Total Recall: An Epic List of Bible Epics

With Noah hitting theaters, we run down some memorable movies inspired by the Good Book.

Biblical Epics

Yea verily, Darren Aronofsky hath begat a cinematic flood with this weekend's Noah, which brings the Old Testament shipbuilder (looking a lot like Russell Crowe) to the big screen for a couple hours' worth of heavenly wrath, CGI fauna, and lots and lots of water. Noah's arrival signals the return of the old-fashioned Biblical epic, a type of movie that's been mostly absent from theaters in recent decades, but whose unique blend of incredible scenery and high-stakes drama once ruled the box office -- and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to take a fond look back at some of the most notable entries from the genre. Repent, because it's time for Total Recall!

Ben-Hur

87%

MGM billed it as "The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime!," and for once, a studio's hubris was fairly well-founded: Ben-Hur not only improved upon the 1925 silent film that it remade, it did right by the 1880 Lew Wallace novel that inspired them both. Starring Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, it finds director William Wyler stuffing 212 minutes with a booming blend of Biblical imagery (including the Sermon on the Mount and the crucifixion of Jesus) and indelible action sequences (including the most famous chariot race in Hollywood history) -- a potent mix that crushed all box office competitors during 1959, saving MGM from financial ruin and landing behind only Gone with the Wind on the list of the era's all-time blockbusters. "It's very much of its time, overblown and overlong," admitted Film4's Daniel Etherington, "but Ben-Hur is rightfully lodged at the forefront of Hollywood history."

David and Bathsheba

80%

With Arizona standing in for the Holy Land and Gregory Peck making for a suitably noble King David, director Henry King (working from a screenplay by Philip Dunne) turned to the Book of Samuel for inspiration and emerged with David and Bathsheba. A stately reminder of the perils of the flesh, it sees Peck's David falling hard for Bathsheba (Susan Hayward) -- even though she's already married to his soldier Uriah (Kieron Moore). A few sins later, David finds his land withering under a heavenly curse; fortunately for King and producer Darryl F. Zanuck, the movie suffered no such problems, topping the year-end box office grosses and picking up five Oscar nominations. Calling it "A reverential and sometimes majestic treatment of chronicles that have lived three millennia," the New York Times cheered, "In concerning itself with an ageless romance, David and Bathsheba admirably achieves its goal."

Esther and the King

40%

The flood of Biblical epics that baptized theaters in the 1950s was already starting to dry up by the time Esther and the King arrived in 1960, and this ill-received melodrama failed to do the genre any favors. Produced, directed, and co-written by Raoul Walsh, it's chiefly memorable for starring a young Joan Collins as Esther (A Summer Place's Richard Egan played the King) -- as well as being one of the last few films directed by Walsh during a distinguished 50-year career. The filmmaker's resume didn't improve Bosley Crowther's mood while watching Esther and the King; "The best to be said for this chromo," he later sighed, "is that it drives one more spike into the coffin of these synthetic biblical films."

King David

8%

In critical and commercial terms, King David was essentially an unmitigated disaster, grossing a little over $5 million against a reported $21 million budget and provoking exasperated writeups from critics like Rich Cline, who sputtered "What were they thinking?," and the Chicago Reader's Dave Kehr, who described it as "stuffed with anonymous, identically bearded faces." On the other hand, it does give you a chance to see Richard Gere complete his unlikely five-year journey from American Gigolo to Biblical hero. Where else can you do that?

King of Kings

86%

With Rip Torn as Judas and Orson Welles playing narrator, 1961's King of Kings is worth watching if for no other reason than experiencing the talent assembled by director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause). But this widescreen adaptation of the Gospels holds up fairly well in general, offering a surprisingly humanistic and subtle interpretation of the story, and led by a strong, layered performance from Jeffrey Hunter (widely derided at the time because of his teen-idol background) as Jesus. Nodded an appreciative David Parkinson for Empire, "Jeffrey Hunter is less Savior of the Christian faith and more anti-hero with many very human doubts and concerns."

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The Passion of the Christ

49%

Mel Gibson directing a movie about the painful final hours prior to Jesus' crucifixion? In Aramaic? It isn't hard to understand why many saw The Passion of the Christ as an enormous folly before it arrived in theaters, but speaking purely in commercial terms, Gibson had the last laugh -- his Passion project grossed more than $370 million in the U.S. alone, in spite of largely mixed reviews and widespread concern that Gibson's unflinching portrayal of Christ's violent death was driven more by a love for gore than a love of the Lord. But for the devout, it proved a sometimes transcendent experience; as Peter T. Chattaway wrote for Christianity Today, "By giving us the feeling of experiencing Jesus' thoughts, and by making us privy to his prayers, The Passion draws us toward Christ's full humanity like no film before."

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Quo Vadis

88%

While not derived from Biblical verse, Quo Vadis takes place against the backdrop of early Christianity's problems with the Roman Empire, and it's certainly epic in scale, with director Mervyn LeRoy taking full advantage of MGM's muscle to deliver one of the more visually opulent pictures on our list. Centered around the love story between a Christian woman (Deborah Kerr) and her conflicted Roman beau (Robert Taylor), it surrounds its swooning leads with an array of memorable set pieces, including pious converts being fed to lions and an upside-down crucifixion. Did LeRoy really need to take three hours to show it all? Perhaps not. But as Time Magazine argued, "For sheer size, opulence and technical razzle-dazzle, Quo Vadis is the year's most impressive cinematic sight-seeing spree."

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Salome

60%

Recommended chiefly for curious film buffs, Alla Nazimova's Salome put its star (who also produced) center stage in a deliberately over-the-top adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play loosely inspired by the Bible story about the tiff between Herodias (Rose Dione) and John the Baptist. As you're probably well aware, things don't end well for John, and neither did they for Salome: although it's regarded today as one of the first "art" films made in the U.S. (and available for free streaming via the Internet Archive), it was an expensive, little-seen failure at the time, and periodic revivals have been greeted with equal parts enthusiasm and snark, with the Village Voice's J. Hoberman once chuckling that the titular temptress' famous dance amounted to "basically an absurd little gavotte" featuring "a squad of capering dwarfs."

Samson and Delilah

50%

Remembered as the movie that inspired Sunday Times critic Dilys Powell to snark that the hero (played by Victor Mature) had larger breasts than his leading lady (Hedy Lamarr), Samson and Delilah found Cecil B. DeMille -- who really did love his Biblical epics -- bringing all of his gaudy DeMille-ness to bear on the tale of the ill-fated tryst between the titular couple, with typically florid results. You've seen better special effects (the fake lion Mature had to battle is particularly unfortunate), but woe be unto ye who pass up the opportunity to watch a gaggle of Philistines being whooped by one angry longhair with the jawbone of an ass. Just don't expect too much; as Film4 lamented, "Most entertainment is gained from watching Mature going through the painful process of emoting, which is rather like watching an overlarge ham hock attempt to break out into a broad grin."

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Sodom and Gomorrah

43%

Sodom and Gomorrah director Robert Aldrich once said, "Every director ought to get one Biblical film out of his system, but there's not very much that you can do about this sort of picture," and he essentially proved himself right with this Franco-Italian-American co-production, which proved hugely popular in the U.K. but struggled to lure in audiences in the U.S. Starring Stewart Granger as the good-hearted Lot and Pier Angeli as his sodium-fated bride, it boasted the bloated budget and epic scope of any good Bible movie, but landed with little of the impact; calling it "an obvious but feeble imitation of The Ten Commandments," the New York Times' Bosley Crowther dismissed it by calling it "much more concerned with salt-mining than it is with debauchery or lust."

The Ten Commandments

91%

When you think "Bible movies," you probably think about Charlton Heston going full Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's winsomely bombastic 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. It's the Bible movie to end all Bible movies -- almost literally, thanks to its three-hour-and-40-minute running time -- but if it doesn't always justify its immense sprawl and sheer over-the-topness, it comes pretty darn close. In fact, it's become so closely identified with Old Testament fervor that a lot of people probably picture Heston when they think about Moses -- and the movie itself is, as Steven D. Greydanus wrote for the Decent Films Guide, "As much a testament and a fixture of traditional American ideals and affections as a courthouse display of the stone tablets, and as weighty and solid."

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Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don't forget to check out Noah.

Finally, here's an epic Biblical reading, courtesy of Johnny Cash:

Comments

Sean F.

Sean Fee

What about The Last Temptation of Christ?

Mar 26 - 04:42 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

This was based on the fictional book by Nikos Kazantzakis, not from the Bible itself.

Mar 27 - 07:04 AM

Andrew Targaryen

Andrew Targaryen

That was all based on what Jesus COULD have been thinking when it came time for him to be crucified, not what he WAS thinking.

Mar 27 - 07:34 AM

Stef

Stefan N

I have to see it; it may become my favorite Scorsese from what I hear of it.

Mar 27 - 01:01 PM

Kathleen Grone

Kathleen Grone

That was totally fictional, based on a dumb book

Mar 29 - 09:59 AM

ToDandy

Todd Anderson

Prince of Egypt?

Mar 26 - 04:44 PM

WS S.

WS Shannon

I agree with you there. Prince of Egypt was not only a great film, but it's portrayal of Moses is even more accurate than the Ten Commandments, which obviously was another great movie. I'm looking forward to Exodus with Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton later this year.

Mar 26 - 04:48 PM

Alan Tonn

Alan Tonn

How on earth can a portrayal of a person from history be accurate? Were you there when Moses took on Pharoh? And a cartoon movie better than a live action version? I must say that Heston really puts on the cheese a little thick but Prince of Egypt a better portrayal? Wow...

Mar 28 - 09:05 AM

Ethan Sam

Ethan Sam

Nice copy and paste job, Alan

Mar 29 - 05:26 AM

Kathleen Grone

Kathleen Grone

I read a lot of other books that were also part of the original Jewish Bible such as the Book of Jubilees, Gospels DELETED from the New Testament during the early church days, the books of Pilate, etc... To find out more history. Tubal Cain in this new movie is actually pretty accurate - but in the Book of Jubilees it's stated that Noah's sons married three of Methusala's sons. Methusala was Noah's grandfather.

Mar 29 - 10:02 AM

Andrew Targaryen

Andrew Targaryen

Heck yeah, that movie is great.

Mar 27 - 07:34 AM

Lisa Tablada

Lisa Tablada

Great movie. Great content for adults and animated for kids. The music is awesome!

Mar 27 - 08:09 AM

Mario Caraballo

Mario Caraballo

definitely was awesome. starting to doubt this site

Mar 27 - 12:55 PM

Dave J

Dave J

The Greatest Story Ever Told", The Nativity Story" & "The Robe"!

Mar 26 - 04:47 PM

WS S.

WS Shannon

I agree with you there. Prince of Egypt was not only a great film, but it's portrayal of Moses is even more accurate than the Ten Commandments, which obviously was another great movie. I'm looking forward to Exodus with Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton later this year.

Mar 26 - 04:48 PM

Alan Tonn

Alan Tonn

How on earth can a portrayal of a person from history be accurate? Were you there when Moses took on Pharoh? And a cartoon movie better than a live action version? I must say that Heston really puts on the cheese a little thick but Prince of Egypt a better portrayal? Wow...

Mar 28 - 09:05 AM

Ethan Sam

Ethan Sam

Nice copy and paste job, Alan

Mar 29 - 05:26 AM

Kathleen Grone

Kathleen Grone

I read a lot of other books that were also part of the original Jewish Bible such as the Book of Jubilees, Gospels DELETED from the New Testament during the early church days, the books of Pilate, etc... To find out more history. Tubal Cain in this new movie is actually pretty accurate - but in the Book of Jubilees it's stated that Noah's sons married three of Methusala's sons. Methusala was Noah's grandfather.

Mar 29 - 10:02 AM

Thomas Levesque

Thomas Levesque

my 10 favorite religious related movies(or any movies that include jesus and god are)
1-Passion Of The Christ
2-Bruce Almighty(not a bible film, but Morgan Freeman was awesome as God)
3-Ten Comandments
4-The Nativity Story
5-The Last Temptation Of Christ
6-The Exorcist
7-God's Not Dead
8-Chronicles Of Narnia
9-Jesus Christ Superstar
10-Son Of God

Mar 26 - 05:18 PM

Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum

THANK YOU for bringing up Chronicles of Narnia!

Mar 26 - 06:42 PM

Frisby2007

Frisby 2007

That's because Morgan Freeman IS God :)

Mar 26 - 09:40 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

lol @ Exorcist. Wasn't that from the Book of Enoch?

Mar 27 - 07:06 AM

Ivor Smith

Ivor Smith

More like the Book of Blatty..

Mar 27 - 05:21 PM

Vincent

Jerry Benedict

Passion of the Christ? Really?

Mar 27 - 01:01 PM

Irma Stretch

Irma Stretch

That movie is epic!

Mar 28 - 04:07 PM

Jeff Goldeneye

Life Finds a Way

How about ah Prince of Egypt?

I was ah... actually... in that... that one.

Mar 26 - 05:39 PM

Andrew Targaryen

Andrew Targaryen

How could they forget you? Those monsters :(

Mar 27 - 07:35 AM

Lisa Tablada

Lisa Tablada

Great movie. Great content for adults and animated for kids. The music is awesome!

Mar 27 - 08:11 AM

The Rock Hates Soccer

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson Hates Soccer

One Night with the King? Last Temptation of Christ? Prince of Egypt? Greatest Story Ever Told? Jesus 1979? You forgot alot of films.

Mar 26 - 05:46 PM

Kathleen Grone

Kathleen Grone

They really did!

Mar 29 - 10:04 AM

Ryan Oliver

Ryan Oliver

Um... you realize Scorsese made a biblical film better than most of these, right? C'mon, RT!

Mar 26 - 06:17 PM

Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum

THANK YOU for bringing up Chronicles of Narnia!

Mar 26 - 06:42 PM

Frisby2007

Frisby 2007

Where's Prince of Egypt? That easily the ONLY good Bible-adapted movie I have seen. The rest are either boring even by Bible standards or absolute crap.

Mar 26 - 09:40 PM

Frisby2007

Frisby 2007

That's because Morgan Freeman IS God :)

Mar 26 - 09:40 PM

Gavin Miller

Gavin Miller

Life of Brian!

Mar 26 - 09:55 PM

Jo M.

Jo Maps

Yes Sir!! Was just about to suggest it!

Mar 27 - 06:17 AM

Tim Noble

Tim Noble

Thank you for that! I was hoping the RT writer would have included it .. clearly wasn't looking on the "Bright side of Life"

Mar 27 - 09:36 AM

Ivor Smith

Ivor Smith

Come now good readers, have we forgotten John Hustons, 1966 Bible Epic, "The Bible; In the beginning" All star cast, spectacle galore. The Robe was the first CinamaScope production,1953, with Richard Burton. My favorite Mocumentry of all time is, "And G-d Spoke" Very Funny.

Mar 27 - 01:01 AM

Ric M.

Ric McInerney

I certainly haven't forgotten it. Slow going at times, but many scenes that one never forgets..and there was even some humor!

Mar 29 - 02:34 AM

Alexander Loucks

Alexander Loucks

I know it was a miniseries, but Jesus of Nazareth was the bomb. And the Last Temptation of Christ is probably the most sacrilegious thing of all time. Like who thought that was a good idea? "Guys... what if Jesus... you know... did it. That would be a great movie..."

Mar 27 - 01:26 AM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Grow up.

Mar 27 - 07:07 AM

Dawn Havard

Dawn Havard

How about Greatest Story Ever Told? (Which has my all time favorite John Wayne cameo: "TRULY...HE...WAS...THE...SON...OF...GODDDDDD.")

Mar 27 - 05:30 AM

Mario Caraballo

Mario Caraballo

great line. i wish they included in the passion.

Mar 27 - 12:57 PM

Ivor Smith

Ivor Smith

Waynes' Centurion Guard; More like, "Truly, He was the son of Gawd"

Mar 27 - 05:16 PM

Jo M.

Jo Maps

Yes Sir!! Was just about to suggest it!

Mar 27 - 06:17 AM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

This was based on the fictional book by Nikos Kazantzakis, not from the Bible itself.

Mar 27 - 07:04 AM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

lol @ Exorcist. Wasn't that from the Book of Enoch?

Mar 27 - 07:06 AM

Ivor Smith

Ivor Smith

More like the Book of Blatty..

Mar 27 - 05:21 PM

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