In many ways the cultural mood these days feels like the 1950s. Right on schedule, then, we're about to see three major Biblical epic movies released this year: Exodus, Noah, and Son of God.
The last time the genre was a serious contender was the end of the Mid-century. Biblical epics topped the annual box office revenues for 1951, '53, '56, and '59: Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur. Already by '61, Exodus could only reach as high as the #3 movie, and the genre would continue to fall from there. The #1 movie of 1966 was The Bible: In the Beginning, but that was it. After that, the New Hollywood style took over, and Mid-century epics were out.
I'm not sure whether the popularity of religious epics reflects the cocooning or the falling-crime trends of the Mid-century and Millennial eras. For some reason, it only emerges in the final stretch of such a period, though -- the genre came from out of nowhere circa 1950, and all of a sudden the genre is catching on again. (The Passion of the Christ was an outlier from 10 years ago.)
Are audiences in falling-crime times better prepared for movies about religions of peace? Hardly. The Ten Commandments and Exodus were Old Testament movies, and so will be Noah -- "real wrath-of-God type stuff." And the Christian movies take place against the backdrop of violent conflict with the Roman Empire, rather than on Jesus winning over the crowds to seek redemption for their sins, the Apostles spreading the Good Word to the people, and so on.
It looks instead like it's linked to cocooning, in particular the need for people whose daily social and cultural lives are so uneventful to really get knocked over when they go out to the movies. The movie industry was so worried about how tame the Mid-century audiences were that they decided to go in the opposite direction and offer them something they couldn't get at home -- a panoramic aspect ratio, 3-D effects, other sensory gimmicks (vibrating seats), color, an experience that lasted for over 3 hours, stories that were epic and grand, and so on.
I covered some of these themes before. Cocooning audiences crave narratives where the stakes are Earth-shattering, as well as really really long. Biblical epics will also satisfy another preference of cocooners -- adaptations and sequels.
Earlier, I found it puzzling that in the Mid-century, these things went together in the form of Biblical epics, whereas now they were going together in less religious works, like the Lord of the Rings movies. Well, that puzzle is resolving itself, as the Bible is back.
Why the Bible? Why not some other source material for epic storytelling and grandiose stage dressing? Falling-crime and cocooning periods are not very friendly toward religious fervor, after all. It's rising crime that makes people more desperate to search for answers, and it's an outgoing social orientation that makes them want to regularly meet up with each other and synch up on the same emotional wavelength.
Perhaps folks are sensing how meaningless and disconnected life is becoming, and rather than pick any old epic story, go for something that might lead to ultimate meaning and belonging. This would set the stage, as it were, for the dramatic fervor that ignites whenever the crime rate starts shooting up. Whether you like them as movies or not, at least they're playing a welcome social-cultural role -- preparing the way for a real consciousness-raising movement just down the line.
It's striking how peripheral the Biblical epic was during the '20s and the '80s, both periods of intense religious fervor. I guess that when people have enough religion in real life, they don't need any further stimulation of that lobe of their brain when they sit down in the movie theater. Humility and atonement are for Sunday -- let's just laugh our asses off on Friday or Saturday.
The Last Temptation of Christ is not a Biblical epic. It's an intellectual and philosophical movie that happens to have a Biblical setting and characters. The only big Bible movie from late '60s through the early '90s was not even a theatrical release, but the TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. That's been the only Bible movie I've ever responded to (both as a child and when I watched it again a couple years ago).
It just seems like the creators truly wanted to make a movie about the Jesus story, not just because they felt it would be the optimal strategy to get the butts in the seats (it was on TV, remember). It focuses on sin, atonement, redemption, salvation... y'know, the reason you'd choose to go to church. Not to see the Roman team whoop ass on the Christian team, and the Christian team score some underdog points against the Roman team. Jesus of Nazareth has more of a spiritual than a political-historical focus.
If there was a lull of Biblical movies during that time, what took its place? It's not as though audiences didn't want to see group vs. group conflict, quasi-historical tales, all with supernatural forces involved. Oddly enough, it was the pagan movie that flourished when folks were becoming more religious. That's a whole 'nother topic, though, and I'll try to get around to it sometime soon.