Today: June 22, 2024

Bible Blockbusters: Five Game Changers

Easter. For some, the holidays are the cumulation of 40-days of fasting and prayer. For others, they’re simply a four-day chocolate binge. However you plan to celebrate Noah reminds us that when it comes to religious epics, the film industry has a long history of turning Bible tales into audio-visual extravaganzas. To mark Easter and the arrival of the 21st Century Biblical blockbuster, FilmJuice Features Editor Paula Hammond takes a look at five religious films that inspired, intrigued and shocked … in equal measure.

Ben Hur (1959)
Lew Wallace’s stunning novel  “Ben Hur: A Tale Of Christ”, published in 1880, was the inspiration, but most of us are probably more familiar with the 1959 film, starring Charlton Heston. The film – which was the third attempt to bring Wallace’s masterpiece to the big screen – is a sweeping tale of love, hate and revenge set against the backdrop of Christ’s mission and crucifixion. During filming, a mind-boggling 300 sets, nine sound stages, 100,000 costumes and 1,000 suits of armour were used. Add to that Miklos Rozsa’s spectacular score (the longest in movie history) and Robert Surtees’ magnificent cinematography and you have a film which set the standard of religious epics for decades to come. However, it’s the set pieces which grab your attention, from the nine-minute chariot race to the monstrous sea battle which used extras with missing limbs for authenticity. Ben Hur proved that a religious epic could be sensitive to the subject matter while still spinning a thrilling tale.

Jesus Of Nazareth (1977)
It’s hard to believe now that one of the biggest TV hits of the 1970s was the miniseries Jesus Of Nazareth. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring an impossibly handsome Robert Powell as Jesus, the series was aired in two parts over the Easter holidays and racked up 21 million viewers in the UK alone. If Ben Hur gave us religion writ large, Jesus Of Nazareth was – for all its sumptuous cinematography – an intimate tale of the ‘man’ who became the Messiah. Powell, who was cast for his piercing blue eyes, mimicked HB Warner’s portrayal of Christ in The King of Kings (1927) by almost never blinking. The effect – enhanced by the judicious use of eyeliner – was incredibly powerful. In effect, Jesus stares directly at the audience throughout the 360-minute run time. Before it was even broadcast, US fundamentalists damned Powell’s “too human” portrayal as denying Christ’s divinity. However many – believers and unbelievers – embraced the film’s ‘70s hippy re-casting of Jesus as the gentle everyman.

Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian (1979)
If you ever needed proof that we shouldn’t take religion too seriously, then take a good look at the world we live in. Monty Python’s Life Of Brian was, in many ways a response to the over-sensitive, over-censored world of religious fundamentalism. Although often seen as a spoof on the life of Jesus, the film’s title explains it all. Brian is a young Jewish man, born on the same day as Christ and subsequently mistaken for Him. What follows is a very clever – and stupidly funny – satire on the politics of religion and how good ideas can be turned into bad ideology. Not surprisingly the film was banned in 39 British counties and resulted in some very Pythonesque scenes of nuns and rabbis picketing cinemas. If only the PC brigade had watched more carefully. After all, Brian isn’t the Messiah. He’s just a very naughty boy.

The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)
If you want to court controversy – and put bums of seats – then all any filmmaker needs to do is to throw sex and religion into a big cinematic bag, stand back and wait for the fireworks. Which is exactly what happened when Martin Scorsese decided to bring Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel to the big screen. On the face of it The Last Temptation Of Christ has much to recommend it including some great performances from Willem Defoe as Christ and Harvey Keitel as Judus. In the film, Jesus is shown deciding not to die on the cross but instead to live out an ordinary life and consummate his relationship with Mary Magdalene. It’s an interesting idea but sadly one that Scorsese didn’t have the cahoonas to follow thorough on. Ultimately the film fails because Scorsese tries to have it both ways. He wants to shock his audience and flirt with controversy but constantly tries to negate any religious backlash. So in the end, the life of the ‘alternative’ Christ turns out to be nothing more a tempting ‘dream’ from Satan.

The Passion Of Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson’s bloody and bruising vision of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life was both hugely successful and massively controversial. While almost every religious epic to date has focused on Christ’s life and ministry – emphasizing His message and His resurrection – Gibson cuts straight to the core of the tale. One man, betrayed, tortured and finally executed, slowly and horrifically. It’s powerful and stomach-turning stuff. The question is: is The Passion Of Christ anything more than 126 minutes of sadistic violence wrapped up in archaic languages (the actors speak Aramaic and Latin) to give it more gravitas? The jury is still out but one thing’s for sure. The concept of Christ “dying for our sins” has never been so forcefully put.


Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email:

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