U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Focus on…the Biblical Epic

On various occasions in the past, the USIH Blog has spent a week exploring a theme. Most recently, last month, we focused on Kenneth Burke and his book Attitudes Toward History. In the past, as part of the For the Love of Film film preservation blogathon, we’ve devoted weeks to film noir and to Alfred Hitchcock. For a little over a year, we’ve kicked around the idea of making these events more regular. This week we’re starting to do so.

Every other month, we’re going to have a week that focuses on film, a book (or books), or some other theme. Because it’s hard to find a theme that every one of our bloggers is moved to blog about, participation in these events is always optional. So if a theme doesn’t interest you, don’t stop reading for the week. There will almost always be other content going up as well. And in the future, when we announce the topics in advance, we hope that some of you will offer guest posts on it. See the end of this post for our plans for February and April.

This week we’re going to have the first such blogging event. We’ll be focusing on one of the oldest, most successful, and occasionally most reviled of movie genres: the biblical epic. We’ve been inspired by the seeming rebirth of the biblical epic this year, which began with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah last spring and is concluding with the release of Exodus: Gods and Kings on Friday. On Wednesday, Andrew Hartman will be blogging about Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ as an anti-biblical epic. On Friday, Andy Seal will be blogging about Leon Uris’s Exodus (1958) and the 1960 Otto Preminger / Dalton Trumbo film adaptation in relation to other 1950s and ’60s films about the Mediterranean and to the biblical story of Exodus. And on Saturday, L.D. Burnett will be discussing the latest biblical epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings. Follow me below the fold for a few thoughts on biblical epics and why they might be of interest to U.S. intellectual historians.

Biblical epics are one of the oldest of cinematic genres, going back to the very first decade of motion pictures at the turn of the twentieth century. The Bible had much to recommend itself as a source for films. It was familiar, so that the audience could be counted on to know the story. Though this was especially helpful when filmmakers contended with the more limited narrative resources of very early cinema, Bible films remained (and remain) the ultimate in “pre-sold” properties. The material was all in the public domain. The supernatural elements of many Biblical tales played into some of the strengths of cinema.

And in various moments in cinematic history when audiences went to the theater in large part to witness spectacles, the Bible provided great material for them. While this was certainly the case in first few decades of film it has become so at various times more recently, as cinema has had to compete against television and other kinds of motion picture entertainments. The 1953 film The Robe was the first movie presented in the ultra-widescreen format CinemaScope, one of many technologies of the post-war era designed to compete with tv. And more recently, Biblical epics have joined other large-scale, action genres as ways to convince audience not to wait to stream the film at home, but to come to the theatre and view it in a larger format.

Because of their seemingly unimpeachably moral nature, the Biblical epics also became an early workaround for filmmakers who wanted to sprinkle their movies with sin while parrying the criticism – and potential censorship – of social reformers. Of course, the Bible is full of sin. One of the most famous nude scenes in “pre-Code” Hollywood, for example, occurs in Cecile B. deMille’s Sign of the Cross (1932), when the evil Empress Poppeia (Claudette Colbert) bathes in a pool of asses’ milk.

Over the years, the Biblical epic has simultaneously embodied a kind of respectability and a kind of kitsch (and even, on occasion, camp). While Biblical epics have the potential to appeal to a very wide array of audiences, that broad appeal creates many challenges. As recent USIH guestblogger Ed Blum told NPR last spring, the fact that some people care so much about these stories – and that different potential audiences care in different ways – can create problems:

The biblical literalist wants, “Oh, hey, does this match up with Genesis? Does this match up with Exodus?” while the more liberal modernist may want the more artistic spirit of the story but you also have another group. You have those who vigorously dislike the bible stories. And so how do you get those three groups to like the same thing?

Despite these challenges, and a history of fading in and out of fashion, biblical epics are once again very big business. While Aronofsky’s Noah received generally positive, if not glowing, reviews, it was an enormous box office success, grossing $101,200,044 in North America and $258,000,000 in other countries.   Those numbers, of course, suggest the enormous international popularity of this genre.

So what to the U.S. intellectual historian is the Biblical epic? First, the films themselves and their reception provide interesting windows into popular religion and religious anxieties. Second, they are a fascinatingly intensive site for Hollywood’s frequent – and contradictory – desire to provide both “pure entertainment” (As the famous quip falsely attributed to Samuel Goldwyn goes, “If you have a message, call Western Union”) and moral uplift.

Because of the high stakes – in cost and meaning – and competing notions of authenticity, Biblical epics are also frequently at the center of a variety of social controversies. This years crop of films, for example, has renewed the old criticism that, with their heroes overwhelmingly portrayed by white actors, Hollywood’s biblical epics are deeply racist. Aronofsky was criticized for his all-white cast. And Ridley Scott, director of the forthcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings, has fallen under still harsher criticism, as Exodus includes many black actors, but they are all playing slaves and villains. After months of silence, Scott attempted to defend his casting decisions and made matters considerably worse. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” the director told Variety. Rupert Murdoch, who owns 20th Century Fox which is distributing the film, joined in the fun on Twitter.

Even shorn of the offensive statements, Scott’s defense has been called into question: Joel Edgerton, who co-stars as Ramesses, is hardly such a famous name that he could have been integral to the financing of the project.

These are just some of the reasons why I think biblical epics will make for an interesting series of posts this week.

Finally, as promised, I wanted to note our next two upcoming Focus Weeks:

During the week of February 9, 2015, we will be focusing on the work of Saul Bellow, a great novelist who firmly planted himself at the center of many of the battles of the culture wars.

During the week of April 13, 2015, we’ll be focusing on professional societies.


9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This should be fun. After dissing Exodus: Gods and Kings purely on principle before having seen it, I figured the least I could do would be to go and check it out.

    I’m glad you mentioned The Robe above, because I think it belongs to an interesting sub-genre of Biblical epics — what I’d call the “barely Biblical epic,” not because the story does/doesn’t stick to a particular known Biblical narrative, but because the film doesn’t really promise to focus on Biblical events to begin with. The Robe, Quo Vadis?, Ben-Hur, The Silver Chalice — these are movies (all based on historical novels) in which Biblical/historical personages do appear (even if only in brief cameos), but the narrative itself follows the story of a fictional person.

    I think these films (not to mention the novels upon which they’re based) are particularly interesting for the way in which they play with the narrative possibilities of “the apocryphal,” the legendary, the “Biblical world” or “the apostolic age.” Not sure what work is out there on this, but there could be some interesting work (to be) done on the way the novels on which these films are based — especially, for 20th century historians, The Silver Chalice (Thomas B. Costain, 1952) and The Robe (Lloyd C. Douglas, 1942) — both rely upon and re-invent “apostolic tradition.” All of Costain’s other works, whether works of “fiction” or works of “history,” happily blurred the line between those two genres. On the other hand, Douglas, an ordained minister and a Christian novelist, was more interested in the line between the fictional and the faithful (that is, the creedal/confessional). When you turn those two novels into films, you get (loose) adaptations of (mostly invented) apocryphal traditions, which raises interesting issues about fidelity to “the original” — whatever that is.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to what comes out of this week. Hope our readers have as much fun as we do!

  2. This will be a fantastic series. I can’t wait to read it. Frankly I’m not sure if I’ll be able to contribute anything Sunday–which is unfortunate, because it IS Sunday! But in all seriousness, this is a wonderful line-up!

  3. I thought Daniel Rodgers had an interesting observation in his Age of Fracture about Christian dispensationalists and their time-compressing scenarios. As Rodgers phrased it, their “notions of short-circuiting time: for making not only the past but the future immediately accessible to the present” (231).

    With the magic of technology nowadays, I’ve been expecting a slew of filmmakers to tackle such weighty topics as the beginning stages of the universe, the formation of the heavy elements and planets, etc. Some that come to mind seem few and far between. I remember Disney’s Fantasia doing something with volcanoes, but when I think of Hollywood’s technical ability to (potentially) mediate between evolutionist/creationist debates by drumming up a Gesamtkunstwerk on deep time, I’m a little mystified as to why more has not been done in this area. Too much backlash, maybe (no chance of funding)?

    The new Cosmos series on PBS has taken advantage of this route, but of recent endeavors, I only remember Terence Malik’s Tree of Life , the creation scene from Noah, and Scott’s other recent film, Prometheus.

    Are there any films I’m missing that have “given it their best shot”?

  4. So no one’s getting in the Cage with the latest LEFT BEHIND production? Aren’t end-times movies like Left Behind, Omega Code, and Thief in the Night the new biblical epics?

      • HOW AM I NOT IN THIS BLOG SERIES!?! (ok, no more SNL references). Maybe in the future–grading final exams and son’s birthday this week.

    • Don’t forget National Treasure–National Treasure is a biblical epic of American civil religion.

      • Crap, Andy, you’re right. I was going to write about the Miracle, but as the one obsessed with civil religion…
        Are we, though, stretching the biblical a bit with its application to the national religion?

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