Judah Ben-Hur: Almost at the moment He died, I heard him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Esther: Even then.
Judah Ben-Hur: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.
[Charlton Heston to Haya Harareet, “Ben-Hur” (1959)]
Well, everyone, once again it’s time for my yearly holiday blog post. This particular one is something that is always germane for the holidays. Now just what could that one ever possibly be Dear Reader? Making holiday fruit cakes for fun and profit? No, that one would probably fit in better under the category of Horror rather than Holiday. No, this time we will have a holiday blog post specifically relating to religious movies. Now that will not necessarily pertain to just movies or Network TV/cable/streaming stuff specifically for Christmas, Chanukah, etc. It will pertain, mostly, to religious films connected to stories from the Bible. Hence, I hope that you will not be offended. However, if you might be, well, as Bette Davis in “All About Eve” once said, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
All of the way up into the nineteen forties, Hollywood movies about religion focused on uplifting stories of faith. They were heavily and conservatively Catholic inspired, and quite popular with the general public at that time in America. For example, you had two films made by Director Leo McCarey which were “Going My Way” (1944) and “The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) both starring Bing Crosby as father O’Malley. If you like straight uplifting Catholic dogma for the faithfully devout, then these two movies are the mainline drug for you. They were both big hits, and “Way” even won best picture that year along with both McCarey and Crosby also winning Oscars for Best Director and Actor. Two other popular ones made then were “The Song of Bernadette” (1943) and “The Keys of the Kingdom” (1944). “Song…” was a fact-based biographical drama of Bernadette Soubirous (Oscar winner Jennifer Jones), a simple girl in Lourdes who experienced seeing eighteen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858 and who would later be made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. This was actually a very fine film with excellent all around acting by everyone involved and anchored by an amazing performance by Jennifer Jones. It also was helped by strong direction from the always underrated director Henry King (“Twelve O’Clock High”) along with fine Oscar winning cinematography by Arthur C. Miller, and an Oscar winning film score by Alfred Newman.
Moving right along with the solemn uplifting Catholic religious movie express train crushing anything in its path is “The Keys of the Kingdom” with Gregory Peck in an Oscar nominated star-making role as Father Francis Chisholm. When the film begins, Chisholm is now an old man whose life is shown in flashback all the way through to the present day as a long serving Catholic priest in China who piously helps everyone whether they be Chinese, Protestant, Atheistic, or fans of “Honey Boo-Boo” reruns. Our Father Chisholm is so noble and self-sacrificing that he probably never even took a bath because he was too busy perfecting his ability to walk on the top of the water in his own bathtub. Now before you say, “What the H…” what I’m getting at here is that despite Peck’s earnest performance, half way through this film I was hoping that good old Father Chisholm would at least do something a little more daring like maybe have a nip or two of the Holy Communion wine, crack a smile more than once a decade, or do something really scandalous like dance a Scottish Jig (Sacrilege!) to stop this movie from being so Frigging Dull! Hollywood religious films during this time were not going to have anything really controversial in them to offend either the Catholic Church or any other organized religious group back then for fear of the mega backlash from said religious organizations, the general public, and the Federal Government which would ultimately affect a Studio’s financial bottom line.
During this time and moving on up to the present day, another type of religious film was popular and, hence, relatively safe for Hollywood to make. These were stories taken directly from the Bible, and which I will now further discuss. Maybe the one director who was regarded as the greatest practitioner of such film making was Director Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille was one of the founding fathers of the motion picture industry in America making hugely successful films in both the silent and the sound era. He was regarded as one of the most commercially successful producer/directors in film history. DeMille was adept at making all types of epic pictures from Westerns to musicals to comedies to social dramas. However, like I previously said, his religious films are what most people remember him for even though, out of the seventy films that he directed, only five were religious with three [“King of Kings” (1927), “Samson and Delilah” (1949), and two versions of “The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956)] specifically related to the Bible. All of them were popular commercial hits. Now it would be nice if I could also say that these movies were artistically well made, with great acting, emotionally powerful dramatic scenes, and written with great depth and meaning. Well… Are you kidding!
Other than the epic size of these films along with dozens of other films in other genres that he made throughout his career; they are some of the worst pieces of overblown trite garbage in motion picture history. If you could take P.T. Barnum, porn movie kingpin Russ Meyer, and the excessively visual but artistically empty film maker Ken Russell, stuff the three of them into a blender, and hit the “ON” button, you’d have C.B. DeMille. In his films, Roman orgies and female bathtub scenes were standard practice. Bad acting with ponderous screenplays that could have been better written by kindergarten graduates or the inhabitants of a zoo’s Ape House were laugh-out-loud standard practice. The promoting of stereotypes with bad actor casting was also widespread standard practice too. As if that wasn’t bad enough, somewhere in all of these films you always had to hear good old C.B. himself doing some sort of over indulgent, pseudo, self-important God-like narration as if we were all too stupid to comprehend his films otherwise. If C.B. was around today, he probably would have cast Clint Eastwood and Madonna as the leads for all of his films (although Clint, as Moses, probably would have just pulled out that old 44 Magnum, and blasted the Red Sea apart all by himself). However, DeMille didn’t care and the public didn’t care either. His huckster Hollywood biblical films made a mint, and to this day on every Passover and Easter we will all be eternally tormented by “Chucky” Heston belting out the words, “Let My People Go!” If only we could, Chucky! If only we could!
After the nineteen forties, more of these biblical extravaganzas were made by other directors and actually, two were made in the nineteen fifties that were really very good. Maybe this was because the principal characters in these films were based, not on specific characters found in the bible, but from popular novels where Hollywood could craft characters with true dramatic depth and complexity. Also, because these characters either did not represent a member of the clergy or a famous historical religious personality like Jennifer Jones’ Bernadette Soubirous, it was less likely that Hollywood censors or the general public would cause an uproar. The first film that I want to praise is “The Robe” (1953) from the bestselling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas. Fun Fact: “The Robe” was No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for most of 1943, but when the film version of “The Robe” came out in 1953 the novel shot right back up to No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for that year too. The movie starred Richard Burton as Marcellus Gallio, a military tribune of Rome who, while assigned to Jerusalem in Palestine, is ordered by Pontius Pilate to take charge of the Roman soldiers assigned to crucify Jesus. He does so and even wins’ Jesus’s “robe” in a dice game. However, once he puts the robe on to cover himself from the rain, he undergoes intense pain and throws it off. He later loses the robe, but has such intense and continuing nightmares of the crucifixion that he fears that he will lose his mind. Ultimately, he will return to Palestine where he will find the robe again and become a disciple of Jesus.
The Robe” was a big budget release by 20th Century Fox with an all-star cast (Heck, they even had actor Cameron Mitchell as the unseen voice of Jesus). It was well directed by journeyman Director Henry Koster, and it was the first film by 20th Century Fox to be released in their CinemaScope widescreen process which made its visuals even more arresting on movie theater screens. The acting by most of the principals, especially Burton, was fine (he was Oscar nominated for his breakout acting performance), and the screenplay (with an assist by blacklisted writer Albert Maltz) was excellent too. About the only real negatives that I have had for this film over the years were: (1) Richard Burton’s goofy shake, rattle, and roll looks of pain whenever he puts on or grabs that robe, (2) actor Jay Robinson’s over-rated ham fisted performance as Caligula where it looked like he could chew up the entire CinemaScope movie screen all by himself, and (3) the film score by the usually dependable Alfred Newman which, at times, was so overtly ponderous, and solemn that even the most fervent believer would want to pitch a brick through a stained glass window if they listened to it long enough.
The other fifties’ biblical film that was exceptional, and on my Top Ten greatest movie list of all time, was “Ben-Hur” (1959) originally based on the immensely popular novel written in 1880 by Lew Wallace. Many films (both silent and sound versions) of “Ben-Hur” have been made (including an absolutely abysmal version made as recently as 2016), but this one is the best of them all. Directed by the great William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston in the lead (and redeeming himself acting-wise after “The Ten Commandments”), it was the most expensive movie ever made at that time, the second highest grossing film in history (behind a little thing called “Gone with the Wind”), and also winning eleven Oscars (which was also a record at that time too). Wyler, Heston, cinematographer Robert L. Surtees, film composer Miklos Rozsa, and the Picture itself all won well deserved Oscars. A story of revenge and redemption, Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince and merchant is falsely condemned by his former Roman friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd) to a living death on a slave galley after an accident almost kills the new governor of Judea. Chained and being led away to the galley, his life is later saved by Jesus giving him some water after he collapses from thirst (There’s the religious tie-in folks!), and then…Hey, wait a minute! This is an over three-and-a-half-hour movie! You think I’m going to spend the next three Blog Posts explaining the entire movie to ya! No way! All I will further say about Ben-Hur is that: (1) for the most expensive movie ever made back then, the sea battle between the Roman fleet of sea galleys vs. the fleet of Macedonian pirates where they used toy ships for distance shots of the battle looked about as realistic as something that I did as a 3-year-old in a bathtub with my little toy boats, and (2) after all of these years, the non-CGI chariot race in “Ben-Hur” is still one of the most exciting and greatest action sequences in motion picture history. William Wyler once said (and maybe also subtly sticking the stiletto in) that, regarding “Ben-Hur”, he wished to outdo Cecil B. DeMille and make a thinking man’s Biblical epic. Well, boy, did he ever! C.B. DeMille, who died early in 1959, must have rolled over in his grave when Wyler said that one!
Unfortunately, maybe due to the colossal success of “Ben-Hur,” Hollywood went Biblically Batty in wanting to make the next epic “big hit” religious picture. You had such winners as:
- “The Big Fisherman” (1959) with Howard (“They Call the Wind MARIAH”) Keel as the Apostle Peter (and probably wishing he could have sang his dialogue rather than speak it).
- “Francis of Assisi” (1961) with Bradford Dillman as Francis (the Saint, not the talking mule although it would have been more entertaining if it was the mule).
- A remake of “King of Kings” (1961) with Jeffrey Hunter looking like a Southern California surfer dude and giving a sock puppet quality performance as Jesus.
All of these were either box office duds or just plain, mediocre at best. However, did it stop there? Of course not! Hence, you also had:
- “Barabbas” (1961) with Anthony Quinn doing a biblical warm-up before doing “Zorba the Greek.” Also with Jack Palance as Torvald, the gladiator (AKA “The Bad Guy”) who flicks out his tongue like a snake so often that he probably used it to wipe his own forehead.
- “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1962) with maybe the only thing funnier than watching Stewart Granger trying to play religiously moral Lot might have been watching John Wayne trying to play Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror.” However, health-wise, I’ll bet a lot of people went on a salt free diet after seeing this one.
- “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965) with (Sad) Max von Sydow who originally missed out on playing Jesus in “King of Kings” finally getting his big chance to play Jesus, aaannd he blew it! Oh well, at least he was better than Jeffrey Hunter’s Jesus (Of course, Danny DeVito would have been better playing Jesus than Jeffrey Hunter too!).
- “The Bible: In the Beginning…” (1966) even with Director John Huston doing both the voice of “GOD”, and playing a Doctor Dolittle version of Noah, he couldn’t keep either the Ark or the film from sinking from its own pretentiousness. However, at least you did get the chance to see Sodom and Gomorrah celestially Nuked once again, so there was some solace in that.
Most of these religious films also suffered from the “Ben Hur” hangover effect of being overly long. While “Ben Hur” didn’t originate looonnng biblical films (good old C.B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith could both take some substantial credit for that), more biblical/religious themed films than ever before were released that way after “Ben-Hur.” For example, “Fisherman” was 180 minutes long, “King of Kings” was 168 minutes long, “The Bible…” was 174 minutes long, and, the worst, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was a mind numbing 260 minutes long (for that one, the movie theaters must have been handing out compression socks and mason jars to their patrons in case they had to take a leak). Currently, if you want to personally test your own urinary tract endurance, try sitting through any of Director Zack (The Hack) Snyder’s long pseudo-artistic crap film efforts (“Watchmen”, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”, “Army of the Dead”, etc.). However, if you choose to not do so, you still might want to shower the movie screen with your own unique personal review of Mr. Snyder’s directing efforts!
These biblical films also succumbed to another hangover effect resulting from the prior Best Picture Winner of 1956, “Around the World in 80 Days”: Cameo/Stunt Casting! Unlike miscasting (Edward G. Robinson in “The Ten Commandments” for example), “Around the World…” had all of these big-name stars/celebrities in bit roles (over 40 of them in all). Although none of these biblical films were that bad, you still had a number of them (Ray Milland as the voice of Satan in “Kings”, Shelly Winters as a “woman that is healed” in “The Greatest Story…”, etc.) that didn’t enrich, but rather distracted from the storyline instead. After a while, Hollywood finally stopped making so many of these biblical religious epics and moved on to making dramas about the clerical hierarchy itself like Tom Tryon in “The Cardinal” (1963) and Anthony Quinn in “The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968) (AKA Zorba the Pope). With regards to other films about Jesus, even though the previous film versions left much to be desired, one was finally made that was really excellent, and that one wasn’t even a movie but a British-Italian television six-hour mini-series. That version was “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977), directed by Franco Zeffirelli (“Romeo and Juliet”) and with a screenplay by Zeffirelli and Anthony Burgress (“A Clockwork Orange”). Although originally, either the producers or Zeffirelli himself considered doing some stunt miscasting for the role of Jesus like possibly considering either Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman (Benjamin on the Cross???), they dropped that dumb idea and picked British actor Robert Powell instead. It was a brilliant casting decision, and Powell gave a mesmerizing performance.
Zeffirelli conceived of portraying Jesus as more of an ordinary man who was gentle, fragile, and simple in his ways. However, he also highlighted Powell’s blue eyes by having a thin line of dark blue eyeliner on his upper eye lids, and a thin line of white eyeliner on his lower eye lids which resulted in the piercing blue of his eyes generating a more penetrating stare. He also had Powell and the other actors playing a younger version of Jesus hardly blink their eyes at all. Zeffirelli brilliantly used this as a way to create a subconscious visual and surreal mystique about the character as well as having him stand out differently from any other person. As a part of his portrayal, Powell also went on a near starvation diet for twelve days prior to shooting the crucifixion scenes in order to appear physically emaciated from Jesus’ prior imprisonment and torture. When Powell, who looked very similar to pictures of Jesus, portrayed scenes of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, it was so powerful the both cast and crew complemented him afterwards on his performance. However, he wasn’t the only one who was outstanding. Zeffirelli’s direction, and the performances he elicited from his all-star group of actors like Laurence Olivier, Anne Bancroft, Anthony Quinn (no Zorba redone this time), James Farentino (Emmy nominated), and others were also highly praised. Unfortunately, this series received few Emmy nominations, and neither Powell for his performance nor Zeffirelli for his direction were even nominated. Worse, before its initial broadcast, and not even seeing the series’ first, some Protestant fundamentalists led by the religious fanatics’ Bob Jones III (Asshole No. 1), and Dr. Bill Bright (Asshole No. 2) denounced the mini-series as “blasphemy” because they felt Zeffirelli’s conception of Jesus would deny Jesus’ “divine nature”. Hmm? I wonder if they wanted him instead to be flying through the air, shooting heat rays from his baby blue eyes, and wear a shirt with a big red J… Oh, that’s right! That one has sort have been done before! Never mind! Anyhoo… once the producers added some additional dialogue mentioning Jesus’ future resurrection, and a simulated resurrection scene, the criticism finally started to die down!
To conclude, Hollywood has continued up to this present day to make new film versions/series of stories from the Bible both small and Epic. Some of the more recent ones have been “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), “The Passion of Christ” (2004), and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014). I have not seen any of these more recent interpretations so I do not have an opinion on them one way or the other. All I’d like to add Dear Reader is that, whatever you choose to believe, and whatever you choose to watch, I sincerely hope that you enjoy it, whether it is by yourself or with your family, friends, and loved ones. Stay safe, be well, and love one another!
And as for myself, I think I’ll just sing…
For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
Enjoy it, it’s your last chance anyhow…
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!
And then, I think I’ll just watch “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” again!
Happy Holidays Everyone!