God incarnated as trans fat. No caption necessary.
When I was ten, I was “accidentally” sent to summer Bible camp for “accidentally” calling the principal a fudgepacker. It’s a long story (and maybe not a good one. Just weird), but the lesson behind the parable has stayed with me: if you call your principal a fudgepacker, you will pay for that shit. Not only am I now gay, I was forced to go to a gulag where cable was a sin and the only VHSs they had in the rec room included biblical epics and Donut Man, the story of a Pentecostal donut vendor and his singing donut companion. Don’t get me wrong – I will gladly subscribe to any religion where Christ is literally resurrected as DONUT - but the epics were what really killed me. Stale, clunky, and outrageously longwinded, these movies often felt less like movies and more like sexts composed by Al Gore and the writing team behind Dot Matrix: A Manual. Passover and Easter are now coming up, Ridley Scott is planning Exodus, and while Aronofksy has done his best to resurrect the genre with Noah, the rest of us are too scarred from The Passion of Mel Gibson to celebrate. Here’s a look at the top five most unbearable biblical epics in unbearable biblical epic history.
[as always, you can view as a single page, if you like]
The Ten Commandments
Biblical epics have a reputation for length, but The Ten Commandments takes over an excruciating 220 minutes to finally orgasm. It’s unclear to me why directors like Cecil B. DeMille think movie length = movie greatness (I’m told it’s all about the girth) and it’s even more mystifying that it enjoys a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But I guess the movie does deserve real credit for telling one of the most important stories of the Old Testament - the story of Moses and the liberation of the Jews – and not making it the total worst. It’s ambitious and bears reasonable resemblance to the real tale, although I wonder where in Exodus it states that Moses had both storytelling and nipple power. Well done, Charlton Heston! Still, The Ten Commandments is so slow, so painful, and so infinite it sometimes makes Twelve Years a Slave feel like a drag queen musical.
Side note: I don’t quite understand why the writers of The Ten Commandments and many other biblical epics think passive voice and lack of sentence contractions equals good writing. I understand “it is said” and “it is written” are common Biblical phrases, but the script overdoes it, continuously mistaking “lack of subject” for depth of meaning. Cannot and “I am” replace can’t and I’m in all circumstances, and part of me wanted to jump through the screen and shout: “PUT YOUR HANDS UP. NOW DROP YOUR MLA FORMAT.” From the Gods at Paramount Pictures: Thou Shalt Make Your Movie Sound Like an SAT essay And Still Make $122 Million at The Box Office. Thy wish has been granted.
The Son of God
I was all excited to see The Son of God earlier this year when I learned that the part of Satan would be played by an actor who resembled President Obama. What could be more Satanic than a president in dad jeans who wants to offer “affordable insurance” and expand “community gardens” in undeserved communities? I don’t know about you guys, but that sounds like classic demon spawn behavior to me. Alas, the gods of political correctness stepped in this time and deleted the scene, as well as anything good, from the movie.
What makes The Son of God and so many of these biblical epics so unbearable is how unbearably literal they are. Nowhere in The Son of God does Director Christopher Spencer introduce any emotional nuance or ambiguity. Jesus is good, Romans are bad, and the Jews . . . are the Jews. Maybe Spencer was afraid of offending his audience, but I think it goes deeper than that: directors think that because they’ve adapted one of the most important stories of all time, they’ve therefore made one of the most important movies of all time. It’s a common problem, both in biblical epics and the Holocaust genre, and you can see it in both the laziness of the storytelling and the grandiosity of the cinematography. The opening ten minutes of the film includes a lot of landscape photography that I’m pretty sure was pulled from a Windows 95 desktop screensaver, and the dialogue does no better. Where is Donut Man when you need him?
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Any time someone comes up to me and tells me they have the “greatest story ever” I fear for my attention span: will this be about a “crazy” work day? A Satanic roommate? A boring ex who left them at the dawn of time? I love these people as people, but please God – would you mind keeping your stories to 140 characters or less?
I felt the same way about The Greatest Story Ever Told. The story of – you’ve guessed it – the life of Christ – I actually loved the people in this movie. Max Van Sydow from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal appears as Jesus, Sidney Poitier stars as Simon of Cyrene, and John Wayne and Angela Lansbury make cameo appearances for no apparent reason. Critics at the time of the movie’s release actually criticized Director George Stevens for disturbing the movie’s solemnity by overloading it with an all-star cast. And while the movie does sometimes feel like an ancient benefit concert, I was actually grateful for the longwinded solos. The Greatest Story Ever Told is relentlessly grim and excessively long (approximating four hours), making for a pretty indulgent spectacle of a story. Actors like to take their time between sentences (I started to time their conversations on my iPhone stopwatch. Average space between contiguous lines of dialogue: FIVE WHOLE SECONDS) and cinematographers like to waste our attention on some narcissistic landscape photography. Grade: Ugh minus.
Mustering a whopping 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, King David features Richard Gere and a bunch of dudes with beards who look like they just came out of hot yoga. Ancient times = sweaty faces. It’s upsetting, because the story of David is actually one of my favorites from the Bible (except for the one that goes “Which was [the son] of so-so, which was [the son] of another so-and-so, which was the [the son] of so-and-so’s so-and-so.” Classic!) Whereas films like The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Ten Commandments are at least amusingly grandiose, movies like King David are linear and bloodless but available on Amazon prime at just $2.99.
The Passion of the Christ
It’s no secret that American moviegoers equate excessive violence with excessive worth, especially when it comes to historical epics. “Well, the Holocaust/slavery/crucifixion WAS violent,” they’ll say, then use that as a way to both defend their vapid movie and make me feel like a douchebag. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, written in are-you-kidding-me Aramaic, is an important part of this tradition. The movie includes non-stop bloodletting for 127 minutes, and while I have no doubt that the crucifixion of Jesus required more than a little “parental guidance,” the violence became so redundant here it bored me. “Oh ok, you’re going to tear apart the son of God until his flesh turns into raw, sushi-like scraps,” I’d think, then follow it with: “Now where is my phone charger?"
I think directors think they’re actually surprising us when they use this much violence, as if we didn’t know before that crucifying a man would totally freakin’ blow. Interestingly, biblical epics like The Greatest Story Ever Told were allowed to be violent in a way many films of its time weren’t – all thanks to the Hollywood production code. So while Gibson thought he was breaking tradition by making The Passion of Christ so excessively violent, he was actually just extending it. Also Satan comes across gay, the Jews come across evil, and all the demonic children have rotating glass eyes. What? C’mon. Grade: Let’s burn this.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.