Hail, Caesar!, the newest film from the Coen brothers, opens this Friday. The film is set in 1950s Hollywood, and one of its central plot elements is a movie-within-the-movie — also called Hail, Caesar! — that depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. This got me wondering, how many other films have depicted the making of a Bible movie?
On at least two occasions this year, I have grumbled about the relative lack of movies about the prophet Elijah.
He’s a very important figure in the Bible: not only is he one of two Old Testament figures who went straight to heaven without dying (the other is Noah’s great-grandfather Enoch), he is also one of only two Old Testament figures who appear with Jesus at the Transfiguration (the other is Moses). The Old Testament prophet Malachi predicted that Elijah would return before the great day of judgment, and Christians believe this prophecy was fulfilled by John the Baptist, while Jews set a cup of wine aside at the Passover table in anticipation of Elijah’s return.
But has Elijah received the same sort of cinematic attention as Moses and Jesus? Have there been any epic blockbusters about his confrontations with the prophets of Baal and their royal patrons, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel? Alas, no.
But that’s not to say there haven’t been any films about Elijah. There are, in fact, a variety of short films and other shows that have covered these subjects, and yesterday I finally got around to watching the one feature-length film version of his story that was produced during the 1950s, when the Bible-movie genre was at its peak.
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.
I recently watched Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) for the first time in years, and I hope to write something about it soon. But one detail caught my eye, and got me curious to see if it was part of a trend that might have popped up in other Bible movies, too.
Specifically, I was struck by the writing credits that appear during the opening titles. The film gives credit to four different screenwriters, which is fairly typical — no doubt there were other writers who worked on the film without credit, too — but the film also goes on to specify not just that it is based on the Bible, or on a particular book of the Bible, but that it is based on particular chapters within that book.