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.