Screening History: The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part One (1949-1955)

Welcome to the first of my three entries for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, focusing on the rise and fall of the biblical epic.  Today’s entry will focus on the rise of the genre’s popularity during the 1950s, beginning with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and ending with the rather lackluster films that characterized the genre’s output in the middle of the decade.

When Cecil B. DeMille released Samson and Delilah in 1949, the film no doubt looked like something of a throwback to a much earlier period in classic Hollywood.  The biblical epic had, in the past, been quite popular, particularly in the silent era and in the 1930s, when DeMille made such films as The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934), both of which highlighted the director’s signature ability to blend a moral message with sin and sex.  And Samson and Delilah delivers more of the same, with the fleshly bulk of Victor Mature’s Samson easily seduced by the sumptuous and sensual Hedy Lamar’s Delilah.  The ancient world emerges in DeMille’s film as a site of terror and unbridled desires and while the film strenuously attempts to tame this world through its moralizing, it also acknowledges that the vagaries of the sexual unconscious are not so easily brought under control.

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The “voluptuous enslavement” of Victor Mature’s Samson to Hedy Lamarr’s sensuous Delilah (I borrow the phrase from the fine monograph, “Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema.”

DeMille’s film ignited something of a renaissance of the genre and the studios, still reeling from the Paramount Decrees (which mandated that they divest themselves of their theater chains, thus removing a crucial source of revenue), saw the epic as a chance to rejuvenate their lagging financial fortunes.  Both Fox and MGM released epics in 1951 (David and Bathsheba and Quo Vadis, respectively), which took on very different moments of antiquity, with the former focusing on the tumultuous and dangerous romance between the biblical King David and the latter narrating the love affair between a bellicose Roman soldier and a Christian maiden, all under the vindictive aegis of the mad emperor Nero.

The epic creates a particular vision of the world of antiquity as a world of fleshly and sexual excess and, while this might seem to be just another way in which mid-century America could excite itself while also taking comfort in the soothing balm of a moral message, I would argue that this emphasis on sex also serves a (perhaps unintentional) acknowledgment of the terrifying power of history to elude all our attempts to make sense of it.   These films betray a profound ambivalence about both sexuality (which, while pleasurable, also contains danger and the spectre of death) and about the thrust of history and the narrative drive toward containment.

Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), the emblem of the dangers and appeals of the Technicolor sex drive in MGM's "Quo Vadis" (1951).

Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), the emblem of the dangers and appeals of the Technicolor sex drive in MGM’s “Quo Vadis” (1951).

Further, these early entries of the genre express a deep ambivalence about the period of antiquity, which emerges as both the place where the miraculous and timeless presence of Christ (and, in some films, God the Father), still seems possible, even as it remains steadfastly opposed to the secular presence of the human and the political.  Even Quo Vadis, which seems to be the most unambiguous in its celebration of the triumph of Christian morality over Roman licentiousness, ends with the legions of Galba marching into Rome, their phallic military glory and thorough secular worldliness a pointed counterpart to the otherwordly presence of such figures as the aged and beatific Peter and the other Christians who lose their lives in the course of the film.  Thus, while the converted Marcus hopes for a more permanent world and faith,  the chaotic elements of the film, ranging from the legions that open and close it to the riotous citizens that topple Nero from his throne, suggest that the world of the flesh will remain flawed and tainted by the corporeal bodies of secular history.

These films, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledge the contradictory temporality that Christ occupies.  Since, at this early stage in the genre’s resurgence, Christ does not yet make a physical appearance, he must remain instead at the edges of the frame and the narrative, a potent force for historical change yet also unrepresentable precisely because He also supposedly represents the timeless, that which exists beyond the borders of the film frame and the terrifying world of antiquity, whether that be the ancient Levant of Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba or the corrupt Rome of Quo Vadis.  

Given the enormous financial success of these outings, it should come as no surprise that the studios, in their usual rush to capitalize on trends, should want to go bigger and better.  Cue 1953’s The Robe, Fox’s chosen showcase for their widescreen technology of CinemaScope, which featured a curved screen that was wider than it was tall, all in an attempt to create a more profound sense of immersion and, according to the industry press at the time, participation on the part of the audience.  The film features Richard Burton as tribune Marcellus Gallio and Victor Mature as the Greek slave Demetrius as they both encounter the earth-shattering presence of Christ.  Marcellus is ultimately martyred by the mad emperor Caligula, while Demetrius survives to carry the Gospel forward.

Theatrical release poster for Fox's "The Robe" (1953).

Theatrical release poster for Fox’s “The Robe” (1953).

Following the release of The Robe, the genre continued to maintain its presence in many Hollywood studio production schedules, though the films released in the mid-1950s didn’t attain quite the heights of their predecessors.  Fox released Demetrius and the Gladiators, the sequel to The Robe, in 1954, while Warner Bros. released The Silver Chalice, based on the novel by Thomas B. Costain, in the same year, as well as Helen of Troy in 1956.  Even relatively minor studios got in on the action:  Columbia released Salome in 1953 (using it as a vehicle for star Rita Hayworth), Universal (recently elevated to the ranks of the majors due to the Paramount Decrees) released Douglas Sirk’s The Sign of the Pagan in 1954, and United Artists released Alexander the Great (starring the perennially tortured and histrionic Richard Burton) in 1956.

These various iterations of the genre can in some ways be seen as an attempt by mid-century American culture to come to terms with the terror of history (a term I borrow from both religious theorist Mircea Eliade and from historian Tefiolo F. Ruiz), represented most poignantly by the nuclear past and the threat of a nuclear future oblivion.  These films attempt to both contain the past and its terrors–the death and martyrdom that lie in the wake of the relentless march of Christian victory, or the unbridled desires that bring entire diegetic worlds to their knees–through narrative devices as well as through the promise, however illusory, of the ability to participate, to gain agency, in the workings of the great moments and individuals of history.  Further, these films also suggest that the ancient world, as dangerous and troubled as it is, in many ways offers a contradictory and perilous utopia, a place of plenitude, excess, and emotional transparency, even as it is also the a site of danger and punishment, where the divine will of God (itself often as inaccessible visually as the workings of history with which it is often conflated in these films) can demand the life of those chosen to reveal His will.

Stay tuned for Part Two, in which I explore the apogee of the genre, with such classic (one might even say iconic) films as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960), before we move into the genre’s fall in the mid-1960s.

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5 comments

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  2. Silver Screenings · June 27, 2015

    You make a good point about these films portraying the ancient world as a troubled and contradictory utopia. That’s an excellent description. You also make a good point about these films allowing audiences to wallow in excesses of all kinds, while offering a moral “balm”.

    I know this sounds strange, but I don’t know if I like Biblical epics or not. I love the colourful, larger-than-life presentation, but not so sure about many of the scripts. I think that’s why I’m so pleased you’re covering this topic; maybe it will help me articulate my feelings towards these films. (#FirstWorldProblems)

  3. Aurora · June 27, 2015

    Aside from the “spectacle” aspect of the presentation during that time I’ve often wondered why the biblical epic came of age, if you will, when it did given a kind of rebellion that was occurring in other genres, but you’ve explained it beautifully. The ties between film production and society are ever-fascinating and those ties with regard to this particular genre of film is one I’d never explored. Enjoyable, informative read! Thank you for submitting this to the project!

    Aurora

  4. Pingback: Screening History: The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part Two (1956-1960) | Queerly Different
  5. girlsdofilm · June 29, 2015

    Great stills – I love how the richness of the visuals really amps up the biblical stories. I’ve never personally been much of a fan but I appreciate them for what they say about the preoccupations of filmmakers and movie-goers, it must have been reassuring to know that the world had always been a dangerous place but that the right will had always made it through. And glad you used the phrase ‘ terror of history’, it really sums up a certain sentiment.

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