Biblical epics: Why have they made a comeback?

Publicity shots from The Ten Commandments and Samson and Delilah Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments and Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah

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This year is being hailed as the year the religious epic makes a comeback. Darren Aronofsky's Noah, Son of God from the producers of the highly successful TV series The Bible and Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale, all make it to the big screen in 2014.

It is not the first time Hollywood has delved into the scriptures for plotlines. Known as 'swords and sandals' films, classics such as 1923 The Ten Commandments and 1926 Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, fed religious stories to a mass audience.

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MGM recently announced another remake of Ben-Hur. Based on the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace, it is the story of a Jewish prince sold into slavery who unknowingly meets Jesus.

The appearance of the scriptures at the cinema can be traced back to the dawn of film. Dr David Shepherd, author of The Bible on Silent Film, told the BBC: "In 1907, the French studio Pathe-Freres released a coloured version of the 'Life of Christ' which was probably the most watched film in America that year."

This year it is not only biblical epics splashing onto the big screen: contemporary films aimed at a Christian audience are now gathering momentum. Although critically panned, God's Not Dead performed well at the American box office, and the recently released Heaven Is For Real received mixed reviews.

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Luke Walton has regularly met with contacts in the film industry in Los Angeles since 2008. Mr Walton runs 'The Pitch', a British competition that asks young film-makers to pitch an idea that takes a concept, story, character or passage from the Bible and re-tells it for a contemporary audience. He believes the trend for Bible-inspired films has been percolating for some time.

"I have been watching a conversation in Los Angeles that has been asking: 'where are we going with this'?"

Mr Walton thinks longer term trends have resulted in the rise of Biblical films this year.

"I think you can track it back to Gibson, but it has come around in every decade, in a different way," he said.

Mr Walton is referring to Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. The film depicts Christ's final hours and took over $600 million worldwide on release, despite all dialogue being in Aramaic.

But its not only money luring Hollywood to make the biblical epic, as Dr Shepherd explained: "It's worth remembering that the cinema has often turned to the Bible and other epic subjects when it was under threat. In the early 20th Century, the cinema turned to the Bible to prove to its detractors that it was a force for good, not evil."

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In the middle of the 20th Century, America was in the grip of the Cold War and Hollywood was facing its own enemies. Dr Shepherd told the BBC: "In the 50s, it was the rise of television which prompted DeMille [famed American director] and others to turn to the biblical film, filling the big screen with casts and sets of epic proportions."

The film producers of the day turned to the spectacle biblical tales could offer to draw audiences away from the allure of the small screen and back into the cinema. At the end of the decade, they again turned to Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur, this time with Charlton Heston in the title role, in what at the time was the most expensive film ever made. Its performance at the box office proved to a new generation of film execs that biblical stories offer a great return.

Swinging '60s

But after the 1960s there was a change in how religious films were produced. Dr Sian Barber, lecturer at the Queen's University Belfast's School of Creative Arts, is researching how the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) dealt with the wave of controversial films in the 1970s, from The Devils to Life of Brian and The Exorcist.

She told the BBC: "At the end of the Swinging '60s everything is starting to be pushed a bit in terms of boundaries. Films were pushing the boundaries further and certain films were seen as going too far."

Vanessa Redgrave dressed as a nun on the set of 'The Devils' Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne in Ken Russell's controversial film The Devils

Ken Russell's 1971 feature The Devils was one of those films. Set in the 1600s in a French convent gripped by hysterical frenzy, the film depicts sexual content and religious imagery. It was cut before censors could give it an adult 'X' rating and it failed to get any kind of release in some countries.

When the BBFC approached Christian leaders for guidance about the controversial 1973 film The Exorcist, the feedback they received might surprise many.

Dr Barber explained: "They were very aware that this could be a problematic film, and actually a lot of the church leaders they spoke to came back and said it was a really good discussion of good and evil. It's not about the representations of religion, it's about bigger debates."

Desire for debate

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Cinema often does provide the opportunity for debate. Husband and wife team Nick and Carol Pollard, launched Damaris a charitable organisation that provides film clips and suggested discussion points for faith and non-faith groups to debate cinema releases. They were inspired by a quote they attribute to Quentin Tarantino: "Cinema is the new church."

Mr Pollard recognises the power of film to prompt discussion: "So many people are not going to church but they are going to the cinema, and that is where they are exploring the big cultural, moral, social, spiritual questions."

Their resources for Noah, sent to community and faith groups, are thought to have reached two million cinema-goers. Mr Pollard thinks the biblical epic is popular because it addresses issues that are important to those of faith and non-faith alike.

"Aronofsky's Noah is not trying to be literal. It's conceptualizing, it's picking up themes about judgment and grace, forgiveness and restoration and new beginnings. But, crucially, it's contextualizing it, so one of the big themes is about environmental issues and how we care for the planet," he told the BBC.

But is it this desire for debate that has led to this most recent tide of biblical films? Dr Shepherd thinks Hollywood is responding to its latest threats of gaming and online film providers: "I think the studios are yet again looking for the big stories of the Bible to save them."

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