Most commercially successful biblical epics have been films based on the Old Testament. Such “swords and sandals” films tend to attract viewers because the Old Testament is full of stories well suited to the big screen. Hollywood likes its unambiguously good-versus-evil narratives, particularly when they include sword battles and swarms of locusts.
So Ridley Scott’s new film Exodus: Gods and Kings, in theaters nationwide this Friday, is bound to fill theaters. Even a few early negative reviews shouldn’t dissuade viewers eager to see Christian Bale as (White) Moses, whom Bale describes as “schizophrenic” and “one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.” Scott Mendelson of Forbes writes: “Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is a terrible film.” And Alonso Duralde of The Wrap pans: “If you’re going into Exodus: Gods and Kings thinking that director Ridley Scott is going to give the Moses story anything we didn’t already get from Cecil B. DeMille in two versions of The Ten Commandments, prepare to be disappointed.”
But surely these Debbie Downers can’t compete for attention with a trailer like this:
Whoa! Manly manliness!
Speaking of manly manliness, I suspect gender normativity is a key factor as to why the Old Testament has typically worked better than the New Testament on the big screen. It is more difficult to portray Jesus as a normative male. He is a caregiver. He is celibate. He is anti-moneychanger. Red-blooded American men are none of these things. Mel Gibson worked overtime to make the Jesus of his bloodthirsty 2004 film The Passion of the Christ a manly man through extreme sacrifice. As Rhonda Hammer and Douglas Kellner write:
The representation of the strong and stoic Jesus, manly enough to be beaten to a pulp with nary a whimper, is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Westerns” and his own 1973 film High Plains Drifter. The ultramacho bearer of unimaginable violence and torture is also evocative of the Rambo figure and many of Mel Gibson’s previous action adventure heroes, such as the stalwart Braveheart (1995) in which Gibson’s William Wallace character is virtually crucified at the end of the film, or any number of other Gibson figures in films like Ransom, Payback, or The Patriot, who are badly beaten, but ultimately redeemed.
In contrast, Martin Scorsese’s interpretation of Jesus, as played by Willem Dafoe in the controversial 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, seems much less capable of taking a beating or making other manly sacrifices. Scorsese’s Jesus is a gender freak, at least by the standards of the biblical epic, not to mention by the standards of American manhood. Scorsese’s Jesus often seems weak-willed. This is why a stronger, manlier Judas—played by the nothing-if-not manly Harvey Keitel—is the hero of the film. Judas whips Jesus into shape, keeps him on his mission, and scolds him into making the ultimate sacrifice. Conservative media activist Donald Wildmon accused Scorsese of making a film that “portrays the Lord Jesus Christ as a liar, a fornicator and a weak, confused, fearful individual unsure of who he is.” In this way critics of the film made even Jesus’s heterosexual desires seem effeminate.
So although Scorsese’s portrayal of Jesus as a sex-starved, well, man was the main focus of right-wing criticism—William Buckley complained that Scorsese gave “us a Christ whose mind is distracted by lechery, fancying himself not the celibate of history, but the swinger in the arms of the prostitute Mary Magdalene” * —the fact that Jesus did not easily overcome such sexual temptations made him seem like less of a man. And this is part of why The Last Temptation generated such widespread cognitive dissonance: it disrupted the gender norms that help define the biblical epic genre. In this way and a whole lot more, it is the quintessential biblical anti-epic.
* The way the film emphasized Jesus’s human side did not track with longstanding traditional and conservative readings of the Bible, and is why it largely angered the Christian Right, making it and its reception one of the landmarks of the culture wars. For more details on the controversy, you’ll have to wait and read my book—which will be out in April, hallelujah! Or for the impatient among you, read Thomas Lindlof’s superb and thorough book, Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars, which has been my most important source for understanding The Last Temptation as a culture wars phenomenon.