In the years after World War II, America saw a flood of films based on biblical themes—most prominently Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959). The first, of course, takes as its subject the book of Exodus, and while the second is inspired by the New Testament, it is in a sense a very Jewish story set in Roman Judea. Matthew Franck examines the rise and fall of this genre, and its underlying religious message.
DeMille, who had earlier bridged the silent-to-talkies era with his trio of religious films The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), and The Sign of the Cross (1932), brought the genre roaring back with Samson and Delilah [based on Vladimir Jabotinsky’s novelization of the biblical tale], which was released in December 1949 and became the highest-grossing film of 1950. Elaborating the Bible’s brief story of Samson into more than two hours, DeMille gave moviegoers a Technicolor extravaganza of scantily dressed beefcake (Victor Mature as Samson) and cheesecake (Hedy Lamarr as Delilah).
As for the piety, it came in small, easily digestible doses. The Hebrews of the Old Testament stories were presented chiefly as lovers of the freedom to worship their one God—freedom from the Egyptians or the Philistines, as the case may be. One could hardly miss the cold war message in the prologue to DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments, in which the director himself appeared on screen and called it “the story of the birth of freedom,” going on to say, “The theme of this picture is whether men are to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.” An important message, to be sure, but hardly all there is to say about the relationship of the chosen people to the Almighty.
In short, the Hollywood religious-epic genre of this period was all about uplift, and toleration, and offending exactly no one. And if scripture, or the life of the early Church, did not seem to provide enough excitement to sustain a feature-length film, then a little sexual tension, or some heroic action scenes (battles, gladiatorial combat, chariot races) would serve the turn.