It’s cloudy with a chance of frogs this weekend as Ridley Scott’s Exodus : Gods and Kings smites the big screen. Christian Bale stars as an impressively buff Moses, calling down the wrath of God like he had an indecisive lighting assistant in his sights. As a taster, here are six of the best, or perhaps the weirdest, examples of cinematic scripture. We’ve probably sinned by omission, so let us know if you think there are more worthy Biblical films.
The Ten Commandments (1956): Cecil B. DeMille marshalled vast multitudes and the most expensive sets in cinema history for this show-down between Charlton Heston’s Moses and Yul Brynner’s Rameses. Sure, it’s more campy than all the gathered tents of the Hagarites, but it’s also three-and-a-half hours of irresistible Hollywood pomp, all set to Elmer Bernstein’s rousing music. The special effects behind the parting of the Red Sea are, of course, the main event. But watch out too for the miracle of Heston’s hair, as a close encounter with God transforms it into a bottle-blonde bouffant of truly Biblical proportions.
Trading Places (1983): The Book of Job is updated to 1980s New York in John Landis’ wonderfully acid comedy. Instead of God and Satan having a wager, it’s a pair of filthy rich old men, played by Melvyn Douglas and Don Ameche, who bet on whether their spoiled-rotten nephew (Dan Ackroyd) can keep the faith no matter how many fiendishly-devised calamities befall him. But it’s Eddie Murphy who’s the real star, turning in the kind of effortlessly funny performance he used to do before he started making films that could themselves be considered tribulations of Job.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979): Denounced by some devout Christians as blasphemy, this gloriously side-splitting satire is possibly one of the most realistic depictions of the evolution of a religion ever put on screen. Despite the fulminations of knee-jerk God-botherers, it’s not so much a version of the life of Christ as a case of wandering attention during the Sermon on the Mount, as if the plot were exclaiming “Oh, look what’s going on over there!” The results were eye-wateringly funny proof that, at their height, the Pythons were comedy Messiahs and very naughty boys.
The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964): If you want a beautifully restrained, incredibly moving, deeply reverent version of the Christ story, there’s only one director to turn to. No, not Mel Gibson. As it turned out, gay Marxist atheist Pier Paolo Pasolini was just the man for the job, and this Bach-and-blues infused poem in black-and-white remains perhaps the only film masterpiece to be drawn from holy text. The non-professional cast is led by a Che-like Enrique Irazoqui, delivering, with scalp-tingling passion, the real message of Christ’s sermons: smash Wall Street.
Noah (2013): Utterly bonkers, granted. But despite the hippy-dippy Gaia worship and Transformer-like rock monsters, there were moments of brilliance in Darren Aronofsky’s folie de grandeur. Inevitably, Bible fans had a good old moan at its straying from the facts of the Noah story – for one thing, Russell Crowe really didn’t look a day over 350. Still, it was an imaginative and noble attempt to make some moral sense of the gruesomely genocidal source material. And let’s face it, it was at least better than Evan Almighty.
Salome’s Last Dance (1988): Director Ken Russell was always one or two veils short of a naughty dance routine, but this berserk re-telling of the John the Baptist story suggested that whatever remained of his sanity had finally galloped off into the desert to feed on honey and locusts. It’s based on Oscar Wilde’s already bizarre play Salome, which Russell re-stages in a brothel attended by a giggling, eye-popping Wilde himself. The results, as you can imagine, are great fun, and the whole cast seem to be having a blast. Well, almost the whole cast. Glenda Jackson, who played Herod’s wife, retired from films right after and became a Member of Parliament, where she still sits on the back benches to this day, gnashing her teeth and rending her garments at the memory of it all.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is on general release from Dec 12
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Amongst his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.