Film Series Intro: Tinseltown Testament

It now seems incredible, but in 1956 children attending public school were taken out of class on field trips to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

Educators, unconcerned about the separation of church and state, felt that their young charges could benefit from the piety depicted in this big-screen retelling of the Biblical story of Moses. They probably thought that watching Charlton Heston part the Red Sea would improve our moral fiber.

Personally, I don’t recall getting much of a spiritual rush from the film. What stuck with me was the fabulous spectacle: The huge sets, the cast of thousands, and the Hebrew bacchanal instigated by Edward G. Robinson and his golden calf.

Cecil B. DeMille didn’t make me religious. But he made me love movies religiously.

Hollywood regularly turned to Bible stories over the years because:

  • They were good box office (back then we were an overwhelmingly church-going nation).
  • They allowed moviemaking on a grand scale.
  • You could get away with material in a Bible movie that the censors would never otherwise allow.

The king of this bait-and-switch was DeMille, who before discovering the possibilities of cinematic religion pushed the boundaries of movie propriety with heavy-breathing dramas like Male and Female (1919) that took such a matter-of-fact approach to sexuality that they were condemned by the clergy.

By the time he attempted his first Bible movie, the silent Ten Commandments (1923), DeMille had the spectacle down pat. By the time of The King of Kings (1927), he had perfected the P.T. Barnum art of talking religion while dishing lurid spectacle. In that film he orchestrated a hair-raising earthquake at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, with dozens of sandaled extras being swallowed up by huge rents in the earth.

The Ten Commandments (1956) -
Paramount Pictures

A few years later, in The Sign of the Cross (1932), he depicted the persecution of early Christians by the Romans with ghastly and grisly detail still capable of shocking even seen-it-all modern audiences. We’re talking maidens being assaulted by great apes, condemned criminals being crushed beneath the feet of elephants, and even a battle to the death between towering Amazon women and a tribe of pygmies.

DeMille was no dummy. He realized that if you sold your movie as a pious recreation of Biblical times, you could get away with just about anything.

Small wonder that Dwight MacDonald, longtime film critic for Esquire, maintained that the only excuse for a Biblical epic was a good orgy.

You’ll see some of that over-the-top spectacle in the five movies that make up Tinseltown Testament, a free film series being shown on Mondays in July, 2012, at 6:30 p.m. in the Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.

But in at least a couple of instances you’ll also find examples of filmmakers attempting to stick to the facts, to present Bible stories as they unfold in the Gospels while adhering to historically accurate depictions of the lives of the ancient Hebrews.

The series is presented In conjunction with the Library’s new exhibit Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, on display July 12 through August 10 at the Central Library.

Here’s the lineup:

The Nativity Story (2006) on July 2
Catherine Hardwicke (the first Twilight movie) directs this film about events leading up to Christ’s birth. Noted for its historical accuracy, the film stars Keisha Castle-Hughes (an Oscar nominee for Whale Rider) as Mary. Rated PG. 101 minutes

Samson and Delilah (1949) on July 9
DeMille cast muscleman Victor Mature as Samson and beautiful Hedy Lamarr as the seductive Delilah. Needless to say, they bring the house down. With George Sanders, Angela Lansbury. Unrated. 131 minutes

The Prince of Egypt (1998) on July 16
The story of Moses, handled in blockbuster fashion in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, gets the animation treatment in this remarkably effective effort from Steven Spielberg’s SKG studio. The voice talent runs deep: Val Kilmer (as both Moses and God), Ralph Fiennes (as the Pharaoh Rameses), Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Martin Short. Rated: PG. 99 minutes.

King David (1985) on July 23
Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Breaker Morant) offers the Old Testament tale of the love/hate relationship between the shepherd boy David (Richard Gere) and the powerful King Saul (Edward Woodward). A box office failure, it’s due for a re-evaluation. PG-13. 114 minutes.

The Sign of the Cross (1932) on July 30
A Roman centurian (Fredric March) runs afoul of the Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) and his seductive Empress (Claudette Colbert) when he falls for a young Christian woman (Elissa Landi). Result: A bad afternoon in the arena. Director DeMille lovingly recreates the gruesome excesses of Roman entertainment. Unrated. 108 minutes.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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