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DOWSE Guide to the
by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus
A survey of biblical epics by Donald Morefield
And Lo! The word spread across the virtual land calling for someone to prepare scripture for a new wonder that drew upon the sacred text - a special issue of Strange Adventures, known to the faithful as "Beyond Belief", concerned with religious themes both holy and otherwise.
And soon it came to pass that Donald, late of Humberside, generously offered to accomplish a gruelling task: that of releasing his previously published Holy Shit! listing to the electronic wind of change.
And so it was that a (slightly revised) parchment, without physical substance, was dispatched by means, unfamiliar, towards Ye Editor, cloistered still on yonder Isle of Wight, with every hope that a blessing of sorts would be given, once more, to the selections made…
So it was that wise old Donald became, yet again, the chronicler of inglorious filmic tales. And it was truly just another miracle, though as before, likely to please no-one, especially with that same damned title.
As before, by no means could this humble survey claim to be even nearly a complete one. For many in number were those motion pictures that Donald had still been unable to behold for himself. Be they of foreign origin and unknown throughout the kingdom… not to be found so easily upon videocassette… or rarely (perhaps thankfully so, and praise the highest) cast upon the heavens by modern means. May it be further recognised that some there were on the 'dread see scrolls' shortlist of titles that even brave Donald could not bear to apprehend. In time, a final set was chosen, and they numbered no more than twenty. Surely, that'll be enough, lord?
In the beginning there was D.W. Griffith, and this grandly silent classic, starring Lillian Gish, a quartet of interlinked tragic history tales, concerning Man's inhumanity to his fellow man. Including the Feast of Belshazzar with ancient Babylonian palace - still probably the most lavish set ever constructed for a film… and a curious contemporary sequence of a car and train race… this is undoubtedly the first true epic of the cinema, and obviously, at that time the most expensive picture yet made.
The Ten Commandments
Cecil B. De Mille's original silent version of 1923 boasts - surprisingly - a colour sequence (though this gimmick was to become very popular in time), and in a bizarre twist that's rather comic today, transports the Israelites to the er, 'Promised Land', of twenties' California!
De Mille's generally diabolical remake of 1956, casts Charlton Heston as Moses leading the great exodus, and is admittedly the more popular version. An undeniable spectacle at times, especially the Oscar-wining special effects of the parting of the Red Sea, but the action and the drama are just too boring for words.
King Of Kings (1927)
Decidedly, a movie version of the New Testament, this is De Mille's silent story of Christ as seen through the eyes of Mary Magdalene. Watchable, for H.B. Warner's sensitive portrayal of Jesus, but compared to later interpretations, it's rather dull Sunday school cinema. The long missing colour sequence has, justifiably, been restored.
MGM's remake of 1961 features Jeffrey Hunter (later to play Captain Pike in the original TV series of Star Trek!) as the Messiah, and that version was dubbed "I Was A Teenage Jesus" by critics.
Sign Of The Cross (1932)
De Mille's morality tale of decadent Rome stars Fredric March as a soldier who becomes a Christian, and Charles Laughton as the queer emperor Nero - fiddling happily while the impressive miniature city burns during a spectacular climax. With its sacrificial horrors and thinly veiled orgies this was pretty risqué for way back then.
Following her sexy role in the above, Claudette Colbert lent her charms to this marvellously photographed De Mille version about the Queen of the Nile and Roman lover Mark Antony, made in 1934.
The 1963 remake by director Joseph Mankiewicz, was deservedly a huge flop - and still, allowing for inflation, perhaps the costliest movie ever made. A lavish visual feast but badly paced and ploddingly acted by the often married Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Who wants four hours of Liz and Dick's romance anyway?
The Last Days Of Pompeii (1935)
Merian C. Cooper's RKO 'disaster movie' has a pacifist blacksmith who moonlights as champion mauler in the ancient city's gladiatorial arena. The film is notable for its effects-loaded grand finale as Pompeii falls to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Remade by Italians in 1960 with Steve ('Hercules') Reeves as chief gladiator, though this muscle-bound actioner was something of a non-event. Another version, produced for TV, appeared in 1984.
Samson And Delilah
Colourful hokum from De Mille of 1949, with Victor Mature as the biblical strongman betrayed by Hedy Lamarr - whose barber's skills drain away the hero's strength. This is typical De Mille; a childishly simplistic narrative and lots of special effects - some good (like the final moments when Samson destroys the temple), some bad… a totally unconvincing fight between a man and a lion may provoke a few chuckles today. George Sanders and Angela Lansbury head up the supporting cast, but to very little effect. Like 'Pompeii', there was a muscle movie version of the story, Samson, in 1960, and a US-TV remake, with Mature playing Samson's dad, which appeared in 1984.
David And Bathsheba (1952)
Gregory Peck tops the bill in this solid but quite uninteresting biblical episode which sees King David lusting after the wife (Susan Hayward) of another, a sorry so-and-so who gets bumped off during a major battle.
The Robe (1953)
A tale of those affected by wearing Christ's crucifixion wrapper, this was the first movie shot in Cinemascope. Sadly, although the photography is exemplary, director Henry Koster fails to make best use of the process and the broader canvas is somewhat wasted here. At least the acting, by such luminaries as Richard Burton and Victor Mature, is watchable, even if the cast are letdown at times by a weak script. Despite these faults, the film was a great success and begat a sequel.
Demetrius And The Gladiators (1954)
Sequel to The Robe, with Victor Mature returning to his role as a Greek slave in the perilous arena of Caligula's Rome. As the title might suggest, this movie has plenty of swordplay. There's foreplay, too, as our hero fights off not only hordes of brawny warriors but also the advances of lascivious empress-to-be, Messalina (Susan Hayward). Delmer Daves' direction is surprisingly effective and results in a pacy action classic.
Sign Of The Pagan (1954)
Who was it said that in the end everything comes down to sex and violence? Twenty years earlier, De Mille's Sign Of The Cross focused on religious conversion, and Romans were the baddies. Mid-fifties, the cycle has turned around and it's time for the Christian Romans versus nasty barbarian hordes of Attila the Hun. Oh, sure, nice battle scenes but shame about the story, acting, etc.
Biblical pictures tend to fall into two main categories:
(a) usually pretentious retellings of the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, or the life and times of another of God's do-gooders like Moses.
(b) the other type, generally termed "sword and sandal", explore stories of the Roman Empire and feature lots of battles, arena sacrifices and chariot races.
Ben-Hur had been filmed previously in 1007, but it's the silent 1926 epic by Fred Niblo for MGM that scores with film critics the world over. Regarded as a classic of the US industry, that version is a great spectacle but lacks the populist appeal of this later remake. Charlton Heston stars in this renowned adventure that swept up eleven Oscars, including 'Best Picture'. It's deservedly famous for the dynamic chariot race (director William Wyler on top form here), and Christianity is just a sideshow. An animated version was produced in 1987.
David And Goliath (1961)
Here's those canny Italians again, eschewing the pursuit of our brave hero by Bathsheba, and focusing instead upon the familiar giant slaying episode. But to no great effect, it must be said. Orson Welles stars but, by the time this film appeared, who cares?
Pontius Pilate (1961)
A French-Italian epic made in Rome, this features Basil Rathbone (who played Pilate in the 1935 version of 'Pompeii') as the Jewish leader, Caiaphas. Jean Marais portrays the title character. Cunningly, John Drew Barrymore is cast in the dual roles of Jesus and Judas, but this adds merely a novelty value.
The Gospel Accornding To Saint Matthew (1964)
Pier Paolo Pasolini's Euro-revision of the story of Christ is here given a keen docu-drama edge, resulting in a rather bleak picture lacking any of the uplifting mores of Hollywood's bible tales. It is well intentioned, perhaps, but without the common touches such a treatment would require for widespread approval. Nice music, though.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
This three-and-a-quarter-hour spectacular, boasts a starry cast and an endless line-up of big name cameo roles. The hyperbolic title tells it all, really, and the film was a favourite target for critical flak: blasted as "a catalogue of Hallmark cards", etc. Dire, avoid.
The Bible (1966)
This one didn't mess about using 'subtitles', it took the good book onboard in its grandiose entirety. Director John Huston's Old Testament opus clocks in at just less than three hours - but feels like ten. Inevitably episodic, considering the great scope of its subject: taking in Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and all the rest. Still, it has a few memorable sections. George C. Scott as Abraham, Huston himself appears as Noah, and Peter O'Toole plays a trio of angels.
Anglo-Italian vehicle for Burt Lancaster as the 'Lawgiver', scripted by Anthony Burgess, this was made for TV. All 300 minutes of it! Middle Eastern locations do help give it the right atmosphere (in the above mentioned, 'Greatest Story', Utah doubled for Palestine to certain comic effect!).
King David (1985)
Bruce Beresford tried - and failed to revive the Hollywooden biblical epic. Richard Gere tackles the title role, woodenly. Alice Krige (the beauty discovered in Ghost Story) turns in a worthy performance as Bethsheba, and Edward Woodward steals all the early scenes as Saul. Poor Goliath, slain very early on, is played by Luigi Montefiori!
The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)
This highly controversial picture by the ever-interesting filmmaker Martin Scorsese, is unfortunately a dull and overlong effort. Willem Dafoe's Jesus has merits but perhaps the best thing about the whole movie is the excellent score by Peter Gabriel.
(previously published in Strange Adventures 43, December 1992)
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