British Universities Film & Video Council

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Bible cinema … in the beginning

Both the Old and the New Testament continue to be a rich sources of inspiration for the cinema. Dr Miles Booy considers a new history of some of the progenitors of the genre.

About the author: Dr Miles Booy was awarded his PhD by the University of East Anglia for his work on questions of authority in the representation of Christ in film. He is the author of Love and Monsters: The Doctor Who Experience, 1979 to the Present (IB Tauris, 2012) and his other publications include contributions to The Cult TV Book (2010).

Bruce Babbington and Peter William Evans felt obliged to begin their 1993 book on biblical epics with a selection of critical maulings of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), George Stevens’ much-maligned version of the life of Christ. The smug superiority with which intellectual culture disparaged biblical cinema was a discourse so entrenched that the authors felt they needed to meet it head on. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) seems unlikely to have changed this.

The past, however, is another country and they do things differently there. While cinema underwent its growing pains, and as the nineteenth century became the twentieth, religion was still one of the most vibrant forms of popular culture in the west (as it remains in many parts of the world today). Cinema adopted the imagery and themes of (predominantly) Christianity as part of its appeal. Religious subject matter became a way of ‘trading up’ the young medium, a way to gain the acceptance and patronage of respectable society. All of silent cinema’s auteurs – from Alice Guy-Blaché to Cecil B. DeMille – worked in the genre. However, the use of religious stories did not always grant cinema the acceptance it sought. Sometimes it brought the medium into conflict with church or civil authorities. Such moments can be viewed as flashpoints when the social position of the emerging media was explicitly revealed. For all of these reasons, ever since Film Studies took a larger interest in early cinema from the mid-late 80s onwards, religious cinema has featured strongly as a point of interest.

Academic interest in cinema’s earliest years coincided with a turn away from purely text-based analysis towards a greater consideration of social context (pursued via cultural studies paradigms) and in historical research which was carried out by viewing available paperwork, either that of film production companies themselves, or through wider cultural products such as newspapers where coverage of cinema’s development could be found. Given the loss of so many silent films, sometimes scholars are attempting to reconstruct films, which no longer exist. Even where the footage does remain, reconstructive scholarship remains a necessity for this was a period when the film text would usually be accompanied by a speaker narrating the action or other contextualising materials. Thus, research into the scripts used by presenters or newspaper accounts of an evening’s presentation are required to give even the basic account of what audiences were shown (let alone how they perceived it). History, art, education, evangelistic potential – these were all discourses with which early exhibitors felt obliged to surround their cinematic footage of Jesus. This perhaps makes the viewing experience less different from later models than we might expect. With the development of sophisticated full-length features, those discourses would be incorporated into the film texts themselves, with promotional materials making sure that audiences and potential censors understood.

Since the turn of the millennium, the analysis of biblical cinema has been further enlivened by the contributions of scholars of theology or religious studies. Their concerns haven’t always been those of film analysts and they have often shied from the silent era, preferring the more mature narratives of the studio era and later. Bucking those trends is a new book, The Bible on Silent Film: Spectacle, Story and Scripture in the Early Cinema, written by David J. Shepherd, who was a senior lecturer in the University of Chester’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies when he wrote it but is now at Trinity college, Dublin. The book draws on a wealth of prior research by film scholars and expands greatly our sense of biblical cinema in the period, as well as containing a filmography of the period (complete with notes on DVD/archive availability), which is probably better than anything else outside of those databases accessible only in research institutions.

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