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I once took a class in college, which looked at a number of books from the Bible through a non-religious, strictly literary lens. We studied the text as if it were Homer’s The Iliad or Tolstoy’s War and Peace looking at the elements of story, character development and so forth. When reading the text of the Bible, one takes note of the fantastical elements like individuals walking on water, burning bushes that do not turn to ash, men with super strength and parting of the Red Sea and it is nearly impossible to not see these elements in a cinematic sense. Some film producer during Hollywood’s Golden Age probably thought that some stories from the Bible would make great films. He probably thought these stories would make a lot of money, which is not unlike what is happening today with comic-book characters and the next YA-novel hit.
With the release of Ridley Scott’s latest offering of the biblical epic ilk, Exodus: Gods and Kings hitting theaters, we take a look at a number of some of the most solid epics based on the Bible to ever grace the silver screen.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
This is a different kind of epic. There is great violence sure, probably much more than you would expect in a film about the crucifixion of Christ, but this film does not include massive battles between warring factions. Aside from the atrocities committed against him, the other struggle here is the internal strife within Jesus. Say what you will about Mel Gibson’s passion project, there can be no denying that in spite of its mixed reception, the film not only did quite well at the box office, but also puts us as close to Jesus as has ever been done. Certainly closer than even the New Testament does.
Samson and Delilah (1949)
Directed by the great Cecil B. DeMille, who can probably safely be called the master of the dazzlingly entertaining biblical epic. The movie is the romantic episode that tells the story of Samson, a superhumanly strong man whose power lies in the locks on his head, and Delilah, the woman he loves who betrays him and sells him out to his enemies, the Philistines. There is no happy ending to this love story, but it is worth a look, if for nothing else, for the greatness of DeMille.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Sure, it’s animated, but it is a real gem produced by the then fledgling Dreamworks Animation. It tells the story of Moses and his journey. Think of it as the animated version of Exodus. The tale is time-tested and tightly constructed. The cast is stellar, boasting the likes of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Glover, Sandra Bullock and Patrick Stewart among others. The music is fantastic, composed by the incomparable Hans Zimmer and it has a hit Academy Award winning anthem belted out by two mega songstresses, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. There’s a good deal going for this picture.
The chariot scene. Epic in scale and execution. This is the reason (aside from the commanding presence of Charlton Heston of course) to see this movie. Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who crosses paths with Jesus during his journey. Unlike similarly themed films, Ben-Hur is not based on the Bible per se. Rather, it is based on a novel published in 1880 by Lew Wallace, who was a Union general during the American Civil War among other things. Still, it does include a number of scenes with Jesus along with the expected crucifixion.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Another Cecil B. DeMille masterpiece. It is perhaps, the very definition of the term ‘biblical epic’. Next to Ben Hur, it is probably the only other film that comes to mind when you think of movies based on Bible stories. It would be DeMille’s last and greatest offering of his decorated career. This film, which also tells the story of Moses, does so slightly differently in that it covers the entire life of the Hebrew hero from birth to well into old age. So, if you want yet another example of how to do the biblical epic right, look no further than The Ten Commandments.
Ridley Scott’s take on the Moses tale is now in theaters. Check out the review from my colleague Jordan Brooks here.