Biblical epics were not exclusive to the 1950s, of course, despite the fact that we tend to think of the genre as being a relatively short one mounted during that decade and sandwiched between two Charlton Heston films, “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.”
The 1950s marked the most popular period for them, no question. “The Ten Commandments” was the biggest moneymaker of 1956, nominated for seven Academy Awards and winner of one (for special effects); “Ben-Hur” was the biggest hit of 1959, nominated for 12 Oscars and winner of 11 (a record that stood until it was matched in 1997 by “Titanic”).
But big-budget movies taken from the Bible had actually been around since the silent era. In fact, when DeMille — undisputed king of the big-screen, cast-of-thousands biblical epic — made “The Ten Commandments” in 1956, he was remaking his own 1923 film of the same title.
And if you look at the dates of “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur,” they are separated by only three years. Yet it’s easy to think of them as generations apart since they mark distinctively the changes Hollywood was going through: “The Ten Commandments” being more flamboyant and over the top, and somewhat stilted in its acting style, while “Ben-Hur” is more mature, adult and unafraid to show vivid violence and blood on camera.
A rash of Bible-based movies followed the 1949 “Samson and Delilah” and played through the 1950s and well into the ’60s, each bigger than the one before, some of them quite good, others so-so to awful, and all motivated not just by the popularity of their predecessors but also by the threat of television.
To lure viewers away from the living-room comfort of their 13-inch black-and-white TVs, movies had to become more colorful and bigger in story and scope — which happened literally in 1953, as CinemaScope was introduced by yet another biblical epic, “The Robe,” setting a widescreen standard for movies that continues today.
Yet now, some six decades later, we’ve reverted back to small screens — much smaller even than the 13-inch TV sets of old — as we watch movies on laptops and handheld devices.
What do you suppose Mr. DeMille would make of that?