Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"One Night with the King"-- and other Things

In an email yesterday a NT colleague and friend Peter Richardson told me the sad news. The makers of the wonderful verbatim version of the Gospel of John which had a terrific cast, after intending to also film the Gospel of Mark are bankrupt. They had worked through three scripts and planned to film, but the Gospel of John did not do well enough either in the theaters or on DVD. This is very sad since it was a much better movie than the "Passion of the Christ" and far more Biblically accurate. Is it really so difficult for orthodox Christians to get behind the right movies which reach the general public and use them as conversation starters to witness for their faith? We need to do better. But these movies need to be well done and Biblically faithful. Which brings me to a new movie just in the theaters this month./

Picture if you will a Jewish version of "The King and I" movie (complete with ruler who looks great, has washboard abs, but isn't exactly a great actor--- remember Yul Brenner?). This particular take on the book of Esther, or better said the novel "Hadassah" which is loosely based on the book of Esther, runs just over two hours in length (rated PG). A great Biblical epic this is not, and one especially gets tired of the overly dramatic music droning on and on trying to infuse pathos into a mediocre script and an average cast, but it is certainly isn't all bad or a waste of a visit to the theater. As entertainment it is o.k., but don't look for any Oscar nominations.

Clearly enough this movie was not filmed in Susa in Persia-- try India and some of the sites and cities used are stunning. The visual aspect of the movie alone is worth watching, and the CG is pretty good in places as well. But what about the plot and the acting?

Well the movie ads tell us that Peter O' Toole and Omar Sharif are in this movie. They are indeed, the former playing the prophet Samuel (yes that Samuel) for all of exactly two minutes (mores the pity he could really have given us a powerful Samuel), and Omar plays a General who serves at the pleasure of Xerxes in the Persian court. He is effective in the role, but the best acting in the whole drama is done by John Rhys-Davies as Mordecai (remember him as Indiana Jones side kick, or as Silas in the Peter and Paul made for TV movie). Tiffany Dupont plays Hadassah/Esther and does a nice job-- looks good in royal attire as well. We also have nice exotic characters like a slimy and manical Haman (think Grimer Wormtongue slipping into the wrong epic) and the large African eunuch (think Mr. T with a speech impediment). One could have wished to see O'Toole in another role interacting with Sharif, but alas, it is not to be (if you want to see a stunning performance by O' Toole in a Biblically sized epic, rent "Masada" some time, the full length version).

And what of the plot? Well, this movie unfortunately has a bunch of short choppy scenes at the beginning where the director tries to tell too much of a story too fast (500 years or so, from Samuel and Saul to Xerxes and Esther complete with the huge orchestra soundtrack swelling in the background), and then settles into a King and his search for a queen by means of a contest, with interludes where war is on the horizon, dinner is on the table, and reading (yes reading) is most of the action between king and queen to be.

One wonders when the real story of Esther will show up. Meanwhile we have court intrigue, home scenes with Mordecai the king's scribe, and we are left with numerous questions like--- why exactly did Esther not catch the caravan back to Jerusalem when she had the chance, and how exactly did she get to be trapped into the beauty contest? Inquiring minds want to know.

In other words-- the story could have been told much better, the acting could have been better, and the tons of Indian extras were a dead give away that we were not anywhere near Persia! Never mind. Love conquers all, and Esther is brave and saves her people from genocide.

But here is the problem. The book of Esther is the only book of the Bible which does not mention God by name. This was one reason it almost got left out of the Jewish canon, never mind the Christian one. It is a serious story with a serious point-- namely the providence and compassion of God and the courage of Esther a loyal Jew. But in this movie we are always hearing about God, and we even have Esther telling the story of Jacob and Rachel to the king, and Mordecai reading Isaiah 40 for comfort. Nice, but not true to the Biblical story.

The story could have been told in a way that honored the religious weight and character of the original story without resorting to melodrama and smaltz. Genocide was not warded off in the Biblical story by a magic necklace that when light shown on it projected images of the Star of David (a symbol from another era to be sure)! In other words, the original story of Esther deserved better. Still I must not complain too much. I am thankful for any Biblical story reaching the big screen and a decent sized audience. Even if only 14% of the critics have rated this a good movie at least it is providing Jews and Christians with something reasonably wholesome and helpful to watch, helping them think about their faith and their God. But still, one can only hope for better on December 1 when "The Nativity" comes out. Hope springs eternal.....


Duncan Forbes said...

Very sad to hear about the Gospel of Mark DVD. I use the visual Bible DVD's of Matthew and John to do bible studies with urban youth in London, they have been such a useful tool. I was looking forward to a Mark's gospel DVD to be able to use as well.
Duncan Forbes

Jeremy Pierce said...

I would think more people nowadays know John Rhys-Davies as Gimli. Also, Haman would be well-known to contemporary SciFi fans as Baltar in the new Battlestar Galactica.

Anonymous said...

That's sad to hear about the gospel of Mark...
I saw John both in the theater and have the DVD. To see the story acted out brings so much more understanding to lay folks like myself.

Neil said...

Thanks for the review.

I'm disappointed about the Gospel of John folks going bankrupt. That was a terrific movie. I used it for a lunchtime Bible study at work and also for a Sunday School class. We'd watch a couple chapters a week then discuss it.

We watched the book of Acts as well. Unfortunately the production values just weren't the same. It was serviceable as a tool to give you an overview, but James Brolin as Peter was a little distracting for me.

Ben Witherington said...

There are a number of movies out there which are good resources to use. Here are a few:

1) Zeferelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Still the best portrayal overall of the Gospel story. A cast of many great actors, and Rod Steigert nails the role of Pilate, pardon the pun.

2) Peter and Paul-- Anthony Hopkins wins the Emmy for his performance as Paul. Just excellent and believable.

3) A.D.-- Much better than the Visual Bible Acts by a long way, though still not perfect.

4) The Gospel of John. Very powerful, and the only full portrayal of this Gospel on film. Royal Shakespeare company works its magic.

5) St. John in Exile. This is a drama about John of Patmos. Its well done and enjoyable.

6) Of the recent historical dramas the docu-drama on William Tyndale is very moving. He's one of my heroes.

7) I Claudius. There are bits to edit out for any public viewing but to get a sense of the Greco-Roman world, this is very good and true to the period. Derek Jacoby is masterful as Claudius. Better than the recent Rome series from HBO.

8) Jesus (the CBS made for TV drama) It has its moment, especially the spectacular CG depiction of Jesus' face off with the Devil during his temptations in the wilderness. Now we're cooking.

Bill Barnwell said...
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Bill Barnwell said...

Thanks for these reviews. It is very hard to find popular entertainment that is both acceptable to a Christian audience AND is actually of objectively good quality. As one who has years of background in theatre, and regularly uses drama as a part of my own ministry (which has been very effective), I think some in the Christian community would do well to not issue blanket condemnations of popular culture's entertainment vehicles and view it as a mission ground for Christians. Popular movies and music are way more influential than 3 point sermons in reaching the masses. Yet if you turn on Christian TV stations most of what you see is preaching and Gaither homecommings. This doesn't even appeal many Christians. I think there is value in specifically Christian oriented entertainment and exclusively "Christian music" but it would be great if there were some more non-compromising Christians in the world of entertainment who were offering quality and edifying entertainment that would appeal to a bigger audience than just the already converted. The problem is that it is a very tough enviornment to break into it and very tough to stand firm in ones values. I know some Christians who have half made it in film, theatre and music and most of them got too caught up in the worldly side of things. But it doesn't have to be this way. It would make a world of difference if there were more talented Christians in the entertainment business who were putting out quality (rather than the sub-par stuff normally associated with most Christian films and even music).

Matt said...

Really disappointing regarding the problems of the Visual Bible folk; I was fortunate to be able to grab a [legal!] VCD for a fraction of what it would have cost in the US (Video CD, as opposed to DVD; still quite widely used in Asia).

As for One Night..., I'm disappointed to hear of its flaws, but I think the curve still seems to be on an upward incline. It has to have surpassed at least Richard Gere's awful David, or what I have personally considered the ultimate nadir in "biblical" movie-making, the almost surreally bad Noah movie with Jon Voight in the title role.



Martin LaBar said...

Thank you so much for your insightful comments on "One Night With the King." Having seen the movie, they ring true. I was expecting to be disappointed about a central, though brief, feature of the story that you did not mention, namely the role of Hathach, as the IMDB cast list did not include him. But there was a Hathach in the movie.

Thanks again. said...

Another good movie is
"The End of the Spear"

I saw it and it was very good. It is out on DVD.

"Facing the Giants" was another good film which I haven't seen. It didn't make it to a lot theaters. I will rent it when it comes out on DVD.