The Biblical epic genre was a massive draw for cinema in the ’50s as the studios were battling the threat of audiences staying home and glued to television. People flocked to the Technicolor and Cinemascope religious tales that offered a much better view than the tiny, black and white televisions could provide. During the mid-90s, TNT needed to a big project to get it seen as something more than another version of TBS with old TV shows and ancient movies. The channel’s legacy was tainted by Ted Turner’s ill attempt to colorize the classics. Where could it go for salvation? In a reverse strategy, the channel created a series of Biblical epics to create a new identity. The Bible Stories was 17 adaptations of Old and New Testament figures. These were international co-productions with many of the exteriors shot in the deserts around Morocco. The cast included major stars that could easily get attention for the series. Shout! Factory has begun releasing the mix of TV movies and miniseries with six separate DVD sets and a compliation boxset.
Jacob (1994 – 89 minutes) brings the tale from Genesis about brothers and cousins. Isaac and Rebekah had twin boys Jacob (Full Metal Jacket‘s Matthew Modine) and Esau (Game of Thrones‘ Sean Bean) that were rather competitive. Jacob is upset that Esau got birth right by beating him out of the womb. Jacob gets his revenge by tricking his brother out of the larger chunk of inheritance, but the plot is exposed. This leads to Jacob splitting town where he eventually hooks up with his cousin Rachel (Twin Peaks‘ Laura Flynn Boyle). Can the twins reunite under good circumstances? This film had a German co-production element which led to Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) getting a part. Director Peter Hall is best known for his stage work in London which comes into play here since this film is more about performance than lavish productions and camera angles. The major player in the production is the legendary Ennio Morricone providing the theme for the series.
Abraham (1994 – 187 minutes) is about a guy (Orca‘s Richard Harris) who is told by God to leave his rather affluent city for an unsettled land. Why? Because he’s going to be the father of a great nation. This is news to Abraham’s wife (Beaches‘ Barbara Hershey). She’s childless after all their years together. Maximilian Schell (The Black Hole) is the Pharaoh who is not happy about the new folks moving into the neighborhood. The script is from Robert McKee who gives all those how to write screenplay seminars. Harris gives a Return of a Man Called Horse worthy performance as the Old Testament figure.
Moses (1995 – 182 minutes) strips down the story of the man who led the Jews out of Israel from the lavish nature of Cecil B. de Mille’s The Ten Commandments. Ben Kingsley (Sexy Beast) plays Moses as the reluctant hero who must answer God’s calling. He’s rescued from the Nile and made the son of Pharaoh Ramses (Taste the Blood of Dracula‘s Christopher Lee). The one person not completely excited is Mermefta (Dracula‘s Frank Langella). When Moses’ real identity is exposed, Mermefta is ready to be an only child again. Moses must overcome all to lead his people back home. There is a rawness to the story since it’s not blowing us away with Hollywood Egyptian artifice. Director Robert Young made The Squeeze and is still making Biblical movies with Billy Zane as Barabbas.
Joseph (1995 – 185 minutes) brings back Ben Kingsley as the Egyptian who owns slaves including the title character. Joseph (Strictly Ballroom‘s Paul Mercurio) is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. His dad Jacob (Mission: Impossible‘s Martin Landau) isn’t around to stop it. Joseph doesn’t seem to mind working for Potiphar (Kingsley) although his owner’s wife (Mission: Impossible‘s Lesley Ann Warren) wants him to show her his Paso Doble. He refuses and gets into trouble. But this ultimately leads to him becoming a great interpreter of dreams. He ends up saving Egypt when he nails a dream that bothered the Pharaoh. Monica Bellucci (The Matrix Reloaded) plays the Pharaoh’s wife.
Samson and Delilah (1996 – 180 minutes) is my favorite of the batch simply because it was directed by Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell To Earth). This is a rather restrained Roeg affair even with Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) and Michael Gambon (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) in the cast. God has instructed Samson (A Stranger Amongst Us‘s Eric Thal) to evict the Philistines from Canaan. He’s a strong guy who can tear into them like a UFC fighter. But he doesn’t want to be God’s goon. He has fallen hard for a Philistine girl so how can he hate them? However this is part of a major trap that includes the tempting Delilah (Austin Powers‘ Elizabeth Hurley). She has a plan to find out the secret of Samson’s physical wonder. She seduces him and renders him powerless. But will he be stuck forever as a slave? Diana Rigg (Game of Thrones & The Avengers) is also tempting on the screen. Max Von Sydow (Game of Thrones) narrates the action.
David (1997 – 173 minutes) is another story of God needing to find someone to take care of the Philistines problem. King Saul (The Game of Thrones‘ Jonathan Pryce) is a bit of failure after getting the position from the Prophet Samuel (Star Trek‘s Leonard Nimoy). Samuel selects a new savior of the Nation. This time it is a simple shepherd boy (Beverly Hills Ninja‘s Nathaniel Parker) that gets plucked from the flock and forced to face off against the goliath Goliath. The movie shows what happened after David made his name knocking out the big guy. He gets involved with Bathsheba (Twin Peaks‘s Sheryl Lee). The film breaks down to a power struggle between Saul and David as to who is the rightful ruler of the country. The production scores bonus points for having Franco Nero (Django) in the cast.
What makes these productions work is that the focus is on the actors and not the production design. Nothing is grandiose on the screen. The rugged North African desert gives the necessary texture to make things feel from the Bible without it being faked on a backlot. The lack of sets and special effects allows you to focus on the characters and their interactions. The over abundance of actors from Game of Thrones makes it a great way to spend your time while waiting for HBO to start the new season next Spring.
Along with the single releases, there’s also The Bible Stories: In the Beginning which gathers together Abraham, Moses, Jacob and Joseph.
The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic. The new transfers bring out the detail of the early civilization recreations. The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0. The levels are fine for when God talks to the various Bible figures. The productions are subtitled.
No bonus features.
Shout! Factory presents The Bible Stories: In the Beginning. Starring: Ben Kingsley, Richard Harris, Sean Bean, Lesley Ann Warren and Christopher Lee. Boxset Contents: 4 movies on 4 DVDs. Rated: Not Rated. Released: March 8, 2016.
Tags: christopher lee, The Bible Stories