertchattaway.substack.com/p/the-book-of-clarence-the-world-premiere


    Tuesday, December 21, 2010

    Christmas UK TV Schedule 2010

    Regular readers are probably sick of me saying this but, at Christmas and Easter I like to do a little preview of any Bible films or related programmes showing over the festive period. All times are GMT (24 hour clock) and anything starting after midnight is listed under the next day.

    MON 20th DEC
    The Nativity: Part 1 [2010] BBC1 19:00

    Star attraction for this year is BBC1's four part mini-series The Nativity. My review of the film went up earlier, but I'd recommend that you watch it and judge for yourselves. Episode 1 intrioduces us to Mary, Joseph and Mary's parents Joachin and Anna. Parts 2-4 are showing from Tuesday 21st to Thursday 23rd also starting at 7:30pm.

    TUE 21st DEC
    The Nativity: Part 2. BBC1 19:00

    Part 2 of the BBC1 drama that started on the 21st. Mary takes a trip to see her cousin Elizabeth and gain her advice. Part 3 is broadcast on Wednesday the 22nd December.

    WED 22nd DEC
    The Nativity: Part 3. BBC1 19:00

    The penultimate episode finds Mary's father begging Joseph to take her with him on his census trip to Bethlehem.

    THUR 23rd DEC
    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe [2005] BBC1 15:50

    With the latest instalment of The Chronicles of Narnia franchise Voyage of the Dawn Treader currently doing the rounds in cinemas, the Beeb is showing the two previous films in the series, starting with Lewis's Jesus parable The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Prince Caspian airs on Christmas Eve.

    The Nativity: Part 4. BBC1 19:00
    Final episode of the mini-series, and the strongest bringing together all the strands from the previous three episode with a fitting climax.

    Jesus Christ, Superstar [1973] ITV1 23:50
    It's a passion play set to music so it's hardly Christmassy, but it's still probably the Jesus film that has the widest following (excluding Life of Brian) and so it's good to see it getting a run out in the lead in to Christmas. Fans of Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd-Webber's musicals based on the Bible should also tune in on Boxing Day for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

    FRI 24th DEC
    Prince Caspian [2008] BBC1 17:15

    Part 2 of the Narnia franchise is the worst of the three in my opinion, not least for the terrible span-eesh accents that were mercifully dropped for part 3. If they ever get Ben Barnes to re-dub his role I'd be keen to see it, but otherwise for all it's profundity and impressive CGI, Caspian is still somewhat painful to watch.

    SUN 26th DEC
    Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Channel 5 17:10
    I'm never quite sure whether Technicolour should have a "u" in it or not. It's the kind of question that might keep one entertained during this terrible version of the Joseph story. This version starts off set in a school and is super, super camp. Bizarrely, the only other version of it I've seen was that performed by my own school over twenty years ago. I suspect that may have had the edge over this, although Donny Osmond fans will no doubt treasure it.

    Aside from the above on the main terrestrial channels there are a few films on the satelite/cable channels that will be of interest to Bible film fans including a good number of Cecil B. DeMille films. Here are some highlights:

    Fri 24th Dec - Indie: A Serious Man [2009] (20:00)

    Sat 25th Dec - More4: The Robe [1953] (09:00); Sky Movies Classics: Cleopatra [1934] (06:40), Ben Hur [1959] (12:10 and 22:45) and The Bible, In the Beginning [1966] (18:05)

    Sun 26th Dec
    - Sky Movies Classics: The Bible, In the Beginning [1966] (04:35), Samson and Delilah [1949] (09:20), The Crusades [1935] (11:30), Spartacus [1960] (13:45 and 22:40), Cleopatra [1934] (17:00)

    Mon 27th Dec
    - Sky Movies Classics: Samson and Delilah [1949] (01:50), The Crusades [1935] (04:05)

    Thu 30th Dec
    - Film 4: The Ten Commandments [1956] (11:00); Sky Movies Classics: Ben Hur [1959] (17:30); Indie: A Serious Man [2009] (11:35 and 18:30)


    Saturday, February 21, 2015

    The Vikings and King of Kings

    I'm finally sitting down to watch 1958's The Vikings starring Kirk Douglas. It's notable for a number of reasons not least teaming up Douglas with Tony Curtis for the first time, two years ahead of Spartacus.

    But I was struck in the early scenes between this and another 60s Roman crucifixion film, Kings of Kings (1961). The thing that first caught my attention was the voice-over that sets the scene for the action and a quick check of IMDb confirmed my suspicion - like King of Kings the narator is Orson Welles. The voice-over comes to a close over the opening scene and here there is a further similarity with the Jesus film, the opening scene is of an invading army overpowering the locals.

    Then there's the importance of the special baby. In The Vikings it's the son of the Northumbrian queen and her Viking attacker rather than Jesus, but the son is sent away to leaving many to wait expectantly for his return.

    Given the wide range of openings to Jesus films - from Rossellini's trip back to the selection of King Saul to Jesus making crosses in Last Temptation - it's significant, I think, that King of Kings adopts this incredibly similar opening approach.

    And then there's the appearance of Frank Thring as a disreputable King (Aella here, Herod in Kings). He even sits his throne on the top of a little set of velvet steps. I think that's more coincidental and there aren't many other major similarities in the rest of the film. But it is significant that King of Kings takes The Vikings' introduction and basically reproduces it.

    Just a couple of other film links. Firstly there's a scene where Curtis sends his hawk to peck out Douglas' eyes. Being a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock I could help thinking of The Birds, still 5 years away, not least because this film also stars Janet Leigh who would go on to star in another early 60s Hitchcock film, Psycho.

    Lastly, there's a scene where Douglas is trying to rally round his men to set off on another mission. There's an awkward pause whilst Douglas earnestly scans the group looking for people to indicate their desire to join him. If it wasn't two years before it was released you'd have been forgiven for thinking it was influenced by another film as you waited for someone to stand defiantly and declare "I'm Sparatcus!"


    Saturday, March 12, 2016

    Video Clips for The Young Messiah

    I first blogged about the film adaption of Anne Rice's novel "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" almost decade ago. So it's a little frustrating that now it has finally made it to the big screen - albeit under the new name Young Messiah - I have no way of seeing it (at least until it either gets released in the UK or comes out on DVD). But perhaps I should really say "seeing all of it" because at the time of writing quite a large proportion of it is available to view as clips online. That's hardly unique for films these days, least of all Bible films, the amount of footage available before the release of 2014's Noah was considerable. But I thought I may as well post all the links so that anyone who wants to whet their appetite before going to catch it this weekend, or who wants to catch a glimpse of what those in North American are getting to see, can join in too.

    Given the nature of the clips here it's hard to put them in chronological order. The majority of the film is not set during the gospel stories but rather between the nativity narratives and the time we next encounter Jesus at the age of 12. Indeed most of the film takes place when Jesus is seven and therefore consists largely of fictional/legendary stories of Jesus, or the events of the Nativity told via flashback - which can of course happen in almost any order. Anyway, here are the links:

    As you'd expect there are various TV Spots and teaser trailers around at the moment, but this is the main one and it contains a number of points of interest. Firstly, there's the scene which, with a nod to the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas", features Jesus bringing a bird (back to?) life. This incident was also included in the US (but not international) cut of Jesus (1999). It's also noticeable that there's quite a few shots of the film's biggest name, Sean Bean. I get the impression though that Bean is not really in this film for that long. Bean, of course, has Bible film form having starred over twenty years ago in the Bible Collection's Jacob back in 1994. I also like the use of the words from Phil. 2.

    The Divine Plan
    This is one of the more recent clips to emerge and might be one of the best. I think it's strong precisely because it's stripped away of any miracles and doesn't feature the child Jesus and just comes down to the two actors playing Joseph and Mary going head to head. For all the healing birds, big sets and large crowd scenes of some of the other clips I suspect that this is a far more intimate film resting on the performances of its leads and, if so, this scene is quite promising.

    The Decision
    This is one of the scenes that stars Shaun Bean and it hints at another earlier in the film. I'm not familiar with the books, but I wonder if the intended trajectory for Bea's character is to be the centurion at the foot of the cross. That said Bean's character would be rather old by then so perhaps not.

    The Story
    This is the annunciation retold by Mary, an there's good and bad here. On the plus side telling the story from Mary's perspective works well and gives it a more subjective angle. It also saves the need for expensive/potentially cheesy/distracting special effects. Interestingly Jesus (1999) and The Miracle Maker (2000) also have Mary retelling the story to Jesus - although in both cases its the adult Jesus. I also like the way it emphasises how young Mary would likely have been. "I was just 14 when you were born, a girl really". On the downside the line about only telling you this story once seems bit odd. Why on earth would she only tell him once. And how come she was later happy telling it to people (who may have told it to others) such that it ended up in the gospels.

    The Fight
    This is quite an odd scene where Jesus gets bullied and, because - of course - the Prince of Peace can't fight back - has to rely on someone else to do his violence for him. I'm not sure this scene really works, both because of that, and because the child actors aren't particularly convincing here.

    The Nativity
    ...specifically the arrival of the magi, which I notice is on foot.

    The Way of Prayer
    This was another of my favourite clips featuring a nice recontextualising of Psalm 23 as Jesus and his family have to walk through an avenue of men hanging on crosses. Again it recalls Jesus (1999) where John the Baptist and Jesus reminisce about seeing a similar scene as children and, of course, Spartacus (1960).

    The Power of Healing
    This is another shot of Jesus performing some kind of miracle, though it's not clear from the clip shown here exactly what healing occurs.

    The Enemy
    Perhaps this is the strangest of all these clips, most notably the question of who the guy with the blond hair and armoured fingers is. Putting this together with other clips suggest some kind of devil/demon type character )IMDb lists him as "the demon", presumably based on the credits.

    Joining the Family
    Here the Holy Family encounter an escaped slave woman and Jesus offers her a pair of shoes and persuades his family to take her with them back to Nazareth.

    Child's Questions
    Again this is one of those more intimate scenes and whilst Jesus is a bit too holier than thou (which I guess is the point) I buy his interaction with Joseph here, not least because bits of it reflect how I interact with my seven year old (who was sick whilst I was in the middle of writing this post).

    Ambassador Video
    This isn't a clip or a trailer, but something encouraging people to hire out theatres to hold special preview screenings. I'd be interested to know how many people went for this option. It's a little ambitious - "We're particularly looking for gold and platinum ambassadors" - at $100k for the later I rather imagine they are...


    As it looks like it will be a while until I can review this film, for now I suggest you read Steven D. Greydanus' enthusiastic take on the film ("Jesus has given so much to Superman over the years, it seems only right for Superman to give a little back."), Peter Chattaway's, as always, informative review and for balance a rather more scathing assassination courtesy of The Guardian ("Like a gif from Upworthy.com come to life").

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    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.

    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.

    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 Sontag 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.

    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


    Thursday, January 11, 2018

    2018's Coming Attractions

    Having reviewed 2017 last week, I thought it might be worth having a brief look ahead to what 2018 has in store for Bible Film fans. It looks like it's going to be a busy year.

    Firstly, this is because there are at least four Bible films lined up for release this year - indeed there are three that have already announced a Lent release date. The most prominent of these is likely to be Mary Magdalene starring Rooney Mara in the title role and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus. Release dates in the US have been complicated by the Weinstein affair, but it's looking like it will get a release in the UK, Italy and Germany on the 15th March.

    Quite how widely it will be distributed is another matter. On the one hand biblical epics with more minor stars (e.g. Ben Hur (2016) and last year's The Star) have passed the "Loughborough Test" (if they play at my local that's usually a sign of a fairly wide distribution) but others with big names playing Jesus, such as Last Days in the Desert (2015) barely got a release anywhere in the country.

    Another film to pass the Loughborough test, somewhat to my surprise, was 2016's Risen. The makers of that film also have a release planned for Lent Paul Apostle of Christ. James Faulkner has the leading role, in that one, though his younger self - and it appears much of this film will be told in flashback - will be played by Yorgos Karamihos. Jim Caviezel will play Luke with Joanna Whalley and John Lynch as Priscilla and Aquilla. IMDB has release dates for only two countries, the USA and the UK, the 28th and 30th March respectively.

    The third film to be looking at a release in Lent is Pureflix's Samson this too has release dates on IMDB - the 16th February in North America. There's also a date of for the UK (2nd March), but it seems unlikely to play in many places, save perhaps some church screenings. The trailer for that film is now online and I'll write a quick piece on that one shortly. It does star Rutger Hauer though, albeit not in the lead role.

    Finally, there is the fourth instalment in The Quest Trilogy, called The Christ Slayer. As with the others it's written by DJ Perry and, like last year's Chasing the Star will feature a small part for the late Rance Howard. There are no released dates for this one on the film's IMDB page, but if the release of Chasing the Star is anything to go by there will be a few screenings (literally) around Michigan swiftly backed up with an early DVD / home release schedule.

    There are also a number of books to be released this year. The one I'm most excited by is the The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film - mainly because I'm an egotist and it will feature a chapter I've written for it on the Biblical Canon on Film. There are a bunch of great writers in it though. I'm honoured to have something included alongside such luminaries as Adele Reinhartz, James Crossley, Lloyd Baugh and Jon Solomon as well as editor Richard Walsh.

    T&T Clark have another Bible and film volume out this year, Biblical Reception, 4: A New Hollywood Moses: On the Spectacle and Reception of Exodus: Gods and Kings edited by David Tollerton. Again there's a great group of writers involved in that one, including Cheryl Exum and David Shepherd. Michelle Fletcher has a chapter in both of these works.

    Slightly on a tangent, but The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s, edited by Nicholas Diak also sounds interesting with chapters on TV series such as the recent Spartacus and Xena as well as films such as Ninth Legion. I think I will be reviewing that one.

    Lastly Helen Bond has edited a fascinating sounding volume called The Bible on Television looking at TV Bible documentaries. There are a range of good contributions in that one including filmmakers Jean Claude Braggard and David Batty, as well as scholars such as Mark Goodacre and Robert Beckford

    I also have a couple of resolutions for this year. The first is to watch more films directed by (or otherwise made by) women. If 2017 taught us anything it's that even though cinema is seen as a "liberal" industry it's still a place where the voice of 50% of the population is still not adequately heard. My other resolution is to finish the first draft of a book I've been working on. I'll be posting more on that in due course.

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    Tuesday, January 01, 2019

    Bible Films Blog Review of 2018

    It's that time of the year when everyone is doing a review so for the second year running I thought I'd do one here as well, not least because it's been a fairly eventful year in the world of the Bible on film. After all it's not often that there are four Bible films in one year, even if one is a Netflix special.

    For me the highlight of the year was Mary Magdalene starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. I enjoyed it so much I forgot that it still hasn't been released in the US due to the Weinstein affair. Apologies for those of you in North America, but personally I think it's worth the wait, but then it's always good, and quite rare, to get to see a Bible film in a cinema. And it's an interesting film which is why I added a couple of extra posts on it even after writing my review.

    The same could not be said of another film that got released in Lent. Paul Apostle of Christ starring James Faulkner may have had the odd theatrical performance in the UK, but otherwise it was a much more US driven release. There's something a little strange about that given both Faulkner and his co-stars Joanna Whalley and John Lynch are all British. There were quite a few bits about this one I liked, not least the almost opening shot tracking Luke (Jim Cavaziel) through the night time streets of Rome.

    The third film to be released in cinemas somewhere in Lent was Pureflix's Samson. I didn't get to see that one when it came out, and I must confess I still haven't seen it yet, though no-one has argued that I got anything wrong in my speculative non-review. That was my most popular post of the year. Alas, though, there was no sign of DJ Perry's final entry in The Quest TrilogyThe Christ Slayer. Maybe we'll see it in 2019.

    What did get, rather unexpectedly was Netflix's The Last Hangover. Of the three new Bible films I did see I think this was probably the weakest. It wasn't terrible and had a few laughs in it, and, to be fair the concept was fairly amusing, but ultimately it always felt like a skit stretched way too thinly. If you're the kind of person that gets offended by the more out there portrayals of Jesus I would steer clear.


    The main news on the books front was the publication of "The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film" which featured my chapter "Can we Try That Again: The Fate of the Biblical Canon on Film". There are some great writers amongst my fellow contributors (Adele Reinhartz, James Crossley, Lloyd Baugh, Jon Solomon and editor Richard Walsh) and I've really enjoyed the chapters I've read so far.

    T&T Clark also released, "Biblical Reception, 4: A New Hollywood Moses: On the Spectacle and Reception of Exodus: Gods and Kings" edited by David Tollerton. Again there's a great group of writers involved in that one, including Cheryl Exum, David Shepherd and Michelle Fletcher.

    There was also a book edited by Helen Bond called "The Bible on Television" looking at TV Bible documentaries. This included contributions from filmmakers Jean Claude Braggard and David Batty, presenters such as Robert Beckford as well as scholars such as Mark Goodacre and Bond herself. It was a busy year for Bond, having ticked off the theory she went on to front a TV documentary of her own with Joan Taylor (theological adviser on Mary Magdalene). Jesus' Female Disciples went out at Easter in the UK on Channel 4.

    Having not received review copies for "The Bible on Television" or ""A New Hollywood Moses", this year's book review (and I tend to find time to do these is quite limited as it takes a lot of work to do them properly) was The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s, edited by Nicholas Diak. Whilst it didn't cover any biblical films in much depth, it gave some interesting discussion to recent close bedfellows such as Xena and the new(ish) Spartacus series, as well as films such as Ninth Legion. It was well worth a read even if a lot of the films being discussed are a bit more trashy than your typical biblical film (though DeMille fans might argue otherwise).


    I ended last year's post by making a couple of resolutions, so I thought I would revisit them here. I tend to see resolutions as being more useful when they are a positive act of doing more of something, rather than stopping doing something and my ones from last year were a - to watch more films directed by (or otherwise made by) women. and b- to finish the first draft of a book I've been working on. I had a degree of success in both. Despite viewing 400 films this year (including a lot of shorts) I still find it difficult to watch all the films I would like to, and so didn't hunt out as many female filmmakers as I'd like to. I'm going to roll this one over for 2019, something that should be made easier by Kino-Lorber's release Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers which is now available on Netflix.

    In terms of my own book, well, I've only partially ticked this one off as well. I had a list of films I still need to cover, and I managed to review all of them, but then when it came to pulling it all together I realised there were several films I thought I had reviewed which in fact I hadn't. So those are now done as well and I have 115-120 reviews, some of which still need a lot of work, and some of which need culling, but it feels like it's getting there. Writing a book is all well and good, but getting it published, well it feels like that will be the bigger challenge. Time will tell.


    Lastly, there's just time to mention my top ten new posts of 2018. I did a separate post for this last year but thought I've merge it all into one this time around.

    1. Samson [1245 views]
    2. Paul, Apostle of Christ [658 views]
    3. Mary Magdalene [505 views]
    4. The Last Hangover [276 views]
    5. Book Review: "The New Peplum" [170 views]
    6. Jesus' Female Disciples [108 views]
    7. Xena: The Giant Killer [108 views]
    8. Giuda (1911) [103 views]
    9. Judas in Mary Magdalene [89 views]
    10.Why the Film Community Needs to Rethink its Stance on the Biblical Film [77 views]

    A few points on this. Overall it seems that, no doubt thanks to the four biblical films being released, my top posts did a little better this year. Last year the leading post only had 323 views. This year the top three all eclipsed that. But by the time you get down to the lower places things have evened out a bit more. If you want to look at last years stats or see my top ten posts of all time you can see those here.

    The appearance of two posts in particular make me happy. Firstly my review of Giuda (1911) which is not widely available. It screened in Bristol this year, and hardly anyone has ever reviewed it, so it as nice that the piece has been seen more widely, as I am turning into a silent film geek. Secondly my post "Why the Film Community Needs to Rethink its Stance on the Biblical Film" snuck into the top ten. This felt like something of a rally cry and something I'm increasingly looking to put across is just how many top filmmakers have explored this area and how there are such diverse ways of approaching the subject.


    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Jean Simmons (1929-2010)

    I was sorry to hear of the death of Jean Simmons, the actress who had as good a claim as any to the title of "queen of the epic film". Her most famous role is perhaps playing Mrs Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick's pre-Christ Roman epic, but she also featured in two other Roman-Christian films Androcles and the Lion and The Robe. But aside from these forays into ancient history she often seemed to find herself playing pious women. In Guys and Dolls she played a Salvation Army missionary, in Elmer Gantry she starred as revivalist Sister Sharon Falconer, and whilst her role in Big Country is not explicitly religious, her morality, would certainly have been interpreted as such at the time. I've not yet seen Black Narcissus, but it too centres on religious women (though Simmons is not one of them, initially at least).

    Babington and Evans make some interesting remarks about Simmons. In their view, at the heart of the biblical epic is a tension between morality and sexuality - hence why they consider Victor Mature, and not Heston, the name "indelibly linked with the Biblical Epic", Heston is just too pure - and Simmons was a particularly strong example of this tension.1 Whilst her attractiveness and sexuality were always apparent, an undoubtedly strong morality seemed to run through the majority of her roles.

    For all her biblical movies, the film of hers I hold dearest is Big Country - the only time she ever teamed up with Charlton Heston (who had starred in a Bible film or two himself). It's one of my favourite westerns. The magnificent landscapes live up to the billing (even if the script's self-referential nods to the title get a bit much), and the story and the performances are magnificent. And that fight scene...

    Ultimately, it seems to me at least, Simmons suffered a little for her similarity to Audrey Hepburn. Simmons was there first of course - Black Narcissus was 1947 and it was already her tenth film - but somehow Hepburn had more star appeal. The result however was that Simmons continued to have a successful career even as she got older. She starred on stage in Sondheim's A Little Night Music, and in a steady flow of TV roles. She was still working in 2004 (aged 75) when she provided the voice of Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle - a role significant enough to mean that many news outlets reporting her death have described her as Howl's Moving Castle actress Jean Simmons.

    Simmons was married twice (to Stewart Granger and director Richard Brooks) and had two daughters - Tracy Granger (b.1957) and Kate Brooks (b.1961). She was awarded an OBE in 2003.

    1 - Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, "Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema", Manchester University Press ND, 1993, p.227

    Saturday, January 26, 2019

    Quo Vadis? (1913)

    At the time, Enrico Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1913) was called "The most ambitious dramatic work ever seen in cinema" (New York Times). Today it remains overshadowed by it's 1951 Hollywood remake, a product of Hollywood, though that too was shot in Rome, in the Cinecittà studios. Both films and the 1902 (Pathé) original were based on Henryk Sienkiewicz's (Polish) novel, itself dating only as far back as 1890.

    The film's creation, produced by the Rome-based company Cines, marks the coming together of a number of interconnected trends. Even at this early stage in cinema history there had been numerous adaptations of 19th century epic novels pitting Romans against early Christians from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "The Last Days of Pompeii" (1834, adapted in 1908 and again in 1913) to Lew Wallace's "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" (1880, first adapted in 1907). Then, in terms of Italian output, the epic film was very much emerging. If Arturo Ambrosio and Luigi Maggi's 1908 Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, an adaptation of Bulwer-Lytton's novel, can be seen as the first true epic film then just a year after the release of Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1913) was it's silent era high point - Giovanni Pastrone's still impressive Cabiria. Watch those three films back to back and suddenly much of the credit given to Griffith's Intolerance seems a little misplaced.

    But the enduring impact and impressiveness of Quo Vadis? and Cabiria masks the level of turmoil that was present in the Italian industry at the time. Despite the acclaim for Quo Vadis? Cines hit a downward spiral plagued by poor business decisions and a failure to conquer America and was sold off just a year or two later (Tomadjoglou 108). By the time Christus was released in 1916, it was very much a different company.

    The popularity of the epic film was itself part of a broader movement in Italian filmmaking around this time. Naturally there was a strong emphasis on Roman history. From Carthage (Cabiria) and Spartacus (1913's Spartaco), to the loose Shakespearean adaptations Anthony and Cleopatra (Guazzoni, 1913) and Julius Caesar (Guazzoni, 1914), through to Constantine (In hoc signo vinces, 1913), but the subjects covered were far broader, taking in subjects as diverse as Greek myths (L'Odissea,1911), the Crusades (Guazzoni's La Gerusalemme liberta, 1911) and Napolean (Guazzoni's Pro patria mori, 1912). Naturally there were no shortage of biblical titles either. Again Guazzoni was at the fore with Guiseppe ebreo (Joseph the Hebrew, 1991), I Maccabei (1911) and Quo Vadis?, but consider also Milano films' 1910 San Paolo, Luigi Maggi's Giuda (Judas, 1911), and Cines' Christus (1916).

    Having said all that, please don't gain the impression from my rather overenthusiastic listing that the Italian film industry of the early 1910s was dominated by such offerings. In fact "historical films did not make up the majority of Italian production but, rather, were considered the flagship product, geared both to the domestic and foreign markets." (Muscio 163) This ties in well with what we know of the American industry at the same time. Many saw the cinema as disreputable so companies like Vitagraph sought to provide a higher quality of output. Historical films, based upon reputable sources like the Bible and Shakespeare were a much favoured route. I guess we could debate - comparing the way cinema is regarded in comparison to other art forms today - whether or not Vitagraph and the Italian film exporters like Cines' George Kleine were successful or not, but perhaps another time.

    Nevertheless, the artistry and quality of the Italian films was what set them apart from competition abroad. According to Muscio's research "the most common traits of historical films pertained to the quality of the mise-èn-scene, which included the visual blocking of the masses, the richness of the scenographic details, frame composition, the quality of the lighting, and the use of landscape" (166).

    In Italy the historical films were also considered an important medium for those looking "for literary kinships and a strong link with traditional culture" who were typically "wanting to educate the masses by popularizing the classics" (Muscio 166). In this we perhaps find the roots of Roberto Rossellini's later historical works, which were made with very much the same intention. But at home they filled a further role. The unification of Italy had only been completed forty years previously and was still a source of tension in some quarters. Historical epics had a "capacity to glorify history as a nostalgic escape from post-Unification disenchantment and the mounting social unrest of the present" (Muscio 168).

    The film itself runs to around 100 minutes, far better paced than the 1951 remake which drags in places. Visually it's typified by the use of tinting and/or toning in almost every scene, and this technique is used to great effect, particularly as Rome burns. My favourite, though might be the way the colours change as the orgy scene progresses. Initially pink, is switches to a more sultry red as things hot up a bit. By the time we reach the last throws of the event the next morning, the colour has changed again to a pale sickly green.

    As implied above the sets are certainly impressive as is the size of the various crowds which fill so many scenes, but the fire scenes and those in the Colosseum particularly stand out. It's also noticeable how well Guazzoni uses the available space and the film's depth of field. In the Colosseum scene an unfortunate group of Christians wait in the deep background for a pride of lions who emerge at the front of the shot and prowl terrifyingly towards them

    The film opens by introducing us to each character in turn as one shots are alternated with intertitles giving us the names of each character and their actor in turn. Vincinius' arrival in the city is somewhat muted, as his attempted courtship of Lyggia is kept short. Less than nine minutes passes before she is arrested and then dragged to Nero's orgy. Once there, Vincinius' attempt to seduce Lyggia is far more uncomfortable viewing than the 1951 version. Things start off pleasant enough, but it seems like it might have ended in rape had not Ursus stepped in to whisk Lyggia away.

    It's a surprise then when Lyggia so quickly decides to marry him, and he decides to convert. The two head off to find Peter in the first of many scenes in the catacombs. Peter is seemingly much more involved with the everyday goings on in the Christian community. He is far more hands on and less remote than Finlay Currie's take in the 1951 version. Later we also meet Paul and then, of course, Jesus. Peter's vision on the Appian way occurs right at the end of the film. By this point Nero has already burned Rome, blamed the Christians and murdered them in the amphitheatre by various grisly means. The Roman "games" scene features a Ben-Hur style chariot race (not found in the novel).

    Jesus' appearance is shot using double exposure, a ghostly figure with hair that reaches down to his chest. Peter barely gets back to Rome before the legions have revolted and Galba has been declared emperor. Nero flees but dies shortly afterwards and an intertitle declares that "from the rain of strife and blood sprang a new life: the life of Christianity, in the sign of love and peace". The film's closing image, featuring a green tint, is Jesus stood in front of a glowing cross in the background, being worshipped by his followers. 

    For Bible films fans there are appearances by Peter, Paul and Jesus, quite possibly the first production to do so. It seems unlikely the original adaptation would have had time to include the Paul scenes, and whilst one of the early films about Paul might have included both the apostle's brushes with Peter and a lifelike vision of Jesus on the Damascus road it's hard to imagine they had the running time either.

    For everyone else, Quo Vadis? is rightly celebrated as a landmark film.It may not have a claim to fame for a historic first, but it's impressive sets, crowds, use of colour and set it above the films that were being made across the Atlantic and in neighbouring France.

    Muscio, Giuliana (2013) "In Hoc Signo Vinces: Historical Films", in Bertellini, Giorgio (ed.) (2013). Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader (New Barnett: John Libbey Publishing), pp. 161-70

    Tomadjoglou, Kimberly (2013) "Rome's Premiere Film Studio: Società Italiana Cines", in Bertellini, Giorgio (ed.) (2013). Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader (New Barnett: John Libbey Publishing), pp. 161-70

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