This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.
Just as cinema saw off the challenges of the great depression and the second world war, it faced a new problem - the rise of the television set. Whilst during the late forties and early fifties the ownership of television sets was still fairly low, filmmakers began to realise that if cinema was to survive it was going to have to offer audiences something they couldn't get at home. If the forties were typified by low-budget, black and white noir, the fifties and sixties would become defined by opulence and spectacle. Technicolor - which had been available since the late silent era - finally began to become the norm. By 1960 cinema finally reached the point whereby more films were being recorded in colour than in black and white. And then there was the development of various widescreen formats - a bigger and better canvas on which cinemas artists and showmen could tell their tales.
No-one had a better nose for the opportunity for spectacle than Cecil B. DeMille and so it's perhaps no surprise that it was he who was amongst the first to respond to these new challenges and opportunities. His 1949 Samson and Delilah was such a game changer that it kickstarted a twenty year period that became synonymous with the historical epic, particularly those based on the Bible. DeMille's film, including its style, approach and its politics would be much copied, though few films would surpass its box office success, turning a $3 million budget into $11 million income in 1950 alone, and almost $29 million overall.1
Seven years later DeMille was at it again, producing the movie that would become the most totemic Bible film of all time. The Ten Commandments, in some ways a remake of his own 1923 adaptation, made $65 million in the US alone and it remains the 6th highest grossing film in the all-time adjusted chart.2.
Two other films from this era are particularly noteworthy, though their dependence on the actual biblical text is somewhat more tangential. The Robe (dir. Henry Koster, 1953) was the first film to adapt the CinemaScope process which remains the most notable landmark in film history after the introduction of sound. Koster would later develop the lesser known biblical epic The Story of Ruth (1960). The other is of course 1959's Ben-Hur (1959) which went on to sweep the OscarsTM with a, still unsurpassed, 11 awards. These notable, but occasional, peaks proved enough to sustain the genre through a myriad of films that were less successful - either at the box-office, or with critics, or with both.
The sheer volume of films made during this period is particularly noteworthy. In just seventeen years between Samson and Delilah and 1966's The Bible, 92 films were produced based on the Hebrew Bible and at least 25 films that featured Jesus. And this excludes films such as The Silver Chalice and Demetrius and the Gladiators, both 1954, which took the lightest touch on the Bible, or others such as the various Italian Samson films which were really only about the Old Testament strongman in name alone.
Indeed a significant part of the reason for the number of epics during this era was due to the re-emergence of the Italian film industry. Whilst on the one hand it's artistic wing re-emerged under the banner of neorealism, it's studios churned out sword and sandal movies at a tremendous rate including multiple entry series based on figures such as Hercules, Goliath and Samson. Of course this era was also the one where these two strands merged together in perhaps the most unlikely of ways, in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964).
Sadly the majority of Bible films made in Italy during this period were not up to the same quality, tending to be cheaply and quickly made. That said they did give profile to some of the stoties that, by that time, were being ignored by Hollywood. Marcello Baldi, Francisco Pérez-Dolz's I grandi condottieri (Gideon and Samson, 1965) was the first film to feature Gideon and there were also rare outings for the stories of Athalia [Atalia (dir. Mario Ferrero, 1964)] and the Macabees [Il Vecchio Testamento (dir. Gianfranco Parolini, 1962)] all from Italian studios.
This wider range of stories was also boosted by the emergence of smaller independent/church-based filmmakers and, of course, television. The Living Bible series not only covered a high proportion of the stories from the gospels, but it also expanded to cover most of the book of Acts and many of the stories from the Old Testament. Indeed it's coverage of the Old Testament was perhaps the first time a group of filmmakers had selected a group of stories they wished to adapt on the basis of their biblical prominence and importance, rather than on artistic or financial merit. Given such a premise it's perhaps not surprising that the films are poor artistically, for reasons beyond just their low budget, but across the genre as a whole they also fill a vital role being the first time that characters such as Joshua and Isaiah had been depicted on screen. Elsewhere TV's Matinee theatre brought us The Prophet Hosea (1958).
Another significant development in this period was the explosion of Bible films being produced from outside of Europe and North America. Whilst research into the development of Bible film outside of "the West" lags behind, this era saw the first Bible films being released in Catholic Southern American countries (Brazil & Argentina), Israel, India, the Philippines and a number of predominantly Muslim countries (Egypt, Iran and Turkey).
Of course many of the usual stories continued to prove popular, with films about Adam & Eve (6), David (12), Joseph (9), Moses (10), Samson (7) and Solomon (7) all proving popular and it's striking that these correlate fairly closely with the hugely successful films of the 1920s. There's the odd exception: Having proved popular with the very earliest filmmakers the story of Joseph had not been covered much during the late silent / early sound period, conversely other than forming a key section of Huston's The Bible (1966), the story of Noah was only covered in Disney's animated short Noah's Ark and the Belgian Noah (1964).
Indeed it was perhaps the perceived failure of Huston's film (which did eventually turn a profit) that signalled the end of this era. The film was released the year after the more high profile failure of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and the traditional biblical epic limped off seemingly fatally wounded. Yet whilst the major studios opted to give the Bible a wide berth the subject was to continue to prove popular with smaller filmmakers, who, liberated from the pressure of having to recoup a huge budget were able to produce more challenging and experimental adaptations of the biblical text. It's to them I'll turn next...
1 - the-numbers.com - retrieved 5th October 2016
2 - Box Office Mojo - retrieved 5th October 2016
Labels: Canon and Bible films