Thursday, July 02, 2009

The greatest stories ever told (Sunday Reflections for July 5, 2009)

One night last week I watched a documentary on the life of Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille is credited with being one of the founders of the Hollywood movie industry and was a truly great and innovative director. His movies were known for their action, color, drama, and sex.

According to people interviewed, DeMille was also a genuinely religious man—at least of a certain type. His father was a preacher who read aloud from the Bible to his family every night. As a result, the Bible’s stories and images were lodged permanently in DeMille’s imagination. It was this love of the Bible’s drama which would later inspire several of his greatest movies, including King of Kings, Samson and Delilah, and The Ten Commandments (twice).

Beyond that, however, DeMille’s own religious beliefs were amorphous. His granddaughter said that DeMille didn’t really go to church but rather that he “went into churches,” where he would sit alone and in silence. DeMille would often hold court in the studio cafeteria with the likes of Billy Graham, the local archbishop, or prominent rabbis. His even-handed treatment of Moslems in The Crusades enabled him to get permission to film the second Ten Commandments on location in Egypt. (In the movie, many of the fleeing Israelites were played by extras from the Egyptian army, who would later fight the real Israeli army the year the film was released!)

As I watched clips from DeMille’s movies, I thought of last week’s Reflections column and some of the discussions in our last book group. The scholarly understanding of the Bible has changed dramatically over the past two hundred years, and especially in the period since World War II. The difficulty has been, however, that little of this information has made its way into the consciousness of the general public. And DeMille may be partly to blame for this.

In DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, the ancient biblical story of Moses’ delivery of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt explodes across the screen. No picture Bible, Sunday school book or film strip could ever compete with such a retelling of this tale—nor could a simple reading of the story from the book of Exodus. While the story may have endeared itself to DeMille as a child when he heard it read at the family dining table, his nearly 4-hour, Technicolor, “cast of thousands” film version left that story in the dust.

Despite usurping (and certainly altering) the biblical version, religious people—clergy and laity alike—loved DeMille’s Ten Commandments, in part because he made it so real. Who was Moses? He was Charlton Heston! Who was Pharaoh? He was Yul Brenner! What did the “angel of death” look like? It was an eerily green, snaking cloud (who knew?) wrapping itself around its victims. What was it like to part the Red Sea and then close it again, drowning Pharaoh’s army? A huge tank built in Hollywood especially for the purpose, plus special effects photography, showed us.

Ever since, those images have lodged themselves in the minds of anyone who saw DeMille’s version of this biblical tale. DeMille and the other cinema pioneers recognized the incredible psychological and emotional power of this new medium. Humans have been story tellers for as long as anyone knew. The popularity of the novel had spread across the globe after its modern invention in the 18th century. Now moving pictures, sound, and spoken dialog were combined to bring stories to life more vividly than . . . well, more vividly than life itself. That was cinema’s appeal, its magic, and its power for deception.

Like a painting, novels and movies are images, representations of real life. Real life, of course, is mostly ordinariness and routine (a quarter of our life, at least, is spent sound asleep). Stories sift out the all the “boring stuff” and focus our attention on the intense feeling, action, planning, and consequence that most interests us. They allow us to experience and reflect on these events in the lives of others (both fictional and real) so as to make sense of, and inspire, our own lives.

Movies, however, are “real” in ways written stories are not. Novels must rely on our imagination while movies do the imagining for us. In fact, movies hijack our imagination. Can anyone imagine Rhett Butler as someone other than Clark Gable after having seen the film version of Gone with the Wind? Indeed, movies are so powerfully vivid that they usually push aside any written version of a story, where one exists. Ironically then, DeMille’s movie is now much better known than the Bible story he heard as a child. And however DeMille himself imagined Moses, for millions of people he will always act and sound like Charlton Heston.

As I wrote last week, the epic tale of the founding of Israel told in the first books of the Bible is increasingly viewed as just that: a tale and not history. There isn’t space here to explain why this is so, except to say that there is simply no evidence to support any of it and quite a bit of evidence that contradicts the Bible’s depiction of that time. As a result of the archaeological data, biblical scholars increasingly view the story of Israel’s founding as a mythological story of Israel’s origins. It was written to give Jews, living three to four centuries before Jesus, a sense of identity: their meaning, purpose, and place in the world.

DeMille once said, “Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” He knew the Bible overflowed with human narrative and drama which could be adapted for any age. It’s widely recognized, for example, that The Ten Commandments is as much about DeMille’s Cold War politics (with enslaving Pharaoh as a stand-in for the oppressive Communist Joseph Stalin) as it is about either religion or ancient history.

By making the Bible “real”, however, movies unfortunately also freeze it in our mind: this is the way it was and must always be. Most remakes flop because they inevitably challenge impressions already in people’s minds left by their predecessors. Thus it becomes harder for us to reimagine a Bible story we have “seen” already, let alone accept that many or most of the Bible’s stories are just that: stories. If people knew only the written text of Exodus, learning that it is likely fiction wouldn’t be so surprising or hard to believe. Now, however, we’ve seen the waters part, we’ve seen Moses/Heston come down with the tablets. It must have happened.

Scholars are also recognizing that biblical stories were treated much more fluidly in the ancient world. They were often revised and retold, sometimes with dramatically different outcomes and meanings. This can be seen even in the Bible itself where similar stories are told multiple times. The gospels contain perhaps most familiar examples but the two creation stories that open Genesis is another. DeMille also had this instinct as he had no problem revising biblical tales for the sake of his pictures.

It has only been in recent years that the Bible, for some, has become frozen—Gods’ “inerrant Word.” It’s also becoming obvious that frozen equals lifeless and dead. Stories can’t stand still if they are to survive. Where DeMille saw the struggle against totalitarianism, African American slaves and their descendents saw the struggle for freedom and the hope for a Promised Land. And that, scholars tell us, is why the story was told in the first place: not to remember past events but to inspire struggle and resistance against Israel’s then Greek and later Roman oppressors. Real stories, true stories, bend and adapt. So it is today that these stories can only live and inspire us if they are allowed to float free. Anchored to “history” and to the past, all we can do is pass them by.

1 comment:

Robert Hammond said...

Working on the Cecil B. DeMille epic biopic - soon to be a major motion picture. See: