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Faith and Film - The Music and The Meaning


Faith and Film Music - The Music and The Meaning

Charleton Heston as Judah Ben HurOne of my first experiences with film music came as an adolescent, when I discovered my father's original soundtrack of from BEN HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST on LP. I remember opening the box-set of records and somehow knew that these were special. I blew the few dust particles that found there way onto one of the records (as I had seen my father do to other records many times before), placed it down on the record player and then gently dropped the needle down. I remember some triumphant fanfare bolting out of our hi-fi...and...I was instantly repulsed and thought, "Why would anyone buy a record of this?" I put the record back quickly and joyfully dove back into my Saturday morning cartoons. Despite my innocent dismissal of this classic score, something had subconsciously been planted that morning. A number of years later, I would recall that record set being stored away and, taking a break from recording mixes of my favorite 12 inch singles for a bit, decided it would be a good idea to preserve these records on my new-fangled metal cassette tapes. I blew the dust off them again and then went about recording each side of each record...making sure I had all the proper dolby switches turned on for my serious archival work. Fast forward 20 years and I don't know what ever happened to those heavy cassettes, but I still have those records.

Of course, The Bible!

There it sits on many-a nightstand . . .just as dusty as my father's old Ben Hur records. At least one Bible probably sits on the shelf of every screenplay author or studio executive in Hollywood. The Bible, of course, makes a great deal of sense as movie-material. It is veritable treasure trove, ranging from epic stories to intimate tales of relationship. Many of these story-seeds are full of the two magic Hollywood ingredients: sex and violence. Further, the Bible is public domain, so no royalties, no contracts, no one has to pay a thing for portraying any of these tales in whatever manner they so choose (or will they?). So too have composers benefited from such material. What a platform from which to unleash an orchestra for an epic confrontation or divine miracle! And that is exactly what composers did and continue to do.

The Divine Opportunity

The 1950's and 60's were the heyday of the biblical epic, producing some of the most expansive and memorable film scores of the era; however, as social attitudes and practices changed...along with censorship, so did the type of biblical film being produced. While the stories from the Torah or Old Testament gave plenty of opportunity for Hollywood to go crazy with their budgets, the principle story of the New Testament, that of Jesus Christ, could be considered less "epic" in nature (from a studio's point of view) and so many of the films based on his life have been considerably different. Not that the studios didn't try. Both KING OF KINGS and THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD were large films centered on the life of Christ. Each of these films were also initial failures, both critically and at the box office. The culture was changing and so the type of biblical movie and accompanying score would change along with it.

The 1970's and 1980's were beyond the era of the epics and the focus completed its shift to the life of Jesus and the "end times." JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, JESUS OF NAZARETH (the mini-series), and Martin Scorcese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST were rare successful productions. While each of these garnered a good share of award nominations, including an Oscar nom for JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR for best music, each also drummed up their own bit of controversy and studios began to tail away from the subject matter. Still, independently financed films focusing on the "end times" of the world began to increase in number. The most famous of which are from the A THIEF IN THE NIGHT series, which, in three films, interpreted some of the events of the Book of Revelation. While some members of the audience might have been scared into a measure of faith, it certainly wasn't due to those film scores, as they featured some of the most gut-wrenchingly bad film music of all time.

Studio film's based on the Bible all but faded out during the 1990s, but the expanding cable television networks brought new opportunities for smaller-budgeted films and mini-series to be produced. One major exception was the debut project from a brand new major Hollywood studio. Dreamworks SKG's debut feature film was daring on two counts: one, they chose to launch with a animated feature film, and two, they chose the story of the biblical character of Moses. THE PRINCE OF EGYPT successfully launched the studio and also put the first successful epic (albeit an animated one) back on the big screen. The film's score and songs by Hans Zimmer and Steven Schwartz played more than a minor role in the film as the music garnered several awards and nominations.


As we've moved into a new millennium, there seems to have been somewhat of a resurgence of films based on biblical stories. While there have been a number of feature films and TV series that have been well received, the turning point would have to be Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST with its eclectic score by John Debney. Since it's successful release in 2004, the studios have gone into high-gear. There are plans for a number of films in this genre such as RISEN (a story of the first Easter), a new animated film about the TEN COMMANDMENTS, and a film (a la 300) which is to be based on a graphic novel, WAR IN HEAVEN, supposedly chronicling the rebellion of Lucifer.

The Biblical epic may be a thing of yesteryear, but indy-film producers and Hollywood continue to release feature films which center around stories from the Bible. Just one small step back reveals that much of Western society remains enamored with both the light and dark, good and evil sides of religious experience. While it's far easier and cheaper to crank out horror films based on rickety, religio-babble, with increasing frequency, a writer, producer and director will have enough courage to take on a project the retells some of the most widely known stories of Western civilization.

This Tracksounds feature isn't about the tenets of any western religion. It is about the memorable music attached to some of the films connected to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Regardless of one's religious background, it is difficult not to be moved by Rozsa's themes for Jesus Christ in BEN HUR or KING OF KINGS...or by his Esther/Love theme from Ben Hur. How can one not be awe-inspired when Elmer Bernstein's or Hans Zimmer's music plays over the parting of the Red Sea? Neither is this an exhaustive list, but a growing one. As movies of this nature continue to be released and feature noteworthy scores, they will be added to the list below. For now, enjoy the full reviews written by the Tracksounds staff. Some are all new while others have been newly revised. When you're finished reading you too might want to go through some of those old boxes stashed away in the garage, attic, or basement and see what musical treasures might lay beneath a couple layers of dust!


Select Reviews from the Last 50 Years of Film Music


Ben Hur by Miklos Rozsa

Released by Rhino Records (1996)
Rating 10/10

Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995) fashioned a career--and subsequent legend--in film music, by often providing the grandiose score to several productions of epic scope, and while it seems unfair to label him “the John Williams of his time”, that may give some younger readers an idea of the strength and impression of his musical signature. His career as a film composer spanned 70 years, a landmark that few composers have matched. “BEN-HUR” was written in the late middle of his career, already following previous popular “sword-and-sandal” epics of the 1950’s, including “JULIUS CESEAR” and “QUO VADIS”. Already showing that the Biblical epic was a strong genre for film, Rozsa would return again to the genre for 1961’s “KING OF KINGS”, and 1962’s “SODOM AND GOMORRAH.”

Read the full review of Ben Hur


Passion: The Last Temptation of Christ by Peter Gabriel

Released by Geffen Records (2002)
Rating 7/10

Peter Gabriel is more known for his eclectic contributions to pop music and the creative, innovative animated videos that would accompany some of his biggest hits, notably “Sledgehammer” and “Steam”. Gabriel certainly has a more spiritual side to his music, however, and is not afraid to pursuit it, whether or not it is perceived as “popular”, particularly in comparison to his bigger radio hits.

Read the full review of Passion: The Last Temptation of Christ


The Prince of Egypt by Hans Zimmer

Released by Dreamworks Records (1999)
Rating 9/10

No small part of the critical and commercial success of THE PRINCE OF EGYPT was the film's award winning music. A combination of evocative score and inspirational vocal numbers, the soundtrack helps to carve the film's highs and lows and propels the epic story forward. At the same time, the music remains an entertaining stand-alone listen. The score's backbone is forged upon a handful of memorable themes crafted by Schwartz and Zimmer.

Read the full review of The Prince of Egypt


The Prince of Egypt Collectors Edition

Released (1999)
Rating 6/10
This special release found in Wal-Mart's special PRINCE OF EGYPT collectors package, is a great release, despite its feeble six track length. There are two tracks by Hans Zimmer not released on The Prince of Egypt score CD and one vocal track which does appear on the released score. They are two very important pieces and equally enjoyable.

Read the full review of The Prince of Egypt (Collectors Edition)


Jesus (The Epic Mini-Series) by Patrick Williams

Released by Angel Records (2000)
Rating 8/10

In the Spring of 2000, CBS aired its mini-series, JESUS: THE EPIC MINI SERIES, directed by Roger E. Young, who has helmed many other biblical mini-series such as: MOSES, JOSEPH, and SOLOMON. Some 21 million viewers watched this original broadcast and was one of the highest-rated series of the 2000-2001 season. In 2004, in effort to capitalize on the success of Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, the two-hour, second-half was re-aired, but to much less audience interest. The original series, as it aired in 2000, was already trimmed down by 40 minutes compared to the European release. This rendition of the life of Christ covers all of the main beats of the story but ads in a number of contemporary twists...some of which certainly tread the line of orthodoxy and reveal thought-lines that are explored much more fully in films such as THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST or THE DA VINCI CODE.

Read the full review of Jesus (The Epic Mini Series)


The Gospel of John by Jeff Danna

Released by Varese Sarabande (2003)
Rating 6/10

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, is a docudrama of the Easter story. The impression one gets from the film is that it is something you might catch on a History-of-the-Bible television special, perhaps on the Discovery Channel. The score is something that you come to through having seen the film, or possibly by chance. I’ll note here that I happened upon this album in a retail store a couple years ago, merely out of curiosity for the composer’s work, and I purchased it based on the strength of the sound clips that I heard. The clips that I heard included a stirring theme as well as ethnic-flavored wind music, and some female vocals. I’m not certain what made this unique from every other Bible-genre film score written, except that as an enthusiast of film music on the whole, I was intrigued enough to hear what Jeff Danna had to contribute to the genre.

Read the full review of The Gospel of John


The Passion of the Christ by John Debney

Released by Sony Classical (2004)
Rating 8/10

Originally, Mel Gibson considered having the final cut of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST devoid of any subtitles or underscore. But after realizing these elements would help move the story along, he finally decided on John Debney as his composer—an intriguing choice, seeing as how Debney had written more comedy scores than anything else. Many wondered if Debney could handle the dramatic material. As a Catholic, his heart echoed the sentiments of the film’s message, but could he bear the weight of this assignment? Would the burden prove to be too much?

Read the full review of The Passion

Buy These at Amazon

Ben Hur - A Tale of the Christ (Soundtrack) by Miklos Rosza

Passion:  The Last Temptation of Christ (Soundtrack) by Peter Gabriel

The Prince of Egypt (Soundtrack) by Hans Zimmer

The Prince of Egypt (Collectors Edition Soundtrack) by Hans Zimmer

Jesus:  The Epic Mini-series (Soundtrack) by Patrick Williams

The Gospel of John (Soundtrack) by Jeff Danna

The Passion of the Christ (Soundtrack) by John Debney




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