Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films

Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films

Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films

Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films


Lavish musical soundtracks contributed a special grandeur to the new widescreen, stereophonic sound movie experience of postwar biblical epics such as Samson and Delilah, Ben-Hur, and Quo Vadis. In Epic Sound, Stephen C. Meyer shows how music was utilized for various effects, sometimes serving as a vehicle for narrative plot and at times complicating biblical and cinematic interpretation. In this way, the soundscapes of these films reflected the ideological and aesthetic tensions within the genre, and more generally, within postwar American society. By examining key biblical films, Meyer adeptly engages musicology with film studies to explore cinematic interpretations of the Bible during the 1940s through the 1960s.


“It could be that M-G-M’s Quo Vadis will be the last of a cinematic species, the super super-colossal film,” begins Bosley Crowther in his review of Mervyn LeRoy’s 1951 blockbuster.

If so, it should stand as the monument to its unique and perishable type, to an item
of commerce rendered chancy by narrowing markets and rising costs. For here,
in this mammoth exhibition, upon which they say that M-G-M has spent close to
$7,000,000 and which runs for just shy of three hours, is combined a perfection of
spectacle and of hippodrome display with a luxuriance of made-to-order romance
in a measure not previously seen. Here is a staggering combination of cinema bril
liance and sheer banality, of visual excitement and verbal boredom, of historical
pretentiousness and sex.

Crowther continues in a similar manner, analyzing specific scenes and focusing on the performances of the leading actors. Although he has some positive words for Leo Genn’s portrayal of Petronius and for the authentic presence of Finlay Currie as St. Peter, the bulk of the review is sharply critical. “We have a suspicion,” he concludes, “that this picture was not made for the overly sensitive or discriminate. It was made, we suspect, for those who like grandeur and noise—and no punctuation. It will probably be a vast success.”

Known for his urbane sophistication, Crowther was one of the foremost film critics in postwar America. While his review certainly shows his trademark caustic wit, it also illuminates a theme that is central to the reception and interpretation of films such as Quo Vadis and other postwar biblical epics. By any measure, films of this type were enormously successful. Quo Vadis would be the secondhighest-grossing film of 1952, and (according to Variety magazine) biblical epics would be the most popular type of movie in six of the ten years of the 1950s. Yet this popular success was not, for the most part, accompanied by critical praise. the faintly supercilious tone with which Crowther predicts the future popularity of LeRoy’s film was typical of other critics as well. Indeed, this kind of response to the biblical epic was so prevalent that Bruce Babington and Peter Evans, in Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, begin their book-length study of the biblical epic genre with a subsection entitled “Problems of Discourse: Beyond the Valley of the Wisecrack.” the authors rightly point to the ways in . . .

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