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Classic Religious-Themed Movies: 5 Movies That Shaped the Genre

By    |   Thursday, 16 Apr 2015 09:17 AM

Often listed in the epic category, classic religious-themed movies carefully walk a high-wire act between depicting history and what religious followers believe happened.

While much of what appears in these films is based on historical writings, eyewitness accounts are limited at best. There are several religious-themed films that enjoy massive popularity even today, with some receiving annual play around the holidays.

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1. "The Robe" (1953)

The 1950s was a popular time for science fiction movies. It was also a time when a number of the best, longest-enduring biblical epic movies were made, including 1953's "The Robe." The film focused on the Roman military tribunal around the time of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The epic, directed by Henry Kosler, starred Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Michael Rennie, and Victor Mature. It is noteworthy as being the first film to be shot in CinemaScope, a groundbreaking way to shoot movies for widescreen theaters. At its release, Time magazine said "The Robe" was "ablaze with Technicolor and alive with romance, action, and Biblical pageantry."

2. "The Ten Commandments" (1956)

Made in 1923 as a silent film by Cecil B. DeMille, who also directed the 1956 version, "The Ten Commandments" tells the tale of Moses from his birth among the Israelites to his banishment from Egypt to his receiving the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai from God. Charlton Heston, who also starred in "Ben-Hur," portrayed Moses. Other stars in the film included Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, Anne Baxter, Yvonne DeCarlo, and John Derek. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won the award for Best Visual Effects. AARP noted that this film "has become to Easter what 'It's a Wonderful Life' is to Christmas."

3. "Ben-Hur" (1959)

Another epic religious drama, the 1959 version of "Ben-Hur" is the third incarnation of the movie, which was also filmed in 1907 and 1925, with another version due in 2016. "Ben-Hur" starred Heston as the title character, Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy prince-turned-slave who seeks vengeance against the Roman commander who enslaved him by competing against him in a chariot race. The film, which also starred Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, and Haya Harareet, was noteworthy for the stunning and realistic photography during the chariot race. AMC Filmsite called the movie "an intelligent, exciting, and dramatic piece of filmmaking unlike so many other vulgar Biblical pageants with Hollywood actors and actresses."

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4. "Elmer Gantry" (1960)


"Elmer Gantry" is the rare religious-themed movie that strayed from telling a Biblical story. Instead, it focused on a con man traveling with a female evangelist from town to town in backwoods America. Evangelism, especially televangelism, was becoming a force in the United States, and the film seemed to offer a warning against the unscrupulous nature of some of these traveling shows. The film, which won three Academy Awards, also starred Jean Simmons, Shirley Jones, and Arthur Kennedy.

5. "King of Kings" (1961)

This tale of the birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is often cited as the best example of movies depicting the life of Christ. "King of Kings" starred Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus and was one of the first movies to be shot in 70mm film, using a process called Technirama.

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Often listed in the epic category, classic religious-themed movies carefully walk a high-wire act between depicting history and what religious followers believe happened. There are several religious-themed films that enjoy massive popularity even today.
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