10 great Bible films

From The Ten Commandments to The Gospel According to St Matthew: 10 biblical epics for Easter.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

In the beginning was the word, and the word was: Bible movies sell. Other than the western, it’s hard to think of a genre that put bums on seats quite like the biblical epic – at least for a time.

For risk-averse executives of the Hollywood studio era, Bible films made sense. Tales from the Old and New Testaments were embedded in the collective folk consciousness for believers and non-believers alike. These films came with guarantees: of human and divine drama on an epic scale. “What else has two thousand years’ advance publicity?” quipped Cecil B. DeMille.

And yet by the mid-1960s the Hollywood Bible film was on the out, abandoned to Italian studios quick to wring the last bit of juice from a given genre. With the New Hollywood movement on the horizon, Bible films had become a byword for stuffiness and solemnity. Audiences wanted psychological realism and contemporaneity, and they weren’t going to get that from Moses.

This unfair characterisation appears to have persisted, with Bible films – like lists about Bible films – generally confined to Easter weekends. Every now and then a big-name filmmaker will try his hand – 2014 saw a surprise twofer in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah – but the genre’s glory days are ancient history.

At their best, these films are as piercing in their examinations of faith as anything by Ingmar Bergman, and are invariably shot on the most lavish widescreen film formats. They are existential dramas that interrogate humanity by way of its foundational myths. Here are 10 of the greatest stories ever told.

Lot in Sodom (1933)

Directors: James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber

Lot in Sodom (1933)

Anyone with the impression that Bible films are staid and stodgy ought to spend 28 minutes with this wild pre-Code wonder. The filmmakers, James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, are a mysterious duo with just a few credits to their names – most notably a 13-minute take on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), made the same year as Jean Epstein’s celebrated adaptation.

Epstein is a useful touchstone for describing the avant-garde whirlwind of this cult miniature. So are Jean Cocteau, Kenneth Anger and the whole spectrum of German expressionism. Per the Book of Genesis, Lot escaped from Sodom – the Old Testament Ayia Napa destroyed by God – to drunkenly fornicate with his daughters after his wife was turned into a pillar of salt. Watson and Webber stick, candidly, to the biblical script, but as phallic and vaginal imagery abounds and male bodies leap and writhe across the screen, it’s clear that their hearts belong to the pagan plenitude of the Sodomites.

David and Bathsheba (1951)

Director: Henry King

David and Bathsheba (1951)

With the advent of CinemaScope and other widescreen formats in the early 1950s, Bible films had their moment in the sun, as filmmakers used the extra onscreen real estate to lend a sense of the epic. Arriving early in the cycle, Henry King’s extraordinary telling of the affair between King David (Gregory Peck) and Bathsheba (Susan Hayward), the wife of an elite soldier, had to settle for the old-school Academy ratio. In this story of spiritual confinement, the boxier image works wonders, as the walls of the frame appear to close in on the adulterous duo when news of their heresy becomes public.

King’s penetrating extended shots make David and Bathsheba a Hollywood Bible film like no other. In its quiet asceticism, and devastating use of close-ups, it feels like an American studio film like no other, too. A benevolent God has overseen David’s rise from shepherd’s son to King of Israel, but now the older sinner must reckon with Jehovah’s wrath. The film ends with him broken and alone, praying for mercy, before an epilogue takes us back to his fight against Goliath – a flash of boyhood faith rendered poignant by its adult diminution.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

The Ten Commandments (1956)

He’s usually thought of as the one true God when it comes to Bible movies, but Cecil B. DeMille only made a handful of them in an 80-odd film career. The Ten Commandments was so good a yarn he told it twice, and it’s with the later version – a VistaVision monolith of mid-century spectacle, and DeMille’s final film – that his pop-cultural reputation largely rests. Back in 1923, a cast of thousands swarmed across the screen in his bifurcated, silent-era take on the story of Moses, which leapt from the Book of Exodus to contemporary San Francisco.

In 1956, DeMille sticks with Charlton Heston, following his Moses from Prince of Egypt to deliverer of the Hebrews. You don’t get much change from four hours, but this is maximalist storytelling at its finest. The final 45 minutes, in which the bearded sage leads his people out of Egypt, sees one staggeringly orchestrated set piece follow another. The parting of the Red Sea is one thing, but the finale is where it’s at, as DeMille intercuts the divine typesetting at the summit of Mount Sinai with a bacchanalian orgy led by an idolatrous Edward G. Robinson.

Solomon and Sheba (1959)

Director: King Vidor

Solomon and Sheba (1959)

While it bears no direct relationship to the earlier film, in the biblical cinematic universe Solomon and Sheba is a chronological sequel to David and Bathsheba. Here, King David is on his deathbed, instigating an internecine squabble between his heirs: Yul Brynner’s Solomon (good!) and George Sanders’ Adonijah (bad!). Israel has enemies on all sides, led by David Farrar’s Egyptian pharaoh, who employs the feisty Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida, who does she think she is?) to seduce and destroy the new king, Solomon.

But the pair fall in love, and Solomon invites his pagan beau to host an orgy at his gaff, invoking the wrath of God, who smites the Israelite temple with indignant bolts of lightning. Under King Vidor’s smouldering direction, and with the great Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia) behind the camera, this might just be the horniest entry in Hollywood’s Bible-bashing canon – Sheba’s saturnalia is jaw-dropping in its sexual candour. Exploring the tension between responsibilities of state and desires of the flesh, Vidor climaxes his final film with a downbeat miracle, as Sheba renounces love to uphold a covenant with her newfound God.

Esther and the King (1960) 

Directors: Raoul Walsh and Mario Bava

Esther and the King (1960)

Before the western became the dominant genre for Hollywood-aping Italian studios, the sword-and-sandal movie reigned supreme. The production model – hire a down-on-their-luck American director or star and pair them with an Italian crew – had long been set in stone when a near-blind Raoul Walsh joined forces with cinematographer Mario Bava for this potent biblical romance.

Assigning authorship to Esther and the King, which tells the Old Testament story of Persian ruler Ahasuerus (Richard Egan) and his competing love interests, is far from straightforward. It was a passion project for Walsh, and one of the few films in his storied career for which he wrote the screenplay himself. And yet he makes no mention of the film in his autobiography. Bava’s fingerprints are all over a picture which, while remaining relatively faithful to its source material, bears distinct flourishes of Bavian horror. If the chromatic lighting schemes of this split-personality epic belong, unmistakably, to the future expressionist maestro, the plain-spoken tenor of its romantic tragedy sits comfortably within the parameters of Walsh’s virile oeuvre.

Barabbas (1961)

Director: Richard Fleischer

Barabbas (1961)

By 1961, Bible films were big business. Nicholas Ray had just turned Jesus into a rebel with divine cause in King of Kings (1961), while William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) had recently hoovered up 11 Oscars. An underrated studio craftsman and a master of the widescreen frame, Richard Fleischer was well placed to deliver the goods when it came to the demands of spectacle. And deliver he did: the Jerusalem set for Barabbas was the largest constructed for any film to date, and a record was set for the most extras – more than 9,000 – used in a single scene. As if that wasn’t enough, Fleischer shot the film’s staggering crucifixion sequence during an actual eclipse of the sun.

Despite its emphasis on the epic, this adaptation of Pär Lagerkvist’s slim novel is one of the most wrenching disquisitions on faith in the Hollywood canon. Fleischer mounts a metaphysical examination of Christ’s divinity and its effect on Anthony Quinn’s Barabbas – the rogue spared death in Jesus’s place. Charting a journey from darkness into light – and back into darkness again – it’s a film that sees its everyman scrambling for catharsis, while holding revelation just out of reach.

The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964)

The New Testament Gospels are the Bible’s most frequently adapted texts, going all the way back to 1898 when the Lumière brothers distributed a 13-part film entitled The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. A devoted atheist, Pier Paolo Pasolini was an unlikely candidate to deliver one of the most poetic screen retellings of the story of Jesus, and an even unlikelier candidate to appear on the Vatican’s list of 15 approved religious films.

Shooting in the arid landscapes of southern Italy with a cast of nonprofessionals, Pasolini takes his dialogue from the scriptures verbatim. His formal approach is informed as much by figurative art as by the earthen immediacy of neorealism, and the film is lent a powerful anachronistic charge by an eclectic soundtrack which pairs Bach’s St Matthew Passion with Congolese spirituals, Russian folk songs, and, most distinctively, Odetta’s plaintive blues anthem, ‘Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child’. Pasolini’s Marxist compadres gave him endless grief over his profoundly spiritual masterwork, but there’s little escaping the filmmaker’s positioning of Christ as a revolutionary bedfellow.

Acts of the Apostles (1969)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Acts of the Apostles (1969)

Roberto Rossellini’s extraordinary filmography can, generally speaking, be divided into three camps: the early neorealist classics, the mid-period psychodramas he made with Ingrid Bergman, and the sprawling historical sagas with which he capped his career. Given most of his late-period work was made for Italian television, it remains the hardest to see these days, but contains – in Acts of the Apostles (1969) and The Messiah (1975) – two of the most breathtaking biblical epics ever committed to film.

Made while the sociopolitical earthquakes of 1968 were reverberating across the globe, Rossellini saw distinct parallels in the story of Christ’s disciples: “Global opposition to the establishment was invented 2,000 years ago,” he said, “twelve men toppled an empire… Still today, the seeds sown by the apostles are bearing fruit.” A five-part miniseries, Acts of the Apostles begins after the Gospels have ended. The age of miracles is over, replaced with revolutionary discourse – namely, how can the teachings of Christ be translated into law? For all the dialectic legalese, this is a film of ravishing pictorial beauty, and is perhaps, in its profound humanism, the ultimate summation of Rossellini’s entire cinematic project.

Moses and Aaron (1975)

Directors: Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub

Moses and Aaron (1975)

The formidable French filmmaking duo Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet don’t have much in common with Andrew Lloyd Webber, but all their names appear on a very short list of those who’ve turned their hands to biblical musicals. Naturally, Straub-Huillet’s bracing masterwork is about as far removed from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) as it’s possible to get.

Adapted from the unfinished and infamously difficult 1932 opera by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, Moses and Aaron hinges on a dialectical dilemma. Is God as “unique, eternal, omnipresent, imperceptible and unrepresentable” as Moses supposes? Can God even be defined? His brother Aaron is having none of it, and so fashions a golden calf – a tangible representation of the ephemeral – for the people to worship in God’s stead. With typical formal rigour and economy the filmmakers place the dichotomous duo in striking oppositional tableaux, while Schoenberg’s score thunders its complexities. It’s theologically dense stuff, and no one’s going to scratch ‘accessible’ off their Straub-Huillet bingo card, but the sheer metaphysical power of Moses and Aaron is as impossible to miss as it is to resist.

Birdsong (2008)

Director: Albert Serra

Birdsong (2008)

A certain Monty Python classic notwithstanding, laughs are usually pretty few and far between when it comes to Bible movies. You’d be hard pressed to describe this slow-cinema opus from Catalan enfant terrible Albert Serra as a comedy, perhaps, but it is pointedly charged with a satirical, desecrating eye for the pomposity of foundational mythologies.

A black-and-white retelling of the Nativity story, Birdsong follows the three wise men on their journey to Bethlehem. Squabbling over the best route across testy terrain, these infirm, bumbling Magi get lost, and lost again, while Mary and Joseph hang out in postnatal bliss. Serra humanises his religious icons in much the same way he does Dracula and Casanova (The Story of My Death, 2013), the Sun King (The Death of Louis XIV, 2016) and Don Quixote (Honour of the Knights, 2006), deconsecrating them by highlighting the limits of the flesh. Here, wobbling bellies are housed in inky tableaux in one of the few Bible films that might be mischievously filed under ‘body horror,’ right next to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).