NEW YORK (CNS) — For more than 40 years, the biblical epic was a recognized — and reliably popular — Hollywood genre.
Conveniently, if not with precision, its heyday might be seen as bookended by MGM’s two classic adaptations of Civil War Gen. Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”
The first of these productions, released in 1925 and starring Ramon Novarro, was the costliest silent film ever made. William Wyler’s 1959 remake featured Charlton Heston in the midst of hundreds of camels, thousands of horses (and human extras), battling warships and clashing chariots.
Alternatively, producer-director Cecil B. DeMille’s famously lavish contributions to the category — beginning with his 1923 silent “The Ten Commandments,” and ending with his 1956 updating of the same title — could just as easily be used to define the period.
Following DeMille’s death, Nicholas Ray helmed a 1961 reworking of the celebrated showman’s 1927 take on the Gospel story, “The King of Kings,” dropping the definite article from its title in the process. And 1965 brought director George Stevens’ large-scale screen biography of Jesus, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
Several Academy Award nominations notwithstanding, Stevens’ long film was not especially well received, either critically or at the box office. More importantly, the tenor of the times was beginning to shift, leaving the impression that the public no longer had a taste for such movies. Mrs. Robinson was in; except as joke, Edward G. Robinson’s sneering Old Testament villain, Dathan, was out.
So John Huston’s reverent 1966 adaptation of passages from the Book of Genesis, “The Bible: In the Beginning…” represented, temporarily at least, the last artifact of a long tradition.
Recent years, of course, have seen a notable revival in religiously themed pictures. Starting with Mel Gibson’s 2004 blockbuster (if such a label is not too irreverent) “The Passion of the Christ,” which made more than $600 million worldwide, Tinseltown has been forced to reckon with the earnings potential of films either rooted in Scripture or otherwise aimed at believers.
Movies by and for evangelical Christians, for instance, have successfully capitalized on a lucrative market all their own. “God’s Not Dead,” director Harold Cronk’s 2014 adaptation of a book by Rice Broocks, raked in more than 30 times its production budget — a remarkable return for investors of any outlook.
Though there’s certainly nothing bare-bones about it, Gibson’s “Passion” hardly radiates the aura of an epic. Still less does a project like Cronk’s, which adopts a college classroom as one of its principal settings, summon to mind that expansive description.
At least three Hollywood titles of recent vintage have undertaken a sweeping treatment of biblical subjects: Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” and Christopher Spencer’s “Son of God,” all released in 2014. As genre resuscitations go, however, this trio of releases produced rather tentative results.
On close inspection, neither of the first two features seemed really comfortable with its sacred source material. The result is that the interpretations and additions in both register as eccentric. As for Spencer’s recounting of the Redeemer’s life, though its approach is certainly straightforward, the level of creativity on display varied widely.
Two soon-to-be-released films seem better positioned to ignite a sustained revival of the marriage of scriptural message with opulent production values: Director Timur Bekmambetov’s updating of “Ben-Hur” and “Risen,” a Resurrection-focused drama directed and co-written by Kevin Reynolds.
While the former movie’s pedigree makes its claims to biblical-epic status obvious, the cast and crew of “Risen” are equally intent on placing their project within the canon MGM and DeMille helped to establish. That point was driven home by remarks some of them offered at a Los Angeles preview and press event for the film.
Producers Mickey Liddell and Pete Shilaimon, for example, made it clear that “Risen” is aimed both at believers and at those who may be lacking in faith. Thus, in addition to the fact that its main character, Roman army officer Clavius, played by Joseph Fiennes, is a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, “Risen” includes numerous action scenes likely to engage a broad swath of viewers regardless of their worldview.
The balance between secular and religious concerns was also reflected in the way at least two of the leading figures in the cast prepared for their roles. While Fiennes attended a modern-day school for gladiators in Rome to learn the precise fighting style in which Clavius would have been trained, Cliff Curtis, who portrays Jesus, took a six-week vow of silence before and during production.
Additionally, Curtis washed the feet of the actors playing the Apostles. They, in turn, took care to have dinner together every night in order to build up a sense of shared experience and fellowship.
Fiennes expressed the hope that his character’s rough-and-ready manner and faith-averse outlook would offer nonbelieving audience members “a way in” to the story of the Resurrection. Clavius’ occupation, Fiennes pointed out, makes him a man who “reeks of death.” Who better, then, to test the reality of Jesus’ triumph over mortality?
Similarly, shaping the film as a detective story — Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) commissions Clavius to find Jesus’ body and so put an end to the spreading rumors of his return — will, Fiennes hopes, help broaden its appeal. He pointed out that, as penned by Reynolds in collaboration with Paul Aiello, “Risen” qualifies as a mystery story in both the religious and the literary sense.
The movie is also a story of divinely inspired new beginnings, a “cleansing rebirth,” as Fiennes termed it, for “a world with few hopes.” That sense of optimism — as well as the goal of promoting faith through the arts — gives “Risen” a special resonance for Shilaimon, an Iraq-born Catholic with firsthand experience of religious conflict.
For Tom Felton, the “Harry Potter” veteran who plays Clavius’ aide-de-camp and protege Lucius, participating in the film was an educational experience. “I had never been taught the historical sense of biblical events,” he explained.
Along with faith and hope, forgiveness is another major theme in “Risen.” As Clavius, who helped to supervise Jesus’ crucifixion, gets caught up in that event’s life-altering sequel — which Fiennes aptly characterized as “astounding, arresting and compelling” — Christians as well as moviegoers of every stripe will witness an experience of reconciliation rooted in, but reaching beyond, supernatural belief.
A Columbia Pictures release, “Risen” opens nationwide Feb. 19.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.