B Stett

(Investigator 108, 2006 May)


The great biblical epics of the 1920s were The Ten Commandments (1923), Ben Hur (1926), The King of Kings (1927) and Noah's Ark (1929).

The public went in droves to see these movies. Yet when the movie industry began, the depiction of Biblical figures caused controversy.

At its basis was the Second of the Ten Commandments:
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them… (Exodus 20)
The controversy goes back centuries to when Protestants rejected images in worship. Many felt that Christianity should be taught verbally without pictures, the way Jesus taught.

The alternative view was that images assist teaching. In pre-modern times many illiterates got Christian teaching by attending "Passion Plays" i.e. live-theatre.

When motion pictures began in the 1890s film companies produced films about Jesus. This included special effects like angels flying and Jesus walking on water.

The old dispute returned and some critics considered movies of biblical figures as modern idol worship. Other disputes centred on how to depict:
  1. Biblical persons and miracles with respect;
  2. Depravity and immorality;
  3. Responsibility and blame. (A Jewish organization, Bene Brith, got the crucifixion sequence in Intolerance (1916) re-done to show fewer Jews and more Romans!)
By 1910 many Catholics considered movies "a primary school for criminals". By 1920 censorship boards sprang up across the USA and controlled what films could be shown in their area.


In 1930 came the Motion Picture Production Code or Hays Code, which film producers adopted to forestall federal censorship. William Hays was America's guardian of morality and head of The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America Inc.

The 5,000-word Code was: "A Code To Govern The Making Of Motion Pictures, the Reasons Supporting It, and the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation".

The Code included the stipulation that films avoid irreverence and ridicule of deity. It commenced with three "General Principles":
  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
Then came twelve "Particular Applications" of which the eighth stated:
VIII. Religion
1. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.
2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.
3. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled.
The Legion of Decency (1936-1971) guided which movies Catholics could see. By 1971 the Legion had classified over 16,000 movies!


Biblical epics reached their greatest popularity in the 1950s. From 1946 to 1959 there were six years when the top grossing film was a biblical epic. The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben Hur (1959) were grandiose spectacles on new wide screens introduced to combat the loss of audiences to television.

Then public taste changed. The Bible In The Beginning (1966) had poor box office results. Science fantasy and the supernatural seemed the new fad. Movie-makers therefore tried Antichrist and Satan themes based loosely on the Pentecostal understanding of Antichrist. There were Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976).

The main Jesus movies in the 1970s were musicals and portrayed him in terms of youth and hippie values. Churches organized boycotts and preachers criticized from pulpit and radio. The Hays Code was by this time almost ignored.

From 1974 most biblical movies were made for TV. Notable is the Bible Project series of the Italian company, Lux Vide — thirteen films since 1993 including ten based on the Old Testament. From the 1990s even more biblical movies and documentaries were released straight-to-video or DVD.

Big-screen biblical movies became few — The Prince of Egypt (1998) and Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ (2004). The latter is probably the most highly rated Jesus movie of all and realistically portrays Roman brutality.


The ratings, where added to the revues below, are from Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide. Other authors such as Hirschhorn (1983) and Walker (2005) often differ.

From The Manger to The Cross (1912)
Filmed in Palestine and Egypt by the Kalem Film company, and showed many authentic locations. Gene Gauntier wrote the script and played the virgin, Mary.

Intolerance (1916)
Four stories of people trapped by intolerance. One of the four stories was about Jesus.

The Ten Commandments (1923) ***
Produce by Cecil B DeMille. The first part of this film is an epic in grand style — great chariot and parting-of-the-Red-Sea scenes — and the rest a modern parable about two brothers, one saintly the other evil.

Ben Hur (1926) ***
The biggest, most expensive of the silent movie spectaculars. The sea battle and chariot race compare well to the 1959 remake.

The King of Kings (1927) ***
A reverential Cecil B DeMille silent film which holds up well. Remade in 1961.

Noah's Ark (1929) **½
Days of Noah shown in flashback and parallel to World War I. Some great special effects.

The Sign of The Cross (1932) **½
Roman nobleman Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) is torn between two woman — alluring Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) and a Christian (Elissa Landi). Slow going but enlivened by sadism, seduction, and Roman arena scenes. Reissued in 1944 with sadism and sexy scenes cut. The 1995 video release had deleted scenes restored.

The Great Commandment (1941)
About Jesus who is not shown, to better suggest reverence by the Hays Code. The movie's message of pacifism conflicted with American entry in WW II and was shown only in churches.

Samson and Delilah (1949) ***

A Cecil B DeMille movie with Victor Mature as Samson and Hedy Lamarr as Delilah. Entertaining with good fight scenes.

Quo Vadis? (1951) ***
Roman soldier tries to figure out how to romance a Christian girl without Emperor Nero feeding them both to lions.

David and Bathsheba (1951) **
Produced by Twentieth Century Fox with Gregory Peck as David and Susan Hayward as Bathsheba. A box office success but a mainly boring script.

Androcles and the Lion (1952)
A Christian and a lion become friends and meet in the arena.

Salome (1953) **½
Story of the dancer who asked for the head of John the Baptist. Great cast, including Rita Hayworth and Stewart Granger, but poor script.

The Robe (1953) **½
With this movie Twentieth Century Fox introduced a wide-screen format called CinemaScope. Richard Burton stars as a Roman centurion who presided at Christ's crucifixion and whose life is changed by Christ's robe. Victor Mature is Burton's slave Demetrius. A slow-moving costume drama, but a box office success. Production cost $5million, intake $17million.

Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) **½
Action sequel to The Robe with Emperor Caligula searching for Jesus' magic robe. Victor Mature plays Demetrius, a slave drafted as a gladiator, and Susan Hayward his royal dalliance.

The Silver Chalice (1954)
A freed slave fashions a chalice to hold the Last Supper cup, and Simon the Magician (Jack Palance) plans to replace Jesus.

The Ten Commandments (1956) ****

Cecil B DeMille's last and greatest epic and the highest grossing Bible film to that time. The film is about Moses' life from birth to death. Charlton Heston plays Moses and Yul Brynner Pharoah. Lots of spectacle and highlights with few low points.

Ben Hur (1959) ***½
Charlton Heston as Ben Hur. This movie replaced The Ten Commandments as the highest grossing biblical epic.

Solomon and Sheba (1959)
The visiting Queen gets virtuous Solomon (Yul Brynner) steamed up enough to betray his legendary wisdom.

A Story of David (1960)
Jeff Chandler as David. Bible believers might enjoy this movie — otherwise a possible remedy for insomnia.

Esther and the King (1960) **
Costume drama. Jewish girl, Esther, becomes Queen of Persia and saves Jews of the Persian Empire from extermination.

The Story of Ruth (1960) **½
A woman leaves her gods to follow the faith of Israel.

Barabbas (1961) **
Anthony Quinn stars as the criminal released instead of Jesus.

King of Kings (1961) ***½
Jesus with blue eyes and blond hair but movingly filmed with dialogue and events faithful to the Bible.

Joseph and His Brethren (1962) **
Described as: "Juvenile biblical tale, lavishly produced but empty-headed."(Maltin 1998)

Sodom and Gomorrah (1963) **½
Entertaining movie with a strong cast and vivid scenes of depravity and torture.

Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964)
Documentary-style account of Christ's life,

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Swedish actor Max Von Sydow played another blue-eyed Jesus. Extravagant and cameo-filled, but a box office failure.

The Bible In The Beginning (1966)
Originally intended to cover the whole Bible but plans changed when Genesis resulted in 20 hours of footage. Finally released as a four-hour movie. Eve is shown naked but discretely shaded. Impressive special effects include the Tower of Babel and Noah's Ark and the Flood. Did poorly at the box office.

Saul and David (1968)

The Joys of Jezebel (1970)

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Jesus presented as a symbol for the youth and hippie movement, as "hip" and "relevant".

Godspell (1973) **½
A musical version of Jesus' life set in New York where young disciples follow him around and dance vigorously.

Moses and Aaron (1974 TV)
The Story of Jacob and Joseph (1974 TV)

Moses (1975 TV)
Burt Lancaster as Moses. Dull compared to DeMille's epics.

Jesus of Nazareth (1976 TV)
A long film, 370 minutes.

The Story of David (1976 TV)

The Omen (1976) **½
An engrossing horror movie. The Antichrist apparent is born to two Americans (Gregory Peck, Lee Remick) living in England. He survives every attempt to kill him and everyone who makes the attempt meets a shocking or sudden demise.

The Nativity (1978 TV)

Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1978-1979)
TV series about Old Testament characters.

Jesus (1979) **½
Uncomplicated retelling of Jesus' life. Shot on location in Israel.

Life of Brian (1979)
The Star of Bethlehem pauses over the wrong stable and Brian thereafter gets mistaken for the Messiah.

Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith (1979 TV)
Jesus' parents depicted as a struggling newly-married couple: "The leads play it as a pair of American youngsters plunked down in Biblical Nazareth." (Maltin 1998)

Peter and Paul (1981 TV)
Stars Anthony Hopkins and closely follows the Bible text.

Samson and Delilah (1984 TV)
Victor Mature, who played Samson in the 1949 movie, here plays Samson's father.

King David (1985)
Richard Gere as David. A box office failure.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Produced by Martin Scorsese. Jesus presented as a human savior who struggles to accept his divinity. Protesters organized a nationwide boycott. The "last temptation" occurs on the cross where Jesus is tempted in a fantasy sequence by Mary Magdalene.

The Story of Christmas (1994)
Animation of the story of Jesus' birth, for children.

Solomon & Sheba (1995 TV)

The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Animation of the story of Moses. Some 575 Christian and Jewish scholars were consulted and viewed early drafts of the film to reduce controversy.

Esther (1999 TV)
Louise Lombard as Esther; Thomas Kretschmann as King Ahasuerus; F. Murray Abraham as Mordecai. Easy-to-follow retelling of Esther and Mordecai saving the Jews from annihilation. This was tenth in the series of Lux Vide TV movies made 1993-2002 based on Bible stories.
The series included Abraham (1993), Jacob (1994), Joseph (1995), Moses (1996), Samson and Delilah (1996), David (1997), Solomon (1997), Genesis (1998), Jeremiah (1998), Jesus (1999), etc.

Noah's Ark (1999 TV)

The Passion of The Christ (2004)
Jesus' trial and crucifixion. Confronting, violent, bloody. Dialogue in Aramaic with English subtitles. James Caviezel as Jesus.

The Ten Commandments (2005 TV)


Hays Code:
Hirschhorn, J 1983 Rating The Movie Stars, Publications International, USA
Mahan, J H Celluloid Savior: Jesus in the Movies, Journal of Religion and Film Volume 6, No. 1, April, 2003
Maltin, L 1998 1999 Movie & Video Guide, Signet, USA
Walker, J 2005 Halliwell's Film, Video & DVD Guide 2006, Harper Collins, London
Walsh, F 1996 Sin and Censorship, Yale University Press, USA.