The Bible Coming Back To The Big Screen

By John H. Foote

There was a time in the fifties and early sixties when many of the major blockbusters drew their stories from the Bible. Some of these films were among the most famous of the day and remain iconic in film history for their sheer size and scope. Samson and Delilah (1950), The Robe (1953), the brilliant Ben Hur (1959) and the biggest of them all, The Ten Commandments (1956) the film, I confess hooked me forever on movies. Cecil B. De Mille, the director of The Ten Commandments (1956) knew how to put on a hell of a show, and what he could not find to be factual, he either made it up, or threw in a love-lust story to thrill the audiences. Charlton Heston was a magnificent Moses, and then won an Oscar for Ben Hur (1959) becoming the poster boy for epic films.

In the sixties, a string of failures among Biblical epics brought this era to a close, with The Bible…In the Beginning (1966) and most of all the dreadful The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) being laughed off the screen not only by critics but audiences! George Stevens wanted to make the ultimate film about Christ with The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) but he made so many “odd” moves along the way. First of all he made the decision to shoot the film in Monument Valley and Death Valley, immortalized in John Fords American westerns, which meant when Christ and his disciples were moving through the valleys, we expected a group of cowboys to be in hot pursuit, so familiar were the locations. Second he cast Swedish actor Max Von Sydow as Christ, while he populated American and British actors amongst the rest of the cast, including John Wayne as the soldier who leads Christ to the cross. And worst of all, he gave the film a self important feel that was off putting, as if it was our great honor to be seeing the film at all.

There have been a few Biblical films in the last few years, Martin Scorsese‘s powerful The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the first film to humanize Jesus, the Dreamworks film The Prince of Egypt (1998), an animated version of the story of Moses, and best of all Mel Gibson’s searing The Passion of the Christ (2004) which made more than six hundred million at the box office.

Currently in Hollywood we have the new film Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky, with Russell Crowe as Noah due on screens in 2014, a film being prepared about the life of Pilate, possibly with Brad Pitt, and no less than two films about Moses. What is exciting about the Moses films is that Steven Spielberg is said to be interested in directing the one being made for Warner Brothers. How cool would that be?? For Spielberg to go back and do his own version of The Ten Commandments (1956) one of the films that shaped him as a director? Granted there would be greater realism to all of these films than there was the first time through, but also a chance to make a once successful genre of film for an entire new generation! And frankly I would love to see how Spielberg would part the Red Sea in his own version. Of course the casting questions come into play…who plays Moses? With Daniel Day-Lewis likely to win an Oscar for Spielberg’s Lincoln, why not him?

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John Foote

John Foote