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God, the celluloid years: a century of Christian film

by
17 June 2022

Paul Kerensa studies a century’s worth of Christianity on film. Part one: cinema

Alamy

Chariots of Fire with Ben Cross (left) as Harold Abrahams (1981)

Chariots of Fire with Ben Cross (left) as Harold Abrahams (1981)

“GIVE me any two pages of the Bible, and I’ll give you a picture,” said Cecil B. DeMille, a film director who did just that half a dozen times.

We’re now in our second century of Christian film-making, and it’s an industry that’s had to evolve. If man is made in the image of God, then our moving images of God’s story have kept on moving.

Whether or not its glory days are behind it, the Christian film world points to a greater glory ahead. The film business is in flux like never before. Cinemas, like churches, are trying to win back audiences after (or amid) a pandemic. Even Goliaths like Netflix are beginning to fall, numbers dwindling for the first time in an ever-crowded streaming marketplace.

Film-makers adapt, though. The greatest story ever — retold on big screens, small screens, and now tablets the size of those that Moses carried.

One recent offering is Redeeming Love, a screen adaptation of Francine Rivers’s novel set in the 1850s California gold rush. Similarly, “Holywood” prospectors have mined the scriptures in the hope of striking gold — whether box office or hearts for God.

Biblical adaptations have adapted to the times, and testimonies have tested the water. Here’s how the past century has put faith on film in ever-changing ways, via ten landmark movies, decade by decade.

 

1. The Twenties: The Ten Commandments (1923)

In the beginning, when the Christian film industry was created, there was Cecil B. DeMille.

Moses confronts Pharoah in The Ten Commandments (1923)

All right, he wasn’t the first. They’ve been making biblical pictures since Methuselah were a lad — or more correctly, since the Salvation Army’s Herbert Booth apparently started putting God on the screen in 1899.

Either way, there were swords and there were sandals, and the world saw them and thought that they were good. And there were titles and there were credits: the first Christian films.

But DeMille was the one who turned his Episcopalian upbringing into box-office brilliance. His silent film The Ten Commandments is a two-hour epic, with impressive and costly visuals. It was a success, too: Paramount’s highest-grossing film for 25 years.

 

2. The Thirties: The Sign of the Cross (1932)

DeMille commanded the next decade, too, completing his biblical trilogy (after The King of Kings in 1927) with The Sign of the Cross — perhaps the first talking picture to incorporate all aspects of the sound era.

It was adapted from a Wilson Barrett play, though Barrett’s family were wary of sound films; they’d consented to a silent film and thought this “talkie” too showy. “As little money as possible should be spent on it,” the playwright’s daughter told The Citizen in 1933. DeMille meanwhile spent the equivalent of 50 million dollars in today’s money.

In one scene in the film, Claudette Colbert famously bathed in asses’ milk that soured under the hot lights, making this luxurious scene far from a luxury experience in the studio.

 

3. The Forties: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Angels. You couldn’t move for them in 1940s cinema.

In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), angel Clarence comes to Jimmy Stewart’s rescue. The same year, A Matter of Life and Death saw a heavenly messenger get lost in fog trying to escort David Niven to the afterlife.

Heaven Can Wait in 1943 was a similar Pearly Gates morality tale; while The Bishop’s Wife had angel Cary Grant mend a bishop’s family life. (It was remade with Whitney Houston in 1996.)

Perhaps post-war, we all needed some help from above in finding our feet.

 

4. The Fifties: The Ten Commandments (1956)

AlamyCharlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956)

DeMille occupies two spots on this list with, yes, the same film title. In 1956 this remake of his earlier work became his most famous film — and his last. Charlton Heston starred as Moses (alongside a pre-CGI Red Sea parting that’s a minor celluloid miracle).

Heston’s biblical portrayals continued with Ben-Hur in 1959. He played the title role, a Jewish rebel whose life changes when he meets Jesus. Some argued that the personal stories were becoming overshadowed by the epic budgets, huge film-sets, and extravagant special effects — but they certainly grabbed people’s attention.

 

5. The Sixties: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Heston played another biblical character, John the Baptist, in George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told. The whole of Hollywood seemed to be found somewhere in this production: Max von Sydow as Jesus, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene.

Even John Wayne appeared as the unnamed centurion, with just one line: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Hollywood legend now holds that the director asked him to give it more “awe”, so Wayne’s next take was: “Aw, truly this man was the Son of God.”

 

6. The Seventies: The Cross and the Switchblade (1970)

AlamyThe US poster for The Cross and the Switchblade (1970)

Big biblical epics subsided, but the era of televangelists was on the rise, including well-funded media ministries. Billy Graham and Co. set up evangelistic film companies, producing films such as The Cross and the Switchblade, based on David Wilkerson’s memoir of his urban preacher days.

The Bible made it into mainstream cinemas in the form of musical movies: Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were both released in 1973. Christian audiences were divided like the Red Sea though, as both of these presented Jesus the man (or the rock star) and avoided a resurrection scene.

 

7. The Eighties: Chariots of Fire (1981)

Personal testimony won Oscars in 1981, thanks to the biopic of athletes Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, Chariots of Fire. There were left-field biblical interpretations later in the decade, in Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Denys Arcand’s underrated Jesus of Montreal (1989).

 

8. The Nineties: VeggieTales (1993-2015)

By the turn of the millennium the best on-screen scriptures were animated: The Prince of Egypt, The Miracle Maker or Joseph: King of Dreams.

AlamyJonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002)

For many though, Christian animation peaked with VeggieTales, as Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber told millions: “Remember kids, God made you special and He loves you very much.” Big-screen adventures included Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, bagging $25 million at the box office and millions more fans.

 

9. The Noughties: The Passion of the Christ (2004)

There was a less family-friendly edge in the Left Behind series (2000), adapting Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s apocalyptic novels, with a rapture theme, if not released to rapturous applause.

But when it’s too dark for many Christians, is there an audience for these films?

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ proved that there was. Its bleak moments were unflinchingly brutal, but it attracted both Christian and non-Christian cinema-goers. Perhaps the latter wanted to see what the fuss was all about — a tough watch as we saw every beat of the whip. It remains the highest-grossing Christian film of all time.

 

10. The 2010s: The Shack (2017)

AlamyThe Shack, with Aviv Alush, Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Sumire Matsubara (2017)

Post-Gibson, the Christian film industry in America stepped up production to meet demand. Straight-to-DVD releases such as Fireproof and Courageous were marketed directly to churches. In the multiplexes, 2014 was a bumper biblical year with scripture hitting the mainstream in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.

The Shack was a rare “Christian” film that broke through to wider audiences thanks to a zillion-selling book and a star performance from Octavia Spencer as God. It was a personal tale of tragedy and hope that took risks with representation, including both a female deity and Holy Spirit.

 

11. The 2020s: Redeeming Love (2022)?

Which brings us to this decade. It’s too early to say what the outstanding Christian film will be. I don’t even know if we’ll see it on the big screen or on our smallest devices, on a traditional platform or on one of the new Christian apps that preaches straight to the converted.

Perhaps Redeeming Love will be the highlight, adapted from Francine Rivers’s novel, which in turn is adapted from one of the minor prophets. You can maybe guess which one: Michael Hosea saves prostitute Angel from her murky past, offering her a future, via marriage. American family values to the rescue, perhaps.

 

TODAY’S Christian cinema offers few faithful biblical adaptations, but more films on how to be faithful. The changing technology and industry means film-makers are finding their niche, not so much proclaiming outward as preaching inward, telling Christians how to be more Christian. As to what flavour of Christianity that should be, that’s up to the film-makers.

The issue of how to tell Christian stories to a non-Christian audience is a question for the ages.

We will never achieve that perfect Christian film. Each one may reach for God, but they all reflect broken human experience. Whether straight-to-stream testimonies for church audiences, or mainstream epics aimed at wider consumption, they continue to strive for the gold standard described by Mark Twain: “a good story well told”.

We already have the greatest story ever told — we just need the greatest storytellers to tell it.

 

Paul Kerensa is a writer of books including So a Comedian Walks into a Church, TV shows including Not Going Out and Miranda, and plays including The First Broadcast, on tour now.

Read the second part of the feature series here

Paul Kerensa is interviewed on the Church Times Podcast here

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