THE film historian Matthew Page refers to copious other movies than just the 100 selected, asking how Bible films inform our understanding of cinema rather than the reverse. His list excludes films with religious or spiritual themes (thus no Bergman), Christ figures (e.g. Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar), inspiring Christians such as St Francis (Brother Sun, Sister Moon), and documentaries such as Jeremy Bowen’s Son of God. Inevitably, there are gaps: no mention, for instance, of J. Arthur Rank’s Religious Film Society productions, among them The First Easter, and how cinema portrayed Jesus almost in absentia.
Georges Hatot and Louis Lumière’s The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1898) is the first biblical film still fully extant. At 11 minutes, it is a truncated version of the Gospels, and yet raises issues still relevant about Bible films. A key question is what is omitted from the original texts. This French short concentrates on the Passion rather than the earlier ministry of Jesus, thereby setting a trend. Page convincingly argues that screen adaptations often require cuts and even sometimes additional dramatic elements and personnel. Ben-Hur (1925, 1959, and 2016) is a case in point. The book also helps readers to understand how the cultural norms at the time of a production overlay interpretations of scripture.
The author perceives in the Passion-play structure of Jesus of Montreal (1989) a critique of Western society’s decadence. Yet, when writing about Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), he doesn’t attempt to identify any societal changes subsequently affecting the 2001 remake. Elsewhere, we are alerted to the distortion of Holy Writ to justify abhorrent values. Castigating anti-Semitism, blatant or implicit, D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) is accused of portraying practising Jews as being the intolerant ones. It is still there, Page claims, in The Passion of the Christ (2004), in which all Jews on show bay for the blood of Jesus: historically unlikely, this, linked to Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic outbursts, leaves a nasty taste. We are alerted to how blue-eyed Caucasian Christs dominate Western cinema. Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961) gave us all-American Jeffrey Hunter, complete with shaved armpits.
New Testament movies aside, the book draws attention to a relatively narrow set of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures used by filmmakers around the world. Moses, Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah, and Samson are regular subject-matter. Page does refer to the sexual objectification of the likes of Jezebel, Delilah, Salome, and Bathsheba. Betty Blythe, playing the title role in The Queen of Sheba (1921), famously said: “I wear 28 costumes, and if I put them on all at once, I couldn’t keep warm.” There is no exploration of how using biblical characters enabled productions to evade the censorship imposed on other genres.
This book is a worthwhile read, but I should also have liked some engagement with biblical scholarship. This has often provided the fresh and radical understandings of sacred narratives which films eventually then proclaim. Perhaps that is another book altogether.
The Revd Stephen Brown is the Church Times film critic.
100 Bible Films
British Film Institute/Bloomsbury £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99