The Bible According to Hollywood is not quite what I call a documentary but more like a commentary using the Fair Use act or images and films now in the public domain to create an overview on Hollywood’s take on Biblical stories. While the quality isn’t great, I still found it enjoyable and would recommend it to both Christians and Freethinkers. This is because you can see how classic Hollywood shaped a lot of the Biblical Narrative into something grander and more acceptable than the actual Biblical stories themselves.
Make no mistake, Hollywood was not out to proselytize, but to make money. Interestingly enough, it was primarily the Old Testament stories that attracted large audiences because they threw in big battle scenes, big miracles and some sexy ladies (often in the form of gyrating heathens). The Bible According to Hollywood noted two money losers including The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and King of Kings (1961) and they both focused on Jesus and his life story–Jesus bores audiences! Alright, that’s not fair, but it does seem to demonstrate that the Jesus story needs gimmicks, sex or violence to sell as a fully released film. I will make the argument that audiences responded better to hippie interpretations like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell than a straightforward retelling of the gospel. Remember that Passion of the Christ was a huge hit, not necessarily because it featured Jesus, but because it was ultra-violent and an R-rated movie for Christians–not to mention the director was the saintly Mel Gibson(in other words, a gimmick movie with a great marketing idea ).
SIDENOTE: One thing I do know about The Greatest Story Ever Told is that Jesus was played by Max Von Sydow. Max was destined to play villains, not saviors (see Strange Brew, Needful Things, etc.). It would be like Darth Vader playing Moses, Sydow is evil.
Other New Testament Hollywood offerings were more likely to feature Roman spectator sports such as lions eating Christians, Roman politics, more battle scenes and good girl versus bad girl romances than directly focusing on Christ. The Robe (1953) was one such hit (I don’t recall if it had lions munching on xians though, I’ll have to watch again–saw it a long, long time ago). The basic premise of any Hollywood Biblical epic is that it had to be sexy and dangerous, not about love and peace and everlasting life through redemption and clean living. People don’t pay to hear a sermon–they throw money into the offering plate out of guilt and not wanting their pew neighbors to judge them.
Overall, The Bible According to Hollywood was reasonably interesting. There were a few comments by actors, most notably Charlton Heston on The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959) who I would say epitomizes the genre. I admittedly will still watch The Ten Commandments when they show it on Easter or Christmas because–let’s be honest–it’s not really Exodus, it’s a Hollywood movie with some classic film stars and old-school special effects (and my wife loves the soap opera feel of the female jealousies and lust ).
I’m going to have to pop some of the movies I saw covered in the documentary into my que like Sodom & Gomorrah (1963) which looked kind of sexy. These fifties and sixties Bible films are similar to the campy feel you get from watching old monster movies. And almost all of them feature half-naked dancing women. I’m sure many a man was able to make a holy excuse to watch them back in the day with his wife sitting next to him.