The Film of Esther — again

A Hollywood Reporter article on the recent trend of marketing films to Christians includes this surprising tidbit near the end:

Marcos DeMattos, vp at Gener8Xion Entertainment, a new firm which plans to release films that appeal specifically to those audiences, says Christians should be aware of being exploited for studio gain — particularly when Buena Vista also releases considerably more secular adult fare under its Miramax arm. “In Christendom, double-minded endeavors are not well-regarded,” he says.

DeMattos sees his company as the anti-Disney and will release its first film later this year, a biblical epic called “One Night With the King,” starring Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. The film currently lacks a distributor and a firm release date, but the ground seems primed for success: Its potential audience gathers once a week in churches nationwide.

That “new firm” and “first film” talk is a little odd, since Gener8Xion was responsible for the two Omega Code movies — so I wouldn’t expect a high degree of quality here. But as a sucker for biblical epics, and as a big fan of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the film that first combined O’Toole and Sharif, I am definitely intrigued.

According to the IMDB, the film in question is based on the story of Esther, and co-stars John Rhys-Davies as her cousin and mentor Mordecai. Sharif plays Memucan, the Persian noble who advised Ahasuerus (or Xerxes) to divorce his first queen Vashti, while O’Toole plays a prophet named Samuel — either this is a completely non-biblical addition to the story, or there will be a flashback to the execution of the Amalekites at the biblical Samuel’s orders, which might explain why Haman, an Amalekite himself, wanted to kill the Jews some centuries later.

There have been a few movies about Esther before. There was at least one silent film on the subject; Joan Collins and Richard Egan co-starred in Esther and the King (1960); and the Bible Collection included a film about Esther (1999; my review), co-starring F. Murray Abraham as Mordechai and Jürgen Prochnow as Haman. Most interestingly of all, Israeli director Amos Gitai directed a semi-modernized version of the story in 1986 (my comments), which questioned the role the celebration of this story may have played in encouraging Jewish antipathy towards Palestinians.

Incidentally, I note that the IMDB says O’Toole and Sharif have collaborated on four other films since Lawrence: The Night of the Generals (1967), The Rainbow Thief (1990), the TV-movie Gulliver’s Travels (1996) and — get this — an upcoming film called Gilgamesh, based on the ancient Mesopotamian myth! Again, as an ancient mythology buff, I am kind of intrigued by this last film, but I see that it is directed by Roger Christian, whose Masterminds (1997) and Battlefield Earth (2000) were among the worst films I have ever seen. (I don’t remember his 1994 film Nostradamus well enough to say what I thought of it, but I guess it wasn’t as bad as the others, since it didn’t sear itself into my memory as such.)

MAY 12 UPDATE: I just found out that One Night with the King has an official website and a very long trailer, which makes heavy use of the English version of Enya’s ‘Book of Days’, here.

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  • Actually, according to my count, there have been a total of nine films based on the biblical book of Esther. Besides the 1916 silent film directed by Maurice Elvey, the French produced three silent films inspired by the biblical character: Gaumont studios produced two films in 1910: Esther and Mordecai directed by Louis Feuillade and The Marriage of Esther, while C.G.P.C. made another movie called Esther directed by Henri Andreani in 1913. In addition, the Dutch director-actor Theo Frankel directed Esther: A Biblical Episode in 1911.

    Once we are out of the silent era, there are three other films inspired by Esther which you already mentioned: Mario Bava and Raoul Walsh’s Esther and the King (1960); Amos Gitai’s Esther (1986); and Raffaele Mertes’ Esther (1999).

    Last and not least, a recent film on Esther that you failed to mention was the VeggieTales production, Esther, The Girl Who Became Queen, that came out in 2000 (and I have watched many times since with my kids!)

    I have compiled a fairly complete listing of “The Old Testament on Film” in my Religion & Popular Culture section of my website:

  • Matt Page

    Thanks for the heads up Peter, FWIW I was unaware of the 1985/6 version, so thanks. How does it compare to Sissoko’s La Genese?

    Also great to meet you Tyler – always nice to come across another person interested with the Bible on film. Great website by the way, I’ve bookmarked it as I think I’ll be using it a lot


  • Thanks for the info, Tyler — I shall definitely be perusing your site in the future! And FWIW, I thought about mentioning the VeggieTales cartoon too, but if I did that then I would have to start counting all the children’s Sunday-school cartoons! 🙂

    Matt — while Sissoko’s Genesis (1999) has a sort of timeless appeal, because it doesn’t feel like it takes place during any particular era, Gitai’s Esther (1986) is more deliberately anachronistic, because it features ancient characters walking in modern settings; thus, while both films may have contemporary cultural resonances, I think Gitai’s film is probably more pointedly directed at modern political realities. But I have not seen either film in a while, and I certainly did not see them back-to-back, so take that with a grain of salt.

    Interestingly, one of the stars of Sissoko’s film — Sotigui Kouyaté, who plays Jacob — had earlier played Boaz in Gitai’s Golem, the Spirit of the Exile (1992), which is largely a modernization of the Book of Ruth!