I happened to catch a little bit of the premiere of the History Channel’s mini-series The Bible. The glimpses I stole were in between eating lasagna, savoring some tasty pie, playing Taboo and watching Megan open presents, so I cannot pretend my observations are completely valid.
That will not, however, stop me from opining.
As we were waiting to start the game, the story of the two angels visiting Sodom started playing. They meet up with Lot, bloodied and bruised from a narrow escape with a band of thugs. He ushers them (rather reluctantly) into his house and bolts the door. An inadvertent knocking over of a pole alerts the crowd to the strangers within, and they start tearing the door down.
At this point Lot opens the door and demands they leave. After a bit of verbal tussling the angels step forward and remove their outer robes, revealing their heavenly armor- which immediately brings to mind Roman legionnaires. This wardrobe change accomplished, one of them stares down their would-be-attackers, with such a penetrating glance that the mob’s eyes begin to bleed.
Not too bad of a start.
Fireballs begin falling from the sky and landing in the streets; nevertheless, the mob still presses in to attack the angels. One of them escorts Lot and family out of the city, while another serves as a distraction. Amidst raining fire and shaking ground he runs into a corner, seemingly out of options.
And then The Bible jumps the shark.
The camera moves directly behind him, and with shout-outs to every recent kung-fu epic, he slowly draws two swords and turns around menacingly. Undeterred by the burning city and the shrieks of terror which pervade the air, untrained ruffians with mere pointy sticks decide it will be a wonderful idea to attack the heavily armed and armored man who was able to draw blood with only his steely gaze.
A rather mediocre bit of choreography ensues, with the all too familiar one-against-dozens marital arts/swordplay tropes we have come to expect from every action adventure in near memory.
The other angel eventually makes his way into the fray, so that there are now two extremely agile armored killing machines hacking down the poorly equipped populace of Sodom. Once there are no more bodies to flay, the angels declare that the city is safe to leave.
If these angels are able to wreck such havoc in only a few minutes, one begins to wonder why the fire from heaven is even necessary.
As Lot and his family are fleeing, Lot’s wife hears someone (who knows who- her daughter, a victim writhing in the grass?) and turns around to see who screamed. Big mistake. This accidental change of direction (maybe she got turned around and disoriented?) turns her into a pillar of salt.
At that point I had had enough, and we were mercifully able to begin a game of Taboo. But as I have thought about it a bit more, I couldn’t help but chuckle.
Bible movies have a terrible reputation for being poorly done. This one has somewhat decent acting, some reasonably well done cinematography, and probably a good score. But I left this scene thinking that in some ways this is actually worse.
After all, the problem most movies about the Bible have is that they are just cheesy. Lower budgets don’t help, but a huge budget isn’t everything. And to be sure, the Bible is not an easy story to tell, especially when one attempts a broad sweeping overview. There is often a lot of nuance that can’t make the transition to film, but with equal frequency there is a converse lack of material, forcing the writers to supply the narrative which keeps it moving.
But in the case of a scene like this, big budgets and special effects and choreographed fight scenes not only do not keep it from being cheesy, but they actually empty the story of its meaning, and therefore of its ability to exude any pathos.
While I will not argue artistic license, the angel fight scenes end up conveying the opposite impression that the text is meant to communicate.
The angels know their power and are unafraid of the men of the city. Rather than begging Lot for a place to stay, they speak of spending the night in the city square. Lot is the one who insists they come to his house. Lot is also the one who tries to play the system in Sodom, offering his daughters to the crowd instead of the strangers. Knowing what he is attempting to do, the crowd rebuffs this rather pathetic attempt at capitulation and begins to advance on Lot.
It is here that the angels act, but their action is that of the same power they exuded before. Rather than resorting to physical blows and swordplay, they are able to blind the crowd without even being next to them. After all, these same angels are the ones who are planning on bringing the fire; blinding is relatively easy.
Their actions are not driven out of desperation for their own safety, but rather in full knowledge of the terrible calamity they are about to bring. Movies obviously have to compress timelines, but in the biblical story Lot has time to go to his sons-in-laws and plead for them to come along. They even have enough time to laugh at his crazy-talk.
The angels are so poised that they eventually have to basically drag Lot and his family out of the city, which is a far cry from a family fleeing from fire that is already raining down from heaven. The theological point is so profound, since even the righteous can get far too comfortable in the presence of evil and find it hard to leave. Yet this deep profundity is exchanged for a mediocre fight scene and little pyrotechnics on the ground.
Lot’s wife makes a wrong turn to see who screamed and becomes a pile of salt. Rather than exploring the potential for why such a thing would occur, one can only conclude that God is some weird kind of petty Medusa. But I suppose the visual effects budget has to be justified somehow.
This probably sums up why most Christian and Bible movies are so bad- we trade depths of mystery for random explosions.
And usually the explosions aren’t that great.