Hard to remember now, but Hollywood’s Golden Age was full of Bible movies. Americans were flocking to the movie theater to check out this medium’s rapid expansion and ballooning budgets, and film writers were happy to adapt anything they could get their hands on. That’s how we got film classics like The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba, all with a-list talent onscreen and hot directors off.
But this happy union wasn’t meant to last. Conservatives started to suspect Hollywood of harboring Communists, and pressured the government to root out threats to their Christian moral worldview from the film industry, no matter how imagined these threats might be. This turned to a full blown witch hunt with the infamous Hollywood Blacklist, and the powers that be in the film industry have never quite forgotten it. These days, you get the sense that Hollywood execs remain intrigued by the possibility of the Bible, since it’s proven to be such a fruitful and lucrative resource in the past, but they can’t quite figure out what to do about it.
Christians largely seem to feel the same way. They like the idea of Bible movies and are convinced that the book has a treasure trove of stories ripe for a solid filmmaker (spent ten minutes talking movies with any “edgy” pastor and he’s sure to tell you about how “cool” and “R-rated” a Bible movie would actually be), but they’ve rightly assessed that most of Hollywood’s recent attempts have been misfires.
But most isn’t the same thing as all, and while they’re not all bangers (and never have been), some Bible movies remain excellent and can point the way forward for filmmakers interested in creating better Bible movies in the future. You’ve probably seen the more famous examples — The Prince of Egypt, Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ, etc — but here are a few you may have missed.
The Miracle Maker
This little-watched 1999 claymation special deserved more attention than it got, featuring both some genuinely delightful stop-motion effects and writing that was clever without straying from the source material. Featuring a terrific voice cast (Ralph Fiennes as Jesus, Emily Mortimer as Mary of Nazareth, William Hurt as Jairus, Richard E. Grant as John the Baptist, David Thewlis as Judas and Alfred Molina as Simon the Pharisee) the movie can still be found on streaming channels and is well worth the effort.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
In 1964, Italian neorealism was sweeping the industry, with filmmakers casting non-professional actors in stories that centered the experiences of the poor and the working class. The Gospels were a natural fit for the vibe, and Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini decided to adapt the Book of Matthew from nativity to resurrection, staying absolutely faithful to the script the entire time. The result is a genuine masterpiece, one of that year’s best movies and proof that using the Bible as a script can actually make for spectacular cinema.
Last Days in the Desert
A very strange movie. Ewan McGregor plays the second wandering desert mystic of his career in Rodrigo García film that was pitched a hypothetical take on Jesus’ 40 days of wandering in the desert but plays more like an impressionistic painting. In this, McGregor is both tempter and tempted, struggling with the will of God for a struggling family he stumbles across in the wilderness. The result is less a Bible movie than a movie with some biblical characters in it, but it’s an engaging ride if you can find it in you to take in one more White Jesus movie.
Admittedly, you’ve probably at least heard of Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe’s big budget Noah adaptation, which was far too strange for audiences in 2014. The early chapters of Genesis are very weird, with talking snakes, nephilim and flaming swords, and Aronofsky took those as cues for his worldbuilding, creating an antediluvian land of wonders in which the line between humanity and the divine was far more permeable, and a very young creation was very volatile. Nobody quite knew what to make of the Nick Nolte-voiced rock monsters and Crowe’s increasingly unhinged performance, but the people who wrote it off for weirdness have been too indoctrinated by the usual “staffs and bathrobe” flicks to recognize a movie that’s trying to grapple with real biblical clues about what the immediate post-Fall earth might have actually been like, and missing some thoughtful questions about faith and doubt in the shuffle. Not to mention one of the most beautiful animated sequences in a big budget movie of that decade.