The Bible epic has existed as long as cinema itself. Among the very earliest films to be made were movies based on great biblical figures. Among the first Old Testament films to be made were La Vie de Moïse [The Life of Moses] (1905) and Moïse sauvé des eaux [The Infancy of Moses] (1911), both by Pathé, and the much more ambitious, five-reel spectacular, The Life of Moses (1909–10), by Vitagraph, which covered Moses’ life ‘from the bulrushes to Mount Pisgah’ (Pearson 2005: 69). Filmmakers soon broadened their horizons to other stories, such as Adam and Eve (1912), Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914) and Cecil B. DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments (1923). Patrons flocked to see films about Jesus, such as the Horitz Passion Play (1897), The Passion Play at Oberammergau (1898), From the Manger to the Cross (1912) and Christus (1916). The most popular and best-loved Jesus film of the silent period was Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927). This film remains highly entertaining even today, due to its witty dialogue (conveyed through intertitles) and creative back story (in which Mary Magdalene and Judas were lovers before Judas was ‘seduced’ by Jesus into following him around the Galilee and Judea).
These films constituted the first phase in the history of the Bible epic genre (Reinhartz 2013). With the onset of the Depression, and later, the Second World War, the genre declined, primarily for economic reasons (Babington and Evans 1993: 7–8). With the resurgence of the American economy after the end of the war, however, the epic genre also revived, with such films as Samson and Delilah (1949), The Story of Ruth (1960), David and Bathsheba (1951), A Story of David (1960), Solomon and Sheba (1959), King of Kings (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).1 This period also saw the release of the most enduring and iconic Bible epic of all time: Cecil DeMille’s 1956 film, The Ten Commandments. This film, still viewed widely during the Passover/Easter period, remains for many viewers their main source of knowledge of the Exodus story.
The return of the Bible epic in the postwar period was due not only to the booming economy but also social and political factors such as the Cold War, the creation of the State of Israel and the changing role of women. Bible epics were an important weapon in Hollywood’s anti-Communist arsenal, as illustrated by DeMille himself, who, in the opening scene of The Ten Commandments, steps out from behind the curtain to compare the ancient Israelites’ struggle against their Egyptian slavemasters to the mid-twentieth-century battle against the Red Menace of the Soviet Union. Postwar epics also convey a growing interest in and sympathy for Jews and Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. This may have been a factor in the production of films about figures and stories from the ‘Old Testament’ (Babington and Evans 1993: 34). Special attention was given to female figures such as Ruth, Delilah, Bathsheba, Sheba, Mary and Mary Magdalene. These women are portrayed as strong personalities in their own right, yet they ultimately remain in, or return to, the domestic sphere. In this regard they mirror the American wives, mothers and sisters who went out to work, often in positions of responsibility, during the war, but returned, whether reluctantly or willingly, to their ‘ideal’ household roles afterwards.
Finally, technology and competition also played a part in reviving the Bible epic in the postwar period. The advent of television created some anxiety for the film industry; large-scale technicolor epics were one way in which the movie studios could claim superiority to the upstart technology that provided entertainment without the need to leave the house.2
The late 1960s saw another decline in the genre, to which the growing costs of the epic and the relentless popularity of television surely contributed. The highly patriotic and morally simplistic worldview conveyed by the epics seemed inappropriate in an era marked by the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism (Sobchack 1990: 40).
Forty years later, along came Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, inaugurating what seems to be a third era of the Bible epic. Gibson’s film – and his meticulous marketing to evangelical Christian audiences – may have encouraged others to see the economic potential of Bible epics. None of the films released since 2004 has seen quite the same attention and box office success as Gibson’s film did. Nevertheless, they keep on coming, at least for now. The optimism of filmmakers may well be due at least in part to the increasing public presence of evangelical Christianity. At least some of the new Bible epics convey messages that reinforce the values of this group and that therefore might be expected to do well at the box office.
In addition to commercial potential, the return of the biblical epic is enabled by technological advances since the 1960s. These advances have made it easier than ever to make a movie of epic scope without the epic cost. Bible epics can capitalise on the obvious popularity of epic themes – as exemplified by the Star Wars franchise as well as war movies, disaster movies, apocalyptic films and other grand narratives – as well as the perennial appeal of the Bible.
Just as the epics of the mid-twentieth-century Golden Age addressed the pressing social issues of that era, so too might we find that the new Bible epics address the issues of our time, such as environmentalism, sexuality, violence and democracy. The present volume addresses the films that have come out from 2004 to 2018 from a variety of perspectives and for that reason serves as a first foray into the New Biblical Epic. The films being considered are of varying aesthetic quality, but they all are worthy of study as glimpses into our present cultural moment.
1993) Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press., and (
1978) The Hollywood Epic, South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, pp. 11–28.(
2005) ‘Biblical Films’ in (ed.) Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, New York: Routledge, pp. 68–71.(
2013) Bible and Cinema: An Introduction, London: Routledge.(
1990) ‘“Surge and Splendor”: A Phenomenology of the Hollywood Historical Epic’, Representations 29, pp. 24–49.(