The best Christian movies of all time will span the gap from Cecil B. DeMille’s high grossing film for Paramount producing The Ten Commandments to Mel Gibson’s high grossing film Passion of the Christ. Both had a unique flare in dramatization of recorded Biblical events.
At the time, DeMille’s parting of the Red Sea was also remembered as the most expensive special effect of all time built as a waterfall on the Paramount set using 360 gallons of water and then running the film sequence in reverse. As a creative master of light and composition on the movie set, he proved a neoteric with light and shade producing shadowing instead of glare. Another set where this concept prevails is the artistry of the pagan temple in Samson and Delilah produced in 1949, years before The Ten Commandments.
Strong man and female characters were established through DeMille’s earlier, silent film work as the roaring 20’s brought forth to the screen new female roles. This is apparent in Why Change Your Wife? Which starred Gloria Swanson. DeMille made many actors famous and desired. Samson and Delilah produced the movie power couple of Hedy Lamar and Victor Mature. In The Ten Commandments Charlton Heston and Yvonne de Carlo. DeMille cast her as Sephora, Moses’ wife) on recommendation. She took her role seriously and even took weaving and shepherding classes. De Carlo also took drama coaching. This paid off as the critical reviews were positive in her dramatic adaptation. Heston pulls off the role as the rich Pharaoh’s son. As a Biblical movie producer and as an Episcopalian, DeMille relied on his Christian and Jewish ancestry to speak to tolerance with humanity. DeMille shows us his deep companion and morality in the scene where Heston (Moses) saves his mother from being a permanent part of the pyramid. This scene depiction also gave insight to the plight of the Jewish people in captivity. Next, Heston pulled off another movie, beating out Marlon Brando for the lead, listed out in the best Christian movie category when he followed in 1959 with Ben-Hur; A Tale of Christ. The academy liked this movie sweeping up 11 Oscars out of 12 nominations that year.
Can’t really leave the movie characters without mentioning Yule Brynner as our historical story antagonist. This guy was as much of a power player in Hollywood as he was Ramesses II, and Ramesses the Great was realistic and powerful. In 1957, Brynner won Best Actor for The King and I, beating out Hollywood’s best-looking male leads that year as James Dean, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, and Sir Laurence Olivier. Brynner was cast as Ramesses after DeMille saw The King and I and decided he was the only one for the role.
DeMille’s desire to relate man’s relationship with God held well with movie viewers. However, out of his 70 feature films, very few were recognized by the Academy. Only 2 academy awards were given for DeMille’s work. The 10 Commandments was nominated in the Best Picture category but was beaten out by Around the World in 80 days. Critics did not like his films but movie-goers did.
A profound segue into another conflict of critic vs audience is Passion of the Christ. When viewers are choosing the best Christian movies of all time, these two movies were based on their respective era’s high gross volume and always make the list. Passion of the Christ, followed by The Chronicles of Narnia, is still the highest grossing Christian film of all time.
The appeal of this movie is unknown and divisive. Critical reviews and ratings were numbingly poor yet, people flocked to the theater to see this film and tell their friends. As word-of-mouth marketing took over, some of us waited until we could cry at home without public condemnation. It was a hard, realist watch. Christian believers know in their heart the gueling last days of Christ but rarely do we get a raw depiction of what that looks like on the big screen or on the smaller screen for those of us that did not want to be emotional in public.
When you think about the number of viewers for a film that was not even in English it is astounding. Many movies today portraying historical events have been modernized in script, speech and context to meet the needs and desires of today’s current movie-goers. Here we see absolutely no placating to that purpose. There was not even a hint of British accents. Or several different accents and ethnicities to appease Hollywood’s desire for inclusivity. You would think the only people that would have watched this movie would be those interested in the Sundance Film or AVIFF Cannes Art Film Festival.
Gibson gets berated for his brutality in the film. However, Gibson’s dark, foreboding artistry helps keep the truth on the silent side of the actual cruelty which prevails in a true crucifixion. In the process of a Roman crucifixion, the condemned were assigned a specialized team, lead by a Roman commanding centurion and his legion. In The Risen, Clavius (played by Joseph Fiennes), a Roman Tribune ranking above a centurion and biding his time for the Senate, is assigned by Pontius Pilate (played by Peter Firth) to head of a team to carry out the final phase of Christ’s execution, burial and ultimate resurrection. A 2016 American film, there is a bit of British accent with these two actors. This does not detract from the emotional beauty of the fanfiction film and it is considered a high grossing Christian movie.
If the Passion of the Christ is too brutal, The Chronicles of Narnia brings another context in fantasy fiction in a whole different scope of Christian theme movies. Just add magic, mystical beasts and talking animals. It is said C.S. Lewis incorporated Christian theological context in his literature turned television, radio, stage and film where his main character, Aslan, the lion, is based on Jesus Christ. As a lay theologian, this adaptation of his fictional character may be based on his massive nonfiction Christian literature. Lewis, sometimes referred to as the Apostle to the Skeptics, was regarded as the most influential Christian apologists of his day.