With Noah last week and Ridley Scott’s Moses movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, scheduled to hit the screens in December, are we seeing an epic renaissance, asks Mini Anthikad-Chhibber
This has been the year of the twirling toga. It is only April and there have been three historical epics. There was Paul W. S. Anderson’s Pompeii set around the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 followed by Noam Murro’s 300: Rise of an Empire set during the second Persian invasion of Greece between 480 and 479 BC and last week was Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, based on the biblical patriarch. There is news of Ridley Scott, who front-lined the millennial sword and sandal revival with Gladiator in 2000, telling Moses’ story with Exodus: Gods and Kings. Christian Bale takes a break from Batman to play the prince of Egypt, while Aaron Paul, after Breaking Bad and Need For Speed, plays Joshua.
Will this be the year of the awesome spectacle, quite like Hollywood’s golden era of the historical epics in the Fifties and Sixties — remember the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton extravaganza, Cleopatra (1963)? That was the time the Bible was mined for mighty films, including Samson and Delilah (1949), The Ten Commandments, The Bible: In the Beginning (the 1966 film had director John Houston literally play god), Esther and the King (1962, Joan Collins plays the Hebrew queen), Solomon and Sheba (Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida played the leads in this 1959 film) and Salome (1953, Rita Hayworth did the dance of seven veils).
Apart from the biblical movies, there were films while not expressly based on the Bible were set around the events of the Bible. The grandest among these would be Ben-Hur. Based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 book, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the film tells of Judah Ben-Hur who is falsely accused by his friend-turned-foe, Messala. Christ appears at crucial junctures in the movie. He gives the thirsty Ben-Hur water, Ben-Hur witnesses the Crucifixion, and gives up his desire for revenge when he hears Christ forgive his tormentors on the cross.
While one cannot think of anyone but Charlton Heston to play Ben-Hur, apparently many actors were offered the role, including Marlon Brando, Paul Newman (who refused because he didn’t have the legs for a tunic) and Leslie Neilson!
The Robe tells the story of a tribune’s conversion after Christ’s Crucifixion. Quo Vadis based on Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1896 novel of the same name is set during Nero’s reign and deals with the persecution of early Christians. The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) also features the persecution of Christians — that track was written out in Anderson’s version.
Stanley Kubrick’s influential Spartacus, set in the first century BC, starts with the voiceover “In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome.”
It was an interesting time historically. When talking about basing Gladiator on Spartacus and Ben-Hur, Scott describes the era as “the apex and beginning of the decline of the greatest military and political power the world has ever known.” It was also the time of the birth of a new religion, Christianity.
The 50s and 60s was the time of the big movie in Hollywood and now half a century later, we are riding a wave of dizzying technological progress. The eruption of the Vesuvius in Pompeii and the deluge in Noah comfortably straddle art and science. Scott, who has made many historical epics post Gladiator, including Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven, seems to be the right man to part the Red Sea on screen. Will Bale have the gravitas of Heston? Will the city Scott built carry his name or Cecil B. DeMille’s? Will Joel Edgerton as Ramses be hotter than Yul Brynner? All will be revealed in December. Till then you could refresh your memory with the originals.
Quo Vadis (1951)
While Quo Vadis is about the love between Marcus Vinicius, a Roman Commander and Lygia, a devout Christian played by Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr, the movie belongs to Peter Ustinov’s Nero, who plays the Roman emperor with the precise mix of unhinged sadism and childlike glee.
The Robe (1953)
Directed by Henry Koster based on the eponymous novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, The Robe has Richard Burton playing Marcellus, the tribune who leads the unit that crucifies Jesus and wins his robe in a game of dice. The film while not short on spectacle had heart with Burton’s Marcellus hitting the pitch perfect notes of shock and awe.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille’s 220-minute epic tells Moses’ story from baby in a basket to the pharaoh’s favourite, from prince to prophet to leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. While Charlton Heston played Moses with the necessary gravitas, Yul Brynner as Ramses was equally impressive as were the sets, costumes and effects.
The jewels in the crown of the film are the sea battle and the chariot race. The sequence of Ben-Hur as a galley slave and Quintus Arrius’ testing of “prisoner 41” can still create goose bumps. Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards including best picture and actor for Heston (ahem).
Apart from the mention by the voice over at the beginning, the movie has nothing to do with Christianity. However, Kubrick’s historical epic has a very modern resonance. Kirk Douglas, who produced the film, rocks as Spartacus cleft and all. Sir Laurence Olivier is a fine fettle as Crassus. Peter Ustinov won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the slave trader — he has the best lines. Spartacus went where no man had gone before with Crassus comment to his slave in the bath about preferring oysters and snails — the scene was deleted. John Gavin as the young, ambitious Julius Caesar looks like he has stepped out of Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series.