Religious Epics - 3/31
In honor of Easter Sunday, TCM celebrates the season of Passover with a night of religious epics created during the 1950s and '60s, when such films were at a peak of popularity. These films feature an imposing list of directors and stars, and some of them have come to define their genre.
Quo Vadis (1951), based on the classic novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, is set in ancient Rome and concerns the persecution of Christians during the final years of Emperor Nero's reign. Mervyn LeRoy directs a cast headed by Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov (as Nero). The movie was nominated for eight Oscars®, including Best Picture, and was so successful that it was said to have saved MGM from the brink of bankruptcy. The Silver Chalice (1954), based on the novel by Thomas B. Costain, focuses on a Greek artisan (Paul Newman in his movie debut) who is commissioned to cast the cup of Christ. Victor Saville directed a cast that also includes Virginia Mayo, Jack Palance, Pier Angeli and Natalie Wood.
Ben-Hur (1959), a MGM blockbuster on an even greater scale than Quo Vadis, had the largest budget (more than $15 million) of any film at that time, and was the highest-grossing picture of its year. It won a record-breaking 11 Oscars® including Best Picture, Director (William Wyler) and Actor (Charlton Heston in the title role). The film was a remake of a 1925 silent; both were based on the 1880 Lew Wallace novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Solomon and Sheba (1959) takes some liberties with the Bible in spinning a tale of King Solomon of Israel (Yul Brynner) and the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida). King Vidor directed, with George Sanders and David Farrar costarring.
King of Kings (1961), a remake of a 1927 Cecil B. DeMille silent, is directed by Nicholas Ray and casts Jeffrey Hunter as a blue-eyed Jesus. An imposing supporting cast includes Robert Ryan, Hurd Hatfield, Siobhán McKenna and Viveca Lindfors. Barabbas (1962) stars Anthony Quinn as the criminal freed by Pontius Pilate (Arthur Kennedy) so that Christ could be crucified. Richard Fleischer directed another impressive cast featuring such names as Jack Palance, Ernest Borgnine and Silvana Mangano.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), inspired by a 1949 novel by Fulton Oursler, tells the story of Christ from the Nativity through the Resurrection. Director George Stevens brought the film in at a running length of four hours and 20 minutes, with an all-star cast headed by Max von Sydow as Jesus. Other key roles are played by Charlton Heston, Dorothy McGuire, Claude Rains and José Ferrer, with sometimes-distracting cameos by John Wayne and many others.
The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966) is a five-part epic, directed by John Huston from a screenplay by Christopher Fry. The movie covers the first 22 chapters of Genesis, ranging from the story of Adam and Eve to that of Abraham. Again, in the grand tradition of these Biblical films, the cast is packed with famous names including George C. Scott, Ava Gardner, Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris, Michael Parks and Huston himself (as Noah and the voice of God).
by Roger Fristoe