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The Bible: From One-Reeler to Docu-drama

For as long as there has been film, there have been biblical epics. There haven’t been many lately, but after a long twilight we now have the TV mini-series The Bible.  But who would have expected that Mark Burnett, the mind behind Survivor and Celebrity Apprentice, would produce such a thing, and that it would be so wildly popular? 

Biblical films have always been depictions of their own times—their concerns, beliefs and aesthetics—refracted through a scriptural lens.  Burnett’s The Bible is no exception. Presented on the History Channel as a docu-drama, it is a small epic, possibly for a small time, with editorial choices that produce predictable results.  But some of this smallness occasionally yields unexpected insights. 

Not surprisingly, among the first biblical stories to be filmed were passion plays, including the famous Oberammergau play, first put on film in 1897.  Old Testament films quickly followed.  Even with the advent of multi-reel films, filmmakers had to choose what, from Creation through Revelations, to present.  Editing the Word of God is the essential challenge, and what you include depends on where you want to end up. 

The golden age of Bible epics lasted perhaps 50 years, from D.W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia in 1914 (which, like the various versions of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, was derived from modern texts set in biblical times) through George Stevens’ 1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told. Filmmakers around the globe turned out countless versions, while American director Cecil B. DeMille turned out multiple versions of his own.  His The Ten Commandments films of 1923 and 1956 are the epitome of the genre and, along with the 1925 and 1959 versions of Ben-Hur, represent the largest and most sweeping visions of biblical times put on film. 

That sweep—immense sets filled with thousands of extras, scenery-chewing stars, thrilling chariot races, and production design from the historically accurate to the wildly inappropriate, all set to the tune of majestic scores—are what generations of viewers have been raised on, thanks to ritualized Easter-Passover showings of the films on television. These features are conspicuously missing from Burnett’s The Bible.  The look is Middle Eastern generic; mud brick houses, grime, and matted hair suggest authenticity.  The special effects are credible; the computer graphic of the burning bush is a vast improvement over the backlit shrub that called to Charlton Heston.  And the acting is generally spirited.  But therein lies a problem. 

Modern audiences may be ironic and aloof, but they demand intimacy with film characters.  Unfortunately for screenwriters and actors, biblical texts were not written with their needs in mind.  Biblical characters, pawns and messengers of the divine alike, are given a narrow range of motivations, and there are few indications of their personalities, manners, or tastes.  The challenge is as hard for method actors as it was for their predecessors. 

These limitations engender two modes of acting.  The first takes the form of woodenness, particularly in the face of the divine spirit.  This is a problem for Moses and especially Jesus, who suffers greatly.  H.B. Warner’s performance in DeMille’s 1927 King of Kings was tranquil to the point of being chair-like, literally so when tormenting Roman soldiers bedecked him with the crown of thorns.  Jeffrey Hunter’s Jesus in the 1961 King of Kings had seething eyes but kept his emotions in check.  Only Charlton Heston’s Moses projected a certain stolidity that occasionally suggested transcendence above the oaken. But, then, a straight line also connects his clenched jaw pre-burning bush Moses with the outburst-prone astronaut George Taylor in the 1968 Planet of the Apes

The opposite of woodenness is mania.  Here, pride of place goes to Willem Dafoe’s possessed Jesus in Martin Scorcese’s 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ, who radiated the energy of Elmer Gantry or Professor Harold Hill.  Dafoe had the benefit of a Jesus brought to life in Nikos Kazanzkis’s novel and the character’s severe doubts about his own sanity, not to mention a posse of disciples led by Harvey Keitel’s Judas.  In contrast, Max von Sydow’s Jesus from the Greatest Story Ever Told burned but did not explode. At another extreme is Richard Gere’s 1985 King David.  Little compares with his dancing before the Ark for film-induced embarrassment.  Directorial manias, in Mel Gibson’s case a passion for Aramaic and bloodlust, have been less often displayed. 

The Bible’s use of British TV and stage actors was one way around these problems.  Such casting also avoids the traditional problem of seeing big name stars fit into biblical sandals and the viewers’ corresponding expectations, however unfair.  George C. Scott’s Abraham in The Bible: In the Beginning was a far cry from General Buck Turgidson or Patton, but that’s what you’re waiting for.  The problem is amplified exponentially by all-star casts, above all Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth, which pitted Anthony Quinn, Lawrence Olivier, Rod Steiger, Christopher Plummer, and others against one another.  But insights are rarely recognized in  the animated performances of Burnett’s The Bible.  There is much shouting and declaiming, but the TV screen works against the characters, even in close-up. 

The Bible’s smallness is jarring for viewers brought up on DeMille.  Apparently, between 60 and 100 Israelites left Egypt rather than the thousands of extras, including a portion of the Egyptian Army, employed by DeMille during his 1956 film shoot.  In an unintended sense, however, this may depict a deeper truth about the “real” Exodus, in which perhaps a relatively small core group left Egypt, with their traditions subsequently taken up by a larger whole. 

Modern sensibilities also demand a multicultural cast.  This is mostly unobtrusive, although the casting of a black British actor, Nonso Anozie, as Samson is notable.  There is no tradition indicating that Samson was black—nor is there one that he was not.  So why shouldn’t he be, especially since Anozie’s Samson is earnest and bloody, where the movies’ most famous Samson, Victor Mature, was pudgy and ludicrous?  The immense Anozie also bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the man-made creature in Paul Wegener’s 1920 Der Golem, but this is probably accidental.  About Moroccan actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni—the Devil—and his resemblance to Barack Obama, viewers may judge for themselves. 

From the beginning, Bible epics made by Christian filmmakers treated the Old Testament as a colorful prelude to the New Testament and Jesus.  The Bible is no exception.  Four of the 10 episodes deal directly with the New Testament; a convenient segue provided by the Book of Daniel’s  prophecies regarding God’s kingdom permits a jump to the birth of Jesus, the real star of the series.  Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado has Brad Pitt-like good looks, rock star hair, and a confident air of messianic likeability.  His disciples are an indistinct bunch except for Darwin Shaw’s intense Peter. 

But any movie starring Jesus automatically has Jews as a supporting cast.  The Bible depicts Caiaphas and the Temple priesthood as manipulative obscurantists ready to kill to defend their God and nation at the expense of Jesus and his revelation.  The dirty work of crucifixion is foisted on the disgusted Romans. Adrian Schiller’s Caiaphas is tinged with evil, and the blank walls of his Temple echo with the emptiness of the faith.  The show depicts an absolute inability to understand the messianic heresy and its appeal, a palpable fear that Judaism and the Jewish people will be crushed by Rome or the new heresy. These sentiments are expressed too infrequently to register deeply but are improvements over the Shylock-like Caiaphas of Yiddish actor Rudolph Schildkraut or Anthony Quinn’s super-rabbinic version in Zefferelli’s mini-series. 

The persecution and crucifixion are depicted with predictable and adequate, but not Gibson-esque, blood and cruelty.  Resurrection is oddly muted; Jesus reappears and resumes his mission and beautiful smile, newly equipped with computer-generated holes in his hands.  Unlike most movies about Jesus, The Bible ends not with the resurrection but with the disciples spreading the gospel.  Apart from their own persecution at the hands of Jews and Romans, and the dramatic conversion of Paul, well played by Irish actor Con O’Neill, the conclusion is meant to be hopeful, but the execution is weak. 

What would a Jewish Bible epic look like?  The very idea seems an oxymoron, somewhere between superfluous, trivial, idolatrous and distasteful; the Bible is meant for the mind, not the eye.  Can or should the superhuman challenges posed by God to Abraham or Moses, above all to believe, and can their emotions—confusion, fear, disbelief, anger, faith, and much more—be put on film?  Does film’s practice of humanizing man’s encounters with God trivialize or diminish the most awesome questions of faith, judgment, and destiny?  These problems were always hard for Jewish art to handle, while Christian art embraced representation as means to communicate and motivate. 

In a sense, The Bible fits neatly into the continuous traditions of Christian art and biblical films.  The series’ high ratings may not be harbingers of religious revival so much as a sign that traditional biblical storytelling, full of choices and elisions, from the stained glass windows of European cathedrals to passion plays to Bible epics, still resonates in post-denominational America.  The appeal of The Bible is its sheer earnestness and unflinching belief in itself.  These alone are signs of faith worth pondering.

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charles hoffman on April 23, 2013 at 4:39 am (Reply)
and now, a whole new generation will be exposed to the distortions that are inherent in any effort to transform Torah into a set of stories.
Lawrence of Bessarabial on April 26, 2013 at 9:10 pm (Reply)
What aboout "Life Of Brian"?

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