There is an ark with animals boarding it two by two, a great apocalyptic flood and the builder of the big boat, driven by foreknowledge of the catastrophe. Everyone knows the story, taken from the Bible’s Book of Genesis and now spun into Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe and opening in the middle of Lent.
The writer-director is not promising that it will please the faithful, declaring in one interview, “‘Noah’ is the least biblical movie ever made,” and telling the audience at the film’s recent Mexico City world premiere, “It’s a very, very different movie. Anything you’re expecting, you’re wrong.”
Maybe “Noah” will turn out to be as provocative as Aronofsky’s comments seem to promise, or maybe not, but it does underline that biblical dramas are not one-size-fits-all. Some only the faithful will embrace, others even the secular (and sometimes only the secular) can love, and then there are those that, because of their spectacle and star power, have wider appeal.
This seems like a good time to look at some of them. This list barely scratches the surface of a genre that has its roots in the silent era. Here are nine movies that represent a sample of the celebrated and the obscure, the famous and the infamous, the pious and the irreverent:
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The Ten Commandments (1956): Director Cecil B. DeMille ended his long and storied career with a remake of his own 1923 silent-era drama with this massive, glittering epic, which has had a place on ABC’s prime-time spring schedule since the 1970s. Charlton Heston is Moses in this production, which also stars Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price and 25,000 extras. Nearly four hours long, it wastes none of that time as DeMille applies his showmanship and eye for detail to the tale of the Hebrew prophet who led his people to freedom. Nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture, it won for special effects, which, given the grandeur of the parting of the Red Sea alone, was a prize richly justified.
King of Kings (1961): Director Nicholas Ray (“Rebel Without a Cause,” “Johnny Guitar”) and screenwriter Philip Yordan put a political spin on Christ’s familiar story in this drama that stars Jeffrey Hunter as a fair, blue-eyed Jesus; Rip Torn as Judas; Robert Ryan as John the Baptist; and Harry Guardino as Barabbas. The panoramic tale sets Jesus and his peaceful message against a Judea simmering with rebellion against the Romans in a film that gives context to familiar events.
Ben-Hur (1959): He played Moses in “The Ten Commandments” and John the Baptist in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965), but Judah Ben-Hur was the greatest of Charlton Heston’s biblical roles. A wealthy Judean, Ben-Hur is sentenced to a lifetime of slavery when he crosses Messala (Stephen Boyd), a boyhood friend who is now a Roman tribune. Ben-Hur will regain his freedom and seek revenge in the chariot arena, but he will also find faith when he has two momentous meetings with Jesus. The chariot race is thrilling, but there is more to recommend in William Wyler’s opulent classic, not the least of which is its sheer scope.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977): “A Clockwork Orange” scribe Anthony Burgess was among the writers on Franco Zeffirelli’s six-hour miniseries and later wrote a novel, “The Man of Nazareth,” based on the teleplay. Robert Powell is yet another blue-eyed Jesus in this expansive, all-star (Christopher Plummer, Ernest Borgnine, Olivia Hussey, Rod Steiger, Michael York, Anne Bancroft, James Farentino) biopic, which begins with Jesus’ boyhood and presents him as much as an ordinary human being as a divinity.
David and Bathsheba (1951): “Mighty as Goliath! Fiery as Their Love!” read the tagline of this romantic drama, which is the first clue that this sumptuous production has dispensed with piety in favor of the thrill of adultery. Gregory Peck, an actor more often identified with rectitude – thanks to roles in such films as “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” – takes a walk on the wild side as the Israeli king and slayer of Goliath when he dallies with the married Bathsheba (Susan Hayward), a sin that comes at a cost. Gorgeous cinematography by Leon Shamroy and an involving Philip Dunne screenplay (both nominated for Oscars) are among the delights in this lavish tale.
The Passion of the Christ (2004): It’s been a decade since Mel Gibson’s controversial drama opened on Ash Wednesday to a rapturous reception from those willing to buy into the auteur’s blood-soaked vision of Jesus’ final hours. A box office behemoth, it grossed more than $600 million worldwide, but critics perceived anti-Semitism in Gibson’s storytelling and decried his laser focus on Jesus’ suffering.
Godspell (1973): An alternative to this pick is Norman Jewison’s adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which came out the same year, but that is a darker work (and told from Judas Iscariot’s point of view). Subtitled “A Musical Based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew,” “Godspell” is a more effervescent work, situating Jesus and his apostles in 1970s Manhattan and imagining them as a troupe of vaudevillian hippies. Victor Garber is a sunny, carrot-top Jesus who ministers to his flock all over New York and shares with David Haskell, who plays both John and Judas, an exuberant song-and-dance number atop the then-unfinished World Trade Center.
Jesus of Montreal (1989): In Denys Arcand’s clever drama, Lothaire Bluteau stars as a Montreal actor playing Jesus in a radical interpretation of a passion play whose life begins to resemble Christ’s. It’s a brilliant conceit, as Arcand manages to find modern-day equivalents for what Jesus confronted and endured, even identifying what qualifies for resurrection in a secular, contemporary world.
The Prince of Egypt (1998): Val Kilmer is the voice of Moses and Ralph Fiennes his nemesis Ramses in this animated version of the Bible tale. This DreamWorks production is terrific, especially when it comes to such things as a plague of locusts swarming the kingdom and the parting of the Red Sea. It is also a musical, with a handful of tunes from “Godspell” songwriter Stephen Schwartz, including the Oscar-winning “When You Believe.” Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Martin Short and Steve Martin co-star.