• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Monday, October 17, 2016

    The Canon in the "Experimental" Era

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.
    The "Golden Era" of Bile films ended with a series of perceived failures leading the major studios to be cautious about investing more money into opulent epics that were unlikely to provide a good return, yet amongst writers, directors, evangelists and actors there was no shortage of interest in adapting the Bible. This led to a more experimental age. Forced to work with lower budgets, filmmakers devised more creative ways to explore the biblical text. Furthermore, liberated from the pressure of having to recoup massive budgets, meant that filmmakers no longer had to aim for the middle-of-the-road lowest common denominator. They could more boldly pursue their own artistic vision, pose their own questions and explore issues that more mainstream movies simply could not risk.

    The difference between these two eras is perhaps most starkly illustrated in the contrast between the Jesus movies of the two ages. 1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir. George Stevens) was a big budget, yet respectful and deferential, epic which presented a Jesus who conformed to, rather than questioned, the establishment view of Jesus. Just eight years later, three very different Jesus films were battling it out at the box office, all with startling different portrayals of Jesus, all of which had clearly departed from the traditional funding model.

    The most famous of the three films was Jesus Christ, Superstar. Superstar started life out as a single in 1968, which then led to a concept album (1970), and then to an arena tour and wildly successful theatre productions on both sides of the Atlantic.1 Thus by the time the film was released in 1973 there was already a ready made audience for the film, and indeed much of the phenomenal support that the previous incarnations had enjoyed, transferred to the movie. As a result the production's portrayal of Jesus - as a visionary who loses his way in the adulation that accompanies his growing popularity - was able to be far more radical than anything that had preceded it and whilst it was set in the Israeli desert it blurred the boundaries between Roman Judea and modern-day America.

    In a not dissimilar fashion, another musical - Stephen Schwarz's Godspell - also appeared on Broadway in the early seventies before being adapted for the silver screen. Here however the adaption was more innovative from a formal angle setting the story firmly in modern-day New York and dressing Jesus and his disciples in clown suits. Whilst the film's theology was not quite as radical as Superstar, it nevertheless ended the film without a traditional resurrection scene (which is present in both stage-shows in a fashion at Jesus's gleaming reappearance at the final curtain).

    The third Jesus film of 1973 is also one that is primarily about the music, The Gospel Road (dir. Robert Elfstrom) starring Johnny Cash. This film also relied on an unconventional funding model and utilised a combination of star-power and enthusiasm amongst religious groups to bring in its audience. Whereas Superstar and Godspell had used their degrees of liberty to offer unorthodox takes on the gospel narratives, The Gospel Road used its relative freedom to push a more overtly evangelistic agenda. This was even more the case with Jesus (1979) which was specifically produced with an evangelistic use in mind. The very same year the most controversial film to portray events from the gospels was released. Monty Python's Life of Brian, which followed the character Brian of Nazareth whose life coincided at key with that of his town's most famous citizen, proved hugely controversial on its release for it's supposedly blasphemous portrayal of Jesus. The following decade two even more unconventional films about the life of Christ emerged - Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Jesus of Montreal by Denys Arcand. Not all cinema releases chose such an unconventional path; King David (dir. Bruce Beresford, 1985) was arguably less, rather than more, controversial than its 1951 predecessor David and Bathsheba.

    The move of biblical films to outside of the mainstream was also reflected in the range of countries which made films during this period. If Hollywood's golden era had also been reflected in a growing interest in countries further afield, that tendency only increased during the late sixties, seventies and eighties. In particular in Europe where Greece, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands all released their maiden Bible films. However, many of these productions were not made to be viewed in cinemas, but at home on their respective television networks.

    Whilst television had emerged during, and perhaps even been a catalyst for, the golden age of Bible films, it was in this period that it really came of age as a medium for producing biblical films. There are a number of notable trends in this respect. Firstly that, at times, television could be far safer even than the epics of the major studios. Programmes made by commercial channels seeking to gain an even higher audience for their advertisers, not only had an incentive to take fewer risks, but often needed to break stories down into bite-sized pieces such that commercial breaks could interrupt the programme regularly. This was not always the case, of course, Rossellini's two New Testament productions - Acts of the Apostles (1969) and The Messiah (1975) - are fine examples from a director who was convinced of the artistic importance and potential of television. It's interesting to note however that in an era that served up Jesus Christ Superstar, Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ that the Jesus film that drew the widest audience was Franco Zefferelli's made for TV Jesus of Nazareth.2

    The other notable trend in this era was that it gave filmmakers the potential for to explore their given subject at far greater length. Sometimes this is with regard to the length of time available for just one story, such as Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth, but other times it allowed a greater number of stories, covered as separate episodes. The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series, for example, spanned 17 episodes including lesser covered stories such as Joshua, the Tower of Babel, Daniel and Esther.

    Another series was produced during this time frame that also covered multiple episodes. The similarly named The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible contained seven stories from the Hebrew Bible, but rather than being produced for the cinema or live action television they were cartoons which came to prominence more through their release on video. This was the start of a new trend which came to expand greatly over the final two eras.

    But whilst some of these series might have covered some of the stories that had proved less popular, for the first time the number of stories being adapted for the first time almost became non-existent. Muharrem Gürses' Nemrud (Nimrod, 1979) may have been the first director to have made a film about the man frequently associated with the building of the Tower of Babel, but the story itself was first covered in 1921's La Sacra Bibbia and more recently in Hustons' 1966 film The Bible: In the Beginning as well as the aforementioned episode from The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series.

    Indeed only one story that had not been covered before was given its first outing during this period; The story of Tamar, Er, Onan and Judah was covered in the Italian/German/Swiss production La salamandra del deserto, released in English speaking countries as Tamar, Wife of Er (dir. Riccardo Freda, 1970). Whilst this is doubtless due to the sheer quantities of biblical stories that had been covered previously it does also suggest that by this stage the "canon" was beginning to close.


    1 - This is widely attested but this 2012 interview sums it up nicely and is worth a read anyway.
    2 - It's worthin noting however that the production team behind Jesus of Nazareth had earlier been involved in producing the rather more revisionist Moses the Lawgiver which perhaps goes someway to explaining the controversy the project faced in its earliest days, despite the fact it was ultimately to provide a rather bland portrayal.


    Saturday, October 08, 2016

    The Canon in "the Golden Era"

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.
    Just as cinema saw off the challenges of the great depression and the second world war, it faced a new problem - the rise of the television set. Whilst during the late forties and early fifties the ownership of television sets was still fairly low, filmmakers began to realise that if cinema was to survive it was going to have to offer audiences something they couldn't get at home. If the forties were typified by low-budget, black and white noir, the fifties and sixties would become defined by opulence and spectacle. Technicolor - which had been available since the late silent era - finally began to become the norm. By 1960 cinema finally reached the point whereby more films were being recorded in colour than in black and white. And then there was the development of various widescreen formats - a bigger and better canvas on which cinemas artists and showmen could tell their tales.

    No-one had a better nose for the opportunity for spectacle than Cecil B. DeMille and so it's perhaps no surprise that it was he who was amongst the first to respond to these new challenges and opportunities. His 1949 Samson and Delilah was such a game changer that it kickstarted a twenty year period that became synonymous with the historical epic, particularly those based on the Bible. DeMille's film, including its style, approach and its politics would be much copied, though few films would surpass its box office success, turning a $3 million budget into $11 million income in 1950 alone, and almost $29 million overall.1

    Seven years later DeMille was at it again, producing the movie that would become the most totemic Bible film of all time. The Ten Commandments, in some ways a remake of his own 1923 adaptation, made $65 million in the US alone and it remains the 6th highest grossing film in the all-time adjusted chart.2.

    Two other films from this era are particularly noteworthy, though their dependence on the actual biblical text is somewhat more tangential. The Robe (dir. Henry Koster, 1953) was the first film to adapt the CinemaScope process which remains the most notable landmark in film history after the introduction of sound. Koster would later develop the lesser known biblical epic The Story of Ruth (1960). The other is of course 1959's Ben-Hur (1959) which went on to sweep the OscarsTM with a, still unsurpassed, 11 awards. These notable, but occasional, peaks proved enough to sustain the genre through a myriad of films that were less successful - either at the box-office, or with critics, or with both.

    The sheer volume of films made during this period is particularly noteworthy. In just seventeen years between Samson and Delilah and 1966's The Bible, 92 films were produced based on the Hebrew Bible and at least 25 films that featured Jesus. And this excludes films such as The Silver Chalice and Demetrius and the Gladiators, both 1954, which took the lightest touch on the Bible, or others such as the various Italian Samson films which were really only about the Old Testament strongman in name alone.

    Indeed a significant part of the reason for the number of epics during this era was due to the re-emergence of the Italian film industry. Whilst on the one hand it's artistic wing re-emerged under the banner of neorealism, it's studios churned out sword and sandal movies at a tremendous rate including multiple entry series based on figures such as Hercules, Goliath and Samson. Of course this era was also the one where these two strands merged together in perhaps the most unlikely of ways, in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964).

    Sadly the majority of Bible films made in Italy during this period were not up to the same quality, tending to be cheaply and quickly made. That said they did give profile to some of the stoties that, by that time, were being ignored by Hollywood. Marcello Baldi, Francisco Pérez-Dolz's I grandi condottieri (Gideon and Samson, 1965) was the first film to feature Gideon and there were also rare outings for the stories of Athalia [Atalia (dir. Mario Ferrero, 1964)] and the Macabees [Il Vecchio Testamento (dir. Gianfranco Parolini, 1962)] all from Italian studios.

    This wider range of stories was also boosted by the emergence of smaller independent/church-based filmmakers and, of course, television. The Living Bible series not only covered a high proportion of the stories from the gospels, but it also expanded to cover most of the book of Acts and many of the stories from the Old Testament. Indeed it's coverage of the Old Testament was perhaps the first time a group of filmmakers had selected a group of stories they wished to adapt on the basis of their biblical prominence and importance, rather than on artistic or financial merit. Given such a premise it's perhaps not surprising that the films are poor artistically, for reasons beyond just their low budget, but across the genre as a whole they also fill a vital role being the first time that characters such as Joshua and Isaiah had been depicted on screen. Elsewhere TV's Matinee theatre brought us The Prophet Hosea (1958).

    Another significant development in this period was the explosion of Bible films being produced from outside of Europe and North America. Whilst research into the development of Bible film outside of "the West" lags behind, this era saw the first Bible films being released in Catholic Southern American countries (Brazil & Argentina), Israel, India, the Philippines and a number of predominantly Muslim countries (Egypt, Iran and Turkey).

    Of course many of the usual stories continued to prove popular, with films about Adam & Eve (6), David (12), Joseph (9), Moses (10), Samson (7) and Solomon (7) all proving popular and it's striking that these correlate fairly closely with the hugely successful films of the 1920s. There's the odd exception: Having proved popular with the very earliest filmmakers the story of Joseph had not been covered much during the late silent / early sound period, conversely other than forming a key section of Huston's The Bible (1966), the story of Noah was only covered in Disney's animated short Noah's Ark and the Belgian Noah (1964).

    Indeed it was perhaps the perceived failure of Huston's film (which did eventually turn a profit) that signalled the end of this era. The film was released the year after the more high profile failure of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and the traditional biblical epic limped off seemingly fatally wounded. Yet whilst the major studios opted to give the Bible a wide berth the subject was to continue to prove popular with smaller filmmakers, who, liberated from the pressure of having to recoup a huge budget were able to produce more challenging and experimental adaptations of the biblical text. It's to them I'll turn next...

    1 - the-numbers.com - retrieved 5th October 2016
    2 - Box Office Mojo - retrieved 5th October 2016


    Sunday, October 02, 2016

    Joshua Films Redux

    Back in 2009 I wrote a post on films about Joshua but I was a little short on ideas. Since then, however, I've become aware of several more, and indeed thought of several I should have included in the first place, so I thought it was about time I revisited the subject.

    Filmmakers have approached the character of Joshua and the book that bears his name in three main ways: metaphorically, as a minor character in films about Moses and as the "hero" in adaptations of the Book of Joshua.

    The earliest film to evoke Joshua was the silent film The Walls of Jericho (dir. Lloyd B. Carleton, 1914) but this was a modern day drama that used a story from the book of Joshua as a metaphorical reference point. A more famous example of this approach occurs in It Happened One Night (dir. Frank Capra, 1934) where Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are forced to share a room together. To preserve propriety Gable hangs a blanket between their beds, but when the blanket comes down in the morning it's clear that Colbert's defences have too. She is now in love with him.

    A more popular approach has been to include Joshua as a minor character in the story of Moses, as
    Joshua also appears fleetingly in the Pentateuch. The two most famous filmic appearances of Joshua are John Derek's portrayal of him in DeMille's 1956 version of The Ten Commandments and Aaron Paul's in Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott, 2014). In both films Joshua is portrayed as a upright, likeable and loyal assistant to Moses. In many ways however Joshua functions as a semi-fictional character - neither film features Pentateuchal episodes and he acts more as a stand-in for the audience. This is particularly true of Paul who poses the kinds of questions that the audience might also be asking.

    The more extensive adaptations of Moses have featured incidents such as the victory over the Amalekites or his spying mission into Canaan. Moses the Lawgiver (dir. Gianfranco de Bosio, 1975) includes both of these incidents although the former is curiously unlike the biblical account. Instead of a battle led by Joshua whilst Aaron and Hur hold Moses' arms aloft, a fictional character comes up with a plan, which is then executed in the middle of the night Joshua's role is minimised. He is shown as one of the twelve spies however, and the closing scenes feature a montage of his victories over the Canaanites.

    Also notable are Moses (dir.Roger Young, 1996) which includes ends with Joshua being commissioned, making his speech from the start of the Book of Joshua and then flashes forward to Joshua's final speech; and The Ten Commandments (dir. Robert Dornhelm, 2006) which includes the defeat of the Amalekites.

    Given the controversy surrounding the Israelite's conquest in Canaan it's perhaps not surprising that filmmakers have tended to avoid portraying either Joshua the man, or any of the episodes from the book that bears his name. The only episode from the Book of Joshua to have been adapted – with the exception of The Living Bible's Joshua - The Conqueror (dir. Edward Dew, 1958) - is the fall of Jericho. Portrayals of this incident have handled the question of divinely authorised violence in very different ways.

    Dew's unvarnished film offers little interpretation aside from choosing not to show any of the inhabitants of Jericho other than Rahab's family, denying their voice and their humanity. The effect of not doing so becomes apparent moments later when Achan is stoned for theft. Giving him a voice makes the sentence seem unfair, a voice those from Jericho were denied.

    Nine years later Joshua appeared again in the US TV series The Time Tunnel where each week two scientists materialised in a different historical period. The only story from the Bible to be covered by the series is The Walls of Jericho (1967), but crucially here the scientists are transported to their next adventure before the walls of the city come tumbling down.

    A different appraoch is that of Joshua at Jericho (dir. James L. Conway, 1978) from the Greatest Heroes of the Bible series which significantly distorts the biblical text to make the divinely sanctioned violence less unpalatable. Jericho is "controlled by ruthless Hittites" who commit human sacrifices; various ethically dubious acts occur inside the city; Jericho's pudgy king is childish, whining and irritating, whilst the head of his army is proud, stubborn and arrogant. There's even a scene where the Hittites steal the Israelites' children in order to sacrifice them to their gods. In essence, the film does everything it possibly can to demonise the residents of Jericho and paint them in a negative light, such that it's almost impossible to feel sympathy for them.

    In contrast the episode Homeland (dir. Tony Mitchell, 2013) from the History Channel's dramatised series The Bible does not seem to find the idea of divine violence particularly troubling. Indeed, many other episodes in the series enhance existing violent elements in the various stories, or invent them where none is to be found in the text. Such invention is minimised in this episode however, normalising the actions of Joshua and his soldiers. It also emphasises God's role in the city's destruction, not only sending an angel to inform Joshua of his mission, but also heavily use of special effects as Jericho's walls come tumbling down. Joshua himself is portrayed as an affable, calm and approachable general.

    Surprisingly given the subject matter there are also several animated versions of the story including those from The Greatest Heroes and Legends in the Bible series narrated by Charlton Heston's voice, Hannah-Barbera's Greatest Adventure Stories of the Bible, the Beginners Bible, an entry from the "Bible Stories for Children" series called Joshua and the Promised Land and Veggie Tales' version Josh and the Big Wall! (1997).

    There is a potential fourth approach which has not yet been tried, namely making a subversive version adaptation of this story, in a similar vein to Aronofsky's Noah, which portrays Joshua as a villain overseeing a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the indigenous Canaanites. However, it would likely alienate a lot of the key target audience and given the furore around Noah and the fact that Joshua's story is less well known such an adaptation seems unlikely at the moment. Furthermore the most recent adaptation from The Bible series suggests that, far from finding Joshua's campaign in Canaan troubling, the likely target audience for a further adaptation of this story might find the violence more palatable than previous generations, rather than less.

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    Sunday, September 25, 2016

    Joshua the Conqueror (1958)

    Until recently there had been precious few films about Joshua, though for some reason when I wrote a previous post on the subject I forgot about this entry from the Living Bible Old Testament series. As I was researching for something else I'm writing at the moment I thought it was probably time I posted a few comments on it.

    As always the series plays things pretty straight. In this case however that makes this little film more distinctive as it's the only film which portrays any other incident from the Book of Joshua aside from the victory over Jericho.

    As you would expect the victory over Jericho is the film's high point, but it also manages to squeeze in other episodes such as the miraculous crossing of the River Jordan and Achan's sin and the resulting defeat to the army of Ai.

    These films are always low budget, and I generally avoid criticising a film for that alone, however here the "miraclous" crossing of the Jordan scene really does lack any imagination. One minute we're shown a swelling, fast-flowing river, then there's a cut to Joshua, a description of the miracle and then just a close up of some feet running over some rocks. I accept that the film would not be able to match DeMille level special effects, but if you read DeMille's autobiography there's a bit in it where he discusses how in order to make the effect look right in his 1923 The Ten Commandments the entire cast and crew spent a frentic few minutes gathering bits of seaweed to scatter on the ground to make it look realistic before the angle of the sun change too much. Three's no such attention to detail here such that low budget and low creativity really make the moment laughable.

    In contrast when the walls of Jericho come tumbling down there's at least some judicious cuts and thought that has gone into the process in order to make the equally low budget miracle at least look credible. It's still a little hard not to smile to oneself, but with so few versions of certain stories, where would we be without the Living Bible.

    One thing that is noticeable about the fall of Jericho is that, aside from Rahab (dressed in red) and her family, we never see another of the people of Jericho. The film narrates their slaughter, but keeps them off screen. This has the effect of hiding the faces of the victims, silencing their voices and making their destruction less troubling. To it's credit the film isn't at pains to demonise them, but it does marginalise their voice and prevent viewers from empathising with them.

    Finally, as I've already mentioned, this is the only film I know of which covers the incident where Achan steals some of the "devoted things" (7:1), angering God so much that he causes Israel to be defeated and then orders the Israelites stone/burn him to death. It's not hard to see why this incident might be excluded even for a team of filmmakers intent on trying adapting the Book of Joshua. Visualising it, however, only makes it seem all the harsher than reading it. I suppose though that this is the flip side of the criticism I levelled at the film not showing any dying Jericonians. Portraying Achan's brutal treatment does raise questions as to either the goodness of God's character, or the interpretation of how the vent has been recorded.

    Anyway here's a scene guide for the film. All references are from the book of Joshua:
    God’s Commission to Joshua (1:1-9)
    Spies sent to Jericho meet Rahab (2:1-24)
    Miraculous crossing of the Jordan (3:1-17; 4:10-18)
    12 Stones set up at Gilgal (4:1-9,19-24)
    Joshua’s Vision (5:13-15)
    Processions around Jericho (6:1-14)
    Fall of Jericho (6:15-25)
    Achan’s Sin (7:1,21)
    Defeat at Ai (7:2-5)
    Achan’s death (7:6-26)
    Joshua renews the covenant (8:30-35)
    Joshua’s farewell speech (23:1-24:28)
    Incidentally, I opened this by saying "until recently". The last few years have seen Joshua gaining higher profile than almost ever before, firstly with his escapades being covered in the History Channel's series The Bible and then with the character featuring in Exodus Gods and Kings.

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    Friday, September 09, 2016

    Ben-Hur (2016)

    Whilst it's only been six years since the story of Ben-Hur was last on our screens, it's been 57 years since it was playing in cinemas, so, given the huge success of that 1959 version - itself a remake of a remake - it was only a matter of time before someone adapted it for the big screen once again. After all, two scenes in particular have resulted in some spectacular set-pieces in previous adaptations without either the 1959 or the earlier 1925 version receiving such acclaim that no-one dares to to touch the source material again. In fact, as the shortest of the non-animated Ben-Hur adaptations, this version seems to pretty much revolve around these two set pieces.

    The episode for which Ben-Hur is now best known is the chariot race scene and that seems to have become the driving force (if you'll pardon the pun) behind many adaptations - early stage versions of the story had horses running on rollers, the first film adaptation way back in 1907, was little more than footage of a chariot race, and a recent "stage" version hired out the O2 arena in order to be able to have the race do laps around the auditorium.

    Here, once again, the chariot race dominates. The film opens on the starting line, with Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) taunting each other through gritted teeth. The film then goes into flashback mode, which is a nice little device, but does rather highlight the film's emphasis on the chariot race. This is further underlined when the it turns out that the point in time to which they go back is Judah and Messala racing horses eight years before. Then the two were on far friendlier terms - Messala had been adopted into Judah's family and the two very much see themselves as brothers, even if Messala occasionally points out that he is not really part of the family when it suits him.

    Indeed, as the opening scenes unfold it emerges that one of the ways in which it suited him to be not-a-part-of-the-family is his love for Judah's sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia). The film draws this out a little more than other adaptations - it's Judah and Tirzah's mother's objections to their attachment that drive Messala off to join the army. In one way this works well: it renders Tirzah a far more rounded and interesting character than in the 1959 version (true of all 3 female leads). Yet that brings with it a few complications as well. How did Tirzah feel whilst he was away? Did she write to him regularly in the same way her brother did?

    When Messala returns as a tribune he is far more concerned with his reunion with Judah than with his former love, but this is never really commented on. Perhaps we are meant to see his intimacy with Tirzah as the kind of youthful infatuation that this hard-hearted, career-driven soldier no longer has any time for. And of course, when Pilate is attacked by an injured zealot recovering in the Hur house, there's little reference to their previous tenderness. When Judah is sentenced to the galleys and told his mother and sister are being executed, for a moment I wondered if the more interesting story on a human level might be that of Tirzah rather than Judah. If only she also could have raced a chariot...

    But of course the camera chooses to follow Judah, who by now is symbolically tied to a yoke and falls at the feet of Jesus. This, in fact, is Judah's second encounter with the man from Nazareth, though both take place in Jerusalem. Shortly before Messala's return, Judah and his slave-turned-wife, Esther encountered Jesus in the marketplace. For some reason he'd set up a carpentry stall there, although the main thing he seemed to be building is a soap-box from which to preach his message of love. Then Judah shruged it off. He's not exactly an atheist - he had joined in with his family's generic, sort of Jewish, religious festival a few nights earlier, for example - but he didn't have much time for Jesus's calls to love his enemies ("If he’s already decided my path, how am I better off than a slave?").

    Yet now Judah is flat on his face on the road to the slave port and Jesus is pulling off a Jedi mind trick in order to give him a sip of water. This has always been a pivotal moment in Judah's story, and here it flashes back to him time and again, but it also proves pivotal for Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). Whilst Judah is away she joins Jesus'movement (apparently two years before it even starts) and does good works amongst the poor. In contrast to Judah' mother and Tirzah, Esther is rather poorly sketched, despite having more screen time than either of them. Despite her desire to do good works she doesn't, for example, seem to have made any in roads into tracking the fate of her in laws, nor does she seem overly perturbed by her father's death. And ultimately despite spending half a decade following Jesus, she doesn't really have anything compelling to say about him.

    All of which leads us to the film's other set piece - the sea battle - and it's by far the film's most successful scene, defly combining horror, tension and excitement. The bravest, and most successful, decision that director Timur Bekmambetov makes is to leave his camera below deck for the entire fifteen minute sequence. This nicely captures the claustrophobia of the environment but it also allows the audience to share the slaves' disorientating experience - their knowledge of what is happening is fragmented and limited to the few words they overhear from above deck and what they can glance through the oar holes. They know they are in a battle, but it's a shock when they get rammed in the side by an enemy vessel. And whilst the way Judah somehow manages to free himself from the wreckage seems a little questionable, it actually improves upon the implausibility of the novel and subsequent adaptations on this point, even if it's a little convenient that he washes up on shore just a short distance away from a chariot racing expert/horse owner (Morgan Freeman).

    It's here that the movie makes quite a sizeable leap which results in Judah landing himself in his much desired a grudge match. The chariot race itself is exciting, even if the odd pan of the crowd is let down by some bad CGI. Again the camera stays close to the action. Whilst it doesn't surpass its predecessors there's some good work here, particularly the pacing, which is so critical to a scene like this, and some impressive camera angles.

    Another plus point is Pilate's presence at this "circus". There are some tenuous links between Pilate and the arena in Caesarea, which did host chariot racing during his governorship. What is particularly good is that the Pilate we encounter here is the kind of crude bloodthirsty thug that history suggests, rather than the mild-mannered philosopher of so many Jesus films. Pilate (Borgen's Pilou Asbæk) struggles to contain his excitement as the race progresses, blood is spilt and the bodies pile up. This isn't a man who would worry himself about executing a would-be messiah. (As a Borgen fan, it's also interesting watching Asbæk playing the top dog, rather than the pitt-bull like press secretary serving a middle of the road prime minister).

    Where the chariot scene does let itself down a bit, is the sight of Freeman's character Ilderim scurrying around shouting advice to his rider as he swishes by. It's unclear if this is because the filmmakers realised they hadn't given Judah long enough to become a credible charioteer, or because they want to remind the people at home about all the things that are about to prove dangerous in just a lap or two's time. Either way the idea that as Judah thundered past he would catch a single word of Ilderim's advice - over the roar of the crowd - is laughable and detracts from what is otherwise a decent action scene.

    The other problem with the scene is something that is so typical of all the films in general, and indeed all of the biblical films that Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have produced; their tendency to ramp everything up to the point of crassness. So Judah can't just win the race, he has to win his first ever race, against Rome's greatest and unbeaten champion, despite getting knocked out of his chariot and dragged along the floor for half a lap and managing just to cross the line before his chariot crashes and his horses all die. Some of that is drawn from the novel, but time and again the pair's productions push things far further than their source material, draining them of any subtlety and ensuring absolutely everyone in the audience is totally and completely aware of their point. Does Pilate need to have a brush with death near the start of the film? Get a zealot to shoot him with an arrow! Is Morgan Freeman good as dispensing wisdom? Have him offer a life lesson at every conceivable moment! Is this a tale of learning to forgive? Have Judah and Messala have a big hug and ride off into the sunset! Would more talented writers have stopped this repeated two-phase question/statement pattern I'm employing? No, do it more!...etc. etc.

    That said some of the usual weaknesses in Downey and Burnett's work do seem at least a little reined-in here, not least the level of violence which, for once, feels more or less in keeping with the source material. And I quite liked the handful of places at the start if the film where Judah is challenged about the fact that his rosy world view is at least partially dependent on his privileged position of wealth and power. When Judah gives Jesus the question above about "how am I better off than a slave?" Jesus comes right back at him with "Why don't you ask her?", the "her" in question being Judah's former-slave turned wife, Esther. Another time whilst citing what has happened to the fields his father owned as evidence of injustice he is asked, rather pointedly, "and who owned the fields before your father?" Then there's the zealot who tells Judah "You confuse peace with freedom”.

    This tendency to bring original and contemporary sounding dialogue into the film works rather well for the most part. After all Lew Wallace was hardly Shakespeare and the novel's prose is often leaden and turgid. The new dialogue often places Judah squarely in the middle between two more extreme and violent parties vying for control of Judea. It's unfortunate that the writing in the latter part of the film isn't as strong at the earlier part such that this, too, ends up also being a bit crass.

    And what of the portrayal of Jesus? In the run up to the film's release I have heard people say both that the film minimises the role of Jesus and that enhances it and curiously both perspectives are true. Given the film's condensed run-time the material needed considerable abridgement, and to that end excising the nativity and that oh-so-convenient reappearance of Balthasar years later, is a wise move. I also quite liked the brief shot of Gethsemane, which I don't recall from the previous adaptations, though it is in the novel.

    That said I've already highlighted a couple of areas where the portrayal of Jesus didn't really work for me, and though Judah undergoes a profound transformation at the foot of the cross, there's precious little indication as to what is occurring. As with other Downey/Burnett produced Bible films, I come away wondering what it was they were trying to say about Jesus. Is it simply that marketplace message of love for your enemies? Perhaps that in itself is actually enough.

    I think, though, that there are two reasons why the crucifixion scene didn't do much for me. The first is actually a fault of the novel: I've always found the healing of Judah's mother and sister a bit too convenient. Not only does the Bible fail to mention any healing miracles occurring during the crucifixion, but it's such a lame plot device. And speaking of lame why do Judah's mother and sister get healed whilst his 'brother' remains an amputee?

    But the other reason is that Jack Huston's performance as Judah is rather lacklustre. Whilst the filmmakers would have struggled to find a more similarly surnamed leading actor, Huston lacks Heston's intensity. There's a few lines in the film that suggest that Messala is struggling to emerge from his grandfather's shadow. Whilst Huston did some good work in Boardwalk Empire there's little here to suggest he is going to lose the 'grandson of John Huston' tag anytime soon.

    Fortunately, for much of the film Huston isn't required to do a great deal because the chariot race and, most notably, the sea-battle are two great set pieces. These, combined with the film's natural sense of urgency and rhythm, mean that, ultimately, watching the film is more like spending the day at the chariot racing than spending life in the galleys.

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    Wednesday, August 24, 2016

    The Young One (1960)

    I've been watching quite a bit of Luis Buñuel recently and just finished watching The Young One (1960). Without giving too much away a significant part of the plot hangs on the presence of a priest, which is noteworthy for two reasons.

    Firstly because Buñuel is so often seen as anti-clerical, but here, whilst not handling things exactly as we in the 21st century would perhaps hope, the priest is still a somewhat heroic figure, who achieves some good by risking at least his own reputation and perhaps even his life. There are odd and perhaps feeble aspects to him as well, but they serve to make him more human and realistic, rather than despicable. I'm reminded of the way that so many see Buñuel's critique of the priesthood/idealised religion as solely negative but here, this is a primarily positive impact. This rather bolsters my position on Nazarin (1959) which is that Nazarin is a three-dimensional impression of a religious leader - albeit a very flawed one.

    The other pint of interest here is that the actor playing the priest is none other than Claudio Brook who also starred in Exterminating Angel (1962) and Simón del desierto [Simon of the Desert] (1965) for Buñuel and then as Jesus in the Mexican Jesus film Jesús, nuestro Señor (1969). Simón del desierto is next in my next destination for my Buñuel journey and I really must get around to seeing (and reviewing) Jesús, nuestro Señor sometime soon.

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    Tuesday, August 23, 2016

    Book Review: Bigger than Ben-Hur
    The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences

    Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences
    Edited by Barbara Ryan & Milette Shamir

    Syracuse University Press
    269 pages
    ISBN 978-0815634034 (Paperback)

    With the latest cinematic version of in cinemas at the moment, readers might be interested to read Barbara Ryan & Milette Shamir's "Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences, which looks at the forerunners to the latest version, from the book, through stage plays to some of the other filmed versions, including Fred Niblo's 1925 silent movie and the, now more famous, 1959 adaptation, directed by William Wyler. (See all my Ben-Hur related posts)

    There's a good range of experts here from Ancient World in film scholars such as Jon Solomon, whose work will be familiar to many readers here, through to historians such as Eran Shalev. As Ryan and Shamir put it in their introduction "They offer insights to students of popular Christianity and Judaism; to scholars of reading, reception and fandom; to those who investigate the a United States' sense of the Middle East and of Zionism; to researchers who probe the intersection of education and entertainment on stage and on screen; to chroniclers of ways of imaging Jesus Christ, femme fatales, and masculine performance" (p.2) Certainly it's interesting reading scholars from different pools coming together to offer their own insights on different facets of the phenomenon that is all things Ben-Hur.

    The book's subtitle suggests a two or three fold division between the book and its adaptations (and their audiences) but in fact things are much more fluid than that. Whilst Eran Shalev in the book's first main chapter, "Ben-Hur's and America's Rome: From Virtuous Republic to Tyrannous Empire" restricts herself to the book, some of its forerunners and the changes in cultural context in the century or so before the books release, other chapters are content to switch from talking about the book to talking about one of the stage or screen adaptations. Despite Milette Shamir's "Ben-Hur's Mother: Narrative Time, Nostalgia, and Progress in the Protestant Historical Romance" being only the second chapter it ends with a coda reflecting on how the subsequent 1925 and 1959 film adaptations built on the book's portrayals of women as discussed in the rest of the chapter (pp.50-51).

    Not dissimilarly whilst the primary thrust of the first four chapters is to explore key issues relating to the book, both chapters three ("Retelling and Untelling the Christmas story: Ben-Hur, Uncle Midas, and the Sunday-School Movement" by Jefferson J. A. Gatrall) and four ("Holy Lands, Restoration, and Zionism in Ben-Hur" by Hilton Obenzinger) touch on screen adaptations. Obenzinger offers some interesting observations on Wylers mise en scène in the 1959 film and Gatrall discusses the portrayals of Jesus in the 1925, 1959 & 2010 versions (pp.71-72).

    Indeed whilst various essays mention the 2010 Television adaptation in passing (pp.xi,14 and 181) Gatrall is the only one to offer any brief analysis of it. This is something of a strange omission, not least given that the book has ended up as a part of the "Television and Popular Culture" series. Whilst the 2010 adaptation ultimately reached only a limited audience, it would have been nice to see some more, in depth analysis of it.

    The impression left by this omission is that diverse and developing Ben-Hur tradition ground to a halt shortly after 1959, rather than being something that continues to evolve. Similarly the 1988 animated version and the recent arena adaptation (p.14), complete with it's own chariot race round the venue's massive internal space, are important continuity markers in this developing tradition but are again, largely overlooked. This is particularly disappointing given Ryan and Shamir's excellent observation in their introduction that "As each Ben-Hur builds on the last, and strives to top it, the results move ever further from Wallace's years of study toward treating his fiction as an historical narrative to rework." (p.14). It certainly raises the question of how this is true for the biblical epic genre in general and the distance between adapting the text and seeking to outdo previous epic movie for size and spectacle grows and grows.

    Whilst more recent film adaptations of biblical narratives might, at first, appear a far cry from the book's next chapter ("In the Service of Christianity: Ben-Hur and the 'Redemption' of the American Theatre, 1899-1929" by Howard Miller), it could hardly be more relevant. Miller details the extensive marketing strategy utilised by the stage-show's producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger in order to promote their film to the widest possible audience. Klaw and Erlanger realised that the key to making a strong return on what was a hefty financial investment was to entice the devout Protestant / Evangelical population to overcome their principled objections to the theatre as a whole.

    Miller's account will resonate with anyone who has watched the marketing of faith-based films from The Passion of the Christ through to Timur Bekmambetov's latest cinematic adaptation of Ben-Hur (2016). The tactics used, reassurances provided, endorsements given and success achieved are eerily familiar and whilst no film has since come close to reproducing the success of The Passion, it seems that much of the tickets sales the various biblical films have achieved in the intervening period, has been due, in part to production companies employing these tactics.

    Chapters six to nine, then, deal with the film adaptations, though as with the first four chapters there's a good degree of discussion around the other, preceding, works. What's strangely absent, though is any substantial discussion of Kalem's 1907 film adaptation. Again a few of the chapters mention it in passing, it was after all a landmark case that cast it's shadow across all subsequent adaptations in general, but the collection of essays would feel more complete had there been a chapter on some aspect of this ill-fasted production. For example, Ryan and Shamir's introduction references Ted Hovet Jr.'s paper on "The Case of Kalem's Ben-Hur (1907)" (pp. 12-13). Whilst it may not have been possible to reproduce this particular essay, some analysis of the case and its enduring impact would have been most welcome.

    The four chapters begin instead with couple of essays on the 1925 film. In "June Matthis's Ben-Hur: A Tale of Corporate Change and the Decline of Woman's Influence in Hollywood", Thomas J. Slater details the way the movie's original producer and screenwriter, June Matthis, became a scapegoat (p.119) for the struggling production having been given an "impossible task". Matthis had previously enjoyed great success and her successor on Ben-Hur was given a far greater budget with which to create a profitable film. For Slater Matthis's tale is a microcosm of a wider trend that was happening in Hollywood at the time where the numbers of women in significant and influential positions declined substantially.

    It's a very interesting chapter, not least because Matthis struggled to find work at the same level from then onwards, despite the fact "the number of her productions and critical successes easily matched those of almost any male director of her era" (p.110). Indeed many today are surprised when they learn of the far greater levels of equality in the film industry in the first two decades of the twentieth century. My only quibble would be that as interesting as Slater's observations are, ultimately they are about a different film, that is a film that is not Niblo's 1925 Ben-Hur, but another film that, sadly, never got made.

    In contrast, Richard Walsh's "Getting Judas Right: The 1925 Ben-Hur as Jesus Film and Biblical Epic" focuses squarely on the final adaptation. Walsh points out the similarity between the two names Judah and Judas - effectively "English versions of the same Hebrew name" (p.125). Walsh's point is that Niblo's film "'gets Judas right' by offering an empathetic, modern account of Judah/Judas" (p.136).

    The key similarity between the Judas of most Jesus films and the Judah of Niblo's film is the way Judas is often portrayed as a revolutionary trying to raise an army to overthrow Rome. A similar subplot features in both Wallace's novel and Niblo's 1925 adaptation (though not in Wyler's). The pivotal contrast however is that whereas in the Jesus films judas carries on trying to force Jesus' hand, in Ben-Hur (1925) Judah submits his rebellion to the will of Jesus and halts the revolt. The chapter also contains a table comparing the novel, Klaw and Erlanger's play and both film adaptations (p.128-131).

    The following chapter is Ryan's own "Take Up The White Man's Burden: Race and Resistance to Ben-Hur". Ryan investigates the ways in which a John Buchan's 1941 novel "Sick Heart River" resists "Ben-Hur" as well demonstrating that "some Christians have trouble seeing Jesus as Jewish (p.143). Rather than being about either film in particular it focuses on the time between Niblo and Wyler's versions

    Whilst it raises some interesting points it does not, even by its own admission, "offer irrefutable evidence" of the link between the two novels (p.143). Personally I'd go further, far from being "irrefutable" the link seems rather tenuous, and very little evidence for it is offered. This isn't to say the hypothesis isn't interesting and it's good to have a chapter chronicling some of the dissent to Wallace's novel in contrast to overall positive reception by the Christian community.

    This leaves the only essay primarily about the 1959 adaptation, which will, of course, be the first access point to the 'Ben-Hur tradition' Ina Rae Hark's "The Erotics of the Galley Slave: Male Desire and Christian Sacrifice in the 1959 a Film Version of Ben-Hur". This offers a closer inspection of Wyler's film, in particular how it makes Judah "an erotic spectacle and attracts the desiring gazes of other men in the film" (p.178). In doing so, Hark observes how doing this is effectively "deflecting Christ's eroticism" (p.166) as well as delineating the complex network of "fathers and sons" that the story presents"

    So much has been said about Wyler's film, not least in the volume in question, that it's good to have an essay that covers the film in detail, but from a specific angle, albeit one that is mentioned at several other points in the book. As Wyler expert Neil Sinyard points out in the foreword, the film's "homoerotic subtext" overcomes the problem inherent in the novel of how to "explain the motivation behind Messala's malicious treatment of his firmer close friend" (p.xv).

    As someone approaching the subject from the discipline of film rather than literature it would also have been good to have heard a little more from Sinyard whose recent book "A Wonderful Heart: The Films of William Wyler" (2013) is amongst those seeking to rehabilitate the reputation of as one of the finest American directors. He offers some great insights here.

    The tenth chapter, David Mayer's "Challenging a Default Ben-Hur: A Wish List" hopes to persuade future adaptations to rehabilitate several aspects of the novel that all of the previous screen adaptations have overlooked. The first is to ask for a bigger focus on the investment skills of Simonides and Malluch whose wise investments mean that towards the end of the novel Judah Ben-Hur has become one of the richest men in the Roman Empire. The other main area Mayer puts on his wish list is the character of Ira, the "adventuress" who is absent from screen productions ("deliberately pushed aside" p.186). This daughter of the wise man Balthasar contrast strongly with the three other female principals, Judah's mother, sister and wife (Esther) and their seemingly infallible purity.

    Finally Jon Solomon's quirky, yet illuminating "Coda: A Timeline of Ben-Hur Companies, a Brands and Products" forces home the extent to which the name Ben-Hur has far outgrown the significance of Wallace's fairly unremarkable novel. As well providing a little light relief it also amply illustrates the breadth of the impact the novel has had from its initial publication in 1880 to the present day. There's also an additional list of various aspects of Ben-Hur paraphernalia and places that gave been named after it on page 4. Evidence indeed that the 'Ben-Hur tradition' has truly become far, far "bigger than Ben-Hur".

    Ryan and Shamir have pulled together an interesting collections of essays, which will particularly appeal to those who have already studied some more introductory literature on the book or its various adaptations. Overall it's good that they don't spend long retreading basic analysis, particularly given that space is always at a premium. Whilst above I've suggested certain aspects that perhaps ought to have been covered by this volume, I do concede that space is nearly always limited. And the two editors manage to strike a good balance between avoiding tedious repetition from essay to essay, but managing to give the impression of collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas from the impressive range of disciplines represented by this enjoyable book.

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    Saturday, August 06, 2016

    The Shadow of Nazareth (1913)

    Shadow of Nazareth is unusual amongst Jesus films because it sits, somewhat awkwardly between films that are primarily about Jesus, and those where Jesus is a peripheral player, making the odd cameo appearance in an occasional scene.

    The opening credits give us a clue - only the actors playing Barabbas and the fictional Judith Iscariot (sister of Jesus' infamous betrayer) are named. Instead of the focus being Jesus it is on these two, whose role and relationship with Judas are pivotal in the events leading to Jesus's death. Jesus himself is a principal, but in terms of screen time he is far from the lead.

    Whilst the full film runs to only a little over 30 minutes, it manages to include a reasonably complicated plot. Judith is very much the principal character, with whom not only Barabbas, but also a pharisee called Gabrias as well as Caiaphas are in love. An altercation between the three men results in both Barabbas and Caiaphas stabbing Gabrias, and then to further blacken the high priest's character he has Barabbas arrested for the murder. 18 months later and Caiaphas decides that the now imprisoned Barabbas is less of a threat than Jesus and so he persuades Judith to convince Judas to betray him. Jesus is condemned, Judas hangs himself and the liberated Barabbas heads to the nearest tavern.

    That scene instantly reminded me of a similar one from Richard Fleischer's Barabbas (1961)  starring Anthony Quinn. Quinn returns from his ordeal confused but joyful, that is until he spies the now condemned Jesus dragging his cross past the inn's window. His mood darkens instantly. Whilst this later film lacks an obvious homage shot a combination of the actor's demeanour, the joyous bunch of Barabbas's friends surrounding him and the tavern location suggest a certain degree of connectivity.

    Given the antiquity of this film, and the almost 50 year gap between the two it's perhaps unlikely that the Quinn film was directly influenced by Shadow. However, according to Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, there is another connection between the two films.1

    Whilst it is uncredited, the plot for the film, right down to the inclusion of a character named Judith of Nazareth, is taken from an 1893 novel "Barabbas: A Dream of the World's Tragedy" by Marie Correlli. The lack of acknowledgement for Correlli's novel is all the more interesting given the, then still recent, verdict against the producers of the 1907 adaptation of Ben Hur. In that case the film used the novel's title, but was little more than a set up for a glorified chariot race. Shadow of Nazareth seems to have escaped any such censure so it's curious that not only did the filmmakers think the way to stay on the right side of this ruling was to use the plot but not the title, but that they also got away with it.

    Correlli's novel was "a spectacular commercial success" in its own day, being "published in fifty-four editions...and...translated into over forty languages".2, so it's not not unlikely that it influenced Pär Lagerkvist when he wrote his 1950 novel "Barabbas" and perhaps the similarity stems from there. However neither Burnette-Bletsch nor Larry Kreitzer3, who writes about Fleischer's adaptation of Lagerkvist's novel, mention the link. Curiously though Kreitzer does discuss a more recent work on Barabbas, Gerd Thiessen's piece of narrative exegesis "The Shadow of the Galilean".4

    Given the ready made audience for this film, then, it's perhaps not surprising that Shadow of Nazareth performed fairly well. It was slated by many critics, and there is a certain self-seriousness about it, but whilst the film didn't make the link to the novel explicit, its fans nevertheless appear to have turned out to see the film version. There are a couple of nice shots, notably the one captured above which works far better as a moving shot than as a still, though several compound bad composition with over zealous cropping. There are also a few bits of symbolism and imagery, most notably the cross shaped twig that a repentant Judith finds in the garden where Judas has hanged himself, and of a cross symbol being imposed at the front of one shot. This was three years before Griffith would do something similar in Intolerance.

    It could I suppose, be argued that, like this film, Griffith's film's comparatively short treatment of his Jerusalem story is another example of Jesus as a minor principal. Not dissimilar in this respect was L'Aveugle de Jérusalem four years before in 1909. Yet in the modern era there have been very few such films. Perhaps the closest is this year's Risen though there Jesus becomes more and more central as the film progresses, not unlike The Third Man's Harry Lime.

    It's hard to escape the feeling that the disappearance of this cinema of the religious middle ground is the result of market economics coming more to the fore as producers became more sure footed in their understanding of different audiences, perhaps particularly in the context of evolving secularisation and a growing polarisation between those of faith and those without. Over time audiences have separated out into a segment of practising Christians who want to watch filmmakers adapt the Bible, and the rest of society, or at least the portion who want to just enjoy the spectacle and excess of the epic genre without the pluses and minuses that religion brings with it. Films like Risen are perhaps an attempt to build a bridge between the two groups: it's failure at the box office suggests that much has changed since 1913.

    Whilst the entire film is not currently available outside of film archives, the first reel is available to view at archive.org

    1 - Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda. "The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016). p.132-157
    2 - Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda. The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016). p.140
    3 - Kreitzer, Larry J., "The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow." (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). p.67-87
    4 - Thiessen, Gerd. "The Shadow of the Galilean" (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987) and subsequent reprints.

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    Wednesday, August 03, 2016

    Slaves of Babylon (1953)

    Despite having been the subject of some of the very earliest Bible films, the various stories from the Book of Daniel rather fell from favour, to the extent that Slaves of Babylon is the only feature length take on one of the Israel's most iconic prophets (barring a handful of operas and musicals). Even on this occasion the filmmakers didn't take a huge amount of interest in the biblical subject matter and instead shift the focus to a fictional character called Nahum (Richard Conte). Nahum is one of the more rebellious Jewish slaves in post-exilic Babylon and so, after a couple of early skirmishes with the Babylonian authorities, Daniel sends to convey God's message to Cyrus (Terry Kilburn).

    By this stage Daniel (Jewish actor Maurice Schwartz who would also feature in Salome in the same year) is now getting on in years and perhaps, given the filmmakers were clearly happy to use creative licence with the text, it might have been better to have been more relaxed on this point and create an all round action hero than to introduce a whole new character who inevitably steals the show. Nahum's mission is to find Cyrus who at this point is still just a shepherd, convince him of his divine mandate, teach him in the art of becoming a king, manage his campaign to make him and lead his attack on Babylon.

    Various obstacles stand in Cyrus's way, not least and attempted assassination at the hands of a exotic dancer played by future Catwoman Julie Newmar who uses her feline charms to attempt to take Cyrus' life. It's a plan that not even Newmar's most famous role would have dared to pull off and is thwarted by the ever alert Nahum. Cyrus does seem to have an eye for the ladies though and his obsession with Linda Christian's princess does rather distract him from the task at hand.

    Interspersed with this main plot are various stories from the early part of the Book of Daniel, his night, unharmed in the lion's den; Nebuchadnezzar's madness resulting in him eating grass; and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego being saved from the flames of the furnace. And of course there's the pivotal moment where Belshazzar's feast is interrupted by a giant hand writing "Mene, mene, tekel upharsin" on the walls of the banquet hall to prophesy his downfall. The special effects leave something to be desired - this latter scene relying on broadly the same technique (projection) as Pathé's Le Festin de Balthazar from 1905).

    One of the episodes from the Book of Daniel that the film does leave out is the story about how Daniel and his colleagues choose not to eat the Babylonian's food, opting instead for a diet based largely on vegetables. It's not a story rich in dramatic potential, but it does really set Daniel and his friends apart from modern Christians. The film's costume design does place a very prominent Star of David across Daniel's chest, but otherwise Daniel is not particularly Jewish (as opposed to proto-Christian). But then also missing is the incident where Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a statue and none of his advisers can decipher it. None, that is, except, Daniel. It's perhaps not surprising that the second half of the Book of Daniel - the apocalyptic part - is absent, but this first omission does rather strip him of the gift that caused him to rise to prominence in the first place - the gift of interpreting dreams.

    Whilst Slaves of Babylon was the product of a major studio (Columbia) it's fairly low budget and it shows. None of the male stars have any charisma, though Christian and Newmar do make up for the deficit to some extent, and whilst the plot adds a little excitement and allows a more tangential exploration of the story, it ends up compressing both stories so much that neither retains that much interest.

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    Thursday, July 28, 2016

    The Canon in the Early Sound Era

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.

    The start of the sound era was a time of great development and innovation, but it saw a severe drop off in the production of Bible films. The early silent era had seen around six and a half Hebrew Bible films being made a year - albeit mainly short films. This dropped in the second half of the silent era to around four and a half films per year. But between 1930 and 1948 this dropped to just one. In the entire period only nineteen films based on the Old Testament (and around six films based on the Gospels) were made and none of these were major releases by the main studios.

    It can be argued, of course, that the cut off point chosen for the end of this era skews the data somewhat. After all this period is artificially constructed and the end point was chosen as the year before DeMille's big studio mega hit Samson and Delilah (1949). But something about the release of that film feels so different from the films made in this period, and from that point on, the rate of production of Bible films picked up significantly.

    Why might this large drop off in production occurred. Well firstly the financial circumstances during this period were very challenging. The film industry in Europe had not really covered from the First World War. The start of the thirties witnessed the Great Depression in America and similar economic troubles in much of Europe, and then came the Second World War with all its problems. Film production went down across the board, but large-scale, spectacular films like adaptions of the Bible tended to be were doubly problematic.

    The other restriction that really choked the flow of films based on the Bible in this era was America's production code and similar types of censorship in other countries. Amongst the restrictions were bans on showing the face of Jesus - little wonder then that the majority of Jesus films made during this era came from Mexico. It is also possible that the climate at the time was such that depicting other major biblical figures was also frowned upon.

    The most well-known Jesus film of this era, which is still relatively obscure is Julien Duvivier's 1935 film Golgotha (Behold the Man). However as David J. Shepherd points out Duvivier's Jesus is still fairly silent despite the fact that, by then, the voice cinematic Jesus should have been liberated.1

    A quick look at the titles made during this era is also instructive - even the films that were made were far from mainstream. There were, of course, a few remakes [Joseph and His Brethren (1930), Joseph in the land of Egypt (1932), Samson (1936)] a few of the old favourite stories sneaking through [Queen Esther (1948), Potiphar's Wife (1930)] but the other films are markedly different from what we tend to think of as Bible films today.

    The Italian film The Ten Commandments (1945) featured ten stories illustrating each of the commandments.2. On a similar theme Forgotten Comandments (1932) recycled most of its Moses content from DeMille's 1923 film. Lot in Sodom (1933) was an experimental/avant garde film. Father Noah's Ark  (1933) was animated. Good Morning, Eve! (1934), featured songs as did The Eternal Jew (1933), which featured a rabbi telling the story of Abraham to some children.3

    Not dissimilar in this respect is The Green Pastures (1936) which rather than attempting to depict the various events as they may have occurred portrays them as imagined by children. The film is perhaps the most well known Old Testament film of the era so it's interesting that it takes an alternative approach to canonicity, often with an emphasis on oral transmission rather than text. In particular is the episode featuring an unspecified prophet. The prophet is a composite of various characters from the Bible. His existence as a type deemed more importance than his particular character and correspondence with a particular person. More interestingly, given that these are events reconstructed from children's minds, is the possibility that the prophet's name is unknown because the child/children in question do not have the same degree of familiarity with the later parts of the Old Testament canon than they are with the earlier parts.

    Incidentally whilst composing this post I've heard word that the 1948 Queen Esther film is due to be released on DVD in the run up to this Christmas by the Cathedral Films Preservation Project. More on that in due course.

    1 - Shepherd, David J "Final Reflections, Silence and Spectacle: the Cinematic Jesus from Kirchner to Duvivier" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. p.276
    2 - Alan Gevinson "Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960" p.318
    3 - C. Celli, M. Cottino-Jones, "A New Guide to Italian Cinema" p.50


    Tuesday, July 26, 2016

    Blade Af Satans Bog (1921)

    Carl Theodor Dreyer is rightly revered as a filmmaker of some repute, whose bold and uncompromising films, such as Ordet (1954) and La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) offer and austere, yet beautiful, exploration of human passions kept in check.

    Sadly there's only a little evidence of the Dreyer's impressive future in Blad Af Satans Bog [Leaves from Satan's Book] (1921) an unexciting rip off of Intolerance (Griffith, 1916). Four stories from different historical periods illustrate an oddly complicated punishment regime that the Lord has meted out on Satan where he must tempt humanity even though it pushes him further and further from grace.

    Whilst it's the first period - set just prior to Jesus' death - that is of most interest here, surprisingly it's the obscure love story from the margins of the First World War that proves to be the decisive moment in the relationship between God, Satan and humanity. Perhaps Dreyer would come to rue his optimism here that in the Great War humanity had reached its lowest point and was, at last, beginning an upward trajectory.

    Certainly Dreyer wished to revisit his handling of the Jesus material. Much has been written of Dreyer's attempts in later years to make a film called Jesus of Nazareth that would cast a Jewish actor as the Son of Man and presumably attempt to undo some of the more worrisome anti-Semitic aspects of his original adaption of the Gospels.

    Common to all four stories is Satan taking on human form and seeking to influence those around him to betray their souls. Yet whilst Satan has some success influencing the persecution of an inquisition-era Spanish astrologer and the execution of Marie Antoinette it's in the first section where is able to not only trick Judas, but also to persuade Caiaphas to incite a riot. As with so many Jesus films of this era the Jewish people are portrayed as wizened and grasping in contrast to the noble-looking Romans.

    That said, one of the film's most surprising turns is that the episode truncates before Jesus ever encounters Pilate, shortly after Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane. Indeed only three episodes from the gospels feature - the anointing at the house of Simon the Leper, the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsemane. The focus here is far more on Judas and his emotions than on his master. The film opens with Jesus being anointed and Judas is clearly disappointed with the path Jesus is taking. Satan appears and sympathises with his disillusionment eventually lulling Judas into his trap and leaving him at the moment his remorse begins to hit home (though notably before he takes his own life).

    The footage of Jesus, however, is more distant and remote. Jesus is often shot from low down and close to the top of the frame. He is constantly peering upwards as if through his brow. The scene of the Last Supper is visually striking, but also rather stiff and unimaginative. If by the end of the section Judas is disappointed with the course events have taken is hard to understand what it was that compelled him to follow Jesus in the first place.

    In making his Jesus story the only episode of the four that doesn't revolve around a traditional love story Dreyer also imitates Intolerance, but in contrast to Griffith, Dreyer does actually develop his Judean story and offer a subtler, more nuanced portrait of events. There are some notable touches of his future work here as well, not least the number of and prolonged use of close-ups. In particular the close ups of the woman anointing of Jesus, hints at Dreyer's use of extreme and lengthy close-ups of the face of Maria Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. That the later film was just seven years away is surprising - in terms of the development of Dreyer's style it somehow seems far longer.

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    Wednesday, July 20, 2016

    The Canon in the Late Silent Era

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.

    The latter part of the silent era saw a distinct change from cinema's early days . Perhaps the most significant change was that films gradually moved from short films - originally less than a minute - to epics of three hours long. By the end of the silent era very few films, relatively speaking, were being made that were less than feature length and the available resources were concentrated on a lower number of longer films, the era became more professional and standardised.

    Bible films in this era were no different. The rate of production of films based on the Hebrew Bible, for example dropped from around 6.5 per year prior to the release of Intolerance to 4.5 per year thereafter. There was also a little less diversity. Many of the characters that appeared in the early silent era did not reappear in the latter period - the stories of Athalia, Jael, Ruth, Elisha, Micah, Joshua and Daniel were just some of those that were not remade and overall the range of stories dropped by about a quarter.

    At the same time new episodes did get their first airings. In 1918 the German film Hiob became the first film to tell the story of Job. Four years later another German film, Jeremias (1922) broke new ground with the first film about Jeremiah whilst neighbouring Austria saw the creation of Sodom und Gomorrha, directed by Mikhaly Kertesz. Shortly afterwards Kertesz escaped to Hollywood, changed his name to Michael Curtiz and went on to direct some of classic-era Hollywood's most famous films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942). One of his first films in America however would be the last "silent" Bible film of note, Noah's Ark (1928) which he directed for Warner. The majority of the film was shot as a silent movie, only for a few extra talking scenes to be added as producers rushed to keep up with the latest technological development.

    The other significant change in terms of production was that whereas the early silent era was typified by a handful of directors such as J. Stuart Blackton, Louis Feuillade and Henri Andréani each of whom made a series of Bible films, here most directors only made one film based on scripture. There are obvious exceptions to this like DeMillie and Curtiz/Kertesz who both made a pair of biblical films (DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927); Curtiz/Kertesz' Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Noah's Ark (1929)), but the era of a few dedicated directors continually ploughing the same furrow was over.

    But other changes were also afoot, firstly character development began to improve. The earliest silents had just presented actors as little more than cinematic nativity figurines, but even by the 1910s even the minor characters were beginning to get developed, 1910's L'Exode, for example, invented and developed the Miller and his family to heartbreaking effect. Intolerance really showcased film's ability to develop a series of characters and get audiences to identify with them even when there were many characters across several stories. This tendency quickly followed in films from the Hebrew Bible and began to gain traction in Jesus movies as well such as Robert Wiene's 1923 I.N.R.I. (Crown of Thorns) where the characters of Judas and Magdalene are also developed.

    This tendency to develop the more fringe characters seems to have lent itself to other films developing the same characters and as a result the scenes in which they were prominent began to embed themselves in the canon. For example, even though the gospels never associate Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery from John 8, conflating the two became a common way to boost Magdalene's involvement with the result that this story has a strong position within the New Testament canon.

    There's one more thing that is significant about this era that I've not yet touched on and that is the emergence of the big stories that would embed themselves as a key part of the filmic canon from this point onwards. My comments above touch on the breadth of films that were made during this period, but the height of the different films is also significant. It was, after all, in this era that we began to see the emergence of the big Bible film - those films that involved a significant investment and provided the necessary spectacle that would come to be synonymous with the genre.

    When we look at some of the "biggest" Bible films of the era, and their corresponding stories certain things begin to emerge:

    Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) - Lot
    Samson und Delilah (1922, pictured) - Samson
    The Shepherd King (1923) - David
    The Ten Commandments (1923) - Moses
    The King of Kings (1923) - Jesus
    Noah's Ark (1929) - Noah

    There are two points to note here. Firstly, that all of these films would get a big screen Hollywood remake of sorts in the period between 1949 and 1969. In four cases they used the exact title. The most tenuous claim here is the story of Noah which formed a/the key component of Huston's The Bible (1966). The point could also be made that five of the six stories have also received relatively recent big screen Hollywood adaptations, albeit with a divergence of styles (The Prince of Egypt and Year One for example).

    The other point is the flipside of this, that what might be thought of as important stories which didn't get a major adaption during this era (e.g. Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, Joshua, Gideon, Daniel, Judith) tended to be those that have lacked a subsequent big screen Hollywood adaption. There's a certain amount of cherry picking here - Solomon was covered in 1959, Esther in 1960 and Adam and Eve/Abraham were also part of Huston's The Bible, but generally the trend holds out.

    All of which raises the question of why this was. Was it that knowing these films had been successful in the past allowed producers a certain comfort that these were the stories that would do well? Was it that there was a sense of nostalgia that even the filmmakers felt themselves or, at least, felt their audiences would feel? Or was it that these were the stories most suited to the big screen where the elements of size and spectacle and/or miracle are the most apt to be captured in the big "Hollywood" blockbuster?

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    Monday, July 18, 2016

    INRI [Crown of Thorns] (1923)

    Robert Wiene will, rightly, always be best remembered for his 1920 expressionistic classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but by 1923 with his best work already behind him, Wiene turned his attention to the subject of Jesus. The result was INRI, released in some countries as Crown of Thorns which, whilst not the classic of three years previously, still maintained some interesting shots and the occasional set that wouldn't look out of place in Caligari's tortured imagination. The film was also somewhat innovative for the Jesus in film genre as it was one of the earliest to develop some of the other characters in the story, most notably Judas.

    Sadly no complete copy of this film has survived, and the two prints that do exist contain significantly different material from one another. Reinhold Zwick has penned an excellent essay on INRI and Der Galiläer (1921) in "The Silents of Jesus" (Shepherd, ed.) that includes an appendix detailing the different scenes in each of the two prints. Whilst these prints remain in their archives, a substantial proportion of the one held in the Bundesarchiv/Filmarchiv (Berlin) has found its way onto YouTube. Its subtitles are in Czech and its time-stamp enables you to see where bits of the original have been chopped and there's at least one place where the original footage has been slowed down during their transition to YouTube. Nevertheless, it's this "popular" version that I'll discuss in the remainder of this piece.

    One of the things that's most memorable about both this film and Der Galiläer (1921), at least amongst Bible films, is their use of a sepia tint throughout. Other films had filtered entire scenes before but these two German films, which despite the difference in their given dates were actually circulating in far closer proximity to one another, were the first to use a consistent tint throughout. Here it gives the film the feel of night time, even during the scenes that are set during the day, and evokes some of that Caligari-esque feel. 

    This is further enhanced by the black vignette which softens the edge of the screen giving the impression that we are only seeing part of the action, that the scene exists beyond the edges of the frame. It makes the film seem more naturalistic as does the generally limited use of special effects and the use of light and particularly shadow.

    That said, neither of those points apply to the film's opening scene - a formalised nativity where the stables two walls and a pointed roof fit cleanly and evenly within the frame. After a while a double exposure reveals the star and a host of angels sitting on the roof. Whilst technically the shot is more complicated and executed more professionally than those from the 1905 Life and Passion of Jesus Christ the effect feels very much the same and clearly required the sort of static framing that so typified the very earliest Jesus films.

    However, visually this film owes more to Kalem's From the Manger to the Cross (1912) than it does to the early Pathé films. This becomes particularly apprent in the next scene of the boy Jesus in the temple. The scene is longer here than in the Kalem's film but the appearance of the child actor is incredibly similar as is some of the framing. There's a great high shot in there as well as the previously cosy scene of Jesus talking with the elders is suddenly disrupted by the frantic appearance of Jesus' mother. It quite literally gives a new angle on the cosy scene.

    Perhaps the moment that is most reminiscent of From the Manger is the scene from the house of Mary and Martha. Here we also have a Mary figure who sits cross legged at Jesus' feet. Whilst in the original Jesus faces just away from the camera, here he is facing sideways, but Mary's angle is practically identical and in both scenes she is dressed in black with a black sheet masking her hair and smiling serenely as she listens to Jesus, teaching.

    This is quite a major scene, starting with establishing shots which show a considerable crowd amassing before the shots inside which cover a number of incidents. There are a number if impressively large crowd scenes, even if they are where the a Youtube version most distorts.

    The most notable use of an establishing shot is at the start of the scene where Jesus welcomes the little children which starts when a young girl approaches him as he sits teaching Mary and the rest if the crowd. What's really surprising is a couple of shots of real intimacy. The first comes Jesus caresses the back of the child's neck, pulls her close and even rests his head against hers. Later he tenderly touches the head of another child.

    An even more strikingly intimate moment follows in the scene where a woman enters the frame to anoint Jesus's feet. As the woman slowly approaches Jesus Wiene places the vessel containing the nard in such a position that it draws the eye, even before she has approached Jesus. The action is filmed in close up with a surprising intimacy as the woman first stroke the perfume onto Jesus's feet and then wipes it away with her hair. I'm struggling to remember a film that actually shows both the use of a perfume to wash Jesus' feet and the use of the woman's hair to wipe away the dust/perfume mix. The scene is long and drawn out and perhaps given extra affection by the fact that the actress playing Magdalene and the actor playing Jesus were lovers at the time. (Zwick, p.219)

    The scenes of Jesus ministering are intercut with footage of Pontius Pilate in his house. Pilate is played by Werner Krauss who played the titular Dr Caligari in Wiene's famous film. There's arguably a certain amount of typecasting there, but here Krauss largely plays it straight. His Pilate is the, sadly typical, rational European, who is left somewhat bewildered by the fury felt towards Jesus by the Jewish leaders and their mob. Whilst INRI isn't quite as anti-Semitic as Der Galiläer (1921) it does resort to the same old stereotypes - refined, noble Romans vs irrationally seething, unphotogenic, gaudily-dressed Jews.

    This gulf between the two portrayals is heightened by Wiene's decision to do strange things with his actors' eyes. In some cases it's just make up. Zwick (p.222) talks about how Jesus and Magdalene's eyes "are painted with dark shadows". But in other places characters give wide-eyed stares and at one point Jesus even goes cross-eyed. Zwick (p.222) sees some of this as a drawing "heavily upon the traditional tormented Christ of Gothic art".

    Sadly this doesn't always work as well as, presumably, Wiene intended, and the later scenes lack the impact of some of the earlier ones. Nevertheless, it's an interesting approach and as a whole  it means that the film feels rather different from other Jesus films, both from this era, and the genre as a whole. Whilst it lacks the brilliance of Wiene's Caligari it is nevertheless and interesting film visually with a few striking and indeed memorable images.

    References to Zwick are taken from:
    Zwick, Reinhold, "Der Galiläer (Express-Film, 1921) and I.N.R.I (Neumann-Film, 1923): The Silence of Jesus in the German Cinema" in Shepherd, David J., (ed.) "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)", Abingdon: Routledge 2016