A Look Back at a Few Religious Film Epics

Herbie J Pilato

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Many terrific movies have been made over the years with religious or spiritual themes, either for the big screen or for television. Sometimes the production budget and subsequent aesthetic values were significant; other times, not so much. Some were filmed in black-and-white (one was even a silent movie), while the majority of the movies were filmed in glorious color.

Either way, here's a brief look at what are considered some of the best of the lot.

* The Ten Commandments (1956): The visuals are unearthly, the dialogue is hypnotic, and the acting is stoic. Wrap it all up in a package to save your soul, and you're good to go. Overall, a fine remake of director Cecil B. Demille's original silent film from 1923.

* Jesus of Nazareth (1977, TV): Director Franco Zeffirelli outdid himself with this film, and actor Robert Powell is nothing less than brilliant as Jesus, delivering the most realistic interpretation ever performed of the historic and religious figure.

* The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965): The cinematography is ethereal; every frame is a painting - and the legendary Max Von Sydow's performance as Jesus Christ is haunting. However, for some, the film drags a little.

* King of Kings (1961): Before Jeffrey Hunter was cast as the original Captain (Pike) to pilot the Enterprise in the first of two pilots ("The Cage") for TV's original Star Trek), he played Jesus in this film that introduced the mainstream youth of the 1960s to religion.

* The Robe (1953): Jay Robinson as Ceasar steals the movie (and then goes on to play Ceasar in a classic episode of the 1960s TV series, Bewitched (that word of which, Robinson ironically speaks in The Robe).

* Ben-Hur (1959): Charleton Heston followed up his performance in The Ten Commandments with this fictitious but very moving and effective feature film.

* The Song of Bernadette (1943): Jennifer Jones, as a young peasant girl who has contemporary visions of the Blessed Virgin Mother of Jesus, gives one of the most consistently brilliant and realistic in-character performances ever brought to the screen in a religious epic.

* Jesus Christ Superstar (1973): This was one of two "hip" religious movie musicals of the era based on a live stage production (the other being, Godspell). An interesting dichotomy, as each film, both telling the story of Jesus in their own way, has its own camp of fans. This movie (like Godspell) could have been better. But it's a noble attempt.

* The Sign of the Cross (1932): Around the same time that Cecile B. Demille was working on the original Ten Commandments (before he remade it with Charleton Heston in 1956), he worked on this other religious classic (with Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, and Charles Laughton) about early Roman evils. Can't be missed - and shouldn't be.

* The Passion of Christ (2004): A violent but effective interpretation of the story of Jesus, this film, directed by Mel Gibson, brought a religious perspective to a mass mainstream generation who might not otherwise have cared (and was as controversial, if for different reasons, as director Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, which was released in 1988).

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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