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Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Good Book (originally published 10/02)

Besides being the foundation of two of the world's great religions, the Old Testament is a repository of some of humanity's most enduring stories. Regardless of whether you are a religious person, your life has undoubtedly been touched by these stories, and probably molded by them. Needless to say, this treasure trove of timeless tales has provided the inspiration for a great many movies through the years, the latest of which is the VeggieTales version of the story of Jonah and the whale, which is currently playing in theaters nationwide. For a sampling of how earlier films have adapted stories from the Hebrew Bible for the screen, look for these titles on home video.

"Samson and Delilah" (1949). Without a doubt the filmmaker who is best known for turning biblical stories into big box office is Cecil B. DeMille. One of the great grey eminences of Hollywood, it is not an exaggeration to describe DeMille as one of the founding fathers of the American film industry. Fancying himself something of a biblical scholar, he had been drawing story material from holy writ since the silent film days. With "Samson and Delilah," however, he told his Bible tale for the first time in full Technicolor, a process he had experimented with decades earlier for selected scenes of his silent production of "The Ten Commandments." (1923). Rock-jawed Victor Mature plays the part of Samson opposite Hedy Lamarr as Delilah. Don't be put off by DeMille's somewhat ponderous style. It's old fashioned, to be sure - indeed, it was old fashioned even in 1949 - but DeMille knew how to tell a story.

"David and Bathsheba" (1951). Another Hollywood veteran dating back to the silent film days was director Henry King. This is King's interpretation of how King David's lust for Bathsheba brought the wrath of God down on his kingdom. This is the prototype for a plot that has been a favorite of storytellers for centuries, the story of sin and redemption. Gregory Peck stars as King David and Susan Hayward plays the part of Bathsheba.

"The Ten Commandments" (1956). The capstone of DeMille's illustrious career was this gargantuan remake of his silent classic based on Moses, the Lawgiver. The silent film had told the story of Moses in parallel with a modern story illustrating the price one pays for flouting the Ten Commandments. For the remake, however, he abandoned this idea in favor of devoting the entire film to recounting the life story of Moses, played by Charlton Heston. Everything about this production is big, from its length (over three and a half hours) to its budget to its cast. Rarely has such a roster of Hollywood luminaries been assembled to perform in a single film. DeMille's bombastic style was by this time quite old fashioned indeed, but, once again, it did not - and does not - matter. The man was such a natural storyteller that he could hold the attention of audiences for twice the length of most films in spite of a flamboyant directorial flair that dated back to stage melodramas from the turn of the century.

"Sodom and Gomorrah" (1962). The story of Hebrew leader Lot (Stewart Granger) and his ill-fated wife (Pier Angeli) is rendered here as a big, sprawling tale of unfortunate political alliances against a backdrop of sin and corruption writ large. Lot strikes a deal with the queen who rules Sodom and Gomorrah to be given land in exchange for defending the queen's people against their enemies, the Helamites. Eventually, however, he realizes that he has placed his people's souls in jeopardy with this misconceived bargain. Director Robert Aldrich, taking his cue from DeMille, makes no attempt at subtlety.

Speaking of taking cues from DeMille, perhaps you've noticed a trend by now. It was DeMille, way back in the silent movie days, who caught on to the fact that biblical epics provide filmmakers with a way to eat their cake and have it too. What better way to maximize sex and violence on the screen, which is good for the box office, without being seen as prurient, which is bad for the industry's image, than to pull salacious and violent content from the Old Testament, which offers plenty of both? It is the lack of these mainstays, and not the casting of Jonah as an asparagus, that represents the new VeggieTales movie's most radical break with Hollywood tradition.

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