Fulvue Drive-In.com
Current Reviews
In Stores Soon
In Stores Now
DVD Reviews, SACD Reviews Essays Interviews Contact Us Meet the Staff
An Explanation of Our Rating System Search  
Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Filmmaking > Religion > History > The Bible According To Hollywood (Passport/DVD-Video)

The Bible According To Hollywood (Passport/DVD-Video)


Picture: C     Sound: C-     Extras: D     Main Program: B+



On a certain level The Bible According to Hollywood is your typical documentary in a digital age fast approaching that of post-broadcast-journalism – stock footage, voice-of-God narration, intertitles, etc.  The only thing missing is a host with an unnecessarily large microphone shoving it in the faces of the actor’s on the sets of films like DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (both versions), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and, of course, John Huston’s The Bible. . .In the Beginning (1965).  But alas this is impossible, unless of course one had access to either stock footage or a time machine, but if it were possible, I’m almost certain Phillip Dye, the director of this piece, would have made use of it.  But this is not necessarily a compliment.  From the days of Robert Flaherty to Michael Moore, viewers have come to make certain assumptions about the documentary as a genre or format – a term I prefer, since genre can mean many things in cinema.  (Much of this is no thanks to 40 years of credibility-demanding, middle-brow television journalism spanning from Walter Cronkite to the late Peter Jennings.) Yet, it is the precise way in which the documentary manipulates a viewer’s perceptions about realism through formalistic choices such as special effects, graphics, editing, selective chronologies and plotting, and music, which makes it one of the most interesting, compelling, and perhaps insidious cinematic formats.


Sure, such techniques are easy to spot in a Bowling for Columbine (2002) or Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), if one is already convinced of the falsehood of the message.  But what if the techniques are more muted, and the message more mainstream?  Like on any random A&E Biography, or even that of your local news – which leaves the titillating formalism to the 30-second spots of the commercials put on by its corporate sponsors – the real highlight of the dinner hour anyway, but makes use of formalism nonetheless in its own content.


Released in 2004, The Bible According to Hollywood works out of a much older documentary tradition, conservative and smothering, like an overprotective mother unwilling to let her children – the viewers – think for themselves.  Any hard conclusions are drawn for you via the narrator, Henry Stephens, who has the kind of voice that makes you think you’ve heard him on 100 other things before, even if you haven’t.  But it was only after I had to hire a few narrators myself on my own various film projects that I realized that there are probably thousands of men -- and maybe even a few women! -- who can make themselves sound like this particular narrator.  Perhaps that voice is kind of like the audio version of the Le Tigra, Ferrari, and Blue Steel faces in voice-over lampooned by Ben Stiller in Zoolander (2001).  But this is not to say that The Bible According to Hollywood is all bad.  Perhaps as entertainment there is very little to redeem it, but as a reference, it is an excellent video overview of the Bible on film – a kind of Cliff’s Notes for Bible-based movies, not in terms of analysis, because there hardly is any, but in terms of making the viewer aware of what films are even out there, and their relationships to each other.  One criticism though even of this strategy is how often this film relies on poor film prints and faded copies of the films it wants to catalogue.  In addition, it is almost inexplicable how this documentary skips Ted Turner’s Emmy-Award Winning Bible Collection, while Godard’s Hail Mary barely gets a footnote.


Yet on a more basic level The Bible According to Hollywood is one of the most comprehensive 120 minute documentaries on the subject – that is, cinematic material derived in some way shape or form on the Bible.  (60 minutes on films based on the Old Testament, and 60 minutes on films about the New Testament to be exact.)  So while I cannot say much for this film in terms of style, as far as substance goes I recommend this two-part series for anyone even remotely interested in the topic of Biblically films.  In many ways, this documentary is like a catalog, designed for the viewer seeking more Biblical-based material.  And since the film ends in essence talking about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the film’s effort to attract viewers perhaps prompted by Gibson’s work is almost transparent.  But I don’t see anything wrong with that.  Love it or hate it, Gibson’s Passion (2004) is one the most important Biblical films made since Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – not necessarily because of content, but because of how the reception of this film changed the industry.


And while I would discourage any viewer to take the narrator’s limited analysis of the various films at face value – or any other narrator for that matter--  I must admit that this film was where I first heard of Sydney Olcott’s From the Manger to the Cross (1912), and my Ph.D. dissertation is on the subject!  For that reason alone I cannot say but too much negative about a documentary text that proved to be a vital source in my own research on the representation of Jesus in cinema.  However, some more devout viewers may find themselves from time to time offended by offhand quips like: “everybody’s loses their head when making movies about John the Baptist” written by director Phillip Dye, but obviously intended to keep the interest of the viewer.  Some may find such comments humorous, but I personally was not amused.


The Bible According to Hollywood also makes for some interesting trivia.  I bet you didn’t know that both James Dean and Paul Newman got their start making Biblical films.  And if you pay attention to Charlton Heston, at his self-indulgent best, you’ll also discover who it was that made the first feature film.  (Answer: Cecil B. DeMille with The Squaw Man in 1914.)  Although in actuality, From the Manger to the Cross when all five of its reels are shown in one sitting actually beat it by two years – having been released in 1912 with a running time just over sixty minutes.  Heston, toward the end of the documentary, very pleased with himself points out how because he has been in a few DeMille films, how this connects him very closely with the beginning of the medium.  He also laments how he doesn’t know how movies got so expensive.  He claims he doesn’t know how this happened.  That nobody knows how this happened.  Two words: UNIONS and INFLATION.  But his point is still taken, movies are much more expensive to make today than in Heston’s time, even when adjusted for inflation.  Steven Spielberg makes a similar observation in American Cinema: The Film School Generation.  The ironic counter to the expenses of the films made via the Hollywood machine however, may in fact be the documentary as a format.


In conclusion, the narrator explains that viewers don’t want a sermon, but entertainment, summarizing that people, instead of just relying on movies based on the Bible, may want to consider checking out the original source material, meaning the Bible itself.  Well, to be cute I may want to say that instead of relying on documentaries about movies based on the Bible, they may just want to check out the movies themselves – but if it weren’t for The Bible According to Hollywood, I must admit, a casual viewer might not no where to begin.



-   Gregory Allen



Gregory Allen -- filmmaker, scholar, and critic -- is the Supervising Professor for the Panopticon Multimedia Student Intern Program.  He has a Master’s Degree in Literature, and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, completing his dissertation on the representation of Jesus in cinema.  He is currently developing a graphic novel with Atlantis Studios about the war in heaven based on an original screenplay (For more information please visit www.gregorykahlilkareemallen.com).



 Copyright © MMIII through MMX fulvuedrive-in.com