And God Said, Let Hollywood Make Biblical Epics

From the parting of the Red Sea to deadly Roman chariot races and even those apes in Kubrick’s 'Space Odyssey,’ the Bible continues to inspire filmmakers.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
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The original - scene from 1959 'Ben-Hur' with Stephen Boyd (left) and Charleton Heston.
The original - scene from 1959 'Ben-Hur' with Stephen Boyd (left) and Charleton Heston.Credit: Courtesy
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

With the release of “Noah” and Ridley Scott’s forthcoming “Exodus,” we may be witnessing a new cycle of biblical epics.

The Bible has been particularly big in the 1920s, the ‘50s and during the new millennium. Each cycle has showcased new technology — cinema itself, widescreen, color, sound, computer-generated imagery — and the sociopolitical angst of the day. Drawing on the hundred years of Bible-inspired movies, here’s a crack at the top seven — a biblical number in itself — in chronological order.

1. The Ten Commandments (1956)

Cecil B. De Mille expanded his 1923 prototype into an epic of biblical proportions. The two-strip black and white was transformed into glorious three-strip Technicolor, not to mention the stereophonic sound. The rudimentary special effects of the ‘20s (the parting of the Red Sea was achieved using Jell-O) were vastly upgraded. The 35mm was magnified to 70mm widescreen VistaVision. Only in the ‘50s did De Mille possess the technology and vast financial resources — the $12 million budget set a record for the time — to bring the Bible to life.

2. Ben-Hur (1959)

While not strictly based on the Bible, William Wyler’s 1959 movie set in first-century Jerusalem pits a Jew against a Roman — and the Jew wins! Charlton Heston reprises his Moses role as the eponymous hero, Judah Ben-Hur. After being wrongly convicted and imprisoned on a slave galley by his childhood friend-cum-enemy Messala (Stephen Boyd), Ben-Hur escapes and is adopted by the wealthy Roman captain he saves from drowning to become a charioteer champion. Defeating Messala in the arena, Ben-Hur provides a tough Jewish role model.

3. Spartacus (1960)

Okay, so “Spartacus” is based on real events set in Rome rather than the Bible. But in the hands of Kirk Douglas, Stanley Kubrick, and Dalton Trumbo, who also scripted “Exodus,” this flick provides a close retelling of the Passover story. Gutted that he didn’t get to the play the Jewish lead in Ben-Hur (he was offered the role of Messala), Douglas took on this Moses-type role instead.

In “Spartacus,” a rabble of slaves are led to the sea, and hence to freedom, by a strong leader and his assistant (played by the Jewish actors Douglas and Tony Curtis, respectively). The landscape of Italy (in reality shot in Spain) is clearly desert-like, reinforcing the parallels. In so doing, Douglas/Kubrick also drop in various Holocaust references.

4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Although Stanley Kubrick was a self-declared atheist, this sci-fi epic is his most religious film and is clearly influenced by the Bible. Its opening, as it moves from darkness to light, resembles Creation itself.

Its first section, “The Dawn of Man,” mimics the story of the eating of the apple at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The first murder — that of Abel by Cain — is replayed as one ape kills another with a bone (hinting at the Samson story). The scattered dry bones on the landscape hint at Ezekiel. And if you’re still not convinced, Kubrick smashes a glass at the very end of the movie to remind us that, after all, he was still a good Jewish boy.

5. The Prince of Egypt (1998)

Steven Spielberg was executive producer for this animated retelling of the Exodus produced by DreamWorks. True to Hollywood form, the Egyptians are played by British actors (Ralph Fiennes, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart) while Americans voice the Hebrews. Val Kilmer plays Moses and God. But unlike “The Ten Commandments,” “The Prince of Egypt” takes a few more liberties and doesn’t stick to the literalism of its 1956 predecessor. Although supposedly aimed at children, it’s enjoyable for adults too, and even has a special tie-in Haggadah.

6. The Passion of the Christ (2004)

“The Passion of the Christ” is controversial, arguably anti-Semitic, and fictitious in places. But an overlooked aspect is how Mel Gibson used the film to influence the red states in the lead-up to the 2004 election. Gibson produced a “torture porn” movie in the mode of Eli Roth’s “Hostel” (2004) that reflected on the “war on terror.” It also contained a veiled anti-death-penalty homily for the very viewers who backed capital punishment. In any case, it possibly helped George W. Bush get reelected.

7. WALL-E (2008)

For a film about the Flood, it’s a close call between “WALL-E” (2008) and “Evan Almighty “(2007). In “Evan,” Steve Carell plays the Noah figure and Morgan Freeman is God telling him to build an ark.

But WALL-E wins out for its futuristic earth laid waste by pollution and overconsumption. Humans, who can no longer live on Earth, are doomed to waiting on an ark piloted by Jeff Garlin (Jeff Greene from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). Our eponymous hero, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Lift Loader, Earth-Class) falls in love with EVE, a white robot female sent to discover the first sign of any plant growth. WALL-E is a clever, animated parable that, like “The Prince of Egypt,” works on many levels.

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