Adrian Hilton is a conservative academic, theologian and educationalist.
In an increasingly unbelieving world of humanism and secularisation, not to mention the jarring dissonance of a sharia-compliant caliphate and all the fuss over women bishops, religion has become a turn-off. God is bothersome: atheism rules the new enlightenment and Dawkins reigns supreme. Mention the Bible or Church, and eyes glaze over. But say “biblical epic”, and something numinous energises the spirit. You might not believe in the irruption of God into the affairs of man, but you will surely be drawn and compelled to all that is theatrically holy. Even Professor Dawkins might admit to being mystically gladdened by the ancient legends of transcendence and omnipotence.
Most of us are likely to have visions of Charlton Heston’s Moses radiating the Shekinah glory of God as he descends Mount Sinai, in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments. Or maybe William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, which seems to have been rolled out every Easter since 1959, again starring Charlton Heston, this time as a Hebrew prince sold into slavery who finds redemption through an encounter with Christ. Or possibly George Stevens’ 1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told, another colossal-budget mega-saga starring (you guessed it) Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, now heralding the coming of that very Messiah he happened to meet as Judah Ben-Hur six years earlier. Like a Billy Graham rally in Wembley Stadium, they were crusades for religious enlightenment and moral armament. They’re epic because they’re full of grandeur and spectacle: expansive (and expensive) sets, swirling togas, great plagues and chariot races. They’re biblical because they’re based on stories from the Old or New Testament, though some are works of spurious conjecture, if not pure fiction (like Henry Koster’s 1953 The Robe).
Not all biblical epics star Charlton Heston, of course. But it certainly helps if your Moses, Ben-Hur and John the Baptist look a bit like, say, Captain America or Superman. The biblical super-hero concept probably goes some way to explaining why Russell Crowe bagged the title role in Darren Aronofsky’s recent antediluvian blockbuster Noah; and why Christian Bale will be portraying Moses in Ridley Scott’s upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings, due for release in December. Scott is also rumoured to be in the running to direct another big-budget biblical epic based on the life of David, the second and greatest king of Israel and Judah, who (surprisingly) hasn’t had a serious cinematic treatment since Gregory Peck played the psalm-singing, amicicidal giant-killer in 1951. (Apologies to fans of Pretty Woman, but I find it impossible to include Bruce Beresford’s 1985 flop starring Richard Gere in the “serious” category). Casting isn’t yet confirmed, but it’s a fairly safe bet that the modern David will look a bit like Spider-Man.
As popular entertainment, you can trace the biblical epic genre all the way back to the angel-demon passion plays of the medieval era, which developed out of the liturgical Easter resurrection dialogue Quem quaeritis? (“Whom do you seek?”). These morphed into Renaissance salvation-damnation allegories like Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, which presents all the carnal temptations, soul struggles and apocalyptic damnation of a morality play. Modern christological works like the Rock operas Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar are the eschatological theatrical fulfilment. Audiences never seem to tire of cosmic mystery, kenotic sacrifice and fantasies about the world, the flesh and the devil.
But just as Shakespeare’s Wooden-O cockpit couldn’t hold the vasty fields of France, not even Drury Lane could stage the parting of the Red Sea: for that you needed DeMille, CinemaScope and Technicolor. And the modern biblical epic demands the gasping visual architecture of CGI and 3D immersion, a sweeping score by Clint Mansell or Alberto Iglesias, and a lullaby that might just top the charts. From Genesis to Revelation, creation and divine destruction cry out for ever-better high-tech pageants of shock and awe. But the eternal themes of oppression, courage, taking-on-an-empire (or slinging rocks at giants), and the ultimate catharsis, redemption and vindication are constant. The Bible, for all its antiquated proscription and un-PC denunciation, contains quite simply the greatest salvation stories ever told.
Of course, you’ll also find one or two gripping dramas recounted in the Upinishads, Bhagavad Gita and the Qur’an. Perhaps in this post-Christian age of spiritual enlightenment, ethnic pluralism and cultural relativism, it’s about time Pinewood produced a multi-faith religious epic like Ganesh: Return of the Elephant Man or maybe Mohammed: The Second-Greatest Story Ever Told. But the artistic success of Hollywood’s golden calf has ever been subject to the laws of Mammon-worship and the $millions to be extracted from Christians at the box office. And film directors generally want to avoid fatwas and keep their heads.
Perhaps the most interesting development in the resurrected biblical epic is the theological relativity or moral mutability they now explore, holding a mirror up to the eclectic spiritual obsessions and ecumenism of the postmodern age. Straightforward Gospel accounts of the virtuous life of Christ have given way to darker explorations of betrayal, blasphemy, lust and violence, as seen in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ. Manichean good-versus-evil moralising and saintly contemplation are outmoded. In this third millennium, the Age of Aquarius, Judas is as salvific as Jesus; Noah is a gnostic obsessed with climate change; and Mary becomes a trailblazer for gender equality, right up there with Eve, Delilah, Jezebel and Judith. In the hierarchy of cinematic devotion, the divine light of Judeo-Christian sensitivity now languishes some way beneath the fervour of feminism and the ecstasies of environmentalism and gay liberation.
We must wait and see whether Ridley Scott’s King David becomes a sexually androgynous exploration of his unparalleled love for Jonathan rather than macho lust for Bathsheba. And whether Christian Bale’s Moses will harbour feelings for Ramesses II, be kind and compassionate to frogs and swarms of locusts, or explain away the Passover as a sequence of psychedelic dreams. Me, I’m still trying to gauge whether Monty Python’s Life of Brian may constitute a biblical epic. If “biblical” may incorporate the apocryphal and fictional, and a profane John Wayne walk-on doesn’t nullify the sanctity, surely a Spike Milligan cameo can be “epic”, and a sweeping score can give way to the contemplative psalm ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’?