Hollywood and the recasting of biblical epics

Taken from the Ferens Fine Art Film Lecture delivered in Hull by Dr Erica Sheen, the lecturer in literature and film at Sheffield University
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The Independent Online

In the 1950s, the widescreen biblical epic testified to Hollywood's appropriation of the ideological values associated with cinema's basic raw material: light. In the 1990s, the contemporary blockbuster was marked by the development of film-making practices that displace light from the apparatus completely. As we enter the second 100 years of cinema, we have to ask what might be the values of a cinema without light, and who they will serve.

In the 1950s, the widescreen biblical epic testified to Hollywood's appropriation of the ideological values associated with cinema's basic raw material: light. In the 1990s, the contemporary blockbuster was marked by the development of film-making practices that displace light from the apparatus completely. As we enter the second 100 years of cinema, we have to ask what might be the values of a cinema without light, and who they will serve.

DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt appeared to address precisely that question. Few animated films show any interest in the absence from their frames of a light source. In The Prince of Egypt the absence became an idea: its distinctive visual style explored the compositional potential light offers once it has been released from ideological duty as the symbol of divine revelation. From this perspective, it seemed to challenge the Zionist affiliations of the Fifties widescreen epic. From its very beginning, which adapts the opening of The Ten Commandments and the chariot race of Ben-Hur, the film was obviously not just a remake, but a rethinking of these earlier films.

Where The Ten Commandments stressed the "accuracy" of its biblical scholarship, The Prince of Egypt identified itself at the outset as an adaptation - and appeared to take considerable risks in doing so. The theatrical release gave three contrasting references for "testimonials" to Moses: the Hebrew Bible, Deuteronomy 34:10; the New Testament, Acts 7:35; and the Qur'an, 19:51. Here, then, was something quite startling: the possibility that a mainstream entertainment film might acknowledge the historical identity of Christian, Jew and Arab, as well as the dignity of their differences. Picking up Ben-Hur's story of a lost friendship between two young men, and writing it back into the early years of the story told by The Ten Commandments, the film appeared to arrest a narrative of historical alienation and to replace it with a nostalgic retrospect on lost brotherhood - thus implying that brotherhood remains a potential within the history of the people now divided by it.

Since personal contact between Steven Spielberg and Bill Clinton is a well-documented feature of the current American presidency's special relation with Hollywood, it wasn't difficult to find in the background of this multiculturalist aesthetic the event Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos has described as "the most inspiring day of his presidency": the Israel-PLO deal announced in Washington in August 1993.

Stephanopoulos records the fact that, the night before this event, "Clinton rose at 3am to read his Bible. He was searching for words as meaningful as the impending moment: Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasir Arafat of the PLO were going to shake hands and pledge to return the ancient lands of Judea and Samaria to a time when "the land had rest from war" (Joshua 11:23).

The speech finally included an excerpt from the Koran suggested by Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. During the ceremony itself, Rabin accelerated through the seasons of Ecclesiastes and closed with a line from the Hebrew prayer book - "May He who brings peace to His universe bring peace to us and to all Israel."

Unfortunately, that's about as far as we can take the multiculturalist line. Since 1907, when the Kalem Company was taken to the Supreme Court for making a film of Ben-Hur without copyright clearance, film rights have come a long way, and they do not encourage a reading of this film as an address to Edward Said's ideal of a "new universality". The copyright on The Prince of Egypt states that "DreamWorks SKG is the intellectual property holder of the movie The Prince of Egypt and holds copyright over the movie, characters and storyline".

Considering that Spielberg's company Amblin Entertainments threatened legal action against institutions using the word "Jurassic" after the release of Jurassic Park, copyright on the "storyline" of a film that itself acknowledged three different scriptural sources is worth a slight intake of breath - not least because it did so in the face of Islam's absolute prohibition on scriptural representations of any kind.

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