In the Golden Age of Hollywood spanning the 1930s through the ‘50s, Hollywood turned plenty of Bible stories into epic films that have stood the test of time. “The Ten Commandments” still gets played annually on ABC nearly 60 years after its release, and was an annual treat in my Catholic grade school as the nuns in charge of our school played it in place of class on Holy Thursday each year.
But just as the Catholic Church’s seal of approval was largely replaced by the MPAA ratings system of G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17, the major studios seemed to almost abandon making biblical epics. With the church no longer hovering over them as a moral watchdog, it seemed that the only chance of having the story of Jesus or anyone else in the Bible made on a big scale was with controversy, ala “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
But then along came Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” He had to finance it himself to bring out the suffering of Christ’s crucifixion and death, but that $25 million act of devotion paid off by making more than $600 million worldwide.
Hollywood has started to listen, for as leading Catholic culture critic Barbara Nicolosi has noted, “The only denomination Hollywood cares about is green.” With fortunes to be mined from faithful filmgoers, a growing wave of Christian-themed films (such as “Fireproof,” “Courageous” and “Soul Surfer”) has emerged in the past decade, although most of them are set in the present-day and feature modern characters wrestling with their faith amid daily problems.
But this year, it appears that Mel Gibson’s success is really bearing fruit, as numerous Bible-based films are due to be released between this weekend and the end of the year. First up is last Friday’s release of “Son of God,” which is a film that was first featured as part of the History Channel’s enormously successful 10-part miniseries “The Bible” and has now been expanded to stand on its own rather than as a chapter in the series.
Since Christians have already embraced “The Bible” miniseries and can safely predict that its producer Mark Burnett — the creator of the perennial smash reality series “Survivor” on CBS — will deliver a reverent and engaging movie, “Son of God” made a box office bonanza last weekend. Reports have already come out that churches nationwide caused advance sellouts by pre-ordering tickets for their congregants to attend en masse.
That’s great, but there are some real concerns about the other Bible epics due later in 2014, such as “Noah” (March 28), “Heaven is for Real” (April 16 — just before Easter!), “Exodus” (December) and “Mary, Mother of Christ” (December). “Noah” stars Russell Crowe as the famed average man who was called by God to survive a worldwide flood and help repopulate the earth by taking two of every animal on the ark in what was basically the original zoo.
Crowe has a fairly solid reputation as a guy whose movies are artistically and tastefully made, and his star power drew a $120 million budget for the film, along with the interest of acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky in steering the massive undertaking. But discerning viewers should take note of a couple potentially troubling factors.
First, Aronofsky’s last film was “Black Swan,” which featured plenty of ogling between lesbian characters before they finally engaged in a torrid bed scene together. Not exactly the kind of resume one would normally land a director the reins of a traditional Bible story, is it?
But even giving Aronofsky the benefit of the doubt, early copies of the script leaked out, revealing that the movie — at least in its early planning stages — altered the very meaning of the Noah tale from its original intention. In the Bible, God floods the earth as punishment for mankind’s sins and rebellious nature. In Darren Aronofsky’s film, man is being punished for treating the earth badly — making this a potentially ludicrous environmentalist propaganda piece set thousands of years before the first coal plant was even considered.
“Heaven is for Real” should be more in tune with traditional Christians, as it adapts a bestselling memoir in which a young boy has to convince his father to help him share his experience of the afterlife after a near-death incident. Directed by Randall Wallace, a devout Christian who wrote “Braveheart” and wrote and directed “We Were Soldiers,” “Heaven” is likely to deliver an unquestionable faith experience. It also helps that it’s being released by Sony, the one major studio to develop an entire production wing devoted to Christian-based films.
“Exodus” is a real question mark, largely due to the fact it’s directed by Ridley Scott. Sure, he’s a great filmmaker with classics like “Alien” and “Blade Runner” to his credit, but he already delivered a less than flattering portrait of Catholics in the Crusades in the movie “Kingdom of Heaven.” And worse, in last year’s hands-down worst movie “The Counselor,” Scott indulged his villainess Cameron Diaz in a scene where she berates another woman for admitting she attends confession and then walks into a confessional booth solely with the intention of driving the priest into impure deeds.
But let’s hope for the best again with “Mary, Mother of Christ,” as it’s received heavy-duty financial backing from evangelical leaders including Joel Osteen and is being sold to audiences as the prequel to Gibson’s “Passion.”
What’s the lesson to be had from all of these disparate movies coming out in one year? Is Hollywood truly turning to God? Will churchgoer support at the box office really inspire Hollywood to create more and better Bible films?
We can hope that such epics will again be part of the release schedule, offering young and old alike new epics to enjoy and eventually treasure. The studios are likely drawn to the Bible as great literature with a huge built-in fan base, and if we’re lucky, some of these directors and actors may be believers who care about how the films convey their message.
But since we are living in a modern world where the gods of commerce are often as revered as the God in Heaven, we have to be diligent about what we’re seeing. Reward the good, and punish the bad, using the almighty dollar.