Yea verily, Darren Aronofsky hath begat a cinematic flood with this weekend’s Noah, which brings the Old Testament shipbuilder (looking a lot like Russell Crowe) to the big screen for a couple hours’ worth of heavenly wrath, CGI fauna, and lots and lots of water. Noah‘s arrival signals the return of the old-fashioned Biblical epic, a type of movie that’s been mostly absent from theaters in recent decades, but whose unique blend of incredible scenery and high-stakes drama once ruled the box office — and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a fond look back at some of the most notable entries from the genre. Repent, because it’s time for Total Recall!
MGM billed it as “The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime!,” and for once, a studio’s hubris was fairly well-founded: Ben-Hur not only improved upon the 1925 silent film that it remade, it did right by the 1880 Lew Wallace novel that inspired them both. Starring Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, it finds director William Wyler stuffing 212 minutes with a booming blend of Biblical imagery (including the Sermon on the Mount and the crucifixion of Jesus) and indelible action sequences (including the most famous chariot race in Hollywood history) — a potent mix that crushed all box office competitors during 1959, saving MGM from financial ruin and landing behind only Gone with the Wind on the list of the era’s all-time blockbusters. “It’s very much of its time, overblown and overlong,” admitted Film4’s Daniel Etherington, “but Ben-Hur is rightfully lodged at the forefront of Hollywood history.”
With Arizona standing in for the Holy Land and Gregory Peck making for a suitably noble King David, director Henry King (working from a screenplay by Philip Dunne) turned to the Book of Samuel for inspiration and emerged with David and Bathsheba. A stately reminder of the perils of the flesh, it sees Peck’s David falling hard for Bathsheba (Susan Hayward) — even though she’s already married to his soldier Uriah (Kieron Moore). A few sins later, David finds his land withering under a heavenly curse; fortunately for King and producer Darryl F. Zanuck, the movie suffered no such problems, topping the year-end box office grosses and picking up five Oscar nominations. Calling it “A reverential and sometimes majestic treatment of chronicles that have lived three millennia,” the New York Times cheered, “In concerning itself with an ageless romance, David and Bathsheba admirably achieves its goal.”
The flood of Biblical epics that baptized theaters in the 1950s was already starting to dry up by the time Esther and the King arrived in 1960, and this ill-received melodrama failed to do the genre any favors. Produced, directed, and co-written by Raoul Walsh, it’s chiefly memorable for starring a young Joan Collins as Esther (A Summer Place‘s Richard Egan played the King) — as well as being one of the last few films directed by Walsh during a distinguished 50-year career. The filmmaker’s resume didn’t improve Bosley Crowther’s mood while watching Esther and the King; “The best to be said for this chromo,” he later sighed, “is that it drives one more spike into the coffin of these synthetic biblical films.”
In critical and commercial terms, King David was essentially an unmitigated disaster, grossing a little over $5 million against a reported $21 million budget and provoking exasperated writeups from critics like Rich Cline, who sputtered “What were they thinking?,” and the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr, who described it as “stuffed with anonymous, identically bearded faces.” On the other hand, it does give you a chance to see Richard Gere complete his unlikely five-year journey from American Gigolo to Biblical hero. Where else can you do that?
With Rip Torn as Judas and Orson Welles playing narrator, 1961’s King of Kings is worth watching if for no other reason than experiencing the talent assembled by director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause). But this widescreen adaptation of the Gospels holds up fairly well in general, offering a surprisingly humanistic and subtle interpretation of the story, and led by a strong, layered performance from Jeffrey Hunter (widely derided at the time because of his teen-idol background) as Jesus. Nodded an appreciative David Parkinson for Empire, “Jeffrey Hunter is less Savior of the Christian faith and more anti-hero with many very human doubts and concerns.”
Mel Gibson directing a movie about the painful final hours prior to Jesus’ crucifixion? In Aramaic? It isn’t hard to understand why many saw The Passion of the Christ as an enormous folly before it arrived in theaters, but speaking purely in commercial terms, Gibson had the last laugh — his Passion project grossed more than $370 million in the U.S. alone, in spite of largely mixed reviews and widespread concern that Gibson’s unflinching portrayal of Christ’s violent death was driven more by a love for gore than a love of the Lord. But for the devout, it proved a sometimes transcendent experience; as Peter T. Chattaway wrote for Christianity Today, “By giving us the feeling of experiencing Jesus’ thoughts, and by making us privy to his prayers, The Passion draws us toward Christ’s full humanity like no film before.”
While not derived from Biblical verse, Quo Vadis takes place against the backdrop of early Christianity’s problems with the Roman Empire, and it’s certainly epic in scale, with director Mervyn LeRoy taking full advantage of MGM’s muscle to deliver one of the more visually opulent pictures on our list. Centered around the love story between a Christian woman (Deborah Kerr) and her conflicted Roman beau (Robert Taylor), it surrounds its swooning leads with an array of memorable set pieces, including pious converts being fed to lions and an upside-down crucifixion. Did LeRoy really need to take three hours to show it all? Perhaps not. But as Time Magazine argued, “For sheer size, opulence and technical razzle-dazzle, Quo Vadis is the year’s most impressive cinematic sight-seeing spree.”
Recommended chiefly for curious film buffs, Alla Nazimova’s Salome put its star (who also produced) center stage in a deliberately over-the-top adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play loosely inspired by the Bible story about the tiff between Herodias (Rose Dione) and John the Baptist. As you’re probably well aware, things don’t end well for John, and neither did they for Salome: although it’s regarded today as one of the first “art” films made in the U.S. (and available for free streaming via the Internet Archive), it was an expensive, little-seen failure at the time, and periodic revivals have been greeted with equal parts enthusiasm and snark, with the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman once chuckling that the titular temptress’ famous dance amounted to “basically an absurd little gavotte” featuring “a squad of capering dwarfs.”
Remembered as the movie that inspired Sunday Times critic Dilys Powell to snark that the hero (played by Victor Mature) had larger breasts than his leading lady (Hedy Lamarr), Samson and Delilah found Cecil B. DeMille — who really did love his Biblical epics — bringing all of his gaudy DeMille-ness to bear on the tale of the ill-fated tryst between the titular couple, with typically florid results. You’ve seen better special effects (the fake lion Mature had to battle is particularly unfortunate), but woe be unto ye who pass up the opportunity to watch a gaggle of Philistines being whooped by one angry longhair with the jawbone of an ass. Just don’t expect too much; as Film4 lamented, “Most entertainment is gained from watching Mature going through the painful process of emoting, which is rather like watching an overlarge ham hock attempt to break out into a broad grin.”
Sodom and Gomorrah director Robert Aldrich once said, “Every director ought to get one Biblical film out of his system, but there’s not very much that you can do about this sort of picture,” and he essentially proved himself right with this Franco-Italian-American co-production, which proved hugely popular in the U.K. but struggled to lure in audiences in the U.S. Starring Stewart Granger as the good-hearted Lot and Pier Angeli as his sodium-fated bride, it boasted the bloated budget and epic scope of any good Bible movie, but landed with little of the impact; calling it “an obvious but feeble imitation of The Ten Commandments,” the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther dismissed it by calling it “much more concerned with salt-mining than it is with debauchery or lust.”
When you think “Bible movies,” you probably think about Charlton Heston going full Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s winsomely bombastic 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. It’s the Bible movie to end all Bible movies — almost literally, thanks to its three-hour-and-40-minute running time — but if it doesn’t always justify its immense sprawl and sheer over-the-topness, it comes pretty darn close. In fact, it’s become so closely identified with Old Testament fervor that a lot of people probably picture Heston when they think about Moses — and the movie itself is, as Steven D. Greydanus wrote for the Decent Films Guide, “As much a testament and a fixture of traditional American ideals and affections as a courthouse display of the stone tablets, and as weighty and solid.”