Heavens open in cinemas

IN THE beginning, when silent-film directors looked to the Bible for stories, cinema was a largely formless void. To create the heavens and the Earth, directors such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille turned to 19th-century artists such as John Martin and Thomas Cole for guidance.

With gigantic canvases depicting Old Testament scenes such as the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, Samson destroying the temple of Dagon, and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Martin in particular established a painterly blueprint for cinematic spectacle. Humans dwarfed by magnificent landscapes and classical architecture - preferably crumbling and roiling in firestorms - were Martin's forte.

''The more magnificent, the more awe-inspiring, the better,'' says Father Michael Morris, a professor of religion and the arts at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. ''So these directors went to the art period that excelled in that. That's what made these epics so eye-popping.''

Indeed, DeMille's most famous scene in The Ten Commandments, Moses parting the Red Sea, owes much to Martin's 1830s print The Destruction of Pharaoh's Host. While today not everyone has seen DeMille's monumentally long 1956 film, the scene is indelibly imprinted on our cinematic psyche. What helps secure its iconic status is the image's use on advertising posters. How Hollywood told and marketed those Bible stories is the subject of a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum.

Epic! 100 Years of Film & the Bible is based on the Old Testament section of Morris' personal collection. What began more than 20 years ago as an art-history student's love of cinema has developed into arguably the world's greatest collection of religious film memorabilia. ''Reel religion,'' Morris calls it.

If biblical movies preach the word of God, the poster acts as its herald, he says.

From a secular point of view, these marketing tools - posters, brochures, film stills - reflect varying degrees of artistic merit. Unlike artists, however, the illustrators and designers of poster art remain largely anonymous.

''Like nuns making vestments, they don't sign their names, except for a few Italians and Frenchmen,'' Morris says. ''A work of art that is a 'hawker' for another work of art … was very fascinating to me.''

In a more broad cultural sense, Morris' collection also provides a means to explore theological themes, compare mythic tales and measure artistic licence dispensed in the name of good storytelling. The collection, then, acts very much as a working archive.

''We're trying to bombard students with as much stimulation as possible, so I'm showing them all these wonderful visual images and hopefully some of that will stick,'' he says, pragmatically.

Like the course, the exhibition reveals how regularly Hollywood felt Scripture could be improved upon. Downbeat endings, such as Saul's suicide, can be avoided, while Jezebel's illicit romances can be adjusted for greater dramatic convenience. Epic's succinct panels provide simple religious instruction as to where the new cinematic narratives veer from the Old Testament.

However, if they do deviate from Scripture, Morris is relatively non-judgmental. Kitsch, cinematic travesties by the likes of generally bankable directors such as Robert Aldrich (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962), King Vidor (Solomon and Sheba, 1959) and George Stevens (The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965) are attributable to too-great reverence, Morris suggests. ''The director - who may be a true believer - creates it as if it's written in stone, so it becomes moribund upon delivery,'' he says. ''They become horrible, ungainly things that have no real sense of storytelling.''

By contrast there was DeMille, son of an Anglican minister. ''It took a DeMille early on to say, 'No, this is storytelling. If I have to tweak it a bit and have Moses and Pharaoh childhood buddies or competitors then I'll do it. Or Nefertiti as the lover that has to choose between the two of them, I'll do it,' and it worked,'' Morris says. ''It may be kitschy, but it was entertaining. For the most part, nobody can make an epic like DeMille.''

Equally, Morris's collection of international posters reveals both artistic and kitsch tendencies. ''Americans tend to go for the more sensationalist approach,'' Morris says. ''They are not particularly interested in art. Remember, this is an art form that is supposed to bring people in off the street to see another art form. In other words, the poster is fascinating because it has to do the quick sell. The Europeans saw it as an art form.''

So, while Noah's Ark is the first great disaster film made in the US, the Swedish poster for the film suggests a restrained art deco sensibility in its typography and simple, streamlined shapes.

While keen on the rich European lithography, Australian designs are among Morris's favourites. The Story of Ruth he finds particularly beautiful in its regal understatement. It's a far cry from the treatment an American poster would receive. Solomon and Sheba, for instance, resembles a pulp-comic illustration. Others, such as Sodom and Gomorrah, recall the successful formula employed by DeMille's Ten Commandments - buildings crumbling, fires erupting, people having their way with each other. It borders on the baroque. Type becomes monumental - all the better to illustrate destruction.

''But kitsch is powerful; I wouldn't dismiss it,'' Morris says. ''It needs to be studied and there's a lot of it in the Old Testament movies from the silent and talking era.''

No less than today, audiences were drawn to the on-screen spectacles of sex, violence and disaster. Epic fleshes out the biblical stories by including themes of redemption and righteousness, magnificence and the monumental.

The beginning of the end for religious films occurred in the 1960s. Perhaps it can be attributed to the Big Bang theory: baby boomers bored with ''sword and sandal'' epics and their lashings of piety. The rot set in with a parody, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, starring Mickey Rooney as the Devil. Religious cinema had gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.

A new realism crept into culture. The Italian poster for John Huston's The Bible (1966) reflects this because it uses photography rather than illustration to heighten the inherent drama in the Cain and Abel story. But the film also died.

The religious spectacle had worn thin. It also had competition. Cautionary tales of man's hubris in the wake of the atomic bomb and the Cold War were being unleashed as sci-fi exploitation films. They, in turn, shamelessly borrowed the graphic-design techniques of the once-successful biblical epics. The disaster movies of the '70s would continue the tradition.

Indeed, what better way to heighten the drama than to employ an established meme and place Moses in danger? Charlton Heston appeared in Planet of the Apes, Airport 1975 and Earthquake. The poster for Earthquake, in particular, borrows the religious epic's familiar crumbling titles. The message was clear: even Moses was helpless. He could part the sea, but the earth parted itself.

Epic! 100 Years of Film & the Bible is at the Jewish Museum, 26 Alma Road, St Kilda, until February 3.

This story Heavens open in cinemas first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.