It’s that time of year again, and I know we’ve all been looking forward to it. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments will receive it’s annual Passover/Easter airing this Saturday (3/30/13 at 7:00 p.m. on ABC)! As I’ve repeatedly commented, it’s ridiculous that I get sucked into it, but I basically always do. DeMille regularly managed to take something that really shouldn’t work and somehow make it compulsively watchable, and this is his final (and popularly best-remembered) example. It got me thinking a little bit, however, about the interaction of film and religion. Cecil ‘s formula was to emphasize “accuracy” and piety while looking for every opportunity to also play up the sex and violence. That worked exceptionally well for him, but it isn’t particularly fair to whatever religious tradition ends up in his crosshairs. But can a film ever be? If film is an art form (which I believe it is) then it should be able to legitimately deal with anything. Religion is such a delicate subject, however, that it’s repeatedly shown itself to be a minefield.
Let’s just examine the track record of films dealing with the beginnings of Christianity, shall we? DeMille’s original King of Kings (1927) was castigated for even showing Christ (something the 1959 re-make of Ben-Hur assiduously avoided). The Nicholas Ray 1961 version of King of Kings took flack for not only showing Jesus, but also having the temerity to show him, and his disciples, as men of approximately the right ages (rather than as imposing elders with long beards and attendant gravitas). George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) became such a financial risk that it turned into a long game of “spot-the-star-cameo” (it tends to undermine credibility when you keep thinking things like, “Isn’t that Shelly Winters?!? Oh, look it’s John Wayne! And that Pat Boone really IS an angel!”). Martin Scorsese tried to present a thoughtful and serious discussion of Christ’s mortal aspect in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – and was pilloried for it. And I know a lot of people who can’t react civilly to the mere mention of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004). Taken altogether, not such a great track record for film as a vehicle for religious expression, though it’s ironic that lots of people have no problem with a lot of unconventional religious ideas when they’re presented in an art gallery.
I don’t, of course, want anyone to think the issue is solely a problem for Christianity. Judaism has the aforementioned The Ten Commandments, Hindus get Guide (1965) and Buddhists can watch Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003) – but that’s about it. And Islam has never quite figured out how to deal with the ban on portrayals of the Prophet, though some filmmakers have given it a shot in films like The Message (1977) and the more recent animated film Muhammad: The Last Prophet (2001).
When thinking about these titles, it’s clear that no film can ever satisfy everyone when it comes to religion, and that’s really o.k. I appreciate the virtues and faults of everything I’ve just listed, but part of what they all should do is prompt a little bit of discussion about the actual ideas which lie behind any of them. Is it really that awful for the disciples to be depicted as young men? Do the star cameos detract from Max Von Sydow’s performance as Jesus? Does DeMille go too far by including Dathan (a character, by the way, who actually appears in the Bible: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+16&version=NRSV). Is Marty really out of bounds when he suggests that a wholly human Jesus might legitimately not want to die on the cross? And all that Mel-Gibson-y violence really does have a theological point, doesn’t it? And this is where these films make a difference. They might inspire you (not for nothing am I named “Jeffrey”), and they might upset you, but either way, here’s hoping they get you to actually think about what’s being shown and how it’s being depicted. If that prompts you to open up your Bible, Torah, Koran, Dhammapada or Bhagavad Gita, then they’ve served a useful purpose (and we should all be more familiar with all of those books than most of us are).
So, here’s hoping everyone enjoys The Ten Commandments tomorrow night (or any of the other films I just mentioned, at your earliest convenience), but when you’re done watching pull out the appropriate scriptures, do a little reading, and see how you think the filmmakers did. Then see what happens from there.