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Reel Streaming: Bible-Thumping for Biblical Epics

One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 72


By Laurence Lerman / New York City


Ben-Hur (1959)
Ben-Hur (1959)

Hollywood’s sweeping Biblical epics of the ‘50s and ‘60s took up a substantial chunk of realty in my movie-loving mind during my teenage years.


Taken from familiar, sincere and straightforward stories that nearly always revolved around clashes between good and evil, these epics were filled with battles and romances and miracles and sword fights and natural disasters and all that delightful stuff. They were populated with sprawling scenery and sets and zillions of costumed extras who all expressed their wonderment over the power of God or other malevolent forces when they weren’t swarming about big Hollywood stars like Charlton Heston. I’m referring to Heston before his image as Hollywood’s leading holy man gave way to his emergence in the last ‘60s as cinema’s Last Man on Earth (as in 1968’s The Planet of the Apes and 1971’s The Ωmega Man) and subsequent shift to right-leaning, NRA-embracing political activism.


And those movies looked great! Big and bright and well-appointed and luxurious, the majority of them were shot in the new high-resolution widescreen technologies of the day, developed in part to combat the encroaching allure of television and its hypnotic grip on viewers in their easy chairs. It began with 20th Century Fox’s creation of the widescreen process CinemaScope, which was first utilized in 1953’s The Robe. That marked the beginning of the modern widescreen or anamorphic format, which presented an onscreen image that was nearly twice as wide as previous formats. In other words, you didn’t just see stars Richard Burton, Jean Simmons and Victor Mature cavorting in the middle of the frame, you also got all the palaces, pyramids, landscapes and tunic-clad masses that surrounded them.

The Robe (1953)
The Robe (1953)

Within a year of CinemaScope’s rollout, the other studios quickly followed suit and unleashed their own branded widescreen technologies (which they had all been experimenting with for years, like Fox). Soon you had films shot in VistaVision, Techniscope, Panavision, Superscope and other formats that were being developed or swapped around by the major studios, with the smaller guys simply licensing the processes from the big boys.


It's ironic, then, that my initial exposure to all the grand, widescreen Biblical epics of that era was actually in severely cropped and edited versions on TV’s The 4:30 Movie, a daily weekday show that ran for 90 minutes (including commercials!) on WABC-TV in the New York City area. Virtually all the popular Old Testament titles from previous decades rolled out regularly on the program— Solomon and Sheba (1959), Esther and the King (1960), David and Goliath (1960) Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966) and all the others, some produced by the less sumptuous but nonetheless popular European filmmaking machine.


Vying for equal time and commercial consideration were a handful of New Testament-inspired epics. So along with The Robe, you had Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), King of Kings (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and, of course, Ben-Hur (1959), William Wyler’s lauded remake of Fred Niblo’s 1925 silent film of the same name.

The Ten Commandments (1956)
The Ten Commandments (1956)

Because of their imposing run times of nearly three hours or longer, the majority of these epics were stretched out to two- or even three-day broadcasts. Clocking in at just under four hours, Ben-Hur won the prize in terms of airtime, being broadcast over five consecutive weekday afternoons, from Monday to Friday. Joyously, the third afternoon always ended with the famed 15-minute chariot race, and then on the fourth day, the film would pick up right at the beginning of the race, thus affording legions of adventure-loving school children the opportunity to see the race twice!


Of course, Ben-Hur’s Heston had previously starred in one of the grandest of Old Testament epics, 1956’s The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of his own 1923 silent production. DeMille’s second go-round at the greatest of Biblical stories never played on The 4:30 Movie as it was an Easter Sunday network staple well into the ’80s. That’s when the video revolution and the rise of the VHS was able to place all of the films into the hands of those who loved them, while simultaneously signaling the slow demise of the historical Biblical epic in movie houses.

Exodus Gods and Kings (2014)
Exodus Gods and Kings (2014)

The large-scale adaptation of Biblical stories to the big screen became more the stuff of the burgeoning TV movie and miniseries arena in the ‘70s, yielding numerous titles. Though handsome enough and earnestly produced, none have really stood the test of time and are rarely part of any discussion of the genre, despite being issued on VHS and DVD and then, in most but not all cases, the streaming marketplace. I was happy to see that two I remembered well, the 1974 TV film The Story of Jacob and Joseph by Greek filmmaker Michael Cacoyannis and the 1973 Italian/British miniseries Moses the Lawgiver starring Burt Lancaster, were available as both DVD and streaming releases.


Oh, there was the occasional theatrical feature during the final couple of decades of the 20th century, but nothing glorious or even exceptional save for, arguably, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). And does anyone even remember Richard Gere in Hugh Hudson’s 1985 King David? Neither does he.

Ben-Hur (2016)
Ben-Hur (2016)

There’s been no dearth of historical epics in the new millennium—Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) and Ridley Scott’s triple-play of Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Robin Hood (2010) lead the way on that front. But Biblical epics have virtually dropped off the theatrical cinematic radar in recent years, save for a few notable exceptions, including Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Christian Bale as Moses, Gibson’s violent final days of Jesus drama The Passion of the Christ (2006) and the latest remake of Ben-Hur (2016), helmed by Russian action auteur Timur Bekmambetov.


The almighty dollar is always the primary reason that a genre limps off into the sunset or even dies, but there have also been a handful of ongoing controversies stirring in recent years that played a role. The lack of substantial casting of people of color in key roles, rising tempers and heated exchanges over specific interpretations in the transfer of religious texts to film—maybe Hollywood simply didn’t want the risk, grief and stress that goes along with mounting a substantial biblical epic at a time when everyone seems to be taking everything on the screen so seriously.


As for me, I miss the pomp and grandeur of those Biblical tales from years past, when I used to ooh and aah at what I saw on the screen and not the proselytizing that may have been lurking behind it.

Noah (2014)
Noah (2014)

I recently rewatched 2014’s Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s very engaging Biblical drama starring Russell Crowe as the man with the ark. I marveled over the scenes where multitudes of animals great and small filed into Noah’s newly built vessel, a series of remarkable extended sequences that employed a host of state-of-the-art visual effects and computer-generated imagery.


No, there were no actual animals used in those scenes, like DeMille had back during the exodus set piece in his second version of The Ten Commandments.


But I marveled anyway.


 

Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.



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