Sword and Sandal: A Bible Movie Montage
I love classic Bible movies, especially the really epic ones with spectacular venues and pseudo-Shakespearean acting styles. Yes, I know some people complain about the occasionally hammy dialogue or dated connections to post-war America or ancient historical inaccuracies. But to me, these little foibles do not take away from the impact and quality of the whole. These films were made back in the day when actors actually managed to act with some genuine panache, instead of relying on sulky oh-so-insipid modern melodrama. CGI does not clutter the atmosphere beyond recognition, and we get to enjoy real on-location panoramas.
Of course, there are also Bible movies/series that are not epics, and yet they manage to achieve an intimacy and realism that fits their purpose. After all, the main purpose of film is to tell a good story, whether it is done with grandeur or simplicity, and The Bible contains wonderfully dramatic material to work with in either style. Ultimately, I can’t helped but be inspired by the spiritual dynamism of these stories of faith, sacrifice, and redemption, and I hope that you might consider looking up some of the following titles from yesteryear and modernity.
One of my favorites is The Robe (1953), which focuses on what might have happened to the Roman soldier who won Christ’s robe in a dice game beneath the cross. Richard Burton and Jean Simmons are both excellent actors, and make the sacrificial love story of Marcellus Gallio and Lady Diana come to life. Victor Mature and Jay Robinson co-star as the Grecian slave Demetrius and the Roman Emperor Caligula respectively. There is a good balance between emotional depth and action sequences, as well as some really juicy dialogue bits, especially from Marcellus’s trial at the end.
Another favorite is Quo Vadis (1951), a lavish recreation of the persecution of Christians in Rome under the Emperor Nero. The star-crossed lovers are Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr as Roman officer Marcus Vinicius and Christian convert Lygia. Peter Ustinov and Finlay Currie co-star as the Emperor Nero and Peter the Apostle respectively. Although I am none-too-fond of the initial romantic angle, since Marcus is extremely aggressive in his pursuit of Lygia, and there are a few major historical inaccuracies regarding the Great Fire and Nero’s overthrow, the sufferings of the Christian martyrs endured are accurately portrayed, and the wonderful legend of St. Peter’s return to Rome is retold with reverence and imagination.
An all-time must-see is Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), a Mosaic Masterpiece depicting the Exodus, mostly shot on location on the burning sands of Egypt. Charlton Heston is the electrifying man-of-the-hour portraying the Biblical hero Moses who challenges the equally imposing figure of Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramses II to “let my people go.” Co-starring are Anne Baxter as Princess Nefretiri, Moses’ former lover, and Yvonne de Carlo, his shepherdess wife. I will freely admit there are some humorously hammy bits in this epic, not least the corny double-header love triangles, fibrotic burning bush, and the addition of Vincent Price (horror movie man) and Edward G. Robinson (gangster movie man) among the (mis)cast! But still, the sheer scale and enthusiasm in the production makes it unfailingly larger-than-life.
Another classic of the same caliber is Ben-Hur (1959), the story of a Judean prince who seeks revenge against a former-friend who betrayed his family and finds redemption in Jesus Christ who once gave him water when he was being dragged through Nazareth as a prisoner. Charlton Heston once again dominates the screen, this time as Judah Ben-Hur, and his nemesis Stephen Boyd as Masala is chillingly arrogant and callous. Haya Harareet co-stars as Judah’s long-suffering sweetheart Esther, and Finlay Currie makes another memorable appearance as the wise man Balthasar. While there are a few weak spots in the plot and the behavior of the characters, the overall product is nothing short of powerful. This is epitomized by the famous chariot race and the curing of his mother and sister’s leprosy.
A lesser-known Biblical blockbuster gem is David and Bathsheba (1951), a retelling of the adulterous affair and ultimate repentance of Israel’s greatest king. Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward portray the infamously lovelorn couple with realism and humanity, and I particularly like the way David is shown going through a mid-life crisis and spiritual dry-spell during the affair. Raymond Massey and Kieron Moore co-star as the Prophet Nathan and Uriah, Bathsheba’s doomed husband. While I dislike the way Nathan is portrayed as being a stony-eyed religious fanatic, the powerful conclusion of the movie, portraying David pleading to God before the Ark of the Covenant, makes up for it.
Another little-known production is The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), which stands out as an interesting cross-section of the life of Christ and the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii. Preston Foster plays Marcus, a gladiator hardened by personal tragedies and obsessed with providing a comfortable life for himself and his adopted son until a chance encounter with the Nazarene and a major natural disaster change his life. Kudos to Basil Rathbone, who made a wonderfully penetrative Pontius Pilate. Also, given the time period, the special effects efforts were commendable.
For Christmas, it is traditional for my family to watch The Nativity (1978), a sensitive and evocative portrayal of the events leading up to the birth of Christ. Madeleine Stowe and John Shea star as Mary and Joseph, drawn together in a tender romance that is rarely highlighted in film depictions. We get to see them go through their inner struggles, learning to trust each other and God to get them through the extraordinary events in which Providence places them as main players. Not everything in this movie is accurate, including a supposition that Herod set-up the census to search for the Christ Child, and there are some characteristic inconsistencies to speak of as well. Nevertheless, my reaction to it is still overwhelmingly positive.
For Easter, our traditional movie pick is Fr. Patrick Peyton’s The Redeemer (1959), the story of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ filmed on location in Spain. Luis Avarez portrays Jesus, whose face we never see turned towards the camera. The other actors participating in the film are all virtual unknown foreign talent, but this actually helps me visual them really being the characters they are playing, and their faces have been impressed into my mind as the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, Caiaphas, Pilate, and all the others. It is an emotionally engrossing dramatic depiction of the best and worst aspects of human nature, as Sin in all its ugliness falls on the back of the Most Innocent, only to be conquered through His ultimate triumph over Death.
The Living Christ Series (1951) put out by Cathedral Films is also an oldie not to be missed. The secret of its power is its simplicity, unfolding the Gospel in a warm and real way. There is no over-the-top Hollywood schmaltz, but just people being people without airs and arrogance. Christ and his apostles come to be well-loved characters who we dread can be hurt. Little-known Biblical background material is explored. It is low-budget, and yet movingly intimate.
As for visually-driven short films, Lamb of God (1992) produced by the LDS Church stands out at the top of its game. The visual effects are powerful without being excessive, the flashbacks are poignant, and there is an air of authenticity captured through the use of the languages of Aramaic and Latin. It is packaged into a concise 25 minute package with artistic poise. So if the Mormon missionaries who dropped it off in our Catholic mailbox are reading this, I want to take the opportunity to thank for introducing me to this production, which I now watch ever Good as a devotional. Oh, and thanks also to our in-house Mormon, Rachel Lianna, who is the only person I know who has also watched the film and with whom I can relate about it! J
Although not a Biblical film per se, Spartacus (1960) is a glorious epic about sacrificial love and undying freedom that is set at the height of the Roman Empire. Kirk Douglas is larger-than-life as the heroic title character who leads a massive slave rebellion against the might of the Imperial Army. His execution by crucifixion certainly does turn Spartacus into an earthly type of the Christ, and even the intro narration makes that connection by noting how many years these events took place before the coming of the “gentle carpenter from Nazareth.” Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles also have their parts to play in this epic. The Acting and general production values are excellent, and the plot holds its own with inspirational grandeur.
While on the subject of ancient-era gems, check out The 300 Spartans (1962), commemorating the gallant Grecian defense against the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in 380 B.C. Richard Egan stars as Leonidas, the lion-hearted leader of the Spartans who has a keen sword and wit to match. When informed that the greatly superior Persian force will shoot so many arrows they will blot out the sun, he replies boldly, “Then we will fight in the shade.” This film boasts some very fine battle sequences, and while there are quite a few historical liberties taken (there were actually about 4000 allies fighting with the Spartans for the first two days of the battle, and at least 1200 fighting with them on the cataclysmic third…although it is true that all of them put together were still vastly outnumbered), it is certainly worth viewing as an inspirational part of ancient history often overlooked.
And just for fun…if you’re in the mood for an animated feature, look into The Easter Story Keepers (1998), about a Christian baker named Ben, based in Rome in 64 A.D. Following the destruction of the city by fire, he takes in several homeless children and tells them the stories of Jesus which he explains it is his mission to tell as a “story keeper.” Meanwhile, the Roman soldiers of the Emperor Nero crack down on Ben, and he and his friends are forced to take refuge in the Catacombs. Overall, this movie is an ode to the importance of story-telling in the Christian life, and it does a riveting job of demonstrating it through memorable characters, beautiful artwork, and juicy historical legends.
Throughout his teachings, Jesus made clear that we all have a mission to use our gifts and talents for the Glory of God and the betterment of our fellow man. I believe the makers of the above movies and series have done just that through their dramatizations of the Word of God and moments in history when virtue and heroism won the day. It is a testimony to art that shall continue to touch the hearts of many for generations to come.
By Rosaria Marie