I grew up watching biblical epics and no matter how many times I have seen, "The Ten Commandments," (1956) which is far too many to count, I couldn't wait for the sea to open up and let Moses (Charlton Heston) and the tribes of Israel walk through freely before it violently swallows up, Yul Bryner. At the time I was more worried about the horses than Yul.
These were hugely popular films that also ran on television during certain holidays and this Easter all you have to do is glance through your cable channels and you will find a number of biblical epics including, "King Of Kings,' "The Greatest Story Ever Told," "Ben Hur," and most recently "Risen."
I have included links to the original trailers of these "Easter" epics because it's fun to see them in the context of the year they were actually released. Forgive the announcer for being so dramatic, that's what they did back then.
"King Of Kings" (1961)
The story of Christ is treated with dramatic reverence and includes narration by Orson Wells, but it's the casting of blue-eyed American film and television star, Jeffrey Hunter, as Jesus, that had people talking back in 1961 and still talking today.
Hunter was 33 when he played the Messiah and even commented that he was the same age as Jesus during filming. It's an all inclusive biblical epic featuring the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and despite it's obvious leanings towards Hollywood stereotypes and corny dialogue, there are some genuine emotions here that remain intact. That is, if you can get over the surfer looks of the Son of God.
"The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965)
George Stevens directs with a little help from David Lean (Lawrence Of Arabia) another life of Christ epic this time starring legendary Swedish actor, Max Von Sydow, as Jesus. Yes, Hollywood was in a biblical epic groove at this time also casting Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary, Charlton Heston as John The Baptist, Claude Rains as Herod The Great, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, and John Wayne as the Roman Centurion who says, "Truly this must be the son of God."
Star power and biblical power made these films expensive to make and box office hits. But, it's all there, even the resurrection that borders on a sci-fi style ascension.
At the time, "Ben-Hur," directed by William Wyler, was the most expensive movie ever made coming in at just over 15 million dollars and eventually winning 11 Oscars. it was a huge success eventually taking in more than 146 million dollars world wide. Charlton Heston goes from slave to chariot champion and along the way is served a cup of water from a young messiah. It's a beautiful sequence in the best of all the epics that plays more like an action film than a biblical epic. There is a reason this film is much admired and revered, it's that good.
The ill-conceived 2016 remake is merely a shadow of Wyler's magnificent epic based on the 1880 novel "Ben-Hur: The Tale of The Christ." The most recent version cost 100 million dollars to make and despite it computer generated chariots and horses, lacks any sense of depth or real emotion.
Stick to the 1959 version because it's true, they don't make movies like they used to.
Of all the modern day, biblical minded films that highlight the life of Christ and in particular the events of the resurrection, "Risen" is better than most and remains a well acted, thoughtful film.
Joseph Fiennes plays a non believing Roman soldier looking for the body of Christ following the resurrection and eventually has a close encounter that changes his life.
Director Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves), takes the audience on an intimate journey that is much more diverse in casting than it's older predecessors and the ending is actually quite touching. You can't call, "Risen," a biblical epic but you can call it a good, decent film that understands the Easter message.
Happy Easter, Happy Viewing.