Easter movies vs. Passover films: Six of one, half-dozen of the other

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

A couple of important religious holidays are popping up next week, so naturally the Hollywood floodgates will open and your TV will be inundated with spiritual films galore.

Dozens of films have been made about the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, and just as many about the crucifixion of Jesus. Which to watch? Here’s my choice for the top six of one and half-dozen of the other:

The Exodus came first, chronologically, so let’s start with the six most-watchable films about Moses, the Pharaoh, the Red Sea, and the great escape. So to begin with, simply close your eyes and try to imagine what the voice of God sounds like. Cecil B. DeMille, right? After hearing his stentorian tone dictating The Word, there’s no denying DeMille’s epic, the 1956 remake of “The Ten Commandments,” is surely Bible Class on the grand scale. And Charlton Heston, as Moses, delivered the single most powerful line in movie history – “Behold his mighty power!” – as he (and the Paramount Special Effects Department) parted the Red Sea.

(It was, in fact, Heston’s own most memorable line until his “cold, dead hands” speech to the NRA.)

But despite all the dreadful overacting, The Ten C’s is so lavish, so over-the-top, so sincere that it’s just the ticket for viewing during Passover.

My runner-up Moses is Ben Kingsley, in the 1995 three-hour TV version, called simply “Moses.” His wicked Egyptian bro is played by Frank Langella in his scariest mode and Christopher Lee playing Rameses. Kingsley is his usual kingly self, and the script is better than average as it follows Moses across the sea, the desert, up the mountain, et cetera. A nice long juicy epic to wallow around in, after a heavy holiday meal.

Want Moses Lite? Got just the thing for ya. “The Prince of Egypt,” an animated take by Dreamworks, released in 1998. In this one, the voices of Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes clash as Moses and Rameses, and the whole thing seems very kid-friendly and light hearted. It always irks me when they insert current slang into historical stories, and this one is replete with it. But it’s an OK cartoon for kids (I guess), and neatly slips in all the usual do-gooder messages.

After those three, the Passover movie falloff is pretty steep. Myself, I’d prefer to watch the film “Exodus,” the 1960 Otto Preminger piece that’s a fact-based epic also about the Jews seeking a new land. Let’s make it #4 on the list, even though there ain’t no Moses anywhere. Instead, you’ve got a young and vibrant Paul Newman, along with Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, a wonderful supporting cast and an Academy Award-winning musical score by Ernest Gold.

Based on the novel by Leon Uris, with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. “Moses the Lawgiver,” a 1974 TV miniseries (available on DVD and VHS) is next on my list, starring good ol’ Burt Lancaster as Moses. Even with the overwhelming Ennio Morricone score, it’s low-key and more accessible than some of the scenery-chewers listed above. The six-hour miniseries is preferable to the 141-minute DVD now available, alas.

In the spirit of providing something for everyone (no matter how bizarre you are), let’s assign the sixth spot to “When Do We Eat?” an independent comedy about a crazy Jewish family holding a Passover ceremony. A smidge irreverent but kinda funny, it stars Michael Lerner, Lesley Ann Warren and the late Jack Klugman. Made in 2005, not for everyone’s taste, but it does round out our list.

Now for the Easter flicks. And don’t worry, that happy, dancing “Easter Parade” is not on the list. We’re strictly concerned with films taking place around the crucifixion of Jesus.

So, as we did with Moses, let’s rate this bunch simply by Who Played the Best Jesus? Hands down, it was handsome, blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter in the best role he ever got in his life, “King of Kings,” a way-too-long retelling of Everything Jesus. But there are some pleasant surprises in this 1961 epic. Like, it’s narrated by Orson Welles. And Siobhan McKenna is wondrous as Mary. And Rip Torn, one of my faves, plays Judas. But Hunter, in the lead, really glows. It’s just over three hours long, so make sure there’s plenty of popcorn in the larder.

Next-best Jesus is Max Von Sydow in “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the George Stevens’ version from 1965. Another ’60s epic.

(They knew how to do this stuff, back then, didn’t they?)

First you make it loooong. And loud. And add a consummate actor like Max Von Sydow, who is superb. And then, hey – is that Charlton Heston playing John the Baptist? – you bet your bippy it is! In fact, if you love those Star Cameo movies they’re still making, this may be the ultimate. Almost everyone in Hollywood peeks in to bow reverently. Pat Boone, Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury, Roddy McDowell, Sidney Poitier, the list is endless. Even Jamie Farr (the cross-dresser from TV’s “M*A*S*H*”) shows up.

Third on my personal list comes Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” released in 1988. It caused a whirlwind of controversy. A lot of people seemed mighty touchy about this revisionist speculation about Jesus and his relationships, but Willem Dafoe did a sensitive and quite remarkable job portraying Jesus, and Harvey Keitel was picture-perfect as his Bad Lieutenant, Judas.

I’m including 1953’s “The Robe” because back in those days it was seen as a super-reverent, holy-as-all-getout spectacular. Richard Burton suffered from one end to the other, and Victor Mature chewed whatever scenery was left over. Well, it won two Oscars (Art Direction and Costume Design), and I still have a soft spot in my heart for it.

Finally, there’s “The Passion of the Christ” that everyone was talking about in 2004. I didn’t see it, but I’m putting it on the list anyway. My neighbors are all fundamentalists.

Your additions, subtractions and comments are invited.

Meanwhile, Back at the Dixie: “Pride” and “Amazing Grace” are the first-run goodies available this week at the Dixie in downtown Staunton. The red-hot Terrence Howard stars in “Pride,” the tale of an all-black swim team, whilst you can catch the amazing Albert Finney in “Amazing Grace,” the tale of a tune.

 

Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The New Dominion. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.

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