Hail, Caesar! and other movies about making Bible movies

Hail, Caesar! and other movies about making Bible movies February 1, 2016


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?

I am not aware of any examples from the silent era, but I do know of one such film that was made during the earliest days of the genre’s 1950s revival.

I refer to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), in which former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) pays a visit to Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) while he happens to be rehearsing one of his Bible movies. The film came out just one year after DeMille revived the Bible-epic genre with Samson and Delilah (1949), and sure enough, some of the actors we see are wearing Philistine costumes.

You can watch part of the scene in question here:

Then there is La Ricotta (1963), a short film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini just one year before he made his own Jesus movie, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). In La Ricotta, Orson Welles — who appeared in a few Bible movies himself — plays a director shooting a movie about the crucifixion, and one of the actors who is working for him ends up being taunted and abused by the film’s cast and crew.

I wrote a fair bit about the film back in August 2005. You can also watch a clip from the film here, in which the Welles character is interviewed by a journalist:

Good Morning, Babylon (1987) was a film about two Italian brothers who work as set designers on the Babylon portion of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). The fall of Babylon is mentioned in the Bible, but I don’t believe Intolerance uses the biblical material at all; it does, however have sequences based on the life of Jesus, but I can’t remember if Good Morning, Babylon ever went behind those particular scenes.

You can watch a clip from Good Morning, Babylon here:

Then there was The Making of ‘…And God Spoke’ (1993), a mockumentary about the making of a Bible movie. It’s fairly difficult to find the entire 82-minute film online, but Movieclips has a dozen clips totaling about 25 minutes. This clip features Eve Plumb (Jan from The Brady Bunch) playing herself as an actress who plays Noah’s wife (which is kind of funny, because Plumb played one of Noah’s daughters-in-law in an episode of the 1970s series Greatest Heroes of the Bible):

Finally, Abel Ferrara’s Mary (2005) starred Juliette Binoche as an actress who is profoundly affected by her work in a film about Mary Magdalene. I wrote several blog posts about the film when it premiered in Europe and then when it played in New York City, but I have never seen the film myself. Here’s the trailer, though:

Honorary mention goes to Holy Flying Circus (2011), a somewhat surreal film that is not about the making of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) per se but, rather, is about the publicity campaign after the film was finished, and specifically about the events that led up to the infamous televised debate between John Cleese, Michael Palin, Malcolm Muggeridge and Bishop Mervyn Stockwood. Here’s a clip:

Honorary mention could also go to Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), which begins and ends with actors and crew members getting off and on a bus near the film’s Israeli set. It’s not exactly a movie about movie-making, but the film does draw attention to its own artifice. Here is the end of the film, in which everyone gets back on the bus once the show is over — everyone, that is, except the actor who played Jesus:

Finally, there are a number of films, such as He Who Must Die (1957), Jesus of Montreal (1989) and Hamlet 2 (2008) that show people putting on Passion plays or other kinds of plays about Jesus — but they’re not making films, per se.

Did I forget any significant films? If so, please let me know in the comments!

Update: A friend reminds me that Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver (1995), a pseudo-documentary about a supposedly forgotten New Zealand filmmaker, features the “restoration” of a silent movie about Salome (and Herod Antipas and John the Baptist). So, the film doesn’t exactly dramatize what happens behind the scenes on a Bible-movie set, but it is about the making of a fictitious Bible movie.

The making of Salome is mentioned intermittently throughout the film, beginning at the 14:33 mark, and the “restored” Salome itself begins at the 43:10 mark:

Also, in addition to the films I mentioned earlier that show people putting on plays about Jesus, one could point to films like Moonrise Kingdom (2012) that show people putting on plays about Noah and other biblical characters. But again, the people in those films are producing plays, not films, so it’s not quite the same thing.

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