• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Saturday, January 30, 2010

    Anthony Balducci on Year One

    I've just come across a long article on Year One by Anthony Balducci. You have to scroll down whilst he talks about a few other films, but it's the most thorough discussion of the film I've seen so far. Not had time to read it yet, but hopefully will later this week.

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    Tuesday, January 26, 2010

    The Bible: A History, Part 1

    I didn't have time to watch the first instalment of Channel 4's new series The Bible: A History on Sunday, but having just caught it this morning I thought I would post a few initial impressions.

    Overall I thought it was a great start to the series, with Howard Jacobson, a Jewish Atheist who wants to believe, doing a great job with his interviews, and being open about his own, seemingly shifting, perspectives. I'm actually intrigued to know what atheist's are making of this programme. It seemed to me, at least, that Richard Dawkins was given a fair chance to put his case across, but perhaps there are supporters of Dawkins who are crying "foul".

    Christians, however, can have few such complaints. Those from the creationist perspective, whilst obviously disagreeing with most of what the programme had to say, were certainly well represented by Greg Haslam. It's tempting for programme makers to wheel in a nut job to represent 6-day creationists, but Haslam is well thought of within the broader Christian community and comes across well in the interview, even if he failed to persuade either Jacobson or myself.

    There were also interviews with Jewish leaders from across the spectrum. Jonathan Sachs from the more liberal end of the Orthodox Jewish community, and Jacobson's own brother-in-law - a rabbi with firm belief in a 6-day creation.

    Jacobson gives a good platform to the more literal minded believers before moving on to those who take a more symbolic interpretation of the creation stories, and juxtapose that with science and religious belief. John Polkinghorne was particularly interesting in this respect, and clearly gave Jacobson food for thought (although there is always a certain amount of contrivance with all these documentaries, as the journey of the presenter is, in itself, an engaging narrative - like the creation story itself it doesn't have to be 100% as it happen in order for it still to be "true".

    The historical background was also provided in a very accessible, yet sufficiently detailed manner. Again those that hold to Mosaic authorship of Genesis will object, but really only a percentage of evangelical scholars hold to this position (and as these scholars get more specialised the percentage tends to move towards a later date). But in fairly nimble fashion the programme lays out evidence for polytheism relatively late in Israel's history, the exile of the Jews to Babylon and the effect on the Jewish faith, and the reform / development of Jewish faith that took place in that period resulting in a more textual faith.

    There was one excellent quote by Jacobson, explaining why he was uncomfortable with the "new atheists" but I didn't manage to get it down. Perhaps some other time.

    Doug Chaplain has also reviewed the programme.

    Next week it's Rageh Omar looking at the story of Abraham and how it relates to the three Abrahamic faiths.

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    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Jean Simmons (1929-2010)

    I was sorry to hear of the death of Jean Simmons, the actress who had as good a claim as any to the title of "queen of the epic film". Her most famous role is perhaps playing Mrs Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick's pre-Christ Roman epic, but she also featured in two other Roman-Christian films Androcles and the Lion and The Robe. But aside from these forays into ancient history she often seemed to find herself playing pious women. In Guys and Dolls she played a Salvation Army missionary, in Elmer Gantry she starred as revivalist Sister Sharon Falconer, and whilst her role in Big Country is not explicitly religious, her morality, would certainly have been interpreted as such at the time. I've not yet seen Black Narcissus, but it too centres on religious women (though Simmons is not one of them, initially at least).

    Babington and Evans make some interesting remarks about Simmons. In their view, at the heart of the biblical epic is a tension between morality and sexuality - hence why they consider Victor Mature, and not Heston, the name "indelibly linked with the Biblical Epic", Heston is just too pure - and Simmons was a particularly strong example of this tension.1 Whilst her attractiveness and sexuality were always apparent, an undoubtedly strong morality seemed to run through the majority of her roles.

    For all her biblical movies, the film of hers I hold dearest is Big Country - the only time she ever teamed up with Charlton Heston (who had starred in a Bible film or two himself). It's one of my favourite westerns. The magnificent landscapes live up to the billing (even if the script's self-referential nods to the title get a bit much), and the story and the performances are magnificent. And that fight scene...

    Ultimately, it seems to me at least, Simmons suffered a little for her similarity to Audrey Hepburn. Simmons was there first of course - Black Narcissus was 1947 and it was already her tenth film - but somehow Hepburn had more star appeal. The result however was that Simmons continued to have a successful career even as she got older. She starred on stage in Sondheim's A Little Night Music, and in a steady flow of TV roles. She was still working in 2004 (aged 75) when she provided the voice of Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle - a role significant enough to mean that many news outlets reporting her death have described her as Howl's Moving Castle actress Jean Simmons.

    Simmons was married twice (to Stewart Granger and director Richard Brooks) and had two daughters - Tracy Granger (b.1957) and Kate Brooks (b.1961). She was awarded an OBE in 2003.

    1 - Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, "Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema", Manchester University Press ND, 1993, p.227

    Friday, January 22, 2010

    Bible Films Blog Review of 2009

    2009 was the year of the Old Testament. Whilst rumours of forthcoming Jesus films came and went, this year was all about his ancestors.

    The biggest Old Testament film of the year was Year One. Harold Ramis's comedy had a good number of laughs, and made a few interesting points, and whilst the gross-out factor was always going to feature strongly, it seemed a little more reigned in than previous outings by various members of the cast and crew. I really meant to write more about this film than I did, but unfortunately it came at the busiest part of the year for me, and I didn't get a review copy to be able to re-watch certain parts. I did get it on DVD for Christmas so maybe I'll write more this year.

    Year One wasn't the only film released in 2009 that used large chunks of Genesis for it's laughs. August saw the release of The God Complex. I owe the filmmakers a review here, but I'm not sure they're going to want to read it. I'd expected quite a bit from the film, and whilst there are certainly a few good gags early on, they peter out until all that's left is an anti-theistic rant. I'd certainly expected this to offend some, but I'd at least hoped for a good laugh. I guess it just wasn't my humour.

    One of the characters to feature in The God Complex was Job and an modern take on his story was explored in A Serious Man. I'm a fan of the Coen Brothers anyway, so their most Biblical film to date has given me plenty to think about, and I hope to see it do well at this year's Oscars.

    Modernised versions of Old Testament stories featured on the small screen this year as well. Kings attempted to modernise the story of David and Saul, but hit trouble early on, and in the end took a mid season break of several months before being allowed to run it's course. Whilst it managed to form a small but solid fan base, most reviews were only so-so, and viewing figures never matched up. 2009 was definitely the year of me not getting sent screeners, but this was the most annoying. NBC didn't send me a preview disc because I wasn't resident in the US. You guys do get what that WWW bit means don't you? So it bombed, and if the DVD price ever drops enough I might fork out and buy a copy, but I suspect it will be a while until I review it.

    Lastly there was also Tutta Colpa Di Giuda(It's All Judas' Fault) about a passion play being performed inside a prison with a Jesus of Montreal-esque double meaning.

    2009 also saw a number of Bible films released on DVD. Jesus the Christ was a new film mashed together from bits of the Visual Bible's , Gospel of Matthew. Johnny Got his Gun was a filmed version of a new stage production of the novel. There was also a special edition DVD release of The Robe as well as DVD releases for Kings and Year One.

    There was only one new book written on the subject of Bible films. Pamela Grace's "The Religious Film" looked at how a number of Bible films compared to the characteristics of hagiopics. But the year also saw a reprint of Bruce Babington and Peter Evans' classic "Biblical Epics". And on the subject of books, a couple of chapters I wrote several years ago finally saw the light in Lee and Baz's Cut to the Chase 0.5.

    As for miscellanaous highlights, the stand out event of the year was the Ancient World in Silent Cinema day, which screened a number of rare early silent Bible films. I've written a number of reviews for these films, but still have a few to attend to, if I can ever find my notes again. There was also the inaugural SBL consultation on The Bible in Film and the Reel Religion memorabilia exhibition at MoBiA. Also in this section are Ben Hur's enduring adaptability finding expression in a stageshow and on the radio.

    On a more personal note, highlights for me this year included, my talks at Greenbelt (download mp3) and Regents Theological College, as well as being interviewed by Premier Radio and TWR radio.

    2010 may produce a Jesus film or three, although I wouldn't be shocked if none of those lined up actually appear, and rumour has it that the BBC/HBO version of The Passion (although it may be under a different name).

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    V. Henry T. Nguyen on Jesus Films

    Apologies to Henry Nguyen for taking so long to post this! Henry has a paper titled "The Quest for the Cinematic Jesus: Scholarly Explorations in Jesus Films" in the current edition of Currents in Biblical Research [Vol. 8 (2010) pp. 183–2006].

    You do have to pay to view it (unless your institution is already registered), but it's an interesting overview of the study of Jesus films thus far. Here's the abstract:
    This article looks at an emerging research trend in biblical studies: Jesus and film. Within the past two decades, New Testament scholars have been attracted to the numerous films about Jesus not merely as a source of illustrations, but as an avenue to interpret the New Testament Gospels—or as Larry Kreitzer proposes, ‘reversing the hermeneutical flow’. With a growing interest in this new discipline to the task of biblical interpretation, it has become an accepted critical approach to the study of Jesus and the Gospels. This article surveys some various ways in which scholars have explored Jesus films, such as with a view to provide refreshing insights into difficult scholarly issues (e.g. the Synoptic problem). Furthermore, the article examines how scholars have begun in recent years to function as critics of controversial Jesus films and also as consultants for new film projects.
    I'll add this to my sidebar when I make some long overdue changes in a little while.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    Resurrection Comes Back to Life

    See what I did there? It's been three years since I heard anything about the supposed sequel to The Passion of the Christ, Resurrection. There were so many people claiming to be making films in that period after The Passion but few seemed to have survived the credit crunch. However, according to Variety, Resurrection may be one of them

    The first thing to note is that the film now has the longer title of The Resurrection of the Christ - which, I guess, will reinforce it's claim to be the sequel to Gibson's massive hit. Having said that this may not be anything to do with the film I discussed the day after my daughter was born (who is sitting beside me now chatting away). That film had Sony behind it, and none of the names seem to match those connected with this latest release.

    According to Varirty, Indie producer Bill McKay will start the 10-week shoot in July in Israel, Morocco and Europe. Surprisingly much of the $20 million production costs have come from the UK. Also involved are writer Dan Gordan (The Hurricane), director Jonas McCord and executive producer J. David Williams. Willioams was behind the relatively successful The Omega Code back in 1999. The plan is for an Easter 2011 release, with Samuel Goldwyn Films.

    There's one particular part of the Variety piece that got me thinking. The film will apparently have:
    a focus on the power, greed and ambition of those involved in the crucifixion -- Pontius Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas and Judas. "It's as much about the key players as it is about Jesus," McKay said. "We want to bring in the 'Gladiator' dimension of the first century against the political milieu of the time."

    McKay asserts that "Resurrection" will remain faithful to Biblical and historical records.
    As Peter Chattaway there's a more than a suggestion that the film is going to look at the crucifixion as well as the resurrection which is interesting given that this is meant to be the sequel to a film which has already looked at this part of the story in great detail. It's possible that the filmmakers feel they have to stretch the source material to cover a full-length movie script. That said, in Matthew's Gospel, Pilate and Caiaphas feature after the empty tomb is discussed, but Herod doesn't and Judas is supposedly dead by this point, so it looks like some kind of backstory will feature here.

    Interestingly, the claim that the film "will remain faithful to Biblical and historical records" (emphasis mine) also points in this direction because, aside from the existence of the church, the only real historical evidence we have about the resurrection is Biblical. And note how it says "faithful to" rather than anything more specific. I guess this reflects that there are some minor contradictions between the resurrection accounts (numbers of women and shining men for example) which could be labouriously harmonised into one account but will probably just result in one account being preferred over another.

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    Monday, January 18, 2010

    Start Date for The Bible: A History

    According to Channel 4's website for The Bible: A History, the first in the series is going to air at 7pm on Sunday 24th January, with a repeat at 4am on Friday 29th January. The opening instalment is Howard Jacobson's look at creation, and there more on that episode on the website.

    I assume that this programme is then going to go out weekly, in order such that Anne Widdecombe's take on The Ten Commandments will air on the 31st January.

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    Review of Book of Eli at ReJesus

    My review of The Book of Eli is up at rejesus.

    There are a few things that I didn't manage to say in that piece. One is that, despite its weaknesses, I did kind of like it. I think that comes across, but sometimes it's good to be explicit. I'm not sure how well it will work out on DVD, where the imagery will be less impressive making the problems all the more apparent, but I like its sense of giving homage to the enduring importance of the Bible.

    One of the things that adds to this sense of the film as a fable is the violence in the film. From the trailer this looks very much like it will be Eli as an avenging angel, but actually, in the film itself, there are only 4 moments of violence (the confrontation with the bandits under the bridge, the fight in the bar, the gun-fight outside the bar, and the shoot-out in the house). I suppose you could add a few minor moments to that (killing the cat at the start, the attack of the woman which Eli opts out of, and the killing of the men attempting to rape the girl - but these are really only the briefest moments). Of these, the opening one, filmed in a long shot which captures the action via silhouettes underneath a bridge, is particularly striking, not just because it looks so incredible, but because it distances the audience from proceedings, and heightens it's artificialness - adding to that dreamy quality.

    I also thought it was interesting the clues there are to the fact that [highlight to see spoiler]Eli is blind. The glasses are, with hindsight (pardon the pun) an obvious double bluff, as is the general demeanour. But other things throw you off this as well - not always in a way that's fair (see for example the above image in which he doesn't have milky eyes). But there's also the way that Eli handles the Bible, his heightened sense of hearing and lots more that I'd spot on a second viewing. In any case, this final revelation suggests increases the sense that this is not a film set in the real world, but a fantasy fable told to make it's point about the importance of the Bible.

    Finally, the film's handling of the Bible is rather odd. Firstly the central plot device - that the Bible has been erased save this one copy - is patently absurd (in the real world at least). Burning every copy of a given text has frequently proved impossible in the past - when the task would have been so much easier. Now, or at some point in the future it would be nigh on impossible. Aside from the millions of copies, in hundreds of languages (and this is a very American-centric movie), there's also the numerous quotations and citations in numerous other works (and of course most of these have a handy referencing system which would make reconstruction even easier) not to mention other formats such as the bible on tape, CD, and, of course, film.

    Following on from that, the Bible was not a book to appear out of the sky in isolation, but something that was, in part a product of the church, and is, some would argue, best interpreted by the church. I'm a little less certain on that second point, but certainly the decision as to which books etc. became part of the New Testament was a decision made by the church, and not just a bunch of church leaders, but in all of those who had a hand in promoting, using, venerating those works over a few hundred years so that they were the books that came into contention for selection.

    And of course what we see at the end of the film is that The librarians already have a copy of the Tanakh, so the Old Testament is pretty much covered. So really Eli's job has just been to protect the New Testament.

    I owe some of those thoughts to Peter Chattaway, from a discussion a group of us are having at Arts and Faith.

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    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    Anno Domini XXXIII (2008):
    The Maltese Jesus Film

    Many thanks to Thomas Langkau for letting me know about this. Back in 2008, at the same time as the BBC were airing their version of The Passion a team from Melvin Studios in Malta were crafting their version of the greatest story ever told.

    Anno Domini XXXIII is a "wholly Maltese production" with a cast of over 400 according to The Times of Malta (see also here).

    The film was written by Renzo Bonello who also directed the film (along with Melvin Schembri and Christopher Cassarby). Rennie Schembri plays the lead role in a cast also featuring Mario Camilleri, Maria Cassar Inguanez, Jolene Micallef and Jonathan McCay. Bonello and Schembri are quoted at length in the Times of Malta article.

    The film's biggest expense however was the soundtrack. Ray Sciberras's score was performed by the 66 piece Bulgarian Philharmonic Orchestra and a 40-strong choir.

    There's a trailer for the film on YouTube and a further article at di-ve.com.

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    Visual Bible's Gospel of Mark

    Mark Goodacre has raised the spectre of the Visual Bible's Gospel of Mark film. For those unaware a this film, it was due to be the next film by the makers of the 90s' Gospel of Matthew and Acts and 2003's Gospel of John before the latter film unfortunately came off second in a box office clash with you know what. Mark (Goodacre not the apostle) has been very good at following this story in the past - his earlier posts on the film are at this link - which had pretty much died before I even got started here.

    However, an old teaser trailer for the film has resurfaced on YouTube. As Mark indicates, all that's really new is Chris Plummer voiceover (the rest is either from John or stock footage). What makes it newsworthy though is that the director of John, Philip Saville who was also lined up to direct this, has apparently responded to an email from the person who posted the trailer. He mainly confirms that the project isn't going ahead, but there's a note of hope which suggests that Saville, at least, still wants to make the project a reality. But I very much doubt it will take place under the Visual Bible label.

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    Thursday, January 07, 2010

    Alex von Tunzelmann on Prince of Egypt and Greatest Story Ever Told

    I've mentioned before Alex von Tunzelmann's hugely enjoyable Guardian series Reel History. (In fact, I may as well give it its own label). Well, as with last Christmas she celebrated the festive season by review two Bible films - The Prince of Egypt and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

    She's a bigger fan of Prince of Egypt (Entertainment grade: A– to Greatest Story's E), but ranks the Jesus epic higher in terms of it's history (C as compared to the Moses film's D). As ever they are written in style that manages to be light-hearted, perceptive, history geeky and enjoyable all in one go. Take for example her shrewd take on the depiciton of Mircales in Greatest Story:
    Lazarus is raised from the dead in long shot, so you can't really see what's going on. The feeding of the 5,000 and turning water into wine are mentioned, but not shown. "The next thing we know, they'll be calling him the Messiah," complains a Jewish leader. "And that's not all." "What else?" asks Pontius Pilate. "He walked on water." "Get out!" Historically speaking, this is fine: there's no independent evidence for any of the miracles. Cinematically, it's more of a problem. If the director was concerned about excluding the sceptical audience, you've got to wonder why he picked this subject. Because, if you don't go in for God, this is just three hours of the musings of a first-century Middle Eastern hippie. A few whizz-bang moments would really have livened things up.
    These are two films which have been criminally under-discussed by this blog. The Prince of Egypt didn't even have it's own label until just now. The Greatest Story Ever Told does, but there's precious little there except my podcast review.

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    Wednesday, January 06, 2010

    More on Birdsong

    It was disappointing not to catch Albert Serra's El Cant Dels Ocells (Birdsong) anywhere last Christmas, and a further disappointment was in store when I tried to get a copy of the film on DVD for this Christmas. Sadly, despite rave reviews, the film has only had very limited distribution.

    But seeing as it's Epiphany today, I thought it would be fitting to link to a couple of pieces on the film that might be of interest.

    First up, there is a review of the film over at Cinema Scope. Then there is also an interesting interview with Serra by Senses of Cinema's Darren Hughes. Hope they ease the disappointment of taking down the Christmas decorations.

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    Helen Bond, Gerry Adams & Jesus

    Channel 4's website for their early 2009 series The Bible: A History still isn't telling us when the series will start. Meanwhile, over at The Bible and Interpretation blog, Helen Bond discusses her experiences on the series in her role as Gerry Adams' mentor during his trip to the Holy Land. She concludes:
    Gerry’s background helped to illuminate for me certain aspects of Jesus’ life in a way that discussions with academics often has not. I’m not advocating giving up reading scholarly work, but true diversity of participation in Jesus studies involves discussion with a far greater variety of perspectives than are currently heard.
    It's a fascinating piece and one I'd recommend reading even if you won't be able to watch the series.

    Thanks to Mark Goodacre for the highlighting this.

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    Tuesday, January 05, 2010

    Not the Messiah on iPlayer

    I've just discovered that Eric Idle's oratorio Not the Messiah (based on Monty Python's Life of Brian) played on BBC Radio 3 on Friday Morning and is, therefore, available to listen to on iPlayer until this Friday. It's a bit bizarre really because Mark Goodacre tweeted that he was listening to it earlier in the day, but I assumed that he had bought it on CD or something. Then coincidentally I happen to look (for the first time ever) at what's playing on radio 3's iPlayer channel and there it is. So I'm off to listen to it now.

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    El Discipulo - Jesus as a Zealot

    Many thanks to George for not only tipping me off about this one, but also sending me a reminder.

    El Discípulo (The Disciple) is a new Jesus film from Spanish film director (and founder of Ircania Productions) Emilio Ruiz Barrachina which will portray Jesus as a zealot. The project debuted at the Malaga Film Festival last April. Antonio Piñero, Professor of New Testament Philology at the Complutense University of Madrid has acted as one of the film's consultants and Joel West is playing Jesus.

    The film's website includes the following synopsis:
    In his childhood Jesus witnesses the death of his father Joseph in a confrontation with Romans military troups. Years later, he becomes the favorite disciple of John the baptist, leader of a group of Macabee that anounces the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, in which the Romans would be expelled.

    When John the baptist is beheaded, Jesus reorganizes the group in order to assault Jerusalem's temple. Following the same facts depicted in the gospels, they will be portrayed in a very different way. This project is based upon the latest studies and will set the story in a feaseble historic context.
    Like many Jesus films, Barrachina wanted to portray Jesus from a historical perspective, but he apparently leaves aside the religious dimension of his life depicting Jesus as part of the zealot movement.

    The website also includes a list of cast and crew, a selection of movie stills, details of an accompanying documentary Jesus 2.0. There's also a "research line refined by remarkable experts" which gives an extended introduction to the film and claims that more than 300 experts since 1768 have supported such an idea.

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    Monday, January 04, 2010

    Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic

    Arguably the pick of the Christmas telly over here in the UK was a screening of TCM's 2004 documentary Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic. At around two and a half hours Kevin Brownlow's tale of DeMille's life could have been as overblown and drudging as some of DeMille's films, but actually the time flew by. That's always a good indicator of the quality of a documentary, but anyone still unconvinced only has to look at some of the interviewees to be reassured. The talking heads for the programme were a mix of new and archive footage. The new footage featured Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese (both fans to a certain extent), DeMille's grandaughter Cecilia, and a much used contribution from Robert Birchard. I imagine it takes a great deal of effort to get to interview Hollywood's two most iconic and well known directors, but Brownlow gets the most out of them: there's not too much gushing, a good number of perceptive remarks, and the clips never damage the film's pacing.

    The archive footage is drawn from over 60 years (the dates of the earliest snippets are hard to ascertain), but includes bits of interviews from several members of his family, not to mention the man himself. There were also clips from various members of his casts and crews, including Angela Lansbury, Charlton Heston and Gloria Swanson.

    There are also numerous clips from the films themselves. Many of these seemed to have been colour tinted at some stage, which was a little strange when those parts of the film are only in black and white in the DVDs in my possession. Most notably the parting of the Red Sea scene from DeMille's first Ten Commandments. The sea itself was tinted blue, whereas the Israelite's reaction scenes where sepia. I'm not sure whether this is simply a different print, or something TCM did themselves, but I did kind of like it. As there are already two versions of the 1923 film (with and without a coloured exodus scene), I wouldn't been surprised if this was original, but then the colour did seem rather bold, and I don't recall reading of DeMille colour tinting before in spite of him pioneering with technicolour.

    Anyway I found a few interesting new revelations and watching this overview of DeMille's life in one swoop gives a more immediate perspective than reading a more detailed version (like Birchard's) over a longer time period.

    Incidentally you can see a trailer for this documentary from the site previewing it's appearance at 2007's San Francisco International Film Festival.

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    Catching up with Messages

    Thanks to everyone who has left a comment or emailed me over the Christmas period. I usually don't get to my email and blogging duties much over the Christmas period and this year has been no exception, so sorry I haven't replied yet. I aim to work my way through the backlog at some point this week. Thanks for contributing, and all the best for the coming year.

    Saturday, January 02, 2010

    Dr Jim's Slinky Bible Babes, Part II

    Well Happy New Year and I hope everyone had a good Christmas.

    There's no sign of Tyler William's Biblical Studies Carnival 49 over at Codex yet, so in the meantime I'm linking to Jim Linville's alternative carnival Slinky Bible Babes, Part II. This time around Jim 'checks out', Ruth, Esther, Mary Magdalene, Sarah, Rebecca, the Queen of Heaven and the Whore of Babylon. As with part 1 there are some kind words about this blog which are much appreciated thanks Jim.

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