Sunday 4 December 2016

Greatest stories ever told

Published 12/02/2012 | 06:00

Steven Spielberg is apparently about to sign on to direct a major new biopic of Moses. Tentatively titled Gods and Kings, the film will portray Judaism's most important prophet as a warrior as well as a spiritual leader, and is planned to be a gritty and realistically violent Biblical epic.

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According to Judeo-Christian tradition, Moses led the Children of Israel out of captivity in Egypt, parted the Red Sea, wrote the Torah, received the Ten Commandments from God and eventually led his people to the Promised Land before dying at the grand old age of 120.

Spielberg's film will portray all these events, but Warner Brothers are going to have to wait in line for him to start.

Because even though he recently celebrated his 65th birthday, Spielberg is a busy man, and will have to get his biopic of Abraham Lincoln finished and shoot a sci-fi thriller called Robopocalypse before he gets around to Gods and Kings, possibly in the spring of next year. Spielberg and his friends are not the only ones plundering the Old Testament. Black Swan director Darren Aranofsky is working on a $115m (€88m) project called Noah, inspired by the story of the Great Flood.

The attraction of these stories for moviemakers is obvious: with studios increasingly averse to pumping money into projects based on new stories and characters with no audience recognition, the good book offers a fund of instantly familiar and visually promising stories.

It's nothing new of course: filmmakers have been raiding the Bible for inspiration since cinema's earliest days. Over their years their attitudes to the sacred source material have ranged from the cravenly respectful to the outright heretical, and the Bible has inspired some truly remarkable films. Here are 10 of the best.

Intolerance (1916)

DW Griffith was nothing if not grandiose and this towering four-part silent morality tale was conceived as a treatise on the evils of religious and political intolerance.

The later parts were set during the French revolution and in contemporary urban America, but the film's most spectacular and memorable moments were the biblical ones.

Griffith spent almost $2m recreating the splendour of Babylon and its violent fall. He also shot a moving version of Christ's Passion, his betrayal at the Garden of Gethsemane and the intolerance that culminated in his crucifixion.

His biblical sets were heavily copied, but the opulence of the Babylonian scenes has never since been matched.

Noah's Ark (1929)

Most silent films inspired by the Bible tended to attach ancient stories to modern parallels. Michael Curtiz's 1928 blockbuster began with a tale of men and women befuddled by greed and false gods during the Great War.

But the film's real showstopper was its remarkable depiction of the fall of the Tower of Babel and the Great Flood.

Curtiz built huge models of the tower and Noah's ark, and used hundreds of extras to film his extraordinary flood scenes. The volume of water used was so great that three of the extras drowned.

Samson and Delilah (1949)

Cecil Blount DeMille was the acknowledged master of the Biblical epic, and made big, brash, sprawling pictures that emphasised the scandal and debauchery of Bible stories as much as their redeeming morality.

Samson and Delilah was one of his biggest hits and starred Victor Mature as Samson, the Hebrew super-warrior who has the misfortune to fall for the temptress Delilah.

Hedy Lamarr supplied the glamour, George Sanders was the baddie, and the film climaxed in a spectacular recreation of the destruction of the Temple of Dagon. But things didn't go smoothly on set: DeMille fell out with Mature, who was apparently of a nervous disposition and refused to wrestle with a tame lion.

When DeMille assured him the lion had no teeth, Mature told him: "I don't want to be gummed to death either."

The Robe (1953)

Victor Mature turned up in the New Testament in Henry Koster's 1953 hit The Robe, and had to do some pretty fancy acting playing a Greek slave who becomes an early Christian missionary after witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus.

Richard Burton played a sceptical Roman tribune and the film took considerable historical liberties, portraying the Emperor Tiberius as a kind, avuncular ruler rather than the capricious child-molester he was.

The Robe also adopted the traditional Hollywood approach of only filming Christ from the rear and in passing, so his face was never seen.

He was actually played by a second assistant director called Donald C Klune, who was forced to eat his lunch alone as the studio thought it would be inappropriate for the Christ to chow down with the crew.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Cecil B DeMille actually filmed the story of Moses twice, and this 1956 blockbuster was in some ways a remake of his 1923 film of the same name.

Almost four hours long and with a massive budget of almost $14m, The Ten Commandments grossed more than $380m in the US alone and is one of the most financially successful films ever made.

Charlton Heston was chosen by DeMille to play the lead because he resembled Michelangelo's statue of Moses. His acting was pretty statuesque at times too, but it didn't matter because the film was full of spectacular set pieces.

Barabbas (1961)

Richard Fleischer's Barabbas showed signs of a more direct approach to New Testament narratives.

Again Christ does not appear, but Anthony Quinn plays Barabbas, a common thief arrested at the same time as Jesus. When Pontius Pilate tells the crowd he will release one man in honour of Passover they call for Barabbas.

Set free, Barabbas gradually finds out who he was released instead of and becomes consumed with guilt.

Later rearrested for throwing stones at a priest, Barabbas is sent to the Sicilian sulphur mines, becomes a gladiator and converts to Christianity just in time to be crucified himself.

The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964)

A gay Marxist hardly seemed the most likely man to make a film inspired by the Bible, but Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew is perhaps the most powerful film account of Jesus' life.

Filming along a bleak and stony stretch of southern Italian coastline, Pasolini used non-actors and locals for most parts, and he cast a 19-year-old Spanish economics student called Enrique Irazoqui as Christ.

Pasolini's Jesus was a straight-talking firebrand who raged against the injustices of poverty and seemed more like a left-wing revolutionary than a holy man.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

The contrast between Pasolini's film and this Hollywood extravaganza could hardly be more glaring.

George Stevens spent $20m shooting this slavish and rather stilted four-hour account of Christ's life, and cast six-foot-four Swedish actor Max von Sydow as a very Aryan Jesus.

Jerusalem was rebuilt in the Arizona deserts, but a freak snowstorm buried the set and caused a temporary shutdown. Then Mary Magdalene got pregnant, and actress Joanna Dunham had to be shot from the chest up.

The oddest thing about the film, though, was Stevens' insistence on peppering his narrative with jarring celebrity cameos. Telly Savalas was Pontius Pilate, Roddy McDowall turned up as the apostle Matthew, and John Wayne was unintentionally hilarious playing a Roman soldier who gives Christ some water.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Though a satire on Christ's followers and organised religion in general rather than an attack on Christ himself, Monty Python's Life of Brian was banned in several jurisdictions including this one and was met with storms of protest in the countries where it was released.

In Britain Mary Whitehouse shouted "blasphemy", and the Pythons were forced to appear on television and defend themselves. Most offence was caused by the film's crucifixion scene, which included a musical number and the incendiary line spoken to Brian by his crucified neighbour: "See -- not so bad once you're up."

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese's one and only flirtation with the Bible turned out to be pretty controversial too.

Based on Nikos Kazantzakis's novel, The Last Temptation of Christ starred Willem Dafoe as a refreshingly human Christ. Unaccompanied by heavenly music, he drank wine, danced at the wedding of Canaan and kissed his male followers on the lips.

But the film's most explosive moment came late on, when Christ is tempted by Satan on the cross with offers of an ordinary human life.

We see him come down off the cross, take both Mary and Martha as his wives and father a bunch of kids.

It turned out to be a dream but the fundamentalists weren't placated, and in Paris a group of so-called Christians firebombed a cinema in which the film was playing, injuring 13 people.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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