Two quick new items via Deadline, both of which happen to concern Oscar-nominated foreign-film makers who are now going to direct films with a biblical element.
My friend Matt Page is starting a series of posts over at the Bible Films Blog on the question of canonicity and Bible films. Among other things, he asks: Is there a “canon” of Bible films, independent of the biblical canon itself? And is there a reason why certain biblical stories get filmed again and again while others go ignored?
The Bible epic, as a genre, is typically associated with the 1950s, and for good reason. That’s when Hollywood churned out a series of Bible-themed films, such as David and Bathsheba (1951), The Robe (1953) and The Ten Commandments (1956); and both the decade and the genre reached their climax with Ben-Hur (1959), which won a record number of Oscars in addition to becoming one of the biggest box-office hits of all time.
But the decade arguably got its start in the 1940s, when Cecil B. DeMille produced Samson and Delilah (1949), starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr. It was the first major Bible movie made by an American studio since the silent era — or since the early sound era, if we count DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), which takes place after the Book of Acts, as a “Bible movie” — and it was a fairly big hit, thereby paving the way for all the bathrobe epics that followed.
It’s common these days for each new episode of a TV series to begin with a montage that sums up all the relevant plot points from previous episodes. So it was only natural that, when the History Channel aired its five-part mini-series The Bible over the month of March, all but one of the episodes began with narrator Keith David intoning, in his deep baritone voice, “Previously, on The Bible…”
All of the show’s strengths and weaknesses are captured in that one phrase. Produced by Mark Burnett (a TV mogul best known for unscripted “reality” shows like Survivor and The Apprentice) and his wife Roma Downey (who once starred in Touched by an Angel), the mini-series rushes through the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, in ten hours — though it’s more like seven, once you bracket off the commercial breaks — and it zips through the stories so quickly that you barely notice when they are compressed even further in those opening sequences. But the mini-series also makes a point of emphasizing the continuity between Bible stories in a way that is quite rare among Bible films, and in a way that sometimes allows individual stories to shed light profitably on others.
THE BIBLE Collection was, and is, a great idea, but like so many great ideas, its execution has proved rather uneven.
The initial films in this made-for-TV series — Abraham, Jacob and especially Joseph — treated biblical sex and violence with uncommon frankness, and they brought to life biblical stories that had, until then, languished in cinematic obscurity. Moses covered more familiar territory, but its down-to-earth naturalism and a terrific performance by Ben Kingsley helped to set it apart from the overblown epics of the past.