Anyone looking for a fast-paced adventure filled with heartache, excitement and gravitas need look no further than the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments give audiences everything they could need in a Hollywood blockbuster. The film industry has mined this valuable source for many reasons, and some would even say that such adaptations are an easy way to sneak violence and sexuality into mainstream movies.
While the modern world is used to larger than life superheroes and villains on screen, they can’t hold a candle to “The King of Kings” and his greatest adversary, the devil himself. Over the years, some of Hollywood’s leading actors and actresses have clamored to play religious icons, and for good reason: theirs are some of the greatest stories ever told.
There have been many biblical epics through the decades and each one have their own virtues, but some stand out from the rest of the pack. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the 14 Best Biblical Epics of All Time.
Exodus: Gods and Monsters
Exodus: Gods and Monsters is the epitome of a big budget blockbuster. While it racked up nearly $270 million at the box office when all was said and done, it still (just barely) failed to double its production budget, which is considered the benchmark at which movies are deemed financially viable. The heavily whitewashed casting controversy aside, the film follows the relationship between Moses and the pharaoh Rameses. Raised as brothers, but destined to become bitter enemies, the movie follows the ascent of Moses and the fall of Rameses, leading to the 10 Commandments’ creation.
The film is filled with acting heavyweights like Christian Bale and Ben Kingsley, but while its budget was big, its reception was not. In yet another case of special effects overshadowing plot, the movie simply didn’t resonate with audiences, and received mixed to negative reviews. It was epic in its scope, but not plot and characterization. The greatest Exodus of all came from audiences leaving the theater.
Jesus Christ Superstar
The Bible is filled with tantalizing stories and interesting characters, but the element it lacks is a good beat you can dance to…until Jesus Christ Superstar came along. It follows the last six days of Jesus’ life, as seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot. Some call the film blasphemous and others genius, but it is definitely epic. The music, costuming and scenery change as the decades pass, updating to the popular music and design styles of the time. The 1973 film was sung in a rock and disco style and included automobiles.
The movie has mixed reviews among Christian and non-Christians alike. Many believe it mocks the Bible, while others see it as an inventive interpretation. The Broadway play closed in 2012 and has yet to be resurrected on The Great White Way, but it’s still performed by theater groups across the nation to this day.
The Passion of the Christ
While Jesus Christ Superstar portrayed the final days of Jesus’ life, The Passion of the Christ whittled it down to the last 12 hours. The film begins just after The Last Supper when Jesus is arrested, following the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. It was a gripping and raw depiction of the events leading to his crucifixion and death that left many in the audience emotionally stirred and potentially scarred. Creator Mel Gibson pulled no punches, showing torn flesh and scenes of violence that could make an ardent horror fan cringe.
The realism of this epic is both its strength and downfall. Characters only spoke in Aramaic with subtitles, making it difficult to follow. The raw violence gave the movie gravitas, but bordered on gratuitous. The popularity of the 2004 movie was apparent, even before opening day. For over a decade, it held the record for highest pre-ticket sales until it was dethroned by Star Wars: The Force Awakens just last year.
Some biblical epics don’t come from The Bible, as is the case with the 1951 drama, Quo Vadis. Christianity is central to the plot as the main character struggles with his understanding of the religion and its implications. Marcus Vinicius comes home from war and falls for a young Christian woman named Lygia. She doesn’t return Marcus’ affection, so he makes the woman his slave. Lygia escapes, and Marcus finds her with a group of Christians, finally understanding the importance of the religion and what it could mean. The corrupt emperor Nero torches Rome and blames the Christians, including Marcus, rounding them up and sentencing them to be devoured by lions.
The phrase “the clothes make the man” has never been more true than in the 1953 biblical epic, The Robe, starring Richard Burton. The film depicted a fictitious story of the soldier who won Jesus’ crucifixion robe and his subsequent journey to faith.
Marcellus Gallo (Burton) is a Roman soldier transferred to Jerusalem after butting heads with regent Caligula. There he commands the soldiers who crucify Jesus, and later wins the robe of The Savior as a memento of his first crucifixion. Marcellus feels terrible guilt for the death of Jesus and goes mad. The robe is stolen, and it isn’t until he retrieves and touches it that the guilt and madness recede. Marcellus accepts Christianity, but loses everything else. His father disowns him as an enemy of Rome, and he’s brought before the now-emperor Caligula and sentenced to death.
The movie was the first ever filmed in the iconic Cinemascope format, which used an anamorphic lens to create widescreen movies. This gave the movie a grand scale in theaters and paved the way for the widescreen format used in modern films.
The Story of Ruth
Based on the biblical text, The Book of Ruth, this 1960 film follows the life of a pagan woman who finds Christianity and the aftermath of her decision. Ruth is a priestess who is preparing a young girl for sacrifice to the deity, Chemosh. She meets a Judean artisan, begins to doubt her faith, and falls in love. Appalled by the sacrifice of the young girl, she flees and adopts her love’s monotheistic beliefs. The real story of Ruth is that of her grandchild, the biblical David. Ruth overcomes tragedy after tragedy, setting the tone for her grandson’s triumph over the odds and rise to king of Israel.
What makes this movie special is how it weaves both the biblical and pure fictitious elements of Ruth’s life. The biblical text isn’t exactly adapted to the letter, though it does provide an accurate portrayal of her early life leading up to leaving the religious sect and then her marriage to Boaz, David’s grandfather, later in life.
The 1961 film Barabbas is the story of the notorious criminal set for crucifixion along with Christ, but Pontius Pilate offers the crowd an opportunity to free either Jesus or him. The crowd spares Barabbas, sending him home shaken by the death of Christ. While he suffers trials and tribulations — including the death of his Christian girlfriend and imprisonment in a sulfur mine — the pardoned criminal always narrowly escapes death. When Nero (there he is again, this guy is everywhere) burns Rome, Barabbas is imprisoned with Christians, where he finally accepts Jesus and Christianity. With Jesus in his heart, he can finally die and receive his great reward. In the Bible, very little information is shared about the thief Barabbas, and this fictionalized epic fleshes out the event and impact it would have on his life.
Filmmakers went to extreme measures to create a sense of realism. One of the most pivotal scenes involves the sky turning black when Christ is crucified. Without the benefits of CGI, they pulled this off by filming the scene on the day of an actual eclipse.
Life of Brian
The Bible is filled with pain and suffering and nary a laugh to be found…until Monty Python turned it into a comedy. Life of Brian is about a hapless fellow who is constantly mistaken for Jesus. It begins at his birth (right next door to baby Jesus on Christmas) and concludes on the cross as fellow sufferers sing “Always look on the bright side of life.” Brian is no messiah, but that doesn’t stop a crowd of believers from taking every word he says as religious doctrine.
Monty Python is not afraid to take on big satire. Life of Brian takes the ideals of The Bible and turns them on their ear in the same way Monty Python and the Holy Grail did with Arthurian legend. Sacrilegious? Maybe. Funny? Without a doubt.
Noah is loaded with a spectacular cast, including Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson. It also courted a great deal of controversy. The movie is based on the biblical story of Noah, who built an Ark before God flooded the sinful world. The film takes liberties with biblical canon, playing out like an action movie filled with ravenous cannibal villagers led by the evil Tubal-Cain, massive stone Golems and Methuselah. The Creator brings the flood and wipes the sinful remains of humanity from the Earth, but instead of a dove finding land, they crash into a mountain, severely injuring Tubal-Cain.
Noah is a mashup of Gladiator and the Old Testament. It was a rock solid critical and commercial success, being lauded by Christian groups despite not actually mentioning God by name. It wasn’t all rainbows though, as some were concerned about the overt environmentalism, lack of diversity in the cast, and introduction of evolutionary themes. All around though, it was a definite win for director Darren Aronofsky and Paramount Pictures.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Long before Max von Sydow would portray the Three Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones, he had another cross to bear. In 1965, Sydow played Jesus in the biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told. With a name like that, it seems natural the film would rate higher on the list, but the 1950s and 1960s were filled with biblical epics.
The Greatest Story Ever Told describes the life of Jesus from birth to the Resurrection and, when originally released, ran an insanely long 225 minutes. Known for its casting and tyrannical director George Stevens, the film took almost two years to complete because of extensive editing, and was finally released on Easter of 1965.
Samson and Delilah
Few stories from the Bible are as tragic as the story of Samson and Delilah. The strongman who could best anyone was destroyed by the betrayal of the woman he loved. The 1949 movie starred actor/scientist Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature in the title roles. Samson gets into a fight where Delilah’s sister is killed, and she vows revenge against him. She promises to seduce him to uncover the cause of his strength, leading to torture, blinding and his hair being cut off. Realizing she loves Samson (sure, why not), Delilah helps him find the support pillars for the building they’re in, and he dramatically brings it crashing down upon them.
Helmed by legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, Samson and Delilah was the highest grossing movie of the year. The iconic scene where Samson brings down the pillars has been copied many times through the years and remains one of the most stirring moments of any biblical epic.
Charlton Heston and chariot racing: is there anything more thrilling? The Golden Age of Hollywood is known for its epic scale films, but few could hold a candle to Ben-Hur. It’s a sweeping epic where Judah Ben-Hur is wrongfully arrested by the evil Messala and sentenced to death in the galleys. After escaping thanks to the aid of a mysterious man, he meets the Wise Man Balthasar and is trained in the art of chariot racing, where he defeats Messala in a chase scene that could give The French Connection a run for its money. Messala tries to kill Judah with his chariot, but instead is trampled by horses. With his dying breath, he tells Judah his family isn’t dead, but living as lepers. Judah finds his family and takes them to see Jesus, but it’s too late. He sees Jesus carrying the cross and offers the Messiah water, realizing Jesus was the man who saved him many years before. When Jesus dies on the cross, Judah’s family is healed of their affliction.
Ben-Hur is the only Hollywood biblical epic the Vatican approved to be listed under the category of religion. It’s approval by the papal state isn’t the only reason it’s an amazing epic. It’s also one of the most massive movies ever created, with the chariot racing scenes alone requiring more than 15,000 extras with sets built on 18 acres of land. The race took five weeks to create, resulting in one of the most epic scenes in film history.
Jesus of Nazareth
Biblical epics tend to take a piece of the Bible and elaborate on it for dramatic purposes, but Jesus of Nazareth depicts stories from the full span of Jesus’ life and resurrection. It was a 6 ½ hour miniseries that aired in 1977, and featured several Oscar-nominated actors (Laurence Olivier, Ernest Borgnine, and Christopher Plummer just to name a few) not usually associated with television. To this day, families huddle around the television at Easter and Christmas to watch it.
Despite competing with major blockbusters and decades of other epics, many consider this to the be the best depiction of Jesus’ life to date. The movie didn’t sit well with everyone though, and it was banned in Egypt because of the content.
The 10 Commandments
Director Cecil B. DeMille loved his religious epics, and The 10 Commandments is considered to be his finest work. While Exodus was a special effects masterpiece, this film was no slouch, winning the Oscar for best special effects. The scene where Moses parts the Red Sea is one of the most recognized in film history.
Of course, Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Moses and the film’s beautiful cinematography were the main reasons for the movie’s Best Picture Oscar win. DeMille never did anything small, and The 10 Commandments was massive in everything from elaborate sets to star power and music. It was the highest grossing religious epic until it was surpassed by The Passion of the Christ in 2004. That’s quite an accomplishment, considering the film was made way back in 1956. Simply put, Commandments succeeded in all the areas where Exodus failed.