Gospel According to Hollywood: From the Silents to the Talkies

Hollywood has never had much faith in religion. A religious theme or character might be used as a pretext for an epic spectacle such as Ben-Hur, or more recently, Gladiator. But a truly religious story, one that explores the individual need for religion, the struggle to maintain faith, or the search for religious authority in an increasingly normless and troubled world is usually shunned by the dream factory.

Hollywood holds that religious sermons are meant for churches and pulpits not for the moviehouse. Besides, too much religion might be bad for the box-office, which is the ultimate criterion for greenlighting movies. A film about religion with a particular point of view might offend or alienate a segment of the public, which should be avoided at all costs. Indeed, this bottom-line mentality reflects the long-held Hollywood dictum that movies are meant to appeal to the largest potential audience.

Yet big-budget, star-driven Hollywood films with religious subjects and characters continue to be made. The latest Hollywood effort, The Passion, is made by a certified movie star, Mel Gibson, functioning as a director. Riding high on his 1995 Oscar-winning historical epic, Braveheart, Gibson is one of half a dozen stars who can put into production any movie he wishes to make. The film just finished shooting in Rome and is slated for theatrical release next year. Not surprisingly, a veil of secrecy revolves around The Passion, which details the final hours and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, this time played by the dark-haired, blue-eyed, up-and-coming star James Caviezel (“The Thin Red Line”).

Hollywood has always been more comfortable with films about saints, visionaries, and miracles than with films about religion per se. One may recall The Song of Bernadette (1943), in which Jennifer Jones (in her Oscar-winning performance) plays a peasant schoolgirl in a 1858 French village who claims to have seen a “beautiful lady,” Virgin Mary, appear out of nowhere in a grotto.

As early as the silent movies of pioneer Thomas Edison, The Passion was a theme addressed by the most ambitious and gifted filmmakers.

In 1927, Cecil B. DeMille directed one of the first epics about Jesus life and death in the silent film, The King of Kings.

In 1953, Twentieth Century Fox launched the new CinemaScope technology with The Robe, starring Richard Burton as a Roman tribune who seeks redemption after the crucifixion.

In the 1960s, Biblical epics had become a whole genre unto themselves, with George Stevens creating the monumental The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), featuring lavish sets and an all-star cast of thousands.

In 1965, Pier Paolo Pasolini approached the subject in an entirely fresh way with The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which featured a non-professional cast, a naturalistic (black-and-white) style, and language taken directly from the Bible.

In 1973, The Passion was treated in two counter-cultural musicals: Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.

In 1988, director Martin Scorsese examined Jesus Christs final days in The Last Temptation of Christ, a controversial film based on Nikos Kazantzakis best-selling novel.

Joan of Arc

Over the years, there have been numerous film versions of Joan of Arc, played by the likes of Maria Flaconetti in the seminal silent film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and Ingrid Bergman (both on stage and on screen) in the 1948 saga, Joan of Arc.

Cecil B. DeMille

Showman Cecil B. DeMille once observed that the best way of getting sex and violence past the censors during the rigid reign of the Production Code was to use the solemn facade of biblical stories, both Judeo and Christian. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927) is one of Hollywood’s first films to feature Christ in a leading role. Exhibiting the same bravura technical skills (and by today’s standards campy sensibility) of later DeMille’s epics (The Ten Commandments), The King of Kings depicted the Resurrection story in the then revolutionary two-color Technicolor, long before color cinematography became the norm.

1950s Biblical Epics

In the early 1950s, there was a cycle of films about Jesus Christ, beginning with The Robe (1953) and culminating with the Oscar-winning Ben-Hur (1959).

The Robe

The Robe boasts the technical distinction of being the first movie to be released in CinemaScope. Richard Burton plays a Roman centurion who participates in the crucifixion of Christ but is converted to Christianity and is sent to martyrdom with the help of a beautiful believer (Jean Simmons) and a muscular slave (Victor Mature). The robe of the title is the one worn by Christ when he went to Cavalry, which the dissolute Burton wins on a dice game. Based on Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel, with a screenplay by Philip Dunne, it was a typical sin-and sanctity epic. (The following year, Dunne wrote the script for the sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators). Though Burton disliked his role (in his memoirs, he describes it as “prissy”), The Robe is the film that made him a household name in America–and won him his first lead Oscar nomination.

The Robe was made at a time when Hollywood struggled to survive in the face of tough competition from the new medium, television. In 1952, as movie-attendance had slid from eighty to thirty-five million a week, Hollywood began its own revolutions, trying to offer what TV’s small screen could not–size, scope, and effects. A year later, Cinerama, CinemaScope, and 3-D were introduced to the appreciative public.

At the same time, Hollywood sought epic subject matter in the pages of The Bible. One might ask: What does the epic form have to do with the 1950s The answer is rather simple: Despite the religious facade, the sand-and-sandals epic (as it was called) was a politically conservative and ideologically safe form, diverting the audience’s attention from a potentially problematic and divisive narrative to the film’s wondrous technology and special effects.

By 1959, the wide screen had been filled with so many lavish spectaculars that the novelty was in danger of overexposure. Facing the challenge, MGM provided what was at once recognized as a landmark in the religious epic genre. Vet director William Wyler departed radically from the traditional DeMille style of histrionics laced with moralizing that had reached its apotheosis with the Kitsch of The Ten Commandments. Instead, Wyler approached his story with a modern touch that balanced expansive action with a human story, forsaking overt religiosity in favor of a credible adventure about faith.


Characters in films dealing with the ancient world, especially during Jesus’s time, often seem remote from the everyday concerns of the viewers. But Ben-Hur’s story, as adapted from the 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace, presents characters who, despite the exotic costumes, undergo personal and political crises that touch a familiar chord with those of the audiences.

Young Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) rebels against his clan’s slavery under the power of Roman Emperor Tiberius, depicted here as a Hitler figure (he tells the Romans they are a master race). Ben-Hur’s refusal to conform to Rome’s rule leads him into meeting and winning the love of Esther (Israel’s export to Hollywood, Haya Hararit), a Hebrew maiden; adoption by Quintus Arrius, a well-meaning Roman citizen; and enslavement by Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), a peddler of human flesh, who later matches Ben-Hur in a chariot race against the cruel Roman, Messala (Stephen Boyd).

Technically, the spectacular sequences were the most awesome of their kind since the Cinerama’s roller-coaster ride. More importantly, they occupy a small portion of the film’s three-and-a-half-hours. Most of Ben-Hur centers on interpersonal confrontations, which made it both more fascinating and believable as a melodrama. Ben-Hur’s conversion to Christ’s teachings is not depicted in the usual manner, with a wildly-staged moment of revelation, but through a slow change within him as he responds to Jesus’s doctrine.

Never before had the wide-screen format and visual and sound pyrotechnics been so effectively integrated into a story to create a total cinematic experience. Ben-Hur was the film toward which Hollywood had been unconsciously moving since the early 1950s, a spectacle for the “thinking person,” as the movie was sold. Ben-Hur was not just a film; it was a media event. A parade of newspeople and celebs were allowed to visit the set to promote the film–every detail of the production made the papers.

Nonetheless, upon release, Ben-Hur received flack from various religious groups. Jesuits protested the film’s portrayal of Romans, and the Christian Century complained of “lurid distortions of the Bible.” Ben-Hur also angered liberals who saw the epic form as essentially conservative. Perceived up until then as a liberal director, Wyler, who had earlier won an Oscar for The Best Years of Our Lives, fell from grace due to the charge that he stooped to a conservative–and retro–genre.

Since then, there have been sporadic efforts to depict Jesus on the big-screen, such as George Stevens 1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told, in which Christ is play played by Ingmar Bergman’s iconic actor, Max von Sydow. The film also featured members of the Israel’s famous dance company, Inbal. A stultifying epic, the film reached a new level of solemn pretentiousness. Sadly, it is the labor of love of a major Hollywood director who’s also responsible for Giant and The Diary of Anne Frank. Stevens devoted years to making the film, only to realize that the vogue for religious epics had passed. After an initial release in a four hour and twenty minute, the film was cut down to three hours and fifteen minutes, and finally to two and a half hours, but each time the failure was more miserable. Critics ridiculed the film, pointing out the most obvious flaw, namely, the overload of cameo appearances that encouraged a spotting game–here’s Sidney Poitier and look at Pat Boone.

Jesus Musical

In 1973, Norman Jewison followed his commercial hit musical, Fiddler on the Roof (starring Israel’s Topol) with Jesus Christ Superstar, a curious film version of a stage musical that grew out of a concept album by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. The slender “plot” revolves around a group of young tourists in Israel, who stage their own musical version of the last week in Christ’s life.

The performers are decent, particularly Ted Neeley as Jesus Carl Anderson as Judas, and Josh Mostel (Zero’s son) as Herod. Despite handsome cinematography (by Douglas Slocombe) and location shooting, the film is disappointing. The play-within-play framing, provided by writer-director Jewison, is pointless, rendering the film too detached. The feel-good effect of the stage musical, which was popular all over the world, is simply lost on the big screen.

Scorsese’s Controversial Temptation

The most controversial and contentious Hollywood film of recent times about Jesus is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Predictably, this thought-provoking and deeply felt drama, faithfully adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis’s famous novel, was condemned by many religious groups. A meditative rather than epic film, The Last Temptation speculates about Jesus’s self-doubts when he realizes he has been chosen by God to carry His message. The cast includes Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas, and Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene.

The film contains moments of power and beauty, and displays a genuine feeling for time and place that makes the story vivid. The Last Temptation is a sincere investigation of the subject, made as a collaboration between two American filmmakers (Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader), who have been continuously attracted to serious films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) about sin, guilt, and redemption. But the film drew fire from groups, which were scandalized by the portrayal of Jesus as a vulnerable, sensual man, tormented by inner conflicts and all too human sexual desires.

As Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon showed, the renewed interest in historical spectacles, with or without religious themes, set in the distant or recent past, has more to do with the new, sophisticated computer-generated technology and young demographics than with Hollywood’s sincere belief in religious-themes films. The upcoming Passion is likely to reaffirm Hollywood’s commitment to an impressively large-scale but innocuous and escapist fare that avoids any controversy.