• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Friday, September 09, 2016

    Ben-Hur (2016)


    Whilst it's only been six years since the story of Ben-Hur was last on our screens, it's been 57 years since it was playing in cinemas, so, given the huge success of that 1959 version - itself a remake of a remake - it was only a matter of time before someone adapted it for the big screen once again. After all, two scenes in particular have resulted in some spectacular set-pieces in previous adaptations without either the 1959 or the earlier 1925 version receiving such acclaim that no-one dares to to touch the source material again. In fact, as the shortest of the non-animated Ben-Hur adaptations, this version seems to pretty much revolve around these two set pieces.

    The episode for which Ben-Hur is now best known is the chariot race scene and that seems to have become the driving force (if you'll pardon the pun) behind many adaptations - early stage versions of the story had horses running on rollers, the first film adaptation way back in 1907, was little more than footage of a chariot race, and a recent "stage" version hired out the O2 arena in order to be able to have the race do laps around the auditorium.

    Here, once again, the chariot race dominates. The film opens on the starting line, with Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) taunting each other through gritted teeth. The film then goes into flashback mode, which is a nice little device, but does rather highlight the film's emphasis on the chariot race. This is further underlined when the it turns out that the point in time to which they go back is Judah and Messala racing horses eight years before. Then the two were on far friendlier terms - Messala had been adopted into Judah's family and the two very much see themselves as brothers, even if Messala occasionally points out that he is not really part of the family when it suits him.

    Indeed, as the opening scenes unfold it emerges that one of the ways in which it suited him to be not-a-part-of-the-family is his love for Judah's sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia). The film draws this out a little more than other adaptations - it's Judah and Tirzah's mother's objections to their attachment that drive Messala off to join the army. In one way this works well: it renders Tirzah a far more rounded and interesting character than in the 1959 version (true of all 3 female leads). Yet that brings with it a few complications as well. How did Tirzah feel whilst he was away? Did she write to him regularly in the same way her brother did?

    When Messala returns as a tribune he is far more concerned with his reunion with Judah than with his former love, but this is never really commented on. Perhaps we are meant to see his intimacy with Tirzah as the kind of youthful infatuation that this hard-hearted, career-driven soldier no longer has any time for. And of course, when Pilate is attacked by an injured zealot recovering in the Hur house, there's little reference to their previous tenderness. When Judah is sentenced to the galleys and told his mother and sister are being executed, for a moment I wondered if the more interesting story on a human level might be that of Tirzah rather than Judah. If only she also could have raced a chariot...

    But of course the camera chooses to follow Judah, who by now is symbolically tied to a yoke and falls at the feet of Jesus. This, in fact, is Judah's second encounter with the man from Nazareth, though both take place in Jerusalem. Shortly before Messala's return, Judah and his slave-turned-wife, Esther encountered Jesus in the marketplace. For some reason he'd set up a carpentry stall there, although the main thing he seemed to be building is a soap-box from which to preach his message of love. Then Judah shruged it off. He's not exactly an atheist - he had joined in with his family's generic, sort of Jewish, religious festival a few nights earlier, for example - but he didn't have much time for Jesus's calls to love his enemies ("If he’s already decided my path, how am I better off than a slave?").

    Yet now Judah is flat on his face on the road to the slave port and Jesus is pulling off a Jedi mind trick in order to give him a sip of water. This has always been a pivotal moment in Judah's story, and here it flashes back to him time and again, but it also proves pivotal for Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). Whilst Judah is away she joins Jesus'movement (apparently two years before it even starts) and does good works amongst the poor. In contrast to Judah' mother and Tirzah, Esther is rather poorly sketched, despite having more screen time than either of them. Despite her desire to do good works she doesn't, for example, seem to have made any in roads into tracking the fate of her in laws, nor does she seem overly perturbed by her father's death. And ultimately despite spending half a decade following Jesus, she doesn't really have anything compelling to say about him.

    All of which leads us to the film's other set piece - the sea battle - and it's by far the film's most successful scene, defly combining horror, tension and excitement. The bravest, and most successful, decision that director Timur Bekmambetov makes is to leave his camera below deck for the entire fifteen minute sequence. This nicely captures the claustrophobia of the environment but it also allows the audience to share the slaves' disorientating experience - their knowledge of what is happening is fragmented and limited to the few words they overhear from above deck and what they can glance through the oar holes. They know they are in a battle, but it's a shock when they get rammed in the side by an enemy vessel. And whilst the way Judah somehow manages to free himself from the wreckage seems a little questionable, it actually improves upon the implausibility of the novel and subsequent adaptations on this point, even if it's a little convenient that he washes up on shore just a short distance away from a chariot racing expert/horse owner (Morgan Freeman).

    It's here that the movie makes quite a sizeable leap which results in Judah landing himself in his much desired a grudge match. The chariot race itself is exciting, even if the odd pan of the crowd is let down by some bad CGI. Again the camera stays close to the action. Whilst it doesn't surpass its predecessors there's some good work here, particularly the pacing, which is so critical to a scene like this, and some impressive camera angles.

    Another plus point is Pilate's presence at this "circus". There are some tenuous links between Pilate and the arena in Caesarea, which did host chariot racing during his governorship. What is particularly good is that the Pilate we encounter here is the kind of crude bloodthirsty thug that history suggests, rather than the mild-mannered philosopher of so many Jesus films. Pilate (Borgen's Pilou Asbæk) struggles to contain his excitement as the race progresses, blood is spilt and the bodies pile up. This isn't a man who would worry himself about executing a would-be messiah. (As a Borgen fan, it's also interesting watching Asbæk playing the top dog, rather than the pitt-bull like press secretary serving a middle of the road prime minister).

    Where the chariot scene does let itself down a bit, is the sight of Freeman's character Ilderim scurrying around shouting advice to his rider as he swishes by. It's unclear if this is because the filmmakers realised they hadn't given Judah long enough to become a credible charioteer, or because they want to remind the people at home about all the things that are about to prove dangerous in just a lap or two's time. Either way the idea that as Judah thundered past he would catch a single word of Ilderim's advice - over the roar of the crowd - is laughable and detracts from what is otherwise a decent action scene.

    The other problem with the scene is something that is so typical of all the films in general, and indeed all of the biblical films that Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have produced; their tendency to ramp everything up to the point of crassness. So Judah can't just win the race, he has to win his first ever race, against Rome's greatest and unbeaten champion, despite getting knocked out of his chariot and dragged along the floor for half a lap and managing just to cross the line before his chariot crashes and his horses all die. Some of that is drawn from the novel, but time and again the pair's productions push things far further than their source material, draining them of any subtlety and ensuring absolutely everyone in the audience is totally and completely aware of their point. Does Pilate need to have a brush with death near the start of the film? Get a zealot to shoot him with an arrow! Is Morgan Freeman good as dispensing wisdom? Have him offer a life lesson at every conceivable moment! Is this a tale of learning to forgive? Have Judah and Messala have a big hug and ride off into the sunset! Would more talented writers have stopped this repeated two-phase question/statement pattern I'm employing? No, do it more!...etc. etc.

    That said some of the usual weaknesses in Downey and Burnett's work do seem at least a little reined-in here, not least the level of violence which, for once, feels more or less in keeping with the source material. And I quite liked the handful of places at the start if the film where Judah is challenged about the fact that his rosy world view is at least partially dependent on his privileged position of wealth and power. When Judah gives Jesus the question above about "how am I better off than a slave?" Jesus comes right back at him with "Why don't you ask her?", the "her" in question being Judah's former-slave turned wife, Esther. Another time whilst citing what has happened to the fields his father owned as evidence of injustice he is asked, rather pointedly, "and who owned the fields before your father?" Then there's the zealot who tells Judah "You confuse peace with freedom”.

    This tendency to bring original and contemporary sounding dialogue into the film works rather well for the most part. After all Lew Wallace was hardly Shakespeare and the novel's prose is often leaden and turgid. The new dialogue often places Judah squarely in the middle between two more extreme and violent parties vying for control of Judea. It's unfortunate that the writing in the latter part of the film isn't as strong at the earlier part such that this, too, ends up also being a bit crass.

    And what of the portrayal of Jesus? In the run up to the film's release I have heard people say both that the film minimises the role of Jesus and that enhances it and curiously both perspectives are true. Given the film's condensed run-time the material needed considerable abridgement, and to that end excising the nativity and that oh-so-convenient reappearance of Balthasar years later, is a wise move. I also quite liked the brief shot of Gethsemane, which I don't recall from the previous adaptations, though it is in the novel.

    That said I've already highlighted a couple of areas where the portrayal of Jesus didn't really work for me, and though Judah undergoes a profound transformation at the foot of the cross, there's precious little indication as to what is occurring. As with other Downey/Burnett produced Bible films, I come away wondering what it was they were trying to say about Jesus. Is it simply that marketplace message of love for your enemies? Perhaps that in itself is actually enough.

    I think, though, that there are two reasons why the crucifixion scene didn't do much for me. The first is actually a fault of the novel: I've always found the healing of Judah's mother and sister a bit too convenient. Not only does the Bible fail to mention any healing miracles occurring during the crucifixion, but it's such a lame plot device. And speaking of lame why do Judah's mother and sister get healed whilst his 'brother' remains an amputee?

    But the other reason is that Jack Huston's performance as Judah is rather lacklustre. Whilst the filmmakers would have struggled to find a more similarly surnamed leading actor, Huston lacks Heston's intensity. There's a few lines in the film that suggest that Messala is struggling to emerge from his grandfather's shadow. Whilst Huston did some good work in Boardwalk Empire there's little here to suggest he is going to lose the 'grandson of John Huston' tag anytime soon.

    Fortunately, for much of the film Huston isn't required to do a great deal because the chariot race and, most notably, the sea-battle are two great set pieces. These, combined with the film's natural sense of urgency and rhythm, mean that, ultimately, watching the film is more like spending the day at the chariot racing than spending life in the galleys.

    Labels: ,

    Wednesday, August 24, 2016

    The Young One (1960)


    I've been watching quite a bit of Luis Buñuel recently and just finished watching The Young One (1960). Without giving too much away a significant part of the plot hangs on the presence of a priest, which is noteworthy for two reasons.

    Firstly because Buñuel is so often seen as anti-clerical, but here, whilst not handling things exactly as we in the 21st century would perhaps hope, the priest is still a somewhat heroic figure, who achieves some good by risking at least his own reputation and perhaps even his life. There are odd and perhaps feeble aspects to him as well, but they serve to make him more human and realistic, rather than despicable. I'm reminded of the way that so many see Buñuel's critique of the priesthood/idealised religion as solely negative but here, this is a primarily positive impact. This rather bolsters my position on Nazarin (1959) which is that Nazarin is a three-dimensional impression of a religious leader - albeit a very flawed one.

    The other pint of interest here is that the actor playing the priest is none other than Claudio Brook who also starred in Exterminating Angel (1962) and Simón del desierto [Simon of the Desert] (1965) for Buñuel and then as Jesus in the Mexican Jesus film Jesús, nuestro Señor (1969). Simón del desierto is next in my next destination for my Buñuel journey and I really must get around to seeing (and reviewing) Jesús, nuestro Señor sometime soon.

    Labels: ,

    Tuesday, August 23, 2016

    Book Review: Bigger than Ben-Hur
    The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences


    Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences
    Edited by Barbara Ryan & Milette Shamir

    Syracuse University Press
    269 pages
    ISBN 978-0815634034 (Paperback)

    With the latest cinematic version of in cinemas at the moment, readers might be interested to read Barbara Ryan & Milette Shamir's "Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences, which looks at the forerunners to the latest version, from the book, through stage plays to some of the other filmed versions, including Fred Niblo's 1925 silent movie and the, now more famous, 1959 adaptation, directed by William Wyler. (See all my Ben-Hur related posts)

    There's a good range of experts here from Ancient World in film scholars such as Jon Solomon, whose work will be familiar to many readers here, through to historians such as Eran Shalev. As Ryan and Shamir put it in their introduction "They offer insights to students of popular Christianity and Judaism; to scholars of reading, reception and fandom; to those who investigate the a United States' sense of the Middle East and of Zionism; to researchers who probe the intersection of education and entertainment on stage and on screen; to chroniclers of ways of imaging Jesus Christ, femme fatales, and masculine performance" (p.2) Certainly it's interesting reading scholars from different pools coming together to offer their own insights on different facets of the phenomenon that is all things Ben-Hur.

    The book's subtitle suggests a two or three fold division between the book and its adaptations (and their audiences) but in fact things are much more fluid than that. Whilst Eran Shalev in the book's first main chapter, "Ben-Hur's and America's Rome: From Virtuous Republic to Tyrannous Empire" restricts herself to the book, some of its forerunners and the changes in cultural context in the century or so before the books release, other chapters are content to switch from talking about the book to talking about one of the stage or screen adaptations. Despite Milette Shamir's "Ben-Hur's Mother: Narrative Time, Nostalgia, and Progress in the Protestant Historical Romance" being only the second chapter it ends with a coda reflecting on how the subsequent 1925 and 1959 film adaptations built on the book's portrayals of women as discussed in the rest of the chapter (pp.50-51).

    Not dissimilarly whilst the primary thrust of the first four chapters is to explore key issues relating to the book, both chapters three ("Retelling and Untelling the Christmas story: Ben-Hur, Uncle Midas, and the Sunday-School Movement" by Jefferson J. A. Gatrall) and four ("Holy Lands, Restoration, and Zionism in Ben-Hur" by Hilton Obenzinger) touch on screen adaptations. Obenzinger offers some interesting observations on Wylers mise en scène in the 1959 film and Gatrall discusses the portrayals of Jesus in the 1925, 1959 & 2010 versions (pp.71-72).

    Indeed whilst various essays mention the 2010 Television adaptation in passing (pp.xi,14 and 181) Gatrall is the only one to offer any brief analysis of it. This is something of a strange omission, not least given that the book has ended up as a part of the "Television and Popular Culture" series. Whilst the 2010 adaptation ultimately reached only a limited audience, it would have been nice to see some more, in depth analysis of it.

    The impression left by this omission is that diverse and developing Ben-Hur tradition ground to a halt shortly after 1959, rather than being something that continues to evolve. Similarly the 1988 animated version and the recent arena adaptation (p.14), complete with it's own chariot race round the venue's massive internal space, are important continuity markers in this developing tradition but are again, largely overlooked. This is particularly disappointing given Ryan and Shamir's excellent observation in their introduction that "As each Ben-Hur builds on the last, and strives to top it, the results move ever further from Wallace's years of study toward treating his fiction as an historical narrative to rework." (p.14). It certainly raises the question of how this is true for the biblical epic genre in general and the distance between adapting the text and seeking to outdo previous epic movie for size and spectacle grows and grows.

    Whilst more recent film adaptations of biblical narratives might, at first, appear a far cry from the book's next chapter ("In the Service of Christianity: Ben-Hur and the 'Redemption' of the American Theatre, 1899-1929" by Howard Miller), it could hardly be more relevant. Miller details the extensive marketing strategy utilised by the stage-show's producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger in order to promote their film to the widest possible audience. Klaw and Erlanger realised that the key to making a strong return on what was a hefty financial investment was to entice the devout Protestant / Evangelical population to overcome their principled objections to the theatre as a whole.

    Miller's account will resonate with anyone who has watched the marketing of faith-based films from The Passion of the Christ through to Timur Bekmambetov's latest cinematic adaptation of Ben-Hur (2016). The tactics used, reassurances provided, endorsements given and success achieved are eerily familiar and whilst no film has since come close to reproducing the success of The Passion, it seems that much of the tickets sales the various biblical films have achieved in the intervening period, has been due, in part to production companies employing these tactics.

    Chapters six to nine, then, deal with the film adaptations, though as with the first four chapters there's a good degree of discussion around the other, preceding, works. What's strangely absent, though is any substantial discussion of Kalem's 1907 film adaptation. Again a few of the chapters mention it in passing, it was after all a landmark case that cast it's shadow across all subsequent adaptations in general, but the collection of essays would feel more complete had there been a chapter on some aspect of this ill-fasted production. For example, Ryan and Shamir's introduction references Ted Hovet Jr.'s paper on "The Case of Kalem's Ben-Hur (1907)" (pp. 12-13). Whilst it may not have been possible to reproduce this particular essay, some analysis of the case and its enduring impact would have been most welcome.

    The four chapters begin instead with couple of essays on the 1925 film. In "June Matthis's Ben-Hur: A Tale of Corporate Change and the Decline of Woman's Influence in Hollywood", Thomas J. Slater details the way the movie's original producer and screenwriter, June Matthis, became a scapegoat (p.119) for the struggling production having been given an "impossible task". Matthis had previously enjoyed great success and her successor on Ben-Hur was given a far greater budget with which to create a profitable film. For Slater Matthis's tale is a microcosm of a wider trend that was happening in Hollywood at the time where the numbers of women in significant and influential positions declined substantially.

    It's a very interesting chapter, not least because Matthis struggled to find work at the same level from then onwards, despite the fact "the number of her productions and critical successes easily matched those of almost any male director of her era" (p.110). Indeed many today are surprised when they learn of the far greater levels of equality in the film industry in the first two decades of the twentieth century. My only quibble would be that as interesting as Slater's observations are, ultimately they are about a different film, that is a film that is not Niblo's 1925 Ben-Hur, but another film that, sadly, never got made.

    In contrast, Richard Walsh's "Getting Judas Right: The 1925 Ben-Hur as Jesus Film and Biblical Epic" focuses squarely on the final adaptation. Walsh points out the similarity between the two names Judah and Judas - effectively "English versions of the same Hebrew name" (p.125). Walsh's point is that Niblo's film "'gets Judas right' by offering an empathetic, modern account of Judah/Judas" (p.136).

    The key similarity between the Judas of most Jesus films and the Judah of Niblo's film is the way Judas is often portrayed as a revolutionary trying to raise an army to overthrow Rome. A similar subplot features in both Wallace's novel and Niblo's 1925 adaptation (though not in Wyler's). The pivotal contrast however is that whereas in the Jesus films judas carries on trying to force Jesus' hand, in Ben-Hur (1925) Judah submits his rebellion to the will of Jesus and halts the revolt. The chapter also contains a table comparing the novel, Klaw and Erlanger's play and both film adaptations (p.128-131).

    The following chapter is Ryan's own "Take Up The White Man's Burden: Race and Resistance to Ben-Hur". Ryan investigates the ways in which a John Buchan's 1941 novel "Sick Heart River" resists "Ben-Hur" as well demonstrating that "some Christians have trouble seeing Jesus as Jewish (p.143). Rather than being about either film in particular it focuses on the time between Niblo and Wyler's versions

    Whilst it raises some interesting points it does not, even by its own admission, "offer irrefutable evidence" of the link between the two novels (p.143). Personally I'd go further, far from being "irrefutable" the link seems rather tenuous, and very little evidence for it is offered. This isn't to say the hypothesis isn't interesting and it's good to have a chapter chronicling some of the dissent to Wallace's novel in contrast to overall positive reception by the Christian community.

    This leaves the only essay primarily about the 1959 adaptation, which will, of course, be the first access point to the 'Ben-Hur tradition' Ina Rae Hark's "The Erotics of the Galley Slave: Male Desire and Christian Sacrifice in the 1959 a Film Version of Ben-Hur". This offers a closer inspection of Wyler's film, in particular how it makes Judah "an erotic spectacle and attracts the desiring gazes of other men in the film" (p.178). In doing so, Hark observes how doing this is effectively "deflecting Christ's eroticism" (p.166) as well as delineating the complex network of "fathers and sons" that the story presents"

    So much has been said about Wyler's film, not least in the volume in question, that it's good to have an essay that covers the film in detail, but from a specific angle, albeit one that is mentioned at several other points in the book. As Wyler expert Neil Sinyard points out in the foreword, the film's "homoerotic subtext" overcomes the problem inherent in the novel of how to "explain the motivation behind Messala's malicious treatment of his firmer close friend" (p.xv).

    As someone approaching the subject from the discipline of film rather than literature it would also have been good to have heard a little more from Sinyard whose recent book "A Wonderful Heart: The Films of William Wyler" (2013) is amongst those seeking to rehabilitate the reputation of as one of the finest American directors. He offers some great insights here.

    The tenth chapter, David Mayer's "Challenging a Default Ben-Hur: A Wish List" hopes to persuade future adaptations to rehabilitate several aspects of the novel that all of the previous screen adaptations have overlooked. The first is to ask for a bigger focus on the investment skills of Simonides and Malluch whose wise investments mean that towards the end of the novel Judah Ben-Hur has become one of the richest men in the Roman Empire. The other main area Mayer puts on his wish list is the character of Ira, the "adventuress" who is absent from screen productions ("deliberately pushed aside" p.186). This daughter of the wise man Balthasar contrast strongly with the three other female principals, Judah's mother, sister and wife (Esther) and their seemingly infallible purity.

    Finally Jon Solomon's quirky, yet illuminating "Coda: A Timeline of Ben-Hur Companies, a Brands and Products" forces home the extent to which the name Ben-Hur has far outgrown the significance of Wallace's fairly unremarkable novel. As well providing a little light relief it also amply illustrates the breadth of the impact the novel has had from its initial publication in 1880 to the present day. There's also an additional list of various aspects of Ben-Hur paraphernalia and places that gave been named after it on page 4. Evidence indeed that the 'Ben-Hur tradition' has truly become far, far "bigger than Ben-Hur".

    Ryan and Shamir have pulled together an interesting collections of essays, which will particularly appeal to those who have already studied some more introductory literature on the book or its various adaptations. Overall it's good that they don't spend long retreading basic analysis, particularly given that space is always at a premium. Whilst above I've suggested certain aspects that perhaps ought to have been covered by this volume, I do concede that space is nearly always limited. And the two editors manage to strike a good balance between avoiding tedious repetition from essay to essay, but managing to give the impression of collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas from the impressive range of disciplines represented by this enjoyable book.

    Labels: ,

    Saturday, August 06, 2016

    The Shadow of Nazareth (1913)

    Shadow of Nazareth is unusual amongst Jesus films because it sits, somewhat awkwardly between films that are primarily about Jesus, and those where Jesus is a peripheral player, making the odd cameo appearance in an occasional scene.

    The opening credits give us a clue - only the actors playing Barabbas and the fictional Judith Iscariot (sister of Jesus' infamous betrayer) are named. Instead of the focus being Jesus it is on these two, whose role and relationship with Judas are pivotal in the events leading to Jesus's death. Jesus himself is a principal, but in terms of screen time he is far from the lead.

    Whilst the full film runs to only a little over 30 minutes, it manages to include a reasonably complicated plot. Judith is very much the principal character, with whom not only Barabbas, but also a pharisee called Gabrias as well as Caiaphas are in love. An altercation between the three men results in both Barabbas and Caiaphas stabbing Gabrias, and then to further blacken the high priest's character he has Barabbas arrested for the murder. 18 months later and Caiaphas decides that the now imprisoned Barabbas is less of a threat than Jesus and so he persuades Judith to convince Judas to betray him. Jesus is condemned, Judas hangs himself and the liberated Barabbas heads to the nearest tavern.

    That scene instantly reminded me of a similar one from Richard Fleischer's Barabbas (1961)  starring Anthony Quinn. Quinn returns from his ordeal confused but joyful, that is until he spies the now condemned Jesus dragging his cross past the inn's window. His mood darkens instantly. Whilst this later film lacks an obvious homage shot a combination of the actor's demeanour, the joyous bunch of Barabbas's friends surrounding him and the tavern location suggest a certain degree of connectivity.

    Given the antiquity of this film, and the almost 50 year gap between the two it's perhaps unlikely that the Quinn film was directly influenced by Shadow. However, according to Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, there is another connection between the two films.1

    Whilst it is uncredited, the plot for the film, right down to the inclusion of a character named Judith of Nazareth, is taken from an 1893 novel "Barabbas: A Dream of the World's Tragedy" by Marie Correlli. The lack of acknowledgement for Correlli's novel is all the more interesting given the, then still recent, verdict against the producers of the 1907 adaptation of Ben Hur. In that case the film used the novel's title, but was little more than a set up for a glorified chariot race. Shadow of Nazareth seems to have escaped any such censure so it's curious that not only did the filmmakers think the way to stay on the right side of this ruling was to use the plot but not the title, but that they also got away with it.

    Correlli's novel was "a spectacular commercial success" in its own day, being "published in fifty-four editions...and...translated into over forty languages".2, so it's not not unlikely that it influenced Pär Lagerkvist when he wrote his 1950 novel "Barabbas" and perhaps the similarity stems from there. However neither Burnette-Bletsch nor Larry Kreitzer3, who writes about Fleischer's adaptation of Lagerkvist's novel, mention the link. Curiously though Kreitzer does discuss a more recent work on Barabbas, Gerd Thiessen's piece of narrative exegesis "The Shadow of the Galilean".4

    Given the ready made audience for this film, then, it's perhaps not surprising that Shadow of Nazareth performed fairly well. It was slated by many critics, and there is a certain self-seriousness about it, but whilst the film didn't make the link to the novel explicit, its fans nevertheless appear to have turned out to see the film version. There are a couple of nice shots, notably the one captured above which works far better as a moving shot than as a still, though several compound bad composition with over zealous cropping. There are also a few bits of symbolism and imagery, most notably the cross shaped twig that a repentant Judith finds in the garden where Judas has hanged himself, and of a cross symbol being imposed at the front of one shot. This was three years before Griffith would do something similar in Intolerance.

    It could I suppose, be argued that, like this film, Griffith's film's comparatively short treatment of his Jerusalem story is another example of Jesus as a minor principal. Not dissimilar in this respect was L'Aveugle de Jérusalem four years before in 1909. Yet in the modern era there have been very few such films. Perhaps the closest is this year's Risen though there Jesus becomes more and more central as the film progresses, not unlike The Third Man's Harry Lime.

    It's hard to escape the feeling that the disappearance of this cinema of the religious middle ground is the result of market economics coming more to the fore as producers became more sure footed in their understanding of different audiences, perhaps particularly in the context of evolving secularisation and a growing polarisation between those of faith and those without. Over time audiences have separated out into a segment of practising Christians who want to watch filmmakers adapt the Bible, and the rest of society, or at least the portion who want to just enjoy the spectacle and excess of the epic genre without the pluses and minuses that religion brings with it. Films like Risen are perhaps an attempt to build a bridge between the two groups: it's failure at the box office suggests that much has changed since 1913.

    Whilst the entire film is not currently available outside of film archives, the first reel is available to view at archive.org

    ====================
    1 - Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda. "The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016). p.132-157
    2 - Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda. The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016). p.140
    3 - Kreitzer, Larry J., "The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow." (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). p.67-87
    4 - Thiessen, Gerd. "The Shadow of the Galilean" (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987) and subsequent reprints.

    Labels: ,

    Wednesday, August 03, 2016

    Slaves of Babylon (1953)


    Despite having been the subject of some of the very earliest Bible films, the various stories from the Book of Daniel rather fell from favour, to the extent that Slaves of Babylon is the only feature length take on one of the Israel's most iconic prophets (barring a handful of operas and musicals). Even on this occasion the filmmakers didn't take a huge amount of interest in the biblical subject matter and instead shift the focus to a fictional character called Nahum (Richard Conte). Nahum is one of the more rebellious Jewish slaves in post-exilic Babylon and so, after a couple of early skirmishes with the Babylonian authorities, Daniel sends to convey God's message to Cyrus (Terry Kilburn).

    By this stage Daniel (Jewish actor Maurice Schwartz who would also feature in Salome in the same year) is now getting on in years and perhaps, given the filmmakers were clearly happy to use creative licence with the text, it might have been better to have been more relaxed on this point and create an all round action hero than to introduce a whole new character who inevitably steals the show. Nahum's mission is to find Cyrus who at this point is still just a shepherd, convince him of his divine mandate, teach him in the art of becoming a king, manage his campaign to make him and lead his attack on Babylon.

    Various obstacles stand in Cyrus's way, not least and attempted assassination at the hands of a exotic dancer played by future Catwoman Julie Newmar who uses her feline charms to attempt to take Cyrus' life. It's a plan that not even Newmar's most famous role would have dared to pull off and is thwarted by the ever alert Nahum. Cyrus does seem to have an eye for the ladies though and his obsession with Linda Christian's princess does rather distract him from the task at hand.

    Interspersed with this main plot are various stories from the early part of the Book of Daniel, his night, unharmed in the lion's den; Nebuchadnezzar's madness resulting in him eating grass; and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego being saved from the flames of the furnace. And of course there's the pivotal moment where Belshazzar's feast is interrupted by a giant hand writing "Mene, mene, tekel upharsin" on the walls of the banquet hall to prophesy his downfall. The special effects leave something to be desired - this latter scene relying on broadly the same technique (projection) as Pathé's Le Festin de Balthazar from 1905).

    One of the episodes from the Book of Daniel that the film does leave out is the story about how Daniel and his colleagues choose not to eat the Babylonian's food, opting instead for a diet based largely on vegetables. It's not a story rich in dramatic potential, but it does really set Daniel and his friends apart from modern Christians. The film's costume design does place a very prominent Star of David across Daniel's chest, but otherwise Daniel is not particularly Jewish (as opposed to proto-Christian). But then also missing is the incident where Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a statue and none of his advisers can decipher it. None, that is, except, Daniel. It's perhaps not surprising that the second half of the Book of Daniel - the apocalyptic part - is absent, but this first omission does rather strip him of the gift that caused him to rise to prominence in the first place - the gift of interpreting dreams.

    Whilst Slaves of Babylon was the product of a major studio (Columbia) it's fairly low budget and it shows. None of the male stars have any charisma, though Christian and Newmar do make up for the deficit to some extent, and whilst the plot adds a little excitement and allows a more tangential exploration of the story, it ends up compressing both stories so much that neither retains that much interest.

    Labels: ,

    Thursday, July 28, 2016

    The Canon in the Early Sound Era


    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.

    The start of the sound era was a time of great development and innovation, but it saw a severe drop off in the production of Bible films. The early silent era had seen around six and a half Hebrew Bible films being made a year - albeit mainly short films. This dropped in the second half of the silent era to around four and a half films per year. But between 1930 and 1948 this dropped to just one. In the entire period only nineteen films based on the Old Testament (and around six films based on the Gospels) were made and none of these were major releases by the main studios.

    It can be argued, of course, that the cut off point chosen for the end of this era skews the data somewhat. After all this period is artificially constructed and the end point was chosen as the year before DeMille's big studio mega hit Samson and Delilah (1949). But something about the release of that film feels so different from the films made in this period, and from that point on, the rate of production of Bible films picked up significantly.

    Why might this large drop off in production occurred. Well firstly the financial circumstances during this period were very challenging. The film industry in Europe had not really covered from the First World War. The start of the thirties witnessed the Great Depression in America and similar economic troubles in much of Europe, and then came the Second World War with all its problems. Film production went down across the board, but large-scale, spectacular films like adaptions of the Bible tended to be were doubly problematic.

    The other restriction that really choked the flow of films based on the Bible in this era was America's production code and similar types of censorship in other countries. Amongst the restrictions were bans on showing the face of Jesus - little wonder then that the majority of Jesus films made during this era came from Mexico. It is also possible that the climate at the time was such that depicting other major biblical figures was also frowned upon.

    The most well-known Jesus film of this era, which is still relatively obscure is Julien Duvivier's 1935 film Golgotha (Behold the Man). However as David J. Shepherd points out Duvivier's Jesus is still fairly silent despite the fact that, by then, the voice cinematic Jesus should have been liberated.1

    A quick look at the titles made during this era is also instructive - even the films that were made were far from mainstream. There were, of course, a few remakes [Joseph and His Brethren (1930), Joseph in the land of Egypt (1932), Samson (1936)] a few of the old favourite stories sneaking through [Queen Esther (1948), Potiphar's Wife (1930)] but the other films are markedly different from what we tend to think of as Bible films today.

    The Italian film The Ten Commandments (1945) featured ten stories illustrating each of the commandments.2. On a similar theme Forgotten Comandments (1932) recycled most of its Moses content from DeMille's 1923 film. Lot in Sodom (1933) was an experimental/avant garde film. Father Noah's Ark  (1933) was animated. Good Morning, Eve! (1934), featured songs as did The Eternal Jew (1933), which featured a rabbi telling the story of Abraham to some children.3

    Not dissimilar in this respect is The Green Pastures (1936) which rather than attempting to depict the various events as they may have occurred portrays them as imagined by children. The film is perhaps the most well known Old Testament film of the era so it's interesting that it takes an alternative approach to canonicity, often with an emphasis on oral transmission rather than text. In particular is the episode featuring an unspecified prophet. The prophet is a composite of various characters from the Bible. His existence as a type deemed more importance than his particular character and correspondence with a particular person. More interestingly, given that these are events reconstructed from children's minds, is the possibility that the prophet's name is unknown because the child/children in question do not have the same degree of familiarity with the later parts of the Old Testament canon than they are with the earlier parts.

    Incidentally whilst composing this post I've heard word that the 1948 Queen Esther film is due to be released on DVD in the run up to this Christmas by the Cathedral Films Preservation Project. More on that in due course.

    ====
    1 - Shepherd, David J "Final Reflections, Silence and Spectacle: the Cinematic Jesus from Kirchner to Duvivier" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. p.276
    2 - Alan Gevinson "Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960" p.318
    3 - C. Celli, M. Cottino-Jones, "A New Guide to Italian Cinema" p.50

    Labels:

    Tuesday, July 26, 2016

    Blade Af Satans Bog (1921)


    Carl Theodor Dreyer is rightly revered as a filmmaker of some repute, whose bold and uncompromising films, such as Ordet (1954) and La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) offer and austere, yet beautiful, exploration of human passions kept in check.

    Sadly there's only a little evidence of the Dreyer's impressive future in Blad Af Satans Bog [Leaves from Satan's Book] (1921) an unexciting rip off of Intolerance (Griffith, 1916). Four stories from different historical periods illustrate an oddly complicated punishment regime that the Lord has meted out on Satan where he must tempt humanity even though it pushes him further and further from grace.

    Whilst it's the first period - set just prior to Jesus' death - that is of most interest here, surprisingly it's the obscure love story from the margins of the First World War that proves to be the decisive moment in the relationship between God, Satan and humanity. Perhaps Dreyer would come to rue his optimism here that in the Great War humanity had reached its lowest point and was, at last, beginning an upward trajectory.

    Certainly Dreyer wished to revisit his handling of the Jesus material. Much has been written of Dreyer's attempts in later years to make a film called Jesus of Nazareth that would cast a Jewish actor as the Son of Man and presumably attempt to undo some of the more worrisome anti-Semitic aspects of his original adaption of the Gospels.

    Common to all four stories is Satan taking on human form and seeking to influence those around him to betray their souls. Yet whilst Satan has some success influencing the persecution of an inquisition-era Spanish astrologer and the execution of Marie Antoinette it's in the first section where is able to not only trick Judas, but also to persuade Caiaphas to incite a riot. As with so many Jesus films of this era the Jewish people are portrayed as wizened and grasping in contrast to the noble-looking Romans.

    That said, one of the film's most surprising turns is that the episode truncates before Jesus ever encounters Pilate, shortly after Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane. Indeed only three episodes from the gospels feature - the anointing at the house of Simon the Leper, the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsemane. The focus here is far more on Judas and his emotions than on his master. The film opens with Jesus being anointed and Judas is clearly disappointed with the path Jesus is taking. Satan appears and sympathises with his disillusionment eventually lulling Judas into his trap and leaving him at the moment his remorse begins to hit home (though notably before he takes his own life).

    The footage of Jesus, however, is more distant and remote. Jesus is often shot from low down and close to the top of the frame. He is constantly peering upwards as if through his brow. The scene of the Last Supper is visually striking, but also rather stiff and unimaginative. If by the end of the section Judas is disappointed with the course events have taken is hard to understand what it was that compelled him to follow Jesus in the first place.

    In making his Jesus story the only episode of the four that doesn't revolve around a traditional love story Dreyer also imitates Intolerance, but in contrast to Griffith, Dreyer does actually develop his Judean story and offer a subtler, more nuanced portrait of events. There are some notable touches of his future work here as well, not least the number of and prolonged use of close-ups. In particular the close ups of the woman anointing of Jesus, hints at Dreyer's use of extreme and lengthy close-ups of the face of Maria Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. That the later film was just seven years away is surprising - in terms of the development of Dreyer's style it somehow seems far longer.

    Labels: ,

    Wednesday, July 20, 2016

    The Canon in the Late Silent Era


    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.

    The latter part of the silent era saw a distinct change from cinema's early days . Perhaps the most significant change was that films gradually moved from short films - originally less than a minute - to epics of three hours long. By the end of the silent era very few films, relatively speaking, were being made that were less than feature length and the available resources were concentrated on a lower number of longer films, the era became more professional and standardised.

    Bible films in this era were no different. The rate of production of films based on the Hebrew Bible, for example dropped from around 6.5 per year prior to the release of Intolerance to 4.5 per year thereafter. There was also a little less diversity. Many of the characters that appeared in the early silent era did not reappear in the latter period - the stories of Athalia, Jael, Ruth, Elisha, Micah, Joshua and Daniel were just some of those that were not remade and overall the range of stories dropped by about a quarter.

    At the same time new episodes did get their first airings. In 1918 the German film Hiob became the first film to tell the story of Job. Four years later another German film, Jeremias (1922) broke new ground with the first film about Jeremiah whilst neighbouring Austria saw the creation of Sodom und Gomorrha, directed by Mikhaly Kertesz. Shortly afterwards Kertesz escaped to Hollywood, changed his name to Michael Curtiz and went on to direct some of classic-era Hollywood's most famous films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942). One of his first films in America however would be the last "silent" Bible film of note, Noah's Ark (1928) which he directed for Warner. The majority of the film was shot as a silent movie, only for a few extra talking scenes to be added as producers rushed to keep up with the latest technological development.

    The other significant change in terms of production was that whereas the early silent era was typified by a handful of directors such as J. Stuart Blackton, Louis Feuillade and Henri Andréani each of whom made a series of Bible films, here most directors only made one film based on scripture. There are obvious exceptions to this like DeMillie and Curtiz/Kertesz who both made a pair of biblical films (DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927); Curtiz/Kertesz' Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Noah's Ark (1929)), but the era of a few dedicated directors continually ploughing the same furrow was over.

    But other changes were also afoot, firstly character development began to improve. The earliest silents had just presented actors as little more than cinematic nativity figurines, but even by the 1910s even the minor characters were beginning to get developed, 1910's L'Exode, for example, invented and developed the Miller and his family to heartbreaking effect. Intolerance really showcased film's ability to develop a series of characters and get audiences to identify with them even when there were many characters across several stories. This tendency quickly followed in films from the Hebrew Bible and began to gain traction in Jesus movies as well such as Robert Wiene's 1923 I.N.R.I. (Crown of Thorns) where the characters of Judas and Magdalene are also developed.

    This tendency to develop the more fringe characters seems to have lent itself to other films developing the same characters and as a result the scenes in which they were prominent began to embed themselves in the canon. For example, even though the gospels never associate Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery from John 8, conflating the two became a common way to boost Magdalene's involvement with the result that this story has a strong position within the New Testament canon.

    There's one more thing that is significant about this era that I've not yet touched on and that is the emergence of the big stories that would embed themselves as a key part of the filmic canon from this point onwards. My comments above touch on the breadth of films that were made during this period, but the height of the different films is also significant. It was, after all, in this era that we began to see the emergence of the big Bible film - those films that involved a significant investment and provided the necessary spectacle that would come to be synonymous with the genre.

    When we look at some of the "biggest" Bible films of the era, and their corresponding stories certain things begin to emerge:

    Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) - Lot
    Samson und Delilah (1922, pictured) - Samson
    The Shepherd King (1923) - David
    The Ten Commandments (1923) - Moses
    The King of Kings (1923) - Jesus
    Noah's Ark (1929) - Noah

    There are two points to note here. Firstly, that all of these films would get a big screen Hollywood remake of sorts in the period between 1949 and 1969. In four cases they used the exact title. The most tenuous claim here is the story of Noah which formed a/the key component of Huston's The Bible (1966). The point could also be made that five of the six stories have also received relatively recent big screen Hollywood adaptations, albeit with a divergence of styles (The Prince of Egypt and Year One for example).

    The other point is the flipside of this, that what might be thought of as important stories which didn't get a major adaption during this era (e.g. Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, Joshua, Gideon, Daniel, Judith) tended to be those that have lacked a subsequent big screen Hollywood adaption. There's a certain amount of cherry picking here - Solomon was covered in 1959, Esther in 1960 and Adam and Eve/Abraham were also part of Huston's The Bible, but generally the trend holds out.

    All of which raises the question of why this was. Was it that knowing these films had been successful in the past allowed producers a certain comfort that these were the stories that would do well? Was it that there was a sense of nostalgia that even the filmmakers felt themselves or, at least, felt their audiences would feel? Or was it that these were the stories most suited to the big screen where the elements of size and spectacle and/or miracle are the most apt to be captured in the big "Hollywood" blockbuster?

    Labels: ,

    Monday, July 18, 2016

    INRI [Crown of Thorns] (1923)

    Robert Wiene will, rightly, always be best remembered for his 1920 expressionistic classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but by 1923 with his best work already behind him, Wiene turned his attention to the subject of Jesus. The result was INRI, released in some countries as Crown of Thorns which, whilst not the classic of three years previously, still maintained some interesting shots and the occasional set that wouldn't look out of place in Caligari's tortured imagination. The film was also somewhat innovative for the Jesus in film genre as it was one of the earliest to develop some of the other characters in the story, most notably Judas.

    Sadly no complete copy of this film has survived, and the two prints that do exist contain significantly different material from one another. Reinhold Zwick has penned an excellent essay on INRI and Der Galiläer (1921) in "The Silents of Jesus" (Shepherd, ed.) that includes an appendix detailing the different scenes in each of the two prints. Whilst these prints remain in their archives, a substantial proportion of the one held in the Bundesarchiv/Filmarchiv (Berlin) has found its way onto YouTube. Its subtitles are in Czech and its time-stamp enables you to see where bits of the original have been chopped and there's at least one place where the original footage has been slowed down during their transition to YouTube. Nevertheless, it's this "popular" version that I'll discuss in the remainder of this piece.

    One of the things that's most memorable about both this film and Der Galiläer (1921), at least amongst Bible films, is their use of a sepia tint throughout. Other films had filtered entire scenes before but these two German films, which despite the difference in their given dates were actually circulating in far closer proximity to one another, were the first to use a consistent tint throughout. Here it gives the film the feel of night time, even during the scenes that are set during the day, and evokes some of that Caligari-esque feel. 

    This is further enhanced by the black vignette which softens the edge of the screen giving the impression that we are only seeing part of the action, that the scene exists beyond the edges of the frame. It makes the film seem more naturalistic as does the generally limited use of special effects and the use of light and particularly shadow.

    That said, neither of those points apply to the film's opening scene - a formalised nativity where the stables two walls and a pointed roof fit cleanly and evenly within the frame. After a while a double exposure reveals the star and a host of angels sitting on the roof. Whilst technically the shot is more complicated and executed more professionally than those from the 1905 Life and Passion of Jesus Christ the effect feels very much the same and clearly required the sort of static framing that so typified the very earliest Jesus films.

    However, visually this film owes more to Kalem's From the Manger to the Cross (1912) than it does to the early Pathé films. This becomes particularly apprent in the next scene of the boy Jesus in the temple. The scene is longer here than in the Kalem's film but the appearance of the child actor is incredibly similar as is some of the framing. There's a great high shot in there as well as the previously cosy scene of Jesus talking with the elders is suddenly disrupted by the frantic appearance of Jesus' mother. It quite literally gives a new angle on the cosy scene.

    Perhaps the moment that is most reminiscent of From the Manger is the scene from the house of Mary and Martha. Here we also have a Mary figure who sits cross legged at Jesus' feet. Whilst in the original Jesus faces just away from the camera, here he is facing sideways, but Mary's angle is practically identical and in both scenes she is dressed in black with a black sheet masking her hair and smiling serenely as she listens to Jesus, teaching.

    This is quite a major scene, starting with establishing shots which show a considerable crowd amassing before the shots inside which cover a number of incidents. There are a number if impressively large crowd scenes, even if they are where the a Youtube version most distorts.

    The most notable use of an establishing shot is at the start of the scene where Jesus welcomes the little children which starts when a young girl approaches him as he sits teaching Mary and the rest if the crowd. What's really surprising is a couple of shots of real intimacy. The first comes Jesus caresses the back of the child's neck, pulls her close and even rests his head against hers. Later he tenderly touches the head of another child.

    An even more strikingly intimate moment follows in the scene where a woman enters the frame to anoint Jesus's feet. As the woman slowly approaches Jesus Wiene places the vessel containing the nard in such a position that it draws the eye, even before she has approached Jesus. The action is filmed in close up with a surprising intimacy as the woman first stroke the perfume onto Jesus's feet and then wipes it away with her hair. I'm struggling to remember a film that actually shows both the use of a perfume to wash Jesus' feet and the use of the woman's hair to wipe away the dust/perfume mix. The scene is long and drawn out and perhaps given extra affection by the fact that the actress playing Magdalene and the actor playing Jesus were lovers at the time. (Zwick, p.219)

    The scenes of Jesus ministering are intercut with footage of Pontius Pilate in his house. Pilate is played by Werner Krauss who played the titular Dr Caligari in Wiene's famous film. There's arguably a certain amount of typecasting there, but here Krauss largely plays it straight. His Pilate is the, sadly typical, rational European, who is left somewhat bewildered by the fury felt towards Jesus by the Jewish leaders and their mob. Whilst INRI isn't quite as anti-Semitic as Der Galiläer (1921) it does resort to the same old stereotypes - refined, noble Romans vs irrationally seething, unphotogenic, gaudily-dressed Jews.

    This gulf between the two portrayals is heightened by Wiene's decision to do strange things with his actors' eyes. In some cases it's just make up. Zwick (p.222) talks about how Jesus and Magdalene's eyes "are painted with dark shadows". But in other places characters give wide-eyed stares and at one point Jesus even goes cross-eyed. Zwick (p.222) sees some of this as a drawing "heavily upon the traditional tormented Christ of Gothic art".

    Sadly this doesn't always work as well as, presumably, Wiene intended, and the later scenes lack the impact of some of the earlier ones. Nevertheless, it's an interesting approach and as a whole  it means that the film feels rather different from other Jesus films, both from this era, and the genre as a whole. Whilst it lacks the brilliance of Wiene's Caligari it is nevertheless and interesting film visually with a few striking and indeed memorable images.

    =========
    References to Zwick are taken from:
    Zwick, Reinhold, "Der Galiläer (Express-Film, 1921) and I.N.R.I (Neumann-Film, 1923): The Silence of Jesus in the German Cinema" in Shepherd, David J., (ed.) "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)", Abingdon: Routledge 2016

    Labels:

    Sunday, July 10, 2016

    The Prodigal (1955)


    This post is my entry to the Sword and Sandal Blogathon hosted by @DebbieVee of the Moon in Gemini blog

    In 1955 would-be makers of epic films faced a dilemma. On the one hand biblical films had suddenly become popular and the studios, desperate to cash in, were trying to make all they could out of the new trend. The new, wider, screens called for more eye-catching images and post-war, the public was ready to move on from film noir's cheap sets and low budgets.

    Yet on the other hand, the depiction of Jesus, the Bible's biggest "star", was very much frowned upon. You could show one or two of his limbs (as The Robe and Salome had done two years previously) or have him speak through a boy and a blinding light (as in 1951's Quo Vadis?), but such approaches were rapidly running out of road.

    MGM's solution to this dilemma was that instead of trying to tell a story around the margins of Jesus' life, was to focus instead on a story that Jesus told - the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus was, after all, famed as a story teller and this would enable MGM to appeal to the market for biblical stories without even needing to show Jesus himself.

    It wasn't the first time the parable had been adapted for the silver screen. Silent portrayals of the story went as far back as Ferdinand Zecca's 1902 version for Pathé and four more adaptations would follow in the next ten years. The parable's short, punchy style was ideally suited to the shorter running times and the imagery of money being wasted on parties and of a loving father running down the road to embrace a wayward son worked well for an art form that was still finding its feet with dialogue.

    But as films got longer it presumably became harder to stretch the material out to cover the relevant length and a sub-genre was, to all intents and purposes, lost. As almost forty five years passed, with those early, French, silents seemingly forgotten, MGM must have been pleased with their novel solution. Not only did they spend roughly the same budget as 20th Century Fox spent on The Robe, their advertising for the film boasted how it was "The Biggest Picture Ever Filmed in Hollywood" and how it cost "A fortune to produce!"1

    Without the possibility of Jesus as a leading man, MGM opted to boost the movie's star power by giving the headline role to its own star, Lana Turner. The move was not without precedent. Two years earlier Columbia had used another star of film noir, Rita Hayworth, to front Salome; similarly taking advantage of the way the genre/change of cultural context enabled them to display their leading ladies in more revealing costumes without the characters losing respectability. However, whereas Hayworth was backed up by Charles Laughton and Stewart Granger, Turner was cast opposite Louis Calhern and the relatively unknown Edmund Purdom. Furthermore, as the prodigal son of the title, it was Purdom who had the greater screen time and around whom the story was based.

    Purdom plays Micah, a Jewish son living in Joppa, who, in the very first scene, clashes with a prominent member of Damascus's pagan religious hierarchy by liberating one of his slaves (James Mitchell's Asham). Returning to Joppa shortly afterwards he instantly falls for Astarte's high priestess, Samarra (Turner). Micah returns home determined to "have" Samarra for himself and persuades his reluctant father to give him a quarter of his wealth.

    Whilst this first part of the story drops in a couple of references from the Bible ("For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb...her feet go down to death" Prov 5:3 and, rather more crassly, "I'm hungry enough to devour a whole fatted calf") it also makes critical changes to the story. Micah's rescue of Asham, for example, establishes his exceptional, high sense of morality if also illustrating his carefree attitude to money. Micah is unlikely to prove his respectful enough to make his father ashamed of him. True enough whilst his father is unhappy initially, he quickly accepts his son's decision and reassures him that he'll love him "no matter what". Nevertheless the loss of much of Micah's part of the fortune is due to him being exploited by one of the money lenders from Damascus, the high priest of Baal (Louise Calhern) and perhaps even his new found love.

    The effect of all this is does rather cheapen the grace which is the heart and soul of the original story. The son is transformed from one seemingly beyond redemption in the original parable, to someone who is basically a good, if naïaut;ve, person who simply happens to hold some different opinions to his father. It's hard to find anything here that would cause a significant rift between father and son, and indeed there isn't.

    From there on things take a turn towards what some see as the ridiculous and others as untrammelled entertainment. It gradually become apparent that Micah is the stereotypical, slightly spoilt, rich, boy; arrogant yet unaware of how he's upsetting people, and clearly having more money than sense. If his behaviour in the opening scene quickly gets his audience on side, such support dissipates scene by scene as the movie progresses, not helped by Purdom's lack of warmth, charisma or chemistry with Turner.

    Incensed by how he has been treated Micah begins to lead a rebellion, but its beset by the kind of problems which increasingly feel like the kind of thing that only a rather desperate screenwriter could come up with. So in relatively short succession we get a sacrificial victim willingly diving into a fire pit, a series of people throwing knives which somehow stick awkwardly into their victim's necks, Micah's mute slave being magically restored to life, an play performed by characters wearing bizarre animal headed costumes and a man wrestling with an actual vulture.

    The last of those moments certainly deserves to be more famous and not as the surprising missing link between DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949) and Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). I struggle to think of more than one or two films where someone tussles with an avian opponent, let alone where he had to choke a full-sized feathered assassin to death using a recently discarded bone. Director Richard Thorpe had been fired by both Esther Williams and the producers of The Wizard of Oz for being unimaginative. One can only imagine that, stung by the criticism, he determined never to guilty of that particular cinematic crime again.

    By the man-vs.-bird's standards, the finale seems rather tame, though it's undoubtedly over the top in its own way. Micah decides to overthrow the leaders of the religions of Baal and Astarte and musters a group of Damascene rebels to help him in his task. They storm Samarra's temple, and throw rocks at her until she dives headlong into the sacrificial fire pit.

    Were it not for its over-the-topness it might have been a more shocking moment. Fifties epics had their fill of stories where a Judeo-Christian women meets, and eventually converts, a pagan man (usually Roman) to her faith. Here the roles are reversed and yet whilst Micah manages to get Samarra to compromise her own faith enough to sleep with him, it is not enough to convert to his Judaism.

    Why did the filmmakers decide not to give Samarra the redemption the rest of the film points towards? Is it just that Micah's own compromised faith is not strong enough to transform her belief? Or might it be that because his faith was Jewish (i.e. not fully Christian) that they decided it was not powerful enough to convert her? Maybe it was that as a sexually impure women they judged her beyond redemption despite the (presumably) sexually experienced male leads of Quo Vadis? and The Robe being reached by the sexual purity of the women they loved? Whatever their reason it rather mutes Micah's overthrow of the oppressive Baalan/Astartean regime and sees him return to his father with his tail between his legs despite what would be, in other biblical epics, a significant victory.

    In some ways this is probably just as well - after all, had Micah ridden home triumphant on the back of the grateful Damascans the "father I have sinned against you and against God" speech might have sounded a little hollow. Yet ultimately the film has two endings, neither of which is really particularly satisfactory: the victory in Damascus is shorn of the triumph over adversity that seeing Samarra rescued (and on the film's terms, converted) would have provided; the shocking forgiveness and redemption of the biblical ending is stunted by the lack of a truly wayward son. Ultimately his father's unconditional acceptance ends up being merely more or less normal behaviour rather than an outrageous and unexpected act of forgiveness by an ever-loving father.

    Growing up in a church home I knew about the prodigal years before I knew what being prodigal actually was. Even today its rare to hear the word in a context unrelated to Jesus' story. And it's hard to escape the feeling that a director like DeMille might have made rather more entertaining and satisfying film out of his lead's infamous prodigality and subsequent repentance than Thorpe does here. Perhaps The Prodigal's biggest failure is that it took the "Son" out of the film's title, but the "Prodigal" out of the actual movie.

    =============
    1 - Motion Picture Herald (Apr-Jun 1955) vol 199, April 2, 1955 p.2. Accessed on 9th July 2016 at https://ia801306.us.archive.org
    /13/items/motionpictureher199quig/motionpictureher199quig.pdf

    Thursday, July 07, 2016

    The Sword and Sandal Blogathon


    I'm pleased to announce that I'm going to be partaking in the Sword and Sandal Blogathon which is taking place from the 8th-10th July 2016. I decided to join in quite a while ago and have been looking forward to taking part in something bigger than my own little corner of the interweb, but I only decided this week what I was going to cover. My decision, ultimatelyl, is to review The Prodigal (1955) a Lana Turner vehicle essentially expanding the Parable of the Prodigal Son into a movie length feature. Keep an eye out over the next few days for my review.

    Also if this sounds like the thing you'd be interested in joining in with then it's not too late (and I think it's very much one of those the-more-the-merrier type affairs). Simply choose your movie and add a comment to Debra Vega's original post announcing the blog-a-thon and then post your relevant review up over the next few days. Many thanks to Debra for hosting this. I'm looking forward to seeing the various reviews.

    Sunday, July 03, 2016

    The Star of Bethlehem (1912)


    Thanhouser's The Star of Bethlehem (dir. Lawrence Marston, 1912) originally ran to three reels, but only around one reel's worth of footage (~1000ft) has survived. Thankfully this is one of the many silent films that the present day Thanhouser has made available to view for free on Vimeo.

    In some ways it's a shame that much of this footage has been lost. Marston and scenario writer took the unusual approach of prefacing the film with material from the Hebrew Bible including footage of Isaiah and Micah. Whilst The Living Bible Series and Rossellini's Il Messia also take a similar approach this is the only time that Micah has ever been depicted on screen as far as I am aware.

    The remaining footage begins in the court of King Herod in the middle of "revelry" (to quote the intertitle card) with the three wise men about to arrive. The opening shot allows the time to soak up the atmosphere of Herod's court before the we move outside where the magi arrive and mange to persuade the guards to grant them an audience with the king. The film's two nicest shots feature here as the wise men walk past a company of guardsmen in one shot and then emerge through the crowd in Herod's court room in the next. In both shots they enter from the back of the shot and work their way towards the front; in the first progressing along the right third of the screen in contrast to the static guards in the leftmost two thirds; in the second entering from deep centre whereby the crowd parts to let them through. Whilst the camera here is static, the depth of focus and composition of these shots is a little ahead of its time particularly in the way that the balance of the composition of the shots only fully works as the image is moving.

    Having been permitted by Herod to seek the child and instructed by him to report back the three head off in pursuit of the star managing to bump into the shepherds just as the angel of the Lord appears. Rather touchingly the mixed group of shepherds and magi team up and head off towards the stable together. It's an unusual move but given the apparent difference in wealth between the two groups the way these barriers are never even an issue rather emphasises the fact that all are equal before God.

    The inside of the stable is tightly composed with a rather ethereal-looking Joseph at the front of the shot. Whilst almost all film Josephs and Jesuses are usually dark-haired, bearded thirty something men, there's a certain something about this Joseph that makes him appear unusually Jesus-like.

    The climax of this shot (and, indeed of this remaining fragment) sees the group hold their pose in adoration whilst a group of super-imposed angels appear at the top of the shot. I don't know where the original film ended, but this seems as perfect an end point as I can imagine, particularly for a film that was originally released on Christmas Eve.

    The Vimeo page for this film includes a good deal of extra detail about the film which I've included below not only for interest but also as occasionally these things disappear from the web after a few years (looking at you BFI archive...)
    The Star of Bethlehem: One reel, released December 24, 1912.
    Biblical tale about the birth of Christ told with a cast of 100's, one reel British version edited from original three reel release.
    Directed by Lawrence Marston. Production supervised by Edwin Thanhouser. Scenario by Lloyd F. Lonergan. Original length three reels (3,000 feet); surviving version edited to one real (1,000 feet)
    Print source: British Film Institute National Film and Television Archive, 15 minutes, 13 seconds.
    Cast: Florence LaBadie (Mary), James Cruze (Micah, Joseph), William Russell (Herod), Harry Benham (Angel Gabriel), Justus D. Barnes (Gaspar, one of the Magi), Charles Horan (Melchior, one of the Magi), Riley Chamberlin (Balthasar, one of the Magi), Harry Marks (scribe), N. S. Woods (scribe), Lawrence Merton (scribe), David H. Thompson (Pharisee, rabbi), Lew Woods (Pharisee, scribe), Joseph Graybill (Roman messenger), Carl LeViness (shepherd), Frank Grimmer (shepherd), Ethyle Cooke; total cast of 200 persons.
    Original music composed and performed by Andrew Crow (thanhouser.org/people/crowa.htm.)
    Thanhouser's ambitious Star of Bethlehem was one of the first steps toward true feature-length films (more than two reels long). It appeared the year before the Italian epic Quo Vadis? was viewed in the U. S., and two years before the first Hollywood feature, The Squaw Man. The original negatives were destroyed in the Thanhouser studio fire just three weeks after its first release.
    Preparation of this epic was one of the last duties of Edwin Thanhouser before leaving the studio that bore his name. He had sold it to Mutual in April of 1912 and continued to work as studio manager until he "retired" in November, 1912, only to return in 1915. Thanhouser's biggest production up to that point in time, the film required a one-month shooting schedule, employed a cast of 200 (including forty principals), and cost a hefty $8,000. Special effects alone took a full week's work.
    Thanhouser studio's flair for sumptuous costumes, crowds of actors, and rich staging is evident in this epic. Some of the larger scenes reportedly were filmed with two or even three cameras shooting from different angles. The ratio of two-and-a-half feet of film exposed per foot of film used is modest by today's standards, but was extravagant for 1912.
    This film is available on DVD from Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, Inc. at thanhouser.org.

    Labels: ,

    Saturday, July 02, 2016

    The Canon in the Early Silent Era pt.3


    Please note this post is very much a work in progress and as such a few parts of it need closer fact checking
    In the previous two posts in this series I looked at how the cinema of the early silent era treated the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels. I know want to have a look as to some of the reasons as to why this might be.

    This earliest period of film history was very chaotic, certainly when you compare it to the studio system that dominated in the middle of the twentieth century. Studios were only just being set up and whilst some of the names of those studios remain known to us (such as Pathé and Gaumont), most of the film producers from this era have faded from general consciousness. In many ways this was the wild west (although cinema's move to "the west", to Hollywood, did not begin until the second half of the silent era). The technology was still emerging, and improving at a rapid rate, systems were very much ad hoc, expectations around production values were still fairly low, the star system was still in its infancy and the expectations of what going to see a/some film/s actually entailed was very much still fluid.

    In essence this still forming context meant that making films was still relatively cheap. Films could be less than twenty minutes, shot against the kind of painted sets as seen at the theatre, and without the need to pay stars huge wages. The shortness of many of the individual films meant that exhibitors commonly showed numerous films in an evening's entertainment, meaning there was a demand for a larger number of films. It also meant that the range of filmmakers was relatively diverse and they brought with them their own agendas and interests. So there were the technological pioneers such as the Lumierè brothers, dramatists from theatre backgrounds, magicians such as Georges Meliés and, of particular relevance here, clergy men and evangelists seeking to harness the potential of the new medium for instruction and to spread the gospel.

    Perhaps surprisingly, the period that most matches the hive of filmmaking activity at the start of the 20th century is that start of the 21st century. For much of the intervening period filmmaking became the expensive preserve of the rich or the dedicated. But this earliest period and the current one have found a far more democratized marketplace where production of films is relatively cheap, markets more forgiving and distribution channels more fluid. Religious filmmakers, both then and now, have very much taken advantage of this democracy and both periods are marked both by a relatively high number of religious films and considerable diversity. It's perhaps not coincidental, then, that stories which have not considered particularly worthy of adaption in more professional circles, but are perhaps close to the hearts of religious groups have primarily featured in these two periods. The Book of Daniel is perhaps the most notable example here.

    The result of all the activity in this period meant that the numbers of films made was relatively large and diverse, such that the probability of an obscure story being adapted into a film was relatively high. This pattern is particularly apparent when such stories were aligned to a group's specific interests. Nevertheless one thing that is interesting, not least when viewed from the supposedly enlightened 21st century, is this period's inclusion of episodes that have a more prominent female perspective. So during this period we have the Old Testament narratives of Jael, the Shunamite woman and Athalia; the deuterocanonical stories of Judith and Susanna; and Gospel episodes such as the woman of Samaria, the daughter of Herodias and the almost ever present appearance of Veronica.

    It's commonly assumed that our own era gives women the greatest voice, but there are persuasive arguments in favour of the earliest silent era. Firstly whilst the impact of directors such as Alice Guy Blaché has historically been minimised by film historians, this is starting to reverse and Guy's contribution in particular has been highlighted for the way it developed cinema. Secondly there are various prominent other roles in filmmaking where there was gender parity, in particular script writing and editing. Finally as cinema was then, as now, primarily a financially motivated business the fact that many of the films of the era seemed those more likely to appeal to a female demographic such as those above with a female hero.

    There's a further factor however as to why certain stories ended up being adapted whilst others weren't and that is the religious context in which certain stories were chosen and these films were made. Of course the sheer numbers of people who are part of the Christian faith means that instead of talking about a diverse and wide ranging religious context we are essentially talking about contexts and whilst numerous of Church historians have attempted to summarise and compartmentalise the journey that Christianity has taken, the very fact that these various accounts differ from one another in terms of emphasis and even, at times, perceived fact only further underlines the point.

    Furthermore it is also questionable to what extent an individual, or rather a group of individuals, will adopt the overarching mindset and approach of the majority of those who share their faith living in the same place and time. Given this complexity, and that coming up with a path through these dilemmas is outside of the scope of the present work, I shall just offer a few broad observations on these evolving and diverse contexts.

    The first is to note the shifting locus of filmmaking activity. In the early silent period it was the French film industry that was to the forefront, with Pathé and Gaumont leading the way as well as the work of the Lumières, Guy Blaché and Georges Méliès, though there was also notable activity in Italy, Britain and the US. When it comes to questions of canonicity, then, it's not difficult, then, to understand the adaption trajectory of, say, the deuterocanonical story of Judith. Whilst it's easy to be distracted by the most famous version of the story, D.W. Griffiths' Judith of Bethulia (1914) produced in Protestant America, the remainder of the Judith stories in this era were from Catholic France and Italy. Nor is it surprising, then, that as the European film industry declined during the First World War and took off in America, that this story has largely faded from view. The notable exceptions to this are a brief renaissance in Italy during the "Peplum" revival of their film industry in the 50s and 60s and a flurry of TV films in a number of other Catholic countries in the 70s as TV drama began to gather momentum. This shifting context may also provide part of the reason as to why characters such as Susanna and Veronica also fared well in this era.

    The interwar period cemented this shift in the film industry from Catholic France to Protestant America. The First World War shattered France and the French film industry, the troubled economies of the rest of Europe struggled to recover and the problems were exacerbated by the exodus of filmmaking talent from Europe to America. Michael Curtiz, for example, made Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel) in 1924 before fleeing Nazism and making Noah's Ark for Warner in 1928.

    Whilst American film still predominates today, it's noticeable that the growth of the film industry in other regions has led to new regions making films about stories found in the Bible. For example, Catholic Brasil has produced a number of extended series about biblical characters, such Rei Davi (King David, 2012). Elsewhere a number of films have been made in Islamic countries such as Turkey and Iran, though with more emphasis on the Koranic presentation of these stories than the corresponding biblical versions. This again is a different understanding of Canon, one that Christianity does not identify with and yet which very much impinges on the way the canon has been adapted on screen.

    One final point that is worth noting is the impact of a number of key works related to the Bible that may have had a wide effect. For example, various authors have noted similarities in composition between particular scenes and famous religious paintings. Perhaps the most well-known example is Leonardo's "Last Supper", but other examples abound. However it is difficult to gauge how recognisable these paintings would have been given that they were single works. They are considered hugely influential, and have been widely copied and imitated, but whilst they would be well known by any student of art, many of the early filmmakers were not students of art.

    Nevertheless it's not hard to imagine that these influential images begat more artistic interpretations of the same story which may have led to certain stories becoming more prominent, yet this is not always the case. One of the most famous religious images of all time is Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" yet the Sistine Chapel also contains a considerably larger depiction of Perugino's "Moses Leaving to Egypt" featuring the moment when Moses' son is circumcised after an angel tries to kill Moses (Exodus 4:24-27). This episode has, to the best of my knowledge, never featured in a Moses film despite the proximity of Perugino's image to Michaelangelo's.

    Technology, however, changed all that and so it was the biblical illustrations of James Tissot & Gustave Doré, that may have had a far wider influence as Bibles illustrated with their works proved wildly popular. And this was particularly true of the earliest filmmakers who were working around the same time as his death (1902) and the publication of a collection of his biblical works in 1904. Several of the early filmmakers in this era copied Tissot's compositions, based their sets and costumes on his work and used his name to publicise their work. It's not hard to imagine this may also have extended to their selection of source material. I may expand that final paragraph in a lter post, but for now I want to move on to look at the eras of film production following 1916 and the release of DW Griffith's Intolerance

    Labels: ,

    Monday, June 27, 2016

    The Canon in the Early Silent Era pt.2


    In my previous entry in this series I was looking at how the stories from the Hebrew Bible that the earliest filmmakers adapted into the first silent Bible movies. The idea of canonicity naturally leads to thinking about which books of the Bible have been covered and which haven't, but there's also something of a disconnect here because few films have sought to adapt an entire book of the Bible. There are obviously those which adapt a gospel word for word (Luke 1979, Genesis 1979, Matthew 1994, Acts 1996, Gospel of John 2003 and the various entries in the Lumo Project 2014-present) then there are others which haven't gone to this extreme but whose films have been substantive adaptations of a single book (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, some of the Bible Collection films, Moses the Lawgiver to name but a few) but not word for word.

    However, in general terms, complete books of the Bible have not naturally lent themselves to being film scripts. Indeed even those word for word adaptations cannot really be counted here as they are part of a specific project rather than the need to find a good plot for a film. In fact films tend to gravitate more naturally around specific character(s) than specific books. So when we think about canonicity in relation to the biblical narratives it is perhaps more helpful to think about narrative units within the Bible (which may even span the divides between specific books as some films do), rather than individual books, as is usually the basic unit which is discussed in regard to canonicity.

    Which leads onto the Gospels. Aside from the few films intentionally based on a single gospel, most of the films about Jesus have harmonised the available selection of stories from the four (canonical) gospels. A few films have even widened the net here to include incidents from other, non-canonical gospels, such as The Young Messiah's use of the Gospel of Thomas. Again this is because these films tend to be about the lead character of Jesus and then filmmakers tend to pick the particular stories from the gospels which best portray their vision of Jesus. And just as I think we see certain trends in which narratives from the Hebrew Bible get made into films, I think we also see a similarly uneven pattern when it comes to which parts of the Gospels get covered and which don't. Peter T. Chattaway, for example has recently highlighted numerous narratives which "most Jesus films miss"1 suggesting that whilst some parts of the Gospels are not really considered part of any theoretical filmic canon.

    Of course many of the very earliest films were films about Jesus - most commonly about his passion - but even before the start of the 20th century, films depicting the miracles of Jesus, such as Georges Méliès' Le Christ marchant sur les flots (Christ Walking on the Water, 1899), were being released. One complicating factor in trying to discern any patterns in the release of early Jesus films is the way that many of these films were not released as complete units, but were available for exhibitors to pick and choose which parts of the story they wished to display. The situation is further complicated by the fact that many of these collections of tableaux were expanded over time, the "films" being re-released with new tableaux added in, or some of the older footage re-shot, often retaining the same mise-en-scène.

    The most prominent example of this practice is the various films released by Pathé usually known by the title La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ). I've recently read more detail about the various films/releases under this title in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)" (edited by David Shepherd) I'm tempted to go into more detail on the various version, but I think that's something for a later post. Suffice to say for now that it appears that the popular DVD version which is usually dated as being 1902-1905 should in fact be dated to 1907 and that in addition to these two versions there was the original release in 1899 and a final release in 1913.2 With each release the number of available tableaux grew. The original 1899 version "contained sixteen tableaux; a second edition in 1902 contained thirty-two.3 By the time of the 1907 release that number had grown to 37 and this had grown again by the time of the final 1913 version to 43.4

    All of which is a long way of saying that when it comes to looking at the idea of canonicity in relation to Bible films, it makes more sense to base such discussion on the basic unit of each "episode" or incident rather than individual books/gospels. Some of those may only appear very rarely, such as those highlighted by Peter in the link above; others appear far more commonly, such as the crucifixion.

    Returning, then, to the early silent era we discover this is borne out by the films we find from this era. It is difficult to be precise with figures, particularly because many of the films from this era are presumed lost, some of those that remain are related to others from the period, and it is difficult to be certain in many cases whether the version that remains is the original version. Indeed the DVD version of the latest film from this era Christus features a resurrection scene entirely lifted from a different Jesus movie (there's a little bit on that here, including the comments).

    Nevertheless, even treading carefully in light of the above, there are a number of observations that can be drawn. The first and rather unsurprising conclusion is that Jesus' death and birth are very much a part of this "filmic canon". Of the thirty or so films made about Jesus in the early silent era (not counting the six films about Herodias' daughter) around 18 feature the events of Jesus' Passion. The "canonical" status of this part of the story was established early on - of the eight Jesus films made in the 19th century only Georges Méliès' Le Christ marchant sur les flots (Christ Walking on the Water, 1899) was not primarily about Jesus' death.

    The second is that, as a group, episodes from Jesus' ministry appear appear more frequently than the events of Jesus' passion. As mentioned above just over half of the thirty Jesus films depict Jesus' death, but twenty include at least one incident from his ministry (and that is excluding the six films about Herodias' daughter, which could also be considered to be "stories from the ministry of Jesus"). Of those twenty, only nine are films that features both Jesus' ministry and death, the majority of the rest are films made about single incidents.

    A look at these single incidents is instructive in and of itself. The parable of the Prodigal Son was adapted four times. The only other parable to be covered is the Good Samaritan. Then there are the miracles which include the coin in the fish's mouth, the resurrection of Lazarus and the healing of a blind man. Lastly there are more general incidents such as Jesus' encounter with the woman of Samaria.

    The films that featured both Jesus' ministry and his death tended to be longer and include several episodes from his Ministry, many of these would not appear much in the future films about Jesus' Life. The 31 films from the 1903 Lubin series The Passion Play featured episodes such as "Christ and the Disciples Plucking Corn" and "Christ Calling Zaccheus from the Tree". Several films featured Jesus meeting those from outside Judea such as the woman from Samaria (several films) and the healing of the Widow of Nain's son in the earliest remaining Jesus film The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1898).

    Of course we also see other incidents cropping up that would continue to feature in a large number of films such as the woman taken in adultery, the woman who anoints Jesus' feet, the Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the 5000.

    One final point at this stage is that many of these films about Jesus do not include his resurrection. The most obvious example is From the Manger to the Cross as it is the only of the films covering both his life and death not to include these incidents, but also many of the "Passion" only films did not feel the need to include the resurrection. This is interesting as later films which excluded the resurrection were heavily criticised for doing so, even if, like Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) they were a variation of the passion play tradition.


    1 - Chattaway, Peter T., "10 Obscure Gospel Moments Most Jesus Films Miss" 22nd February 2016 in Christianity Today - http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/february-web-only/10-obscure-moments-most-jesus-films-miss.html
    2 - Boillat, Alain and Robert, Valentine. "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05)" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. p. 27
    3 - Boillat, Alain and Robert, Valentine. "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05)" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. p. 27
    4 - Brant, Jo-Ann. "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Pathé-Frères, 1913/14): Pathé’s Inclination to Tell and Maître’s Instinct to Show" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. pp.158-178

    Labels: ,