Bible movie of the week: The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966)

The title speaks of beginnings, but the film itself marked the end of an era. The post-war Bible-movie craze — which began with Samson and Delilah (1949) and arguably peaked with Ben-Hur (1959) and its record 11 Academy Awards — petered out over the next several years, and The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966) was pretty much the last major Bible film to be produced by a Hollywood studio for the next couple of decades.

The problem was not that the film was a flop, per se, but that it cost so much to make. Reliable box-office figures are harder to find, the further back you go in time, but according to Wikipedia, at least, The Bible was the top-grossing film of 1966, with a domestic gross of $34 million. Then again, roughly half of that money would have stayed with the theatres, and the film is said to have cost as much as $18 million — and that probably doesn’t count the cost of prints and advertising. So whether the film made its money back would seem to depend on how well it performed overseas.

In any case, I recently revisited this film and noticed a few things that I thought were worth noting here. (See also my recent post on Abraham and the Three Visitors, which discusses one scene from this film that I don’t get into here.)

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Review: The Apocalypse (dir. Raffaele Mertes, 2002)

There have been many films about the end times, but few have had all that much to do with the actual Book of Revelation. Most apocalyptic movies have been more interested in giving the ancient prophecies a modern spin than in bringing the Scriptures themselves to life — and they have usually accomplished this by spinning a web of hokey political conspiracies and horror-movie shock effects out of thin air. Thus, these films have tended to reflect the social and cultural preoccupations of their makers much more than anything particularly biblical.

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Review: Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000)

For all their piety, the Bible epics of the past are best remembered for their violent set-pieces. God smote evildoers with earthquakes and lightning, armies clashed on land and at sea, and villainous charioteers were trampled to death by their opponents’ horses. Death and destruction were what kept the crowds coming; but audiences wanted more than blood and guts, so most films offset the violence somewhat by touching on nobler themes, perhaps even by paying some attention to the Prince of Peace.

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Review: Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000)

People may mock the pieties of ancient biblical epics, but when I was a lad, I watched them for the gore. Ben-Hur was a particular favorite: slaves were crushed under the collapsing hulls of their ships, Charlton Heston ran around the deck throwing spears through pirates and shoving torches in their faces, and of course there was the carnage of that famous chariot race, in which, among other things, Stephen Boyd was dragged by his own horses and trampled by the thoroughbreds behind him.

I thought of that film while watching Gladiator, the first true sword-and-sandals epic since the 1960s. Set in the second century, it follows a similar storyline, and it’s full of beheadings, stabbings, and flaming arrows; one person is even split in half by the spoke on a passing chariot wheel. Russell Crowe plays Maximus, a victorious Roman general who is betrayed by the jealous new emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and enslaved, his family slaughtered. With nothing to live for but revenge, Maximus distinguishes himself in the arena and ultimately works his way to the big leagues in Rome, where he itches for a chance to stand before Commodus again and plunge something sharp into the emperor’s belly.

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Review: The Bible Collection (dir. various, 1993-1995)

Abraham, Warner Alliance, 1993, dir. Joseph Sargent.
Jacob, Warner Alliance, 1994, dir. Peter Hall.
Joseph, Warner Alliance, 1995, dir. Roger Young.

BIBLE MOVIES refer so often to “the God of our fathers” it’s surprising at first to discover just how little attention films have paid to the patriarchs.

There are several reasons for this. Most biblical life stories are made up of disconnected episodes that do not easily conform to the structure of a two- or three-hour film. Attempts to be “historically accurate” with Genesis falter since no one knows when these stories occurred; scholars have dated Abraham to anywhere between the 23rd and 14th centuries BC.

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