Screening History: The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part Three (1961-1966)

Welcome to the third and final part of my series for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, in which I explore the declining period of the biblical epic, which saw the death of the genre on the big screen until its resurgence on film (and on television) post-2000.

As the ’60s began, it must have seemed a good time to be making epic films.  While some of the 1950s films had not been as successful as had been hoped, the fortunes of the genre did not seem all washed up just yet.  When Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings emerged in 1961, it offered the first major Hollywood studio film to explicitly show Christ’s face since DeMille’s similarly titled The King of Kings in 1927.  Ray’s film situates Christ’s life and teachings in the context of the Roman conquest of Palestine, granting his film a topical urgency and also allowing for a feeling of a world that is, indeed, on the brink of profound political change.  Yet even in a film like this, one can already see the writing on the wall, not least in the fact that the philosophy of bigger and better was beginning to flag, as can be seen from the nakedly derivative marketing.  If you see a similarity between these enormous letters and those used to market Ben-Hur, that is most likely because they are almost identical, an indication, it seems, of some measure of studio uncertainty on how to contend with the ever-increasing desire for the new and the spectacular.

Theatrical release poster for "King of Kings."  Note the similarities to the poster for "Ben-Hur" (also released by MGM).

Theatrical release poster for “King of Kings.” Note the similarities to the poster for “Ben-Hur” (also released by MGM).

1961 also saw the release of the darker Italian film Barabbas, about the career of the Jewish insurgent pardoned so that Jesus could be crucified.  The character, portrayed by Anthony Quinn, positively seethes with existential and political angst, as he struggles to come to terms with his survival at the expense of another.  The film shows signs of its European origins, a sign that the epic form was not isolated in the U.S., as well as an indication of the growing influence and popularity of European art house films.

Given the perceived fiscal viability of the genre–especially considering the flagging fortunes of most of the major Hollywood studios–it would make sense that Fox would decide to engage in its own form of oneupsmanship with its grandiose production of Cleopatra.  Unfortunately for Fox, costs for the picture began to balloon, due in no small part because the entire project had to be moved from England to Italy (which required the construction of a second set of sets), as well as numerous other difficulties (including, so the press reported, trouble with the star Elizabeth Taylor, who engaged in a salacious affair with married co-star Richard Burton during production).  While the film was the top grosser of the year, it’s enormous budget ensured that it was a loss for the studio.

The crushing weight of spectacle in "Cleopatra."

The crushing weight of spectacle in “Cleopatra.”

Still, not all was quite lost (or at least it was thought not), as several other epic films went into production.  George Stevens, the man who had made so many memorable westerns, embarked on his devotional life of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told.  However, a combination of factors, including a Hallmark card aesthetic (to borrow a phrase from prominent critic John Simon), a distracting panoply of cameo appearances–including one by John Wayne as the centurion at Christ’s crucifixion–and an enormous budget fairly guaranteed that this film would not recoup its losses.

If Stevens’s outing was a religiously devout picture, Anthony Mann’s film The Fall of the Roman Empire, released in 1964,  was far more bleakly secular in its outlook.  Mann’s film is self-consciously a “thinking man’s epic,” far more cerebral in its approach to its subject matter, the eponymous fall of one of the western world’s most formidable political powers.  However, while the beginning voiceover suggests that there were many causes, the film’s narrative suggests otherwise, pinpointing the corruption of Emperor Commodus (itself, the film suggests, the product of his illegitimacy and gladiatorial paternity).  However, the ending is truly one of the most despairing and despondent of the mid-century epics, with hero Lucius (Stephen Boyd) and Lucilla (Sophia Loren) leaving a flaming conflagration as the city, and the empire, goes up for sale to the highest bidder.

The ending conflagration of "Fall of the Roman Empire," with echoes of an atomic expulsion from Eden.

The ending conflagration of “Fall of the Roman Empire,” with echoes of an atomic expulsion from Eden.

While The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Greatest Story Ever Told are typically seen as the definitive end of the genre’s mid-century flourishing, one other film of this type deserves mention:  John Huston’s The Bible:  In the Beginning.  Released in 1966, the film chronicles the events of the first 22 chapters of Genesis.  While not enormously successful at the box office, the film was at least somewhat well-received by critics and features some noteworthy performances by Huston himself as Noah, George C. Scott as Abraham, and Ava Gardner as Sarah.

It is perhaps fitting that many of these films take as their subject the decline of the great powers of the ancient world:  the meteoric rise and catastrophically fast fall of Cleopatra, the crumbling of Roman imperial glory, even the loss of innocence entailed with the Fall out of the Garden of Eden.  In terms of the film industry, this was indeed the decade that saw the definitive end of the classic Hollywood studio system, as the impetus to produce bigger and better product eventually became too strenuous to be sustained (as can be seen with the bloated budgets of Cleopatra and The Greatest Story Ever Told).  In the culture at large, political shocks reverberated throughout the early-to-mid 1960s, with the prominent assassination of JFK serving as a potent reminder of the fragility of life and of the melancholia of dreams unfulfilled.

Perhaps it is precisely because these films take the fall of grace and power as their subject that so many of them fumbled so spectacularly at the box office.  Their predecessors in the genre, ambivalent as they often were, frequently attempted (with various levels of success) to disguise that ambivalence and overcome it through the triumph of narrative resolution (often of spiritual transcendence).  A film such as Fall of the Roman Empire, however, is even more bleak than Spartacus, with its ending conflagration and the flight of both Lucius and Lucilla as they abandon the city, and the empire, to its own internal corruption.  Cleopatra, likewise, ends with its heroine’s suicide and the potent knowledge that her death, and that of Antony, will usher in the era of Augustus, a man of substantially smaller stature and heroic grandeur than his enemy (at least as portrayed with such hysterical and fey flair by Roddy McDowall).  The biblical epic, it seems, found itself both too topical and not topical enough.

After The Bible:  In the Beginning, the biblical epic seemed to vanish from the production slates of Hollywood, moving largely to the international sphere and, in more limited fashion, to the television miniseries.  International films such as Fellini Satyricon (1969) and miniseries such as Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Masada (1981) took up the slack, providing periodic returns to that halycon age.  However, it wasn’t until the release of Gladiator in 2000 that the ancient world truly returned to the public consciousness in a much more conspicuous and consistent way.  The films that followed, such as Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), and 300 (2006), as well as the television series Rome (2005-2007) and Spartacus (2010-2013) began a cycle that continues to the present, as with the films Noah (2014), Exodus:  Gods and Kings (2014) and the miniseries The Bible and its successor A.D.:  The Bible Continues.  While it is debatable whether any of these texts reach the heights of the genre at its apogee, they nevertheless indicate the continuing desire for and relevance of the epic form.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my three part chronicle of the rise and fall of the biblical epic.  It has certainly gone down in film history as one of the most representative genres of the middle of the century.  While it is very easy to dismiss these films as campy, even ridiculous by our current standards of realism, I hope I have shown how these films, despite (or perhaps because of) their over-the-topness, actually sought to make sense of the chaos and terror of the aftermath of World War II and the heightened tensions surrounding the Cold War.  The biblical epic, in all its hyperbolic glory, still stands as one of the foremost emblems of Hollywood’s golden age.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Classic Movie History Project Blogathon: Modern Era | Silver Screenings
  2. Silver Screenings · June 28, 2015

    This post proves that films are not made in a vacuum. The overriding theme you touched on, the collapse of great empires, really does mirror the collapse of the studio system.

    As an aside, I’m glad you focused on the merits of these films, even though it’s easy to poke fun at some of them. They were/are important films and you’ve done them justice.

    THANK YOU for joining the blogathon. I absolutely loved this series.

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