Christian and Bible themed movies have become quite the rage this year (Noah, God's Not Dead, Son of God, Heaven Is for Real). And, while the likes of Noah have definitely fallen victim to controversy like the classics before, none of this year's offerings have yet to eclipse the beauty and quality of the following ten films.
Easter is a time when many people join their families for religious traditions, hearty meals, and time of reflection on the greatest day in history. It's no surprise that, when Hollywood chooses to adapt a portion of the Bible, they choose the stories of Jesus and Moses. There have been other stories converted to the big screen, like DeMille's Samson and Delilah, plus the countless Christian-themed films that are hit or miss. But, the story of Jesus' life and sacrifice is the penultimate story for the Christian faith. It's also just a powerful story of love. And, the story of Moses and the exodus out of Egypt is a powerful story of redemption and salvation. It's no secret that these are the stories that light passion and faith in countless believers.
Despite just the powerful stories, even those who just enjoy great Hollywood classics can find something to respect in these ten films. From the vast sets and unbelievable attention to detail, to the beautiful scores and unfettered performances, these are ten films worth watching for their sheer scope in the moviemaking world.
1. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)
Directed by Mel Gibson
Starring Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern
It had been quite the dry spell from biblical films when this Jesus epic was released ten years ago. It's the newest film on this list and it makes it to the top because of its unrelenting depiction of the Christ's ultimate sacrifice and top of the line filmmaking. Gibson, in the midst of personal controversy, delivered a pretty gruesome depiction of Christ's final days, leading up to the crucifixion. Many believe it was too brutal, but I'd argue that it was the clearest depiction of that event we've ever seen on screen. The movie also boasts a beautiful score by John Debney and Oscar-worthy cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. And, if there was any argument about the basis for making this film, the fact that Gibson had Caviezel speak the original Aramaic language used at the time of the Jesus shows that there was a passion and dedication to providing a true-to-life depiction of Christ's life. It's hard to watch and has become a kind of tradition in its own rite each year, but each viewing lends itself to the same emotions as the very first view. The ultimate sacrifice has never looked so breathtakingly real.
2. BEN-HUR (1959)
Directed by William Wyler
Starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith
This was the biggest movie ever made, at the time, and its grand scope never gets old. Following a Jew bent on revenge against his Roman friend, Ben-Hur has become the epitome of films about redemption. It has also laid ground to biblical films that do not necessarily follow specific stories from the Bible, but borrow the setting for stories and advance from them. Jesus shows up to give Ben-Hur some water when he's at his lowest, then after some time, Ben-Hur offers water to a Jesus on his way to the cross. The film's depiction of forgiveness is powerful even today and it also serves as almost an early-Hollywood film twist. Ben-Hur's search for vengeance lights a fire in all of us, but his sudden act of forgiveness and grace during the finale is what faith is all about. The sets and performances are straight from the end of Hollywood's golden age. The film went on to win 11 Academy Awards, a feat that has only been matched by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
3. THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (1998)
Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells
Voiced by Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Danny Glover, Steve Martin, Martin Short
There haven't really been any major animated films based on the Bible and, perhaps, that's a good thing. The Bible is pretty graphic, so making a children's version could either be very terrifying or could feature a lack of authenticity. Dreamworks figured out a way to make it work with this beautiful epic about the story of Moses and the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt. While the filmmakers take some artistic liberties, the underlining facts are present and told in a very honest way. In fact, the story could be a little scary to any kids out there who aren't already familiar with the story. The music is written by the same team behind some of Disney's most memorable songs, which gives the movie even more clout. I also appreciate the fact that, while the Ten Commandments are briefly shown towards the end, the focus of the film is on salvation and redemption. It's easy to confuse Moses' story with only being about the two slabs of stone, when in fact the Hebrews being saved is a perfect foreshadowing of what Christ does later on. You won't be disappointed by the burning bush and the parting of the Red Sea scenes, either.
4. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner, Anne Baxter
One of the great Hollywood epics, DeMille offered this tale of Moses's life after already telling the story once in the silent film era. The sets are epic and the scope was one of the largest for its time. Heston provided a great biblical hero, despite his overacting. While no one today would be convinced at the effects like the parting of the Red Sea, it was no doubt a movie spectacle at the time of its release. Like Ben-Hur, this is a great piece of film history. The story, on the other hand, sometimes lends itself to being too Hollywood, though it never falters on sacrilege. It is the biblical epic to end all biblical epics and it respectfully delivers a story that's equally important to Christianity and Judaism. It's movies like this that are great to look back on, but I doubt we'll ever see again. Critics (both mainstream and religious) would have too much of an uproar about how the story delineates from the original source to allow us to just enjoy it as a film.
5. THE ROBE (1953)
Directed by Henry Koster
Starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Michael Rennie
The 50s were quite the time for biblical epics. This film does a similar feat as Ben-Hur by taking an original story and placing it in the midst of the biblical times. The film follows Marcellus (Burton), a tribune in charge of the group of men who crucify Jesus. He ends up in possession of the robe Jesus wore on the way to the cross and is tormented by delusions afterwards. He fights in his belief of Jesus being the Messiah, but visits Palestine to find out more about him. He ends up experiencing similar fates as Jesus and witnessing miracles and believers firsthand. It isn't quite as effective as Ben-Hur in its storytelling, but it is just as exciting as a sword-and-sandal epic. The sets are beautiful in an old-Hollywood way and the performances are pretty top notch. As far as adaptations go, it's a pretty solid version of the novel it's based on and it features a great score. It is a great show of honesty and charity by way of the early Christians, and perhaps a testament to the type of charity all Christians should embrace today.
6. THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (1964)
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring Enrique Irazoqui, Susanna Pasolini, Mario Socrate
It's on of the most underrated films of all time and one of the best films about the life of Jesus. It was met with controversy immediately upon its release thanks to the personal controversy around its director. Pasolini was an admitted Marxist, atheist, and homosexual. All of those things lent most people to feel he didn't deserve the chance to direct a vision of Jesus. But, in turn, he delivered a pretty extraordinary view of Christ in both story and scale. The film is a beautifully made piece of art, clearly a vision of Pasolini's talent and passion as a filmmaker. It is one of Italian cinema's greatest achievements. Story-wise, it doesn't stray too far from its source material. Christ is seen as a compassionate Messiah whose sole purpose is to share acts of love and offer salvation. While it doesn't bother with flashy set pieces or over-the-top epicness, it is a hidden gem amongst the Hollywood greats.
7. GODSPELL (1973)
Directed by David Greene
Starring Victor Garber, Lynne Thigpen, Katie Hanley, David Haskell
While most people would have thought Jesus Christ Superstar was the best Broadway version of the life of Jesus, Godspell is the one that literally takes most of its lyric from the Bible (Matthew's account, to be specific). It is set in modern day New York City and told in a parable-like fashion, but it is a clear account of the many factions that make up the story of Christ's life. As a movie, it is a stunning picture of life in New York in the 70s. Some of the greatest dance scenes in cinema history are here, including an impressive sequence atop one of the unfinished World Trade Center towers. It's a shame this movie has never received a higher form of regard. Garber, who most people now recognize from Titanic or TV's "Alias", is a great Jesus and the crucifixion scene is a great take on the vision of Jesus on the cross. The film version proves what is so great about the story of Jesus. You can literally find ways to explain the story of redemption and grace in every facet and location of life.
8. THE KING OF KINGS (1927)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Starring H.B. Warner, Dorothy Cumming, Joseph Schildkraut
The film is visually stunning and one of the great masterpieces of the silent era, as well as being on DeMille's best works. DeMille takes strides from 19th century artwork and tells a beautiful version of Christ's final days. Warner, playing Jesus, was a brilliant performer in the silent days and his work as Jesus could be one of the first times an actor really fell victim to their character. He played Jesus in a fashion we'd see later on by the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis. Hollywood legend says that he would spend his days on set alone and silent, reflecting on the life and sacrifice of Jesus. This led to him feeling so overwhelmed that he was driven to return to alcoholism. DeMille, a master of epics in the golden age of Hollywood, shows his clear passion for story and no-holds-barred filmmaking. He would only top himself with his second Ten Commandment epic a few decades from now.
9. THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)
Directed by George Stevens (as well as uncredited work by David Lean and Jean Negulesco)
Starring Max von Sydow, Dorothy McGuire, Charlton Heston, Michael Anderson Jr., Carroll Baker, Martin Landau, Angela Lansbury, Roddy McDowell, Sidney Poitier, John Wayne, Shelley Winters
What a cast, right? Some of Hollywood's greatest legends appeared here, in small and large roles. But, as we've seen time and time again, a huge cast of great actors does not always mean a great film. The Greatest Story Ever Told is a great piece of cinema, but it does lend itself to criticism by its lack of accountability in its storytelling. With stories from the Bible you have to stay somewhat close to the source material, or else you will alienate the very audience most familiar with your work. Despite this, Stevens still turns in a nice piece of work. Sydow is a great Jesus, acting with his eyes and powerful voice. It's also a lengthy film, coming in around the 3 hour mark, but it doesn't leave anything out, it just reorganizes some of the main aspects of the story. It never allows itself to feel preachy, but it does sometimes lend to the "trying to be epic" scope of earlier films before it. It's not a horrible film by any means and it shows how far filmmaking has come from its earliest days of biblical epics.
10. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Starring Theodore Roberts, Charles de Rochefort, Estelle Taylor
Arguably one of the first epics of the silent era (only D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation precedes it in scale), this was DeMille's first major crowning achievement. The silent era was known for its elaborate set pieces and early movie magic moments and The Ten Commandments fits right in with that theme. The photography of the time was at its best, seen very clearly in some of the larger scale scenes, like the parting of the Red Sea. Also, during the exodus, the great masses of people show just how dedicated DeMille and other directors at the time were to telling a full story, no matter how grand. Now we have special effects to fill in where people can't, but back then it was like rendering an army for battle. The biggest difference between this version and DeMille's 1956 version are the heights taken to make the special effects work. When it comes to a wall of fire, the 1923 version can't rely on animation the way the '56 version can. The other major aspect is that this early version takes a different route for its second half, jumping to the modern era and becoming a morality tale between two brothers. It's an interesting storytelling tool not usually seen in the early days. DeMille was definitely a groundbreaking filmmaker throughout his entire career.
There are plenty of films I've left out of this list and a bounty of Christian-themed films that could have easily been added to this list. Monty Python's Life of Brian is a cleverly-made satire. The Last Temptation of Christ is an interesting take on the Jesus story only Martin Scorsese could do. Plus, for every great Kirk Cameron film (Fireproof) there's a thousand Left Behind movies. Not to mention any and all films related to Catholicism: The Exorcist, Agnes of God, Sister Act, and Doubt, among others.
Which Bible-themed film is your favorite?