Tuesday, December 12

Ten Best Hollywood Religious Movies

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Three sheet movie poster: The Ten Commandments (1956)

Epic religious movies, the vast majority of which are of the Christian persuasion, are legendary in motion picture history. We are talking about the big, sweeping movie spectaculars set in ancient times which often boast of “a cast of thousands” and carry the tagline, “Only the big screen…”

Here are ten religious movie spectaculars that no serious film buff should ever miss. Cecil B. DeMille commands you…

The Ten Commandments (Paramount, 1956)

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments remains one of the most impressive movies ever made. Charlton Heston has the starring role of Moses, with an ‘A’ list cast comprised of Yul Brynner (Rameses), Anne Baxter (Nefretiri), Edward G. Robinson (Dathan), Yvonne De Carlo (Sephora), Debra Paget (Lilia), John Derek (Joshua), Cedric Hardwicke (Sethi), Nina Foch (Bithia), Martha Scott (Yochabel), Judith Anderson (Memnet) and Vincent Price (Baka) in stunning support. The parting of the Red Sea, the pestilence of death and Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, to name just a few memorable scenes, make The Ten Commandments the movie to watch come every Easter.

Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Color Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Special Effects (won), Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Color Costume Design, Best Sound

Great line: “If this god is God, he would live on every mountain, in every valley. He would not be the god of Ishmael or Israel alone, but of all men.” – Charlton Heston as Moses

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

On DVD: The Ten Commandments 50th Anniversary Collection (Paramount, 2006)

Ben-Hur (MGM, 1959)

Charlton Heston has the title role of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince banished into slavery who eventually wins his freedom to take on the friend who betrayed him. The backdrop of “A Tale of the Christ” (the film’s official subtitle) provides the picture’s stirring religious backdrop. An all-star cast comprised of Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), Haya Harareet (Esther), Stephen Boyd (Messala), Hugh Griffith (Sheik Iderim), Martha Scott (Miriam) and Cathy O’Donnell (Tirzah) complement Heston’s outstanding performance. The sea battle, the fabulous chariot race and the miraculous crucifixion aftermath are just a few scenes from Ben-Hur that will live on in motion picture immortality.

Academy Award nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Actor (Heston, won), Best Director (won), Best Supporting Actor (Griffith, won), Best Writing, Best Sound (won), Best Music Score (won), Best Film Editing (won), Best Color Cinematography (won), Best Color Art Decoration/Set Decoration (won), Best Color Costume Design (won), Best Special Effects (won)

Great line: “He gave me water, and the heart to live. What has he done to merit this?” – Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur on Christ’s impending crucifixion

Director: William Wyler

On DVD: Ben-Hur Four-Disc Collector’s Edition (Warner, 2005)

Promotional still: Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959)

The King of Kings (Pathe, 1927)

H.B. Warner (Jesus, the Christ) and Dorothy Cumming (Mary) head the cast in this silent movie epic made for a then staggering $2.5 million. The movie follows the story of Christ as he gathers his disciples, spreads the gospel and works his miracles, culminating in the crucifixion and resurrection. Two of the more memorable scenes include the casting out of demons from Mary Magdalene and the terrifying earthquake sequence that accompanies the crucifixion.

Great line: “Harness my zebras – gift of the Nubian King! This carpenter shall learn that he cannot hold a man from Mary Magdalene!” – Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

On DVD: The King of Kings (Criterion, 2004)

The Robe (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1953)

Richard Burton stars as Marcellus Gallio, a Roman tribune who supervises the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. While gambling with other Roman soldiers, a drunken Marcellus wins the robe that Christ was wearing. The robe takes on a supernatural aura for Marcellus, burning him when he uses it to cover himself in a rainstorm. Demetrius (Victor Mature), a follower of Christ, takes possession of the robe, with a determined Marcellus later following his trail as he tries to unravel the mysteries surrounding the garment. Jean Simmons (Diana), Michael Rennie (Peter) and Jay Robinson (Caligula) appear in handsome support.

Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Burton), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration (won), Best Color Costume Design (won)

Great line (to Richard Burton’s Marcellus): “You crucified him. You, my master. Yet you freed me. I’ll never serve you again, you Roman pig. Masters of the world, you call yourselves. Thieves! Murderers! Jungle animals! A curse on you! A curse on your emprie!” – Victor Mature as Demetrius

Director: Henry Koster

On DVD: The Robe (Twentieth Century-Fox, 2001)

1963 reissue insert movie poster: The Robe (1953)

Quo Vadis (MGM, 1951)

Robert Taylor stars as Marcus Vinicius, a Roman commander who falls in love with devout Christian Lygia (Deborah Kerr) in first century Rome. Peter Ustinov plays the mad emperor Nero, with the struggle pitting early Christianity against a decadent Rome serving as the backdrop. The visual scenes are stunning, including the Roman legions returning home on the dusty Appian Way, the gruesome Christians versus lions spectacle in the coliseum and of course the burning of Rome itself. Quo Vadis – Latin for “Where are you going?” – was made for $7.623 million.

Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Ustinov, Leo Genn), Best Music Score, Best Film Editing, Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Costume Design, Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration

Great line: “It is not enough to live well. One must die well.” – Leo Genn as Petronius

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

On DVD: Quo Vadis Two-Disc Special Edition (Warner, 2008)

The Sign of the Cross (Paramount, 1932)

Charles Laughton stars as Emperor Nero, who once again torches Rome, blaming the evil deed on the Christians. Fredric March (Marcus), Claudette Colbert (Poppaea), Ian Keith (Tigellinus), Harry Beresford (Flavius) and Elissa Landi (Mercia) appear in strong support. The Sign of the Cross chronicles Christianity versus Rome in the year 66 A.D., with the latter’s decadence on infamous display via sex slaves, palace orgies and “sport” in the coliseum where Christians are fed to lions, gladiators fight to the death and African pygmies battle strapping Amazons. Say what you want about the Romans as depicted in this film, but they never lacked for imagination.

Academy Award nomination: Best Cinematography

Great line (spoken while soaking in a tub of ass’s milk to Vivian Tobin’s handmaiden Dacia): “Dacia, you’re a butterfly with the sting of a wasp. Take off your clothes. Get in here and tell me all about it.” – Claudette Colbert as Empress Poppaea

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

On DVD: The Cecil B. DeMille Collection (Universal, 2006)

Australian daybill movie poster: The Sign of the Cross (1932)

The Bible (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1966)

The Bible comes to the big screen in this ambitious $18 million partial retelling of the Old Testament. John Huston (Noah), Michael Parks (Adam), Richard Harris (Cain), Ulla Bergyd (Eve), Stephen Boyd (Nimrod), George C. Scott (Abraham), Ava Gardner (Sarah), Peter O’Toole (The Three Angels) and Franco Nero (Abel) head the all-star cast. The special effects are outstanding, depicting such biblical events as Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, the Tower of Babel and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Bible scholars may be disappointed in that only the first half of Genesis is covered, but unlike the Christians’ God Almighty Hollywood has time constraints.

Academy Award nomination: Best Original Music Score

Great line: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” – Richard Harris as Cain

Director: John Huston

On DVD: The Bible…In the Beginning (Twentieth Century-Fox, 2001)

Samson and Delilah (Paramount, 1949)

Victor Mature (Samson) and Hedy Lamarr (Delilah) garner the title roles in this epic story featuring the two Old Testament figures. It’s replete with dangerous sexual undercurrents and the usual mass carnage, including the scene where Samson commandeers the jawbone of an ass and decimates the opposing Philistine army. Count this one as a kind of biblical battle of the sexes, with Samson trying to gain the upper hand through supernatural intervention. “No man leaves Delilah,” the formidable seductress declares, which is why Samson beseeches God’s assistance.

Academy Award nominations: Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration (won), Best Color Costume Design (won), Best Music Scoring, Best Special Effects

Great line: “The oldest trick in the world. Silk trap, baited with a woman.” – Victor Mature as Samson

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

On DVD: Not commercially available 

Lobby card: Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (1949)

Barabbas (Columbia, 1961)

Anthony Quinn has the title role, playing the thief who, according to Scripture, is granted a reprieve in place of Jesus Christ. Silvana Mangano (Rachel), Arthur Kennedy (Pontius Pilate), Katy Jurado (Sara), Harry Andrews (Peter), Jack Palance (Torvald) and Ernest Borgnine (Lucius) appear in support in this Italian-made epic from producer Dino De Laurentis. The crucifixion scene (in which the cameras captured an actual full solar eclipse), the depiction of the dreary salt mines in Sicily, fierce gladiatorial combat in the coliseum and the burning of Rome all combine to make Barbabbas one of the genre’s “lost spectacles.”

Great line: “Why can’t God make himself plain? What’s become of all the fine hopes, the trumpets, the angels, all the promises?” – Anthony Quinn as Barabbas

Director: Richard Fleischer

On DVD: Barabbas (Sony, 2002)

Sodom and Gomorrah (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1962)

One of the great biblical disaster films, Sodom and Gomorrah features Stewart Granger (Lot), Stanley Baker (Astaroth), Pier Angeli (Ildith), Rosanna Podesta (Shuah), Anouk Aimee (Queen Bera) and a cast of thousands. The mammoth battles, sexual decadence and sadism are all on healthy display here, along with the big scene in which the twin cities take the big hit from the big guy and Lot’s disobedient wife becomes an advertising icon for Morton’s Salt – “When it rains it pours.”

Great line: “Hebrews and Sodomites: Greetings!” – Anouk Aimee as Queen Bera

Director: Robert Aldrich

On DVD: Sodom and Gomorrah (MC-One, 2004)

Insert movie poster: Sodom and Gomorrah (1962)

Five More Hollywood Religious Movie Spectaculars

  • The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
  • King of Kings (1961)
  • The Passion of the Christ (2004)
  • Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
  • Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)

One sheet poster: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Images Credit

  • All images courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas

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