"Risen," the new film by the producers of "War Room" and "Heaven is for Real," is set for release this weekend. It may be hard for modern audiences to remember, but mainstream Hollywood once had a very close relationship with Scripture and Christianity, and the penchant of Hollywood of yesteryear for Bible epics was even acknowledged in the recent film "Hail, Caesar."
Today, Hollywood makes these sort of Biblical love letters much less often, and more often than not when they do it's something unrecognizable and not so flattering, like Ridley Scott's "Exodus: Gods and Kings" or Darren Aranofsky's "Noah." Still, sometimes they still do it sincerely, and "Risen" is likely to be one of those.
Here are some of the greatest epics that have brought to life the stories of some of the greatest Biblical figures and key Church leaders.
1. Quo Vadis (MGM, 1951)
Set 30 years after the ascension of Jesus Christ during the First Century, "Quo Vadis" is about the Roman emperor Nero's attempts to squash the early Christian church within the empire.
The film centers around a Roman military commander who falls in love with a Christian woman and is intrigued by her religion. The soldier eventually converts to Christianity himself and he and his love are arrested on orders of Nero, along with any other Christian in the empire, and thrown in prison. While in prison they meet Peter - one of Christ's original disciples and a leader in the church - by whom they are married.
The film is a fictionalized story set amidst historical events - much like "Titanic" - and as such features an array of both real and fictional characters. Much of the film's historical setting is sourced from the apocryphal "Acts of Peter" and depicts the crucifixion of Peter upside down, which was first described in that volume. It also shows Nero's burning of Rome as he plays the violin.
2. The Robe (Fox, 1953)
Sharing a plot very similar to "Risen," "The Robe" is about a Roman officer, Marcellus, who was present at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and is among the soldiers who cast lots for Christ's clothes after He was stripped of them. Marcellus wins the garment and is told to keep it as a souvenir of his first crucifixion.
Marcellus begins to feel a great swell of guilt for having participated in the crucifixion of an innocent man, and is soon plagued by nightmares. The robe is stolen by one of Marcellus' servants and he is sent to find the robe and destroy it.
While in search of the robe, Marcellus meets Peter who invites Marcellus to join his ministry. Marcellus confesses to Peter his role in Christ's death and Peter reminds Marcellus that Christ already forgave him while he was on the cross.
"The Robe" has the distinction of being the only Biblical epic to spawn a sequel, 1954's "Demetrius and the Gladiators."
3. Luther (Eikon Film, 2003)
"Luther" recounts the story of Martin Luther, patriarch of the Lutheran church and father of the Protestant Reformation of 1517.
Joseph Fiennes, who also stars in "Risen," plays Martin Luther, a Franciscan monk who sees the folly and corruption of the buying and selling of plenary indulgences - as well as the worshiping of counterfeit Christian artifacts - while on a pilgrimage to Rome. Martin is overcome with both sorrow and anger that he returns to Germany intent on bringing these practices to the attention of the Pope, in hopes that he will put a stop to them.
"Luther," at its core, is the story of a man's spiritual journey within his faith. Martin Luther does not seek to leave Rome or the Church, he only wants to see the Gospel taught in the way it was intended. Martin Luther is a very conflicted man, and Joseph Fiennes plays it phenomenally.
4. Jesus (CBS, 1999)
"Jesus" was a made-for-television epic miniseries that ran over two nights on the CBS television network in 1999. It starred Jeremy Sisto as Jesus Christ in what was probably the most human and relatable portrayal of the Biblical figure in any media.
When "Jesus" begins, Jesus is still working with Joseph as a carpenter, having not yet embarked on his ministry. Events from just before his birth and his childhood are shown in flashback, including the visitation of Mary by the archangel Gabriel and the story about an adolescent Jesus teaching in the temple while his parents frantically looked for the missing boy. Much of the film's focus is on Jesus' ministry and his day-to-day interaction with his disciples, who are portrayed as also being his friends.
The film boasts an all-star cast, including Debra Messing as Mary Magdalene, Jacqueline Bisset as Mary, Gary Oldman as Pontius Pilate and G.W. Bailey as Livio, an fictional character created for the film.
5. The Ten Commandments (Paramount, 1956)
Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" is probably the single-most beloved Biblical film in Hollywood history. The portrayals of both Moses and Pharaoh Rameses II by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner are among some of the best performances in cinema history.
"The Ten Commandments" chronicles the story of Moses from his birth and being raised as the adopted son of Pharaoh through his exile from Egypt into the wilderness all the way through his return to Egypt to deliver the Jews from bondage. The film ends with Moses leading God's people to the Holy Land, and Moses' death just prior to them entering.
"The Ten Commandments" had the most elaborate special effects of any film ever made at the time, and the parting of the Red Sea was unrivaled by other epics of the period. The special effects won the film one of its six Academy Award nominations, and was the only category in which the film won. It was also the highest grossing film of 1956.
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