Sunday, March 3, 2013

Is History's Bible Remake Really Cool?

"How cool was that?"
Survivor and Apprentice producer Mark Burnett says that was his reaction as a kid when he first saw Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments on TV.
Specifically he was referring to De Mille's parting of the Red Sea which star Charlton Heston once explained to me was done using great blocks of jello which were then blown up to super size.
So now in the latest TV version of The Bible Burnett gets to part the Red Sea, fill Noah's Arc with thousands of furry friends, plop Daniel in the lions' den and even send Jesus to the crucifixion.
And it's all with a brand of special effects that were not available to past marauders of The Bible.
The results are on display starting Sunday March 3 at 8 p.m. on History.
Co-producer is Burnett's wife, Irish actress Roma Downey who toiled on TV in the hit series Touched By An Angel which for its long run remarkably avoided mentioning the "J" word.
And this TV saga from Burnett and Downey is similarly straddling the fence.
Out is the majestic syntax of the King James version of the Bible.
In its place is the dull (almost prosaic) translation called the New International Version which is favored by evangelical Christians.
Now this isn't the first time TV has attempted such a mammoth undertaking.
Starting in 1994 A&E undertook a four year project called Mysteries Of The Bible with Richard Kiley as narrator and Jean Simmons reading select passages.
Filming was undertaken at the actual sites and as packaged by David Wolper the entire opus ran for years with guest appearances from leading archeologists and even evangelist Jerry Falwell.
Let's just call this latest remake "The Compact Edition" and leave it at that.
In just 10 hours the story fairly whistles by as narrator  Keith David solemnly intones what we are seeing until I longed to tell him to shut up.
The actors are largely unknown but some of them do very well --like Jake Canuso  who is well cast as Daniel although in one of my favorite stories, Daniel in the lions' den, the screeching cats clearly have been printed in and never come into direct eye contact with the hero.
Also in the rto hours I saw Peter Guinness made something of Nebuchadnezzer and Greg Hicks was a solemn Pontius Pilate.
The narrative hops and skips at such a frenzy that one moment we're with Daniel and then plop 500 years have passed and Jesus is born to an extremely youthful and bewildered Joseph and his teen bride Mary.
A few set pieces later and Jesus is all grown up, gets baptized by John and then encounters Satan and a snake in the desert. This Jesus, Diogo Morgado, is perhaps too handsome but his interpretation is all sincerity.
In other words everything is at a fast clip which is the way they do things on reality TV.
The special effects which I've seen only in the fifth and final two-hour installment are, however, special. The siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians is a miracle of CGI and concludes with the spectacle of hundreds of flaming arrows zinging through the night sky to set the city on flame.
There's a lot of violence shown here but very little sex.
For that sort of thing you'll have to rent the DVD of Samson And Delilah produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille who certainly knew how to present that kind of thing.
Production details are often lavish but some key scenes are presented in a strangely pestrian fashion.
Made for $20 million but looking twice as expensive,  TV's latest  Bible remake packs in too much --telling everything from Genesis to the Resurrection in just 10 hours always was a near impossibility.
But it covers most of the major stories albeit in a too hurried fashion.
What is missing is much of the majesty and greatness of the text along the way.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

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