Greatest Biblical Films (not entirely traditional)Apr 12, 2001 (Updated May 14, 2001) Write an essay on this topic.
Popular Products in MoviesThe Bottom Line While the 1950's are widely remembered for their Biblical epics, other films from other areas actually have far greater spiritual impact.
Most Biblical films have dealt only with the New Testament with some notable exceptions, so I’m striving to include as many Old Testament films as I can. However, Richard Gere’s rendition of King David is so bad that it could never be considered unless you want to use the Old Testament style idea of inflicting torture on some soul who deserves punishment. I can’t remember staying awake through The Greatest Story Ever Told (in spite of the great Max Von Sydow) or The Robe, so I won’t include these traditional choices either.
I’m also eliminating Barabbas for personal reasons. During my freshman year at the University of Illinois, they would often show free dorm movies, and I’d swear that they screened Barabbas at least once a month. I never want to see Anthony Quinn playing gladiator again!
I’m going to stretch the envelope with some choices that use Biblical references, but are more notable for causing theological discussion. I was tempted to use A Clockwork Orange, but the Biblical reference is so brief that some people would object – well, they would also object to Alex’s reasons for enjoying the Biblical stories as well. I’d have an equally difficult time defending Jesus’ Son, but I’d rather watch both of these movies than most of the “pure” Biblical movies that have been made. Of course, I’ve certainly forgotten some films but here is my list:
“Honorable” Mention (at least they are Old Testament stories)
Samson and Delilah (1949)
The Old Testament is under represented in film, but Cecil B. DeMille's epic is one of the few films to tell a pre-Christian story. Samson and Delilah is a pretty lame film overall, but it’s fun to watch Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature when the strongman muscles the lion. Until Heston came along, Mature steadily maintained his reputation as the biggest hambone in the business. Mature had so little acting talent that it was always an embarrassment to see him in leading roles.
The Bible (1966)
One of John Huston’s most embarrassing projects that covers the first part of Genesis with the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, and Sodom and Gommorah. Included in the epic cast are many who would just as soon have you quickly forget this inferior film, including: Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, George C. Scott, Ava Gardner, and Stephen Boyd. In a bit of self-indulgence (or to save a few production costs) Huston plays Noah and serves as the voice of God. Still it’s about the only film I can think of that covers all these early stories, so will be of use to Sunday school teachers.
Huston does a much better job handling the Biblical material in Moby Dick though most of the credit for that must go to Herman Melville.
Top Ten List
10. Quo Vadis (1951)
Perhaps stretching the definition a tad, but this epic film deals with early Christian history when Christians were being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum. It contains some good scenes with Peter teaching Robert Taylor’s character about Christ, and shows a brief crucifixion scene of Peter on the road to Rome. But best of all is Peter Ustinav’s hilarious portrayal of Nero. Ustinav makes this long film bearable; in fact, you may want to fast forward some of the scenes just to enjoy his performance.
9. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Franco Zeffirelli’s six-hour rendition of the gospels shot on location in Tunisia is a faithful and reverent version and plays to mainstream audiences very well; therefore, network television often shows this movie during the Easter season over two or three nights. Just watching for the all star cast can make the film worthwhile as some great performers are cast in cameos: Lawrence Olivier, James Earl Jones, Donald Pleasance, Christopher Plummer, Peter Ustinov, Anthony Quinn, Michael York, and Rod Steiger, to name a few. Ann Bancroft stars as Mary Magdalene, and the part of Jesus goes to fair haired and blue-eyed Robert Powell. While some may complain about the stereotypical appearance of Jesus, consider that the film was meant to play to mainstream Euro-centric audiences.
8. Godspell (1973)
The screen adaptation of the often produced stage play doesn’t translate to the screen as well as Jesus Christ Superstar, but it’s a noteworthy attempt to modernize the Gospels, and a few of the renditions of the parables are clever. This film is set in New York City with Christ dressed in clown makeup along with other apostle clowns who illustrate a number of parables.
7. Inherit the Wind (1960)
For those who claim that this is not a Biblical movie, let me remind you that the whole premise of this film rests upon Biblical scripture and the notion of whether to interpret the Bible literally or figuratively. Bringing the Scopes Monkey trial to life in this screen adaptation of the play, Spencer Tracy and Frederic March perform an acting tour de force in a work that can provoke thought about the very nature of the Bible.
6. Jesus of Montreal (1989)
A very moving Canadian film about a charismatic actor who puts on a more than realistic passion play in Montreal with some surprising results. Traditionalists may not appreciate this arthouse film, but it brings concepts of Jesus the man as metaphor that can open up discussion of spiritual matters.
5. The Ten Commandments (1956)
Many of us associate Charton Heston as Moses, or is that just me? One of the all time great epics, this Cecil B. DeMille classic ranks as the best of the Old Testament films and holds up today in spite of some laughable dialogue. I even enjoy seeing the old legendary director come on screen to explain to us how The Ten Commandments is a story about freedom, justice and the American way.
But what a grand spectacle this is, with the plagues, the huge exodus from Egypt, and the parting of the Red Sea. This epic is probably more familiar to the English speaking world than the actual book of "Exodus" from the Old Testament. To be in touch with the story of Moses, this is required viewing. So let it be written, so let it be done.
4. Ben Hur (1959)
Charlton Heston will forever be associated with the epic films of the 1950’s with two great ones. The square jawed actor hits his marks and brings General Lew Wallace’s Tale of the Christ to life, at least as a classic museum piece. The exciting chariot race elevates this film above the other 1950’s epics, but there are some fine scenes that show Christ from the back that communicate the power of His spirit.
3. Life of Brian (1979)
Using the same sets that Zefirelli left behind in Tunisia, the Python troop has created an underestimated comedy that borrows from Biblical themes. Christ is shown at a distance, as Brian grows up and is eventually crucified during the same time period. For those who think it sacrilegious to list Life of Brian in this spot, just check it out if you have an open mind. The Pythons do not satirize Christ at all, but do take delightful jabs at the mentality of the unthinking people who create silliness through politics or by following any “prophet” who may come along and drop a sandal or appear naked before them. For thinking people, Life of Brian actually provides some fodder for spiritual discussion.
2. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
This rock opera created a bit of a stir when Tim Rice first created it in the early 1970’s, but I also remember even the Rev. Billy Graham giving it a “thumbs up,” declaring that any film that portrays the life of Christ and promotes thinking and discussing His life was worthwhile. I’ve also seen other critics bash it for being hokey and dated, but I actually like this film. It takes an interesting position by portraying Judas in a different light (much like Scorcese’s movie) by being a loved disciple who realizes that Christ actually wants him to carry out his role as the betrayer. Many of the set musical pieces are well done. The humorous King Herod song asking Christ to “Prove to me that you're no fool, Walk across my swimming pool” cracks me up still, but I am genuinely moved by Ted Neely’s prayerful rock rendition of Gethsemane where he comes to grip with the coming sacrifice.
1. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The movie that Martin Scorsese wanted to make for many years, was subjected to theater boycotts and protests when it was first released and later went through a Blockbuster boycott when released on VHS. Never mind that 99% of the protesters had never seen Scorsese’s film, but they had heard that the film would show Christ having sex with Mary Magdalene and would show Christ having doubts.
Had they bothered to see the film, these same protesters might realize that this deeply spiritual film wrestles with the same questions that have faced seminary students for centuries about the nature of God and about the station of Christ itself. The doubts that Christ has about his mission are already alluded to in the gospels, and the controversial scenes turn out to be dream sequences. Can any of us claim to know for a certainty that Christ never contemplated how His life would have been different as an ordinary husband and father?
Scorsese once contemplated going to seminary himself, but he has chosen wisely to use his visual talents to create some remarkable films. The Last Temptation of Christ is often overlooked, perhaps due to its controversial nature, but this very personal film has had more spiritual impact on me than any other Biblical film that I’ve seen. This film isn’t for everyone, but if you are a thinking person who can open-mindedly accept the conceit of using Christ as a metaphor, you will find this film very rewarding and worthwhile.
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