Book Review: Hollywood Epics

“Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day”

By Richard Lindsay. Praeger. 2015

Reprinted from the July 2016 issue of Visual Parables.

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The subtitle immediately puts the potential reader on notice that this book is not just another survey of Hollywood’s attack on, uh, adaptation of, the Bible for the silver screen. Its author, Dr. Richard Lindsay *, has taken his Ph.D. thesis and transposed it into a very readable text that will lead you to view those old Hollywood epics in a new light. Richard is a member of the LBGT community, so under his guidance I received intriguing insights into films that I thought I knew thoroughly, but really did not. We really do “have eyes that see, but do not perceive,” in this case due to the limitations of our gender preference.

The author covers the films of Cecil B. DeMille—his 1927 King of Kings; The S ign of the Cross; Samson and Delilah; and The Ten Commandments—in great detail, pointing out the director’s ability to mix sex, violence and religion, as well as to convince famous religious leaders to endorse his works. This potent brew draw large audiences, who could enjoy the onscreen debaucheries and violence but never feel guilty because God and the good guys won in the end, even if that end was martyrdom.. Other films that receive their due include Ben Hur; Quo Vadis?; the Robe; Jesus of Montreal; and of course, The Passion of the Christ, as well as the musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ: Superstar.

One of his observations that is especially intriguing is that it is the film version of a Bible story that becomes for many people “Scripture,” even long time church members believing some of the non-Biblical content of a film came from the Bible. That members of the gay community view the spectacles as camp also is of interest, he even using “beefcake” to describe many of the Hollywood stars playing Bible heroes. (In his helpful Index “Beefcake” is one of many intriguing entries, along with “Femme Fatale,” “Kinsey Report,” “Physique Pictorial,” “Queer,” and “Sex Crime Panic.”

Richard is serious about his subject, but still injects some welcome humor into his observations of the homoerotic scenes of so many of the films. The book might have started out as a doctoral thesis, but it is highly readable. Indeed, it is unfortunate that the first reviewer on Amazon.com has written, “Way too much academic jargon, reads like a Queer Theory thesis. Some interesting insights, but probably not for the general reader.” Don’t be put off by this. If he means by the latter a reader of Marvel Comics, he might be right—there are some big words in some of the sentences—but for those of you who have been willing to read through an issue of VP, there will be no real problem.

The 193+ pages (includes lots of End Notes as well as a long Introduction) and numerous photographs are packed with helpful information for anyone planning on showing a Biblical epic. Equipped with the information and insights of the book, you should be able to lead a memorable discussion afterwards. Published by Praeger, a scholarly and professional book company, the book is more expensive than one from a church press. Thus you should consider a purchase as a long-term investment, one that will pay dividends every time you go back to it when showing one of the films explored in its pages. If price is a big problem, then consider going in with a colleague to purchase it. At least, go to Amazon.com where you can read a small portion of the book. I think you will be hooked.

 

*I must disclose that Richard is a friend I met when I began attending Community of Faith Presbyterian Church in Northern KY back in 2001. His parents are active elders in the church there, his mother having served as moderator of the Presbytery of Cincinnati. Both they and the church have stood by Richard as he has struggled the past few years over what to do about a denomination in which he could not be ordained because of his gender. I have looked forward to each Christmas when he and his equally film-loving brother Rob return home so that we can get together over a long brunch to share our experience with films since we last met. I am delighted that his keen cinematic and theological insights are now available to the public.

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