Although 83% of Americans identify themselves as Christians, Hollywood has a tendency to keep Bible-inspired films at arms-length, at least within the past 45 years. Rarely, as recently observed, Hollywood knocks out a handful of faith-based movies to whet the appetites of the masses, though few are inspired directly from The Good Book. Perhaps it is due to the faithful’s rampant distaste for poetic liberties taken by the filmmakers (as experienced by outputs like “Noah” and “Son of God”), and perhaps some of these are just bad movies, but for whatever reason, modern Biblical films do not receive the overwhelming embrace and adulation that made their distant predecessors classic Hollywood epics.
All this aside, let’s strip away the visuals and countdown the Top Ten Biblical epic movie soundtracks throughout the artform’s history!
10. ‘Barabbas,’ by Mario Nascimbene (1961)
Mario Nascimbene’s “Barabbas” is very heavy and morose to the point where introspection erupts into gushing extroversion – the tribulations of one man become our own burden to bear. The score borderlines on suspense with thick, heavy-handed drama. And yet, unlike the majority of Biblical epics of the era, the music for “Barabbas” is very minimal, with only a handful of instruments playing in a given cue. It’s a dark, cold, and at times, unforgiving score. Nascimbene also makes use of some early sound design in the percussion work, which adds to the weight carried in the title character’s heart. It is a sobering score to say the very least.
“Barabbas” is currently available at Amazon Digital.
9. ‘Sodom and Gomorrah,’ by Miklós Rózsa (1963)
From the “Overture,” Rózsa clues the audience in on the fact that “Sodom and Gomorrah” is a tragedy (regardless if we are already familiar with the story). The use of severe, unrelenting brass in this score seems like it may have been an early influence on what Basil Poledouris would develop for “Conan the Barbarian.” As well, “Sodom and Gomorrah” may have also served as the template Rózsa himself would call upon for “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad,” nearly a decade later. The strings are scathing, bordering on punishing. And yet, the Persian-styled theming and woodwind-work is among the most elegant in the man’s career. Compositionally, “Sodom and Gomorrah” is quite thrilling in its debaucherous glee and apocalyptic foreshadowing. It is unapologetic and brazen, yet is a total joy as a listening experience, as most Rózsa music tends to be. Sadly, this would be the last epic film score composed by Miklós Rózsa, as he scaled back for the remainder of his career.
8. ‘The Robe,’ by Alfred Newman (1953)
Regarding emotional heft, the soul-searching pressure of “Barabbas” can really only be matched by the introspective intensity of “The Robe.” Musically, “The Robe” kicks off with the glory, strength, and military sure-footedness of the Roman Empire, as exemplified in the character of Marcellus Gallio. Newman weaves through rich, cultural textures, while illuminating Gallio’s emotional journey, which actually begins with “The Crucifixion.” Gallio’s eventual spiritual awakening ultimately comes into conflict with his success and patriotism as a Roman soldier, and the pressure is almost more than the man can bear. As such, Newman’s score becomes heavily contemplative and firmly plants the viewer into Gallio’s sandals. This internal evolution is marked by passionate brass and woodwind interplay, seemingly designed to entice the audience to empathize with a battle that rages within most of us.
“The Robe” is currently available at Amazon Digital.
7. ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told,’ by Alfred Newman (1965)
I challenge anyone to listen to the score for “The Greatest Story Ever Told” without choking up, even a little. While it does not yield the grandeur and over-the-top pageantry of its predecessors, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is among the most moving of scores ever put to film. Taking a gentler, more minimalist approach, Alfred Newman charges each instrument used with a single purpose – to make the audience feel. And the more instruments used in unison, the emotions amplify accordingly. It is humbling and strengthening at once. For all the power harnessed by the score, it never becomes aggressive. It comforts like a loving embrace, perhaps as a reaction to the opulence of 1961’s “King of Kings.” One of the last films ever scores by Newman, it was nominated for Academy Award for Best Original Score.
“The Greatest Story Ever Told” is currently available at Amazon.
6. ‘The Prince of Egypt,’ by Hans Zimmer (1998)
It can be argued that Hans Zimmer is at his most creative and most musical when working in the animated film genre. With that said, he usually brings along a co-composer to flesh out the barrage of inspiration that ultimately springs forth. And “The Prince of Egypt” is no exception, as he brings along Harry Gregson-Williams and songwriter Stephen Schwartz to bring the soundtrack to life. Zimmer’s animated scores are historically more richly-hued and thematically expansive than much of his recent live-action output. And although “The Prince of Egypt” bears the guise of a Disney-like musical, Zimmer brings a sense of period-specific reality and spiritual whimsy to a genre that usually calls for at least a touch of tongue-in-cheekiness. The score is adventurous, enthusiastic, and culturally romantic. And listening to it through the ears of the present, one can deduce the prototyping of what would later become the thematic palette for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score, the legacy of the score to “The Prince of Egypt” was mildly tarnished by a bizarre marketing tactic that involved the simultaneous release of three soundtracks for the film – the country music-inspired “The Prince of Egypt: Nashville,” the gospel-themed “The Prince of Egypt: Inspirational,” and the official soundtrack containing the actual songs and score from the film.
“The Prince of Egypt” is currently available at Amazon.
5. ‘King of Kings,’ by Miklós Rózsa (1961)
In contrast to “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” Rózsa’s “King of Kings” relishes in celebration, hyper drama, and when necessary, poignant militarism. Because of its thematic, instrumental, and emotional similarities, “King of Kings” can be viewed musically as a sort of melodious sequel to Rózsa’s own score for “Ben-Hur,” which was released barely two years prior. Heavily reliant on the string section, Rózsa’s ability to cultivate and feed emotions borders on the magical. The purity of “The Nativity” alone can weaken the knees. Likewise, “The Baptism of Christ” feels almost weightless, but between the notes, an otherworldly strength is resolved. Conversely, he expresses the brutal reality of everyday life in that period with grating, low-end strings and crushing brass (a tact later exploited by Hans Zimmer). The film garnered Rózsa a nomination for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Score. However, sadly, the soundtrack is currently out-of-print.
4. ‘Passion: Music for the Last Temptation of Christ,’ by Peter Gabriel (1988)
If there is one thing you can say about Peter Gabriel as a musician, it is that he is an entity unto himself. From his well-documented flamboyance as the frontman for 1970s progressive rock band Genesis to his rejection of convention when creating Top 40 pop songs in the 1980s, Peter Gabriel has a long history of playing by his own rules. So, when “The Last Temptation of Christ” landed in his lap, he viewed it not only as a challenge for the film industry, but also for himself as a musician, and sculpted what is probably the first Worldbeat film score in existence! Rooted heavily in percussion (the unifying voice of all ancient peoples), melodies are born out of simple, seemingly hand-made brass & wood instruments. And daring to incorporate modern synthesizer work, Gabriel presented an album that transcended space and time. In essence, the album release of “Passion: Music for the Last Temptation of Christ” symbolically and musically unites us all. Not only was the score nominated for a Golden Globe, but the album won a Grammy Award for Best New Age Album!
3. ‘The Ten Commandments,’ by Elmer Bernstein (1956)
Biblical film scoring is often equated to musical storytelling at its peak. Elmer Bernstein was a master of allowing solo instruments and small sections to emote seemingly of their own accord. There is a deeply transcendent essence that flows through this score that charges the listener with an unseen energy. There is no malice, overt hostility, or moroseness to darken or dampen the spirit within the soundtrack. It is as though Bernstein were telling the audience through his music not to dwell in acrimony and that everything happens for a reason. Yes, bad things happen in the film, but they are designed as learning opportunities. Bernstein knew that this film was important, so his music reflects the bigger picture as it were. Although thematically a very traditional, and at times by-the-numbers score, “The Ten Commandments,” to this day, encourages the listener to feel deeply. It is a perfect time capsule of film music from The Golden Age of Hollywood.
2. ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ by John Debney (2004)
Many have cited John Debney’s “The Passion of the Christ” among the greatest of film scores ever composed – Biblical or otherwise. Recognition is also deserving for singer Lisbeth Scott, whose ability to emote through archaic words (and even non-words) is second to none. For a modern film score, it truly sounds ancient. Wholly devoid of the spectacle and majesty wrought by the massive orchestras of days past, Debney plays this score not only of the era but also of the locale. This means that atmosphere develops from simple percussion, impassioned vocals, and homegrown-sounding instrumentation. The music removes the viewer completely from the safety of his/her seat and whisks them away to the gritty landscape of ancient Jerusalem. It’s not joyous music, but it’s not really somber music; it’s a score that forces the audience member to make his own decisions about the events transpiring on-screen. Although a benchmark in film composition, it must be assumed that Debney was inspired by Peter Gabriel’s work for “The Last Temptation of Christ,” even if only tertiarily. As the work commanded, “The Passion of the Christ” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score.
1. ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,’ by Miklós Rózsa (1959)
Probably the most colossal (utilizing the 100-piece MGM Symphony Orchestra over the course of 12 recording sessions), “Ben-Hur” is regarded as the hallmark of Golden Age of Hollywood film scores, incorporating everything including the kitchen sink to tell its spiritually vivid, musical tale. It is one of the rarest of music albums that makes the listener feel like a better person for simply experiencing it. “Ben-Hur” is so uplifting, Rózsa not only sends the audience on a cultural/period journey, but the path is a current of such fluid emotion, that they vicariously become characters in the film. It’s a “Neverending Story” situation, while Judah Ben-Hur is experiencing great triumphs and melancholic tragedies, the audience is standing by his side, feeding off of those same feelings. Using every trick in his magic bag, Rozsa creates a score that it at once contemplative, doomsaying, hopeful, compassionate, and exceptionally glorious. It is no wonder that it was won the Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture and was nominated for a Grammy.
“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” is currently available at Amazon.