The recent release of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, based on the Hebrew Bible tale of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, combined with Hollywood’s release earlier this year of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, suggests that biblical epics are back. (Scott is reportedly also planning a movie on King David, and a new version of Ben-Hur is coming out in February.)
Or perhaps they never left. Indeed, since the beginning of cinema, the Old and New Testaments have been fodder for any number of movies, though the particulars of how they’ve been portrayed have changed dramatically.
Among silent cinema’s most popular (and expensive) films were early versions of The Ten Commandments (1923) and Noah’s Ark (1928), as well as the biblically related Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1926), proving that in Hollywood, everything old is new again. In one respect, these movies were easy to make, as the film rights were in the public domain – and thus posed no copyright issues. Plus, most of the potential audiences for the movies knew the stories already. Besides, the Bible – or at least the Hebrew Bible – is chock full of drama, emotion, love stories and moral conundrums that are perfect subject matter for films.
Biblical epics also offered something tailor made for cinema: larger than life adventures with commanding characters and a wide backdrop against which to situate the stories. Best of all, and especially after severe censorship came into effect in the 1930s in Hollywood with the Hays Code, they were seen by many as thematically safe in their (supposed) avoidance of controversial subject matter. That’s not entirely true – adultery, incest and patricide are some biblical themes – but the Bible, at least in the West, has for the most part been seen as innocuous to most people, would-be censors included.
That didn’t stop subversive screenwriters and directors from slipping stuff past the censors. There was no shortage of nudity in both versions of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, though he got away with much more in the (pre-code) 1923 version than in its better-known 1956 followup, which was comparatively tamer. And how does one read Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 epic Spartacus – not strictly a biblical epic but in its feel and scope akin to one – which was penned by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo and based on the book by Howard Fast, also a blacklisted Hollywood figure?
The famous “I am Spartacus” scene directed at the Roman authorities, with each slave pretending to be the man so as to thwart their attempt to single out Spartacus, can easily be discerned as a call to unite in arms against the villains, i.e., the House Un-American Activities Committee, which prosecuted Trumbo and Fast for their alleged Communist sympathies.
And then there was the openly gay scene in Spartacus (between Tony Curtis’ and Laurence Olivier’s characters) and the inserted gay subtext in the 1959 Ben-Hur (by screenwriter Gore Vidal) that suggested a past homosexual relationship between Jewish scion Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his childhood Roman friend Messala (Stephen Boyd).
By the 1950s, Americans were glued to their TVs, and biblical epics like Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments and others were just about the only movies that could get Americans out of the house. Often shot in CinemaScope, those movies were bigger, more lavish and more exciting than anything TV could offer and also provided a refuge for blacklisted writers like Trumbo to work in.
Lost in all this, of course, were the Jewish underpinnings of the Old Testament film adaptations.
Despite the presence of such Jewish actors as Edward G. Robinson (sounding more Brooklyn than ancient Israelite) in the 1956 edition of The Ten Commandments, these movies weren’t really about the Jews, or if they were, as in Ben-Hur, they were only a set up so that Heston’s Ben-Hur could, in effect, convert to Christianity by film’s end. Of course, one has to recognize that in America, the Hebrew Bible has long been adopted by Christians as their own, too, so the Jewish origin of the Old Testament figures is not paramount in their minds, nor is the idea of casting Jews in those roles of concern to the filmmakers. Even Noah filmmaker Aronofsky, who is Jewish, picked Russell Crowe and other non-Jewish actors like Anthony Hopkins for the key parts.
As for filmic depictions of Christ, always a staple of movies, the idea of casting a Semitic-looking actor in the role of the rabbi from Galilee should be considered, but rarely applies. Witness blue-eyed Willem Dafoe cast as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). (Admittedly Jewish actor Harvey Keitel was cast as Judas, the villain of the piece, but he, too, like Robinson, sounded as if he came from a New York neighbourhood.)
Other film adaptations such as Mel Gibson’s infamous and revisionist The Passion of the Christ (2004) were blatantly anti-Semitic, providing an offensive portrait of satanic Jewish children cavorting in the background and Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who sentenced Christ to death, depicted as a mild person reluctantly forced to do so by the stereotypically drawn, pushy Jewish elders. (Oddly, few film critics or members of the Hollywood establishment, many of whom were Jewish, would openly admit that the film was anti-Semitic.)
Fortunately, the faithful took to the element of Christ’s (graphic) suffering in the movie as their main storyline and seemed to ignore the film’s anti-Semitic overtones. We’re probably lucky that Gibson never made the Judas Maccabeus movie he said he wanted to do (though the story of Chanukah, in the right hands, could make for a terrific movie).
It’s ironic that the Hebrew Bible, the basis for so much of Judaism’s beliefs and history and the subject of so many examples of an art form in an industry founded by and still dominated by Jews, is so devoid of actual Jewish content. (I teach a course called “The Image of the Jew in Film and Television,” and Gibson’s movie, as a dark example, is the only one of the biblical epics I’ve ever referenced in film clips.) Perhaps that’s all to the better, as Hollywood hasn’t exactly made too many fine or worthwhile Bible-based movies. (1985’s King David with Richard Gere in the title role traipsing down the streets of Jerusalem clad in what looks like a diaper, is this sub-genre’s low point.) And it should be noted, much of the renewed emphasis on the current crop of biblical stories comes from Hollywood’s desire to draw in the evangelical American Christian community, which traditionally shuns most modern movies because of their violence, language or sexual explicitness.
Though Exodus was the top grossing movie the week it opened, it’s too early to tell if it and the other biblical epics to come will all be box office successes. (History Channel’s 10-part 2013 TV series The Bible was a big hit for the network, spawning a 2014 feature film, Son of God.)
Since Hollywood ultimately considers box office success to be the final arbiter of the projects that actually get made, the Bible as the subject for cinematic endeavours could be over as quickly as it started. But since Hollywood is also reluctant to venture too often into anything too original or revolutionary, the tried and true Bible tale – and many of them, including the ’50s versions of Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, shown every year on TV at Easter, are cultural staples – whether specifically Jewish or not, will likely be around for years to come.
Shlomo Schwartzberg is a long-time arts journalist and teacher and former director of programming of the TJFF.