Hollywood has declared that 2014 is the year of the Bible. The translated-from-TV film SON OF GOD was notably successful in the February box office, while Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH held its own. Ridley Scott plans to release his film EXODUS in December. And we can’t forget films like the surprise hit GOD’S NOT DEAD, the “true-story” of HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, and the upcoming thriller LEFT BEHIND (based on the book of Revelations).
Bible-based movies used to be central to the market, with masterpieces like Charlton Heston’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and Martin Scorsesee’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST driving the market. However, in that rush for Bible movies, a few unusual films were forgotten; films that take the Scriptural stories you thought you knew and changed them forever. So, here are the top ten bible movies history forgot about.
10. The Ten Commandments (1923)
Director Cecil B. Demille left his impression on Hollywood with his successful series of Westerns and historical dramas. His best-remembered work today is the 3-hour epic The Ten Commandments. However, it turns out this was his second attempt at telling this story. In his early career, Cecil made a silent version of Ten Commandments in the 1920s, when silent black and white drove the market.
The Ten Commandments took an interesting twist compared to other Bible films. Instead of focusing the film on just the Exodus, Demille split the film into two stories. The first arc told the story of the Hebrew Exodus, from Moses’ birth to the golden calf. The second arc told the story of two sons and would follow them as they chose how they would act in light of the law. One son would turn to a life of sin, while the other would become a moral man. This film was extremely successful, and should be considered as the predecessor for what would become the genre of “sword and sandal” films.
9. King of Kings (1927)
After the success of his first Bible movie, Cecil Demille knew he had to keep the sword and sandal films coming. He tried to approach the studio with a proposal for a film about Noah. However, the studio declined, causing Demille to pitch something else; a biopic of Jesus. He approached Jeanie Macpherson, who was a close friend (and eventual mistress) of Demille’s for the screenplay. The studio accepted, and started filming The King of Kings. This wasn’t just some project, though. The crew saw it as a religious project, driven by God. The crew prayed every day before they filmed that they could do their best to represent Christ as he was shown in the Gospels. The film is considered to be fairly accurate, though 51 year old HB Warner, who played Jesus in-film, was considered by many to be too old to play the 33-year-old Jesus. King of Kings was a box office hit, and received a lot of positive feedback from viewers. It was the first Bible film to be used by missionaries overseas.
8. The Green Pastures (1936)
One of the first Bible films with sound was not a real Biblical epic, but an African-American comedy. The Green Pastures was an adaptation of Marcus Connelly’s award-winning Broadway comedy of the same name. The film interpreted the Old Testament in a way that, as Connelly put it, would have been accessible to the everyday Negro. This meant that God was called “The Lawd,” Heaven resembled a fish-fry, and almost all of the characters were African-Americans.
In recent years, the film has been compared to Song of the South for its racist portrayals of African-Americans, but it drew little controversy at the time of its release. But the fact that this peculiar little film is the starting point of Bible films with sound is a surprise in itself.
7. Samson and Delilah (1949)
Even though Cecil B. Demille had left his mark on the sword and sandal film genre, he wasn’t finished telling Bible stories. Samson and Delilah was a project he had wanted to make for years (though plenty of filmmakers had done this story before). After having success with other epic religious films, Demille was able to convince the studio executives to produce his screenplay, which was adapted from Vladimir Jaboinsky’s novel Samson The Nazarite.
While the film helped establish Biblical patterns of beautiful sets and amazing visuals, it was quite flexible in its interpretation of the original story of Samson. In this case, the film delineates from the Scriptures by having Delilah insist on tempting Sampson for the Philistine leaders (as opposed to the account in Judges, which has the Philistine leaders convincing her). However, after seeing the blind Samson, she changes heart and offers to take Samson out of the city, which he declines. Samson destroys the temple of Baal, and takes out the Philistines, and Delilah lives on. The film implies that she starts worshipping the Hebrew God, and thus lives.
This film rendition was another successful box office hit. According to some sources, when Cecil B Demille met Groucho Marx at the film’s premiere and asked for his thoughts on the film, Groucho told him; “Well, there’s just one problem, C.B. No picture can hold my interest where the leading man’s tits are bigger than the leading lady’s.” Demille was not impressed with the comments, though Victor Mature, who played Samson, was amused.
6. Salome (1953)
While stories like David and Goliath and Jesus have always interested the general audience, there are some smaller tales that have tended to garner the attention of playwrights and authors alike. One of these stories has been the tale of Salome, Herod’s daughter, and her involvement in the beheading of John the Baptist. Oscar Wilde himself even based a play off of her story in the 19th century.
According to records, Cecil B. Demille originally wanted to use Rita Hayworth to make his own version of the Salome story. However, executives at Columbia Pictures stole the idea and made their version of the film, which they titled Salome.
Rita Hayworth (known for her work on Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai) starred as the title character, so that Hayworth could provide her dancing skills (which are integral to Salome as a character). The film’s main dance (known as the “Dance of the Seven Veils”) was described by Hayworth as “extremely intensive” and impossible to get correct.
Like many of the adaptations of Salome’s story, this version rewrote Salome out to be a likable, even lovable character. In this version, Salome never asks for John’s head, but her mother does. Salome rejects her mother, leaving the palace with her romantic interest, and go to see Jesus speak on a hill, where it is implied that Salome and Claudius become Christians.
Salome was considered quite risque at the time of the film’s release, and the Dance of the Seven Veils is considered by many to be a highlight of Hayworth’s dancing career.
5. The Prodigal (1955)
The story of the Prodigal Son is a standard tale among most Christians; it’s a parable that takes up less than two pages of the Bible, yet is considered one of the best illustrations of God’s Love.
But how can such a bland concept be turned into a film? This is what director Richard Thorpe and writers Maurice Zimm and Joe Brimm Jr. attempted with The Prodigal. They took the general plot narrative of “The Prodigal Son” and made it into a pre-Christ narrative, when the Israelites still struggled against Baal worshippers for political and religious control. In the story, Micah, is our “prodigal son.” He had a good life, lived in a rich family, and had a nice Jewish girl chosen for him. However, he quickly falls in love with a priestess of Baal. In order to marry, Micah must reject his father and faith. But this still cannot win over the priestess, who, as a priestess of Baal, must love all worshippers of Baal. Micah ends up as a slave. After repenting, Micah reconciles his faith, escapes the temple of Baal, and humbly returns to his father, only to be wholly accepted by him.
While the film has all of the elements required for a success, the film was not able to turn a profit, and was panned by critics and viewers alike. In fact, Lana Turner, who played the priestess in-film, called The Prodigal a “costume stinker.”
4. The Bible… In the Beginning (1966)
There were plenty of films that tried to tell the smaller stories of the Bible, but none had ever attempted to film the entire Bible; at least until 1971. This was the year Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted to make a series of films that would span the entirety of the Bible. In the Beginning was the first test to determine if the project would hold up.
Laurentiis pulled out the stops for this project. He hired director John Huston (director of The Maltese Falcon, Red Badge of Courage, and The African Queen) and had Hollywood veterans Michael Parks, Richard Harris, and Peter O’Toole play Adam, Cain, and Noah. And the film worked. The film ended up being one of the five highest grossing films of 1966, and is considered one of the most profitable Bible movies pre-Passion of the Christ. Yet, for some reason, Laurentiis did not create a sequel to this film.
3. Noah’s Ark (1999)
This isn’t technically a film, but a Hallmark-based miniseries that was produced by Robert Halmi Sr. (who had adapted other literary stories into mini-series as well). The film starred Jon Voight as Noah and F. Murray Abraham as Lot.
You may have thought you knew Noah’s story. This film will make you rethink that. This Noah’s Ark rewrites Noah out to be a citizen of Sodom and friend to Lot (yes, as in Abraham and Lot’s Sodom). Halmi Sr. also had Lot survive the flood by building his own boat, so that he can raid the Ark in the mini-series’ final act. Then we have Ham, Shem, and Japheth constantly trying to have sex with their wives on the ark, even though Noah forbade it.
The mini-series was a dud, and failed to attract a strong following. Film critic Peter Chattaway called it the “first post-modern Bible movie.” However, the mini-series’ reception inspired Halmi Sr. to make the sequel “In the Beginning,” which focused on the larger question of theology.
2. Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus (1973)
Johnny Cash is known for his great contribution to country music, and for how his faith shifted that. But few know about his Gospel film, called Gospel Road. In 1973, Cash produced his very own movie, which featured a series of songs and skits that Cash and a few other songwriters (John Denver, Larry Gatlin, and Kris Kristofferson) wrote about Jesus’ life and death. It just wasn’t financially successful. The film came out the same weekend as Charlotte’s Web, and Cash fans just weren’t that invested in this artistic project.
1. The Visual Bible: The Gospel of John (2003)
Every adaptation of the Gospels tended to take some liberties with the characters. They often added subplots, developed notable minor characters, or changed the flow of story for the sake of good pacing. But screenwriter John Goldsmith didn’t want this. He wanted to make a Bible film that came directly from the text. To complete this, he worked with Vancouver-based Visual Bible International to produce a a verbatim performance of the Gospel of John. Goldsmith did his best to add visuals, transitions, and all of the necessities a film needs to flow well. And for the most part, he succeeds. Less than ten lines of dialogue were added to the film for the sake of pacing. The project was solid as a Scriptural adaptation. However, its three hour length and slow pacing caused critics to write it off.
Gospel of John would have received a huge box office on any normal year because of the faith-based audience. However, it was released the same year as Passion of the Christ,which meant theaters overlooked the project.