February 19, 2014

Biblical epic movies, their resurr.... their return

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.


  1. I'd never noticed how crime rates and outgoing vs. cocooning were linked, but other things link them, as well. Technology has something to do with it. During outgoing times, the trendy technology leads people outdoors (automobiles and jukeboxes during the 20's and 30's, video game arcades during the 70's and 80's) and indoors during cocooning times (radio & television during the 40's and 50's, internet during the 90's and today). It could be that the outgoing vs. cocooning is influenced by technology and the crime rates respond to that more than they cause it.

  2. Rising-crime times see a rise in religious cults - Scientology, Jonestown, etc.(membership in Scientology actually peaked in the early 90s, though its gotten more attention over the last 20 years).

  3. Mike, that's a good observation. However, I don't think that technology is causing people to be cocooning. The cultural environment determines what kind of technology is researched.

    The Internet did not make people cocooned; it had to be invented because people had already become cocooned

  4. Biblical movies were certainly not peripheral in the 1920's.

    Biblical epics was one of the leading genres of the silent film era.

    Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 "The Ten Commandments" was a remake of his 1923 version, which was the second biggest box office hit that year.

    Likewise for "Ben Hur" the 1950's hit was a remake of a big budget version from 1926.

    Other biblical epics of the 20's include: "King of Kings", "Samson and Delilah", and "Noah's Ark".

  5. Can't imagine it has anything to do with it. The internet is a worldwide phenomenon. It hasn't failed to penetrate and gain traction in other cultures where the violence-hyperactivity-impulsivity epicycle appears to be different (e.g. South Korea, Brazil, etc.).

    Similarly, cars existed before the 20s and early 30s and made greater technological advances in '33 - '63 period than before and after, etc.

    Home consoles were invented in the 1980s, etc. etc.

    Biblical movies were certainly not peripheral in the 1920's.

    agnostic might seek to explain this with cultural popularity of the Mid East in rising crime times, whereas in falling crime times it is due to "bombast", while Greco-Roman-Hebrew in rising crime times would be due to affinity to hot blooded Mediterraneans. presumably the Midcentury really they wanted to have bombastic Scando epics (to watch after a nice dinner of totally Scando and totally not French fish and eggs in aspic, totally not Italian meatball dinners), but those didn't fit the bill?

    god knows if there'd be anything to such a distinction.

  6. "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."

    It's interesting to note that JESUS OF NAZARETH was only one of a whole bunch of 70s TV miniseries Biblical epics:


    2. MOSES THE LAWGIVER (1974)

    3.THE STORY OF DAVID (1976)

    4. JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)

  7. RE: TV Biblical epics,

    There was also the 1985 miniseries A.D , which, according to the WIKIPEDIA entry, was intended as the third part to the MOSES THE LAWGIVER-JESUS OF NAZARETH sequence. It's a dramatized version of the BOOK OF ACTS, but it also brings in a lot of invented characters plus stuff from Suetonius and Eusebius

  8. "If there was a lull of Biblical movies during that time, what took its place? "

    Just tossing it out there, but there was a big budget horror boom during the late '60s -'70s: ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), THE EXORCIST (1973), THE OMEN (1976).

    An argument could be made that these are inverted Biblical/religious films, ones that concentrate on the demonic as opposed to the divine. ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE OMEN are especially interesting when viewed from this angle, as both are "dark nativity" stories depicting the birth of the Antichrist. THE OMEN even goes to the trouble of lecturing us about Biblical prophecies.

  9. Only Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments were big hits in the '20s. King of Kings was down at #11 at the box office. Samson and Delilah wasn't in the rankings (perhaps Americans didn't go for Austrian films then). And Noah's Ark is not a Biblical movie. It's set during WWI, and includes some scenes from the events surrounding The Flood to draw an analogy with contemporary chaos.

    "Peripheral" might not be the right word, but Biblical epics were not very popular with audiences then (measured by box office success). Three films with a good ranking, compared to more than twice or three times as many during the '50s.

    Jesus of Nazareth was one of the most-watched TV broadcasts, so that would earn it a spot with the others. But still not enough to say that audiences were really demanding Biblical epics in the '70s or '80s when it was re-broadcast.

    Their popularity shot up only during the '50s and early '60s. I only mentioned the top-ranked ones for each year; there are others that filled up some of the lower ranks at the box office.

  10. "An argument could be made that these are inverted Biblical/religious films, ones that concentrate on the demonic as opposed to the divine."

    That's a great point. I covered that somewhere before under the topic of supernatural vs. mundane horror movies (supernatural in rising-crime times, more mundane in falling-crime times).

    One of the primary questions that religion answers is where does evil / Bad Things come from? And we really want to know that answer when violent crime keeps rising year after year, and showing more and more gruesome forms like serial murder, child murder, cannibalism, and so on.

    The origin and spread of evil and sin is not something that comes up in the Biblical epic films, although they may treat how we're supposed to deal with its presence.

  11. "Already by '61, Exodus could only reach as high as the #3 movie, and the genre would continue to fall from there. "

    Not sure that the '61 EXODUS counts as a Biblical epic, seeing as how it is about the creation of the modern state of Israel.

  12. The state of technology only provides a set of options that we have to choose from. But it's up to our mindset which ones we choose, and in what ways we use them.

    Radio was out in the '20s, and is still around. Yet it was only used in a cocooning way during the Mid-century. By the '60s, sitting around the house listening to radio programs struck people as boring because they were more restless. Ditto having a family dinner while huddled around the TV set.

    Cars were even more widespread during the Mid-century, yet they weren't out joy-riding and hosting "petting parties" in them like they were during the Jazz Age. That had to wait until the Dazed and Confused / Fast Times at Ridgemont High era. Meanwhile cars are still more affordable now than in the '80s, yet teenagers have become less and less interested in getting a license since the '90s.

    Arcades dried up during the '90s because the teenagers had begun cocooning, and the younger kids were prevented from even leaving the house by their helicopter parents.

    A nice thought experiment is to think of how the typical teenagers of the '70s and '80s would have made use of online social network sites and text messaging on cell phones, assuming they were as cheap and widespread as they are now. I think most people wouldn't bother, and would put down those who did as geeks with no life.

  13. "Not sure that the '61 EXODUS counts as a Biblical epic"

    Yep, my coding error.

  14. RE: The decline of the Biblical epic,

    Here's another idea that I'll throw out. This one involves Charlton Heston. Heston was the main guy for epic films in the '50s-'60s: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, BEN-HUR, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, 55 DAYS AT PEKING, EL CID, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, etc. Heck, Heston was both Moses (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS) and Michelangelo (THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY). In terms of cinema, he was Western Civilization.

    Note what happens to Heston once the epic (Biblical or otherwise) starts to decline in the late '60s. He moves into apocalyptic science fiction: THE PLANET OF THE APES (1968), BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970), THE OMEGA MAN (1971), SOYLENT GREEN (1973). All of these films have an end of days flavor to them.Man has been derelict in his stewardship of the Earth, and is now paying the price. In PLANET OF THE APES, Man's dominion over the Earth has been ended, and the beasts now rule (cf how, in the film, the apes speak of their Law-Giver, and how man is the Devil's pawn); in BENEATH, all life on Earth ends via a doomsday weapon (which has alpha and omega inscribed on it);OMEGA MAN is the story of Christ in science fiction drag (Heston's blood contains the cure for a plague that has ravished the planet) Of the sequence, only the Malthusian SOYLENT lacks a strong Biblical feeling.

  15. "(The Passion of the Christ was an outlier from 10 years ago.)"

    And I would argue that it will remain an outlier, at least in terms of cinematic power. As you pointed out about JESUS OF NAZARETH, most Biblical films have a , at best, lukewarm religiosity. They are made to make a buck, not to express the film-maker's deep feelings. That sense of conviction is what sets JESUS OF NAZARETH and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST apart from, say, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD.

    Gibson's PASSION, I think, is of a similar mold. Gibson made it because he believes in it, and you can feel the strength of that belief in the film itself.

  16. I guess the long, biblical movies are a form of paranoia. As you've explained, lots of people get paranoid when the crime rate is falling.

  17. I mean, the biblical movies that portray apocalyptic events.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."