Biblical Epic Films for Easter: Samson and Delilah, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The Robe and more

Adultery, Bribery, Cruelty – the A to Z of ‘what not to do’ is all contained in the Bible, ironically causing the Bible stories to feature sex, scandal, and slaughter, all the ingredients film producers seem to feel sell a movie. Yet, the golden age of making the cinematic biblical epic seems to have died out.

Bible Based Movies from Cecil B. DeMille to Mel Gibson

Some biblical tails have been adapted to the large screen in recent years, but most of these have experienced small or short lived success. Others, such as The Passion of the Christ (2004), directed by Mel Gibson, seem to have attracted more controversy than congratulations. But, there was a time, when the biblical epic was something viewed and praised by audiences of all creeds and critics.

The studios of Hollywood borrowed plots and characters from the pages of the Bible since the days of the silent silver screen, and continued to do so through the decades. But, it is arguably a single decade that dominates the chapter of Hollywood’s history on the topic of biblical blockbusters.

1950s Biblical Epics Starring Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Richard Burton, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Ustinov, Hedy Lamarr, Victor Mature…

Between 1949 and 1959 films such as, Samson and Delilah (1949), Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Ben-Hur (1959) were all released. Despite the growing appeal of television, these predominately wide-screen, lavish, color epics were not only successful at the box office, but also at the award ceremonies.

Ben-Hur still holds the record for the most Oscar wins. The record of 11 Academy Awards was only tied, almost forty years later, once the academy had added numerous award categories. Now tied with two modern movies, the epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of The King (2003) has biblical illusions within the fantasy adventure story.

These 1950s epic movies retold the stories of the bible, or borrowed themes of the bible to elaborate on stories of human struggle. Audiences could identify with either the characters’ timeless fight for the survival of the human spirit or the crusade for a deeply believed cause. Audiences could also become involved and enthralled by the ever developing plot of problems, and thereby, these films were a means of transportation to another reality.

Visual Effects and Visions

These films were also visual feasts before the age of digital special effects. The visual images of these films helped to paint the picture in which audiences could become immersed. The chariot race of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur or the parting of the red sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, in either his 1923 or his 1956 direction of the two film versions, are unforgettable to the memory of the eye.

Jesus Christ, Blessed Mother, and Saints On Screen

In biblical movies of the past, the image of Jesus Christ or any member of the Holy Family is never seen. On most occasions, the actors sometimes providing the voices of these religious roles are not credited.

This was, at least in part, because it was considered disrespectful to show a characterization of these religious figures on celluloid, but this practice had an extra added advantage. Firstly, never fully showing these figures added mysticism, and secondly, it provided each member of the audience with the opportunity to see his or her own idea of God in the mind’s eye.

This may have also had the advantage of allowing non-Christians to imagine their own God, apply the principles of other faiths to the behavior of the movie characters, or simply enjoy the film as a story.

Comparing Biblical Epics of the Past and Present

During Lent and Easter, the religious films of the 1950s seem to make an appearance on our television screens, and it becomes easy to see why the biblical epics of half a century ago remain more impressive viewing than most of their counterparts and remakes of modern times.

Perhaps the difference in quality between the films of the two time periods can be attributed to a proportionate decline in budget. Perhaps the difference in success between the films of the two periods can be attributed to a decline in religious belief. But most likely it is due to many modern movies abandoning the natural intrigue and grit of story and substance.

Decline In Classical Epics, Rise In Fantasy Adventure Epics

In the case of many modern biblical movies, story and substance have simply been discarded in favor of nudity and gratuitous violence. Many producers and directors may consider this a necessary shift of focus in order to attract audiences, but ironically these epics of modern years have failed, especially by comparison to predecessor pictures.

Audiences do not seem to have lost interest in the idea of viewing retold biblical stories, as can be seen by the successful stage shows such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat and jesus Christ Superstar.

However, the decay and corruption of the epic film seems to run deeply. Recent non-religious epic movies about classical characters of mythology or figures of history from the same time period as some of the biblical stories seem to also be poorly produced.

Although the movie industry has always understandably been a business, the industry of yesteryear fascinatingly produced epics of both creative and financial success.

Since the epics of today make little effort to hide being created not for artistic value but for financial value, no costume of metal armor or cavalcade of scantily-clad starving stars, can shield the modern day epics from being mainly poor imitations. And who wants to pay for a double figured cinema ticket just to count off the minutes of an extensively boring?

Thus, fantasy epics, which still offer at least the appearance of being made with creativity, seem to have taken over in the eyes of both critics and audiences.

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