16 April 2009

The Bible According To Hollywood

Uneven The Bible According to Hollywood Still An Informative Documentary
By Kristin Battestella

I caught part of the 1994 documentary The Bible According To Hollywood on television not long ago and was excited to find the show available on DVD. Hindered by its under two hour time and an unsure approach, nonetheless The Bible According to Hollywood does have insights on the stormy marriage between Hollywood and its long standing adaptations of the Bible.
The Bible According To Hollywood feels a little biased largely due to its presentation. Narrator John MacElwayne is only silenced by brief interviews with the likes of Charlton Heston, Peter Ustinov, and Virginia Mayo. Some of the older footage of the talent is at a low volume and tough to hear, so what insights these gems might have is lost. It appears some material might also have been touched up or tacked on for the DVD print as well. MacElwayne’s tongue in cheek summaries of the film plots he’s describing also loose their wit after the first half hour. The Bible According To Hollywood would have been served better by having a panel of film historians, religious scholars and critics interjecting how these Biblical films affected the society and industry of the time. Brief touches of Red Scare talk and blacklisted players don’t go far enough in fully explaining the scope of Hollywood in the fifties. Was going to the theater and seeing a serious Christian picture like Ben-Hur the proper post-war patriotic American thing to do? Were audiences and industry personnel making such films to prove their lack of commie strings? The Bible According To Hollywood doesn’t give us the answers, and neither does director Phillip Dye and writer Alan Kellerman.

Likewise, anti-Semitism in religious film is only touched upon lightly. If the Jews do run Hollywood, as the old saying goes- isn’t it a bit ironic that they were making Christian themed pictures to keep the studios from going bankrupt? The Bible According To Hollywood has no problem showcasing Hollywood’s butching of Scripture in hopes of box office romance, action, and success and admitting that early producers had to balance the fine line between reverent pictures and worship of the almighty dollar. Yet it seems as if taking a historical look at the two dominate religions in Hollywood is off limits. Sure, the topic could take a whole documentary in itself and then some, but to ignore it is a bit too obvious and inaccurate for a documentary.

In addition to not having a balance look or scholarly panel, The Bible According To Hollywood also confuses itself by presenting the Old Testament and New Testament as separate hours. Instead of beginning with the history of cinema and continuing through the decades with hit and miss Biblical dramas, the two hours follow the books of the Bible. The Bible According to Hollywood begins with adaptations of Adam and Eve and concludes with inspiration fiction from the latter half of the New Testament. It’s a little confusing, to say the least. We see snips of silent features misportraying Genesis and Exodus, then we jump up to the lavish spectacle of 1949’s Samson and Delilah. We go from 1998’s The Prince of Egypt back to the 1923 Ten Commandments. From Jesus Christ Superstar back to The Silver Chalice, this jumping through time does not work for a casual audience. We can’t expect The Bible According to Hollywood to catch every film and television show, but it’s non linear approach means its more likely to miss something. What happened to Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth? Even Raiders of the Lost Ark counts if you’re talking about loosely themed religious blockbusters, right?

Film scholars will enjoy seeing clips from early pictures and lost silent film, but young Sunday School students aren’t going to care about a silent movie every ten minutes. MacElwayne briefly mentions that some of the early pictures have been lost. Unfortunately, I doubt a young audience will understand the meaning here. Erroneous questions may arise-were these films banned? Deliberately destroyed because of their Biblical subject matter? No explanation for the ravages of time on early nitrate film is given in all the bouncing to and fro. I would rather have had the show start at the beginning of feature film and continue straight to the 21st Century, not leaving such basic history to chance. Instead, The Bible According to Hollywood ends with reflections on how the mid fifties spectacles and Bible epics were the height of religion on film. While I still love a lot of those over acted yarns, I don’t think that sentiment is accurate. Why bother to mention The Prince of Egypt and The Passion of The Christ if you aren’t going to talk about the modern independent film industry? Where are all the made for television attempts and controversial TV series? Isn’t that where religious film is today? I think the tacked on updates for the DVD, dated 2004, make The Bible According to Hollywood look more dated and out of touch.

The Bible According to Hollywood is very informative in highlighting early Biblical films and sharing the trials and tribulations of bringing such ambitious projects to the silver screen. Unfortunately, its unusual presentation and lone narrator offer an uneven and one-sided view that doesn’t capture the whole scope of religion versus film. The humorous approach jokes that Hollywood worships two masters-money and God-yet The Bible According To Hollywood is also split. Like the films its depicts, the documentary can’t decide whether it’s serious and reverent or funny and light-shall it touch on deeper subjects and themes or only gloss over the basics?

The Bible According to HollywoodFans of filmmaking, movie historians, parents, and teachers will enjoy the premise for teaching and discussion. The Bible According To Hollywood is too wishy washy for a casual audience, and students must springboard from it into their own research. The DVD has no features, but can be rented or purchased affordably enough for the classroom library. Until we get a serious six hour analysis of Biblical film ala Ken Burns, The Bible According to Hollywood will have to do.

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