This is the second in a series looking at the Biblical Epic Genre
In my last post in this series I was looking at the arguments for and against there being a Biblical Epic genre. In this posts I want to consider what the defining characteristics of that genre might be if it is to be accepted that said genre exists.
Wood (1989: 173) describes how the "ancient world of the epics was a huge, many-faceted metaphor for Hollywood itself" and how the heroes of these films are not Moses or Ben-Hur, but DeMille and Wyler. For him one of the key characteristics is the "myth of excess" (1989: 174). He also lists several others:
"The basic elements of the epic seem to run from the minor ones like the music....to relatively major ones like certain sturdy , straight-faced acting styles to absolutely essential elements like the big scenes (the orgy, the ceremonial entry into the city, the great battle, the individual combat, and where possible, a miracle or two) and the big, earthshaking themes." (Wood 1989: 175).Wood is writing about the epic genre in general however, rather than the Biblical Epic specifically so some of these may be less essential than others.
Like Wood, Grace (2009) is also concerned with a broader genre, only in her case it is the "Hagiopic" (a religious biopic which could be set in a relatively modern era such as 1943's The Song of Bernadette) rather than the (historical) epic. She lists "several of the most striking characteristics of the traditional hagiopic" as follows:
"...the typical locations, characters, and sounds; the genre-specific interweaving of chronological tome and a sense of eternity; the concern with suffering; the miracles and the sense of the nearness of the heavenly realm; the nostalgia for an earlier era; and the depiction of persecution and painful death of an innocent person. There are also generic narrative patterns. One typical narrative element involves sceptics, doubters, or cynical characters, who make snide comments about religious belief near the beginning of the film, only to be proved wrong at the end..." Grace (2009: 13)In contrast Babington and Evans (1993: 4) take a different approach, dividing the genre into "three sub-types of film: the Old Testament Epic; The Christ Film; and the Roman/Christian Epic" they do also note a few characteristics that cover all three genres. For example, "every production is a 'unique', costly, much-advertised affair" (1993: 6). Related to that is that "the genre only exists in the superlative mode" (1993: 6). One further characteristic were the "pressures towards conformity and ecumenical blandness" (1993: 8).
They also note the contradictory attitudes of fascination and repulsion towards the (supposedly) heightened sexual content and the manner in which, typically, neither of which is ultimately fulfilled (1993: 11). This is similar to the more frequently discussed technique, popularised by DeMille, of dressing up the wolf of a greater amount of sexual content, in the sheep's clothing of a pious moral message and biblical content.
Ultimately Babington and Evans list the following as the key characteristics of each of these sub-genres:
The Old Testament Epic
Culture heroes/villains, (50)
Contemporary allusion, (53)
American matters [i.e. parallels], (55)
The battle of the gods , (57)
Patterns of scepticism, (58)
Law and Orgy (65)
The Christ Film
The Resurrection, (105
The Jews, (105)
The women, (107)
The Roman/Christian Epic
Shadow of the Galilean [i.e. Jesus Cameo only], (179)
Prologues to what is possible, (181)
Prologue into plot, (185)
Christianity & Romantic love, (197)
The Disappearing Jew, (199)
Earthly powers, (202)
There isn't really space here to go into the definitions of each of these, but it's worth pointing out how different these characteristics are of these more specific sub-genres.
In his recent work "Hollywood Biblical Epics" (2015) Richard Lindsay is mainly concerned with the one obvious characteristic of biblical epics that no-one else seems to mention – camp.
"...a good story, a romance of biblical proportions, push the boundaries of spectacle and special effects, let them see the events of biblical history played out on the big screen as a grand pageant --furthermore, in the hypnotic-suggestive state of movie watching..." Lindsay (2015: xxi-xxii)There's also this summary from later in the book.
"I am defining the biblical epic more broadly as films that are American in origin, were released in movie theatres, that are treated historically (not as parody, satire, or paraphrase of biblical text), which feature biblical characters, and are set in the period of the Old Testament, the time of Christ, or immediately after Christ." Lindsay (2015: 55)Lindsay also cites the work of Douglas K. Mikkelson (2004) on the "silver screen gospels", most notably The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Mikkelson lists three criteria for such films:
1 - "The film's main focus is to present a dramatized biography of Jesus in his historical time and place"
2 - "The film is based on one or more of the New Testament Gospels"
3 - The film must have been "released as a major motion picture or a major television movie"
Surprisingly the only author I'm aware of who tries to systematically lay out the main criteria is Adele Reinhartz in her chapter "The Biblical Epic" in last year's "The Bible in Motion" (2016: 179-182). She lists the following four characteristics:
1 - Scope and Scale,
2 - Allusionism,
3 - Romance, and
4 - Markers of Biblical Authenticity
She then takes a closer look at two further "features", "adapting the Bible to film" and “'then as now,' that is, the use of the past to reflect on the present" (2016: 184) where she examines the treatment of: gender, science and medicine, civil rights, cold war America, communism, atheism and idolatry, and epic religion.
In a future post I'm going to propose my own criteria, based on the wealth of ideas above but also my own thoughts on the matter.
- Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Grace, Pamela. (2009) The Religious Film:Christianity and the Hagiopic, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
- Lindsay, Richard A. (2015), Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
- Mikkelson, Douglas K. (2004) "The Greatest Story Ever Told": A Silver-Screen Gospel". Lanham, MD ; Oxford: University Press of America
- Reinhartz, Adele (2016), 'The Biblical Epic', in Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (ed.), The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of Biblical Reception in Film, vol. 1, 175-92, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter
- Wood, Michael. ( 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press
Labels: Epic Genre