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Early Christianity in the Cinema - The "Sword and Sandal" Film Epic

Summer 2014

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Early Christianity in the Cinema - The “Sword and Sandal” Film Epic

Fabiola In the Acts of the Apostles the travails of the emerging Christian Church in Jerusalem are recounted. With the martyrdom of Saint Stephen prefiguring the persecutions that would ensue throughout the Roman Empire for the next three hundred years, the drama of Christians suffering for their faith has been a theme immortalized in numerous classic films. This art exhibit in Blackfriars Gallery has been composed to complement the Dominican Colloquia in Berkeley, What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Here international movie posters representing some of the most elaborate spectacles in cinema history recall those films that dramatized the conflict between the Greco-Roman classical world and the emerging followers of Jesus Christ whose spilt blood helped transform and convert an entire empire.
Nicknamed “Sword and Sandal” movies for their representation of the ancient world, the genre has remained popular up to the present day. Within this category, the films represented here that focus on the struggle of Christianity in the Classical world include:


QUO VADIS (film versions made in 1902, 1912, 1925, 1951) based on the novel by Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, it recounts the legend of Saint Peter, who, while fleeing Rome to escape the persecution of Christians there by the Emperor Nero, had a vision of Christ walking in the opposite direction. “Where are you going? (Quo vadis?),” asked the apostle. “I am going to Rome,” answered Christ, “to be crucified a second time.” Shamed by his lack of courage, Peter turned around and championed the Christian cause in defiance of the emperor and shared a martyr’s death along with his flock. The Italian poet Gabrielle d’Annunzio was a producer for the 1925 silent version starring Emil Jannings as Nero. MGM’s 1951 version directed by San Francisco born Mervyn LeRoy was the most expensive film ever made up to that date and it proved to be an international blockbuster.

FABIOLA (1948) was an Italian/French production and the first of the post-war film epics. Directed by Allesandro Blassetti it was based on the 19th century novel written by Cardinal Wiseman of Westminster. It told the story of “the Church of the Catacombs” recounting the martyrdoms of saints like Tarcisius, Agnes, and Sebastian. The French actress Michelle Morgan played Fabiola who is revered in history as the first woman to establish a Christian hospital, turning her lavish home into a hospice. The film, however, concentrates on her conversion to Christianity through the influence of her lover (played by Morgan’s actual husband, Henri Vidal) whose faith is tested in the gladiatorial arena.

BARABBAS (1962) based on the novel by Nobel Prize winner, Par Lagerkvist, it was the fictional story of a real person, the biblical rebel Barabbas, who was saved when Christ went to the cross in his place. Considered one of the top ten feature films of 1962, the epic film employed 70,000 extras, incorporated 100 speaking roles, and built 75 sets (one of which restored the old Roman arena in Verona and another that reproduced Jerusalem at the time of Christ). It is noted for its stunning musical soundtrack by Mario Nascimbene.

THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932, re-released in 1944 with a new prologue). Many of the fantastic excesses that came to full flower in religious epics of the 1950s can be traced back to Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille. Of all his films this is the one most associated with subtle and not-so-subtle lurid flourishes that escaped censure because it was marketed as a religious movie. It stars Charles Laughton as the musical pyromaniac, Emperor Nero, and Claudette Colbert plays his wife Poppaea, “the wickedest woman in the world.” The movie was re-released during WWII when the allies were advancing on Rome with a new prologue that cost $100,000. It showed a Protestant and a Catholic Chaplain aboard a B-17 bomber dropping leaflets over the Eternal City as they reminisce about the plight of the early Christians under Nero.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1935) a metaphorical tale representing the collapse of the pagan empire by forces beyond its control, it is the story of a gladiator who meets Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem and watches Jesus carry his cross to Calvary. Later, against the backdrop of an erupting Mount Vesuvius, the gladiator is blessed with a vision of Christ.

THE ROBE (1953) and its sequel DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (1954) were the first features to be filmed in wide screen Cinemascope. Both stories focus on the miraculous effects of the robe worn by Christ and bartered for on Calvary. As the relic is carried to Rome and coveted by the mad Emperor Caligula, it plays an important part in bolstering the faith of converts weary of the decadence and brutality of the empire.

THE SILVER CHALICE (1954) Based on the best-selling novel by Thomas Costain it marked the film debut of the actor Paul Newman. It tells the story of the silversmith who fashions a silver case for the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. He is sold into slavery but escapes with the help of the Evangelist Luke and accepts Christianity through the influence of Joseph of Arimathea. In the film the Apostle Peter confronts and subdues the flamboyant Simon Magus played by Jack Palance.