Salon on DeMille, Jennings on Jesus & Paul

Hmmm: Salon covers Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments on April Fool’s Day. Will this be an expose of shadowy McCarthyite figures who controlled the masses through kitsch? A celebration of DeMille (shown in a portrait by Yousuf Karsh) as a transgressive auteur? An irony-laden piece hailing the film as a masterpiece?

No, it’s better than all that. Jon Mooallem’s essay engages the film — scheduled for its 24th broadcast on ABC this Sunday evening — as a deeply ingrained artifact of American pop culture, and captures DeMille’s driving vision.

Mooallem describes the film as “a strange work of faith by an almost delusional autocrat” and DeMille as “an absurd tragic figure,” but the general tone of his piece is sympathetic. Mooallem draws a few parallels between DeMille and Mel Gibson, mostly in how the two directors marketed their films.

The rewards, however, are in learning about DeMille’s choices as a storyteller.

DeMille on sex:

“Hit sex hard!” was his frequent order to screenwriters. He dubbed the Golden Calf scene of “The Ten Commandments” — a sultry bump and grind of sweaty Israelites — “an orgy Sunday-school children can watch.”

DeMille on historical authenticity:

His staff pored over the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, and the work of early historians Philo and Josephus. The script was heavily annotated, with chapter and verse cited in the footnotes of every page, according to writer Jesse Lasky Jr.

. . . “Naturally Mr. DeMille liked to have the historians on his side,” [former assistant Phil] Koury writes, “and usually they were.” But DeMille also “claimed he was making history,” and when [head researcher Henry] Noerdlinger’s tireless research contradicted his vision, he would fall on a single, often vague historical reference as justification. Thus, according to “research,” Delilah in “Samson and Delilah” (1949) could wear a crowd-pleasing bra.

On Monday night ABC turns from DeMille’s spectacle to another of Peter Jennings’ religion documentaries. Jennings was the chief advocate of adding Peggy Wehmeyer as an American network’s first religion correspondent. Though Wehmeyer no longer fills that slot, Jennings continues devoting more serious attention to religion coverage than perhaps any other broadcast journalist.

His latest work, the three-hour Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness, draws praise in today’s Wall Street Journal from Robert Wilken, the University of Virginia’s widely respected professor of the history of Christianity.

Wilken points out that the show strays from the usual talking heads of the Jesus Seminar by featuring professor Ben Witherington III as its first scholar:

Mr. Witherington, mind you, is professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Wilmore, Ky., not at Harvard Divinity School or Princeton University. “What a silly God would it be,” he says, “that got himself crucified.” This is not the kind of talk one expects in a TV documentary on Jesus, and it is refreshing.

Wilken also reports the humorous detail that the show interviews a group of Americans on what Jesus looked like, and the verdict is in: “All say he had blue eyes.”

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