Sometimes the Romans wear too many colors, the courtesans of the 12th century BC. They dress like magazine vedets and the pharaohs loot the tombs of their ancestors to show off their grave goods with pride. It seems like a forgotten chapter of the Apocalypse, but it is what happens if we look at the great classics of religious cinema with a critical eye and a good manual on Costume History. We have done it and we have had a lot of fun. Here is our verdict.
‘King of kings’: a luxury more of a pop star than of the first century
The monumental account of the life of Christ signed in 1961 by Nicholas Ray (yes, the director of Johnny Guitar and Rebel without a cause) he has more than one poetic license, and not just on the narrative plane. Although it is true that dalmatics were common in the first century – a type of tunic with sleeves worn by Roman patricians – the tunics worn by Jesus and his disciples show a suspicious similarity to cassocks, chasubles and dalmatics (they are called the same) of contemporary priests, or with the habits of most of the monastic orders.
However, where King of Kings It becomes an exercise in imagination when it comes to portraying the luxury that surrounds Herod Antipas (it is what we see in the image below). More than a local king under Rome, Antipas looks like a pop star. The leaders at the time wore tunics and outer drapes that could display luxurious colors and ornaments, but they have little to do with this multicolored cloak adorned with geometric motifs, an abundance of jewelry and, above all, a throne that looks like a quite crazy synthesis of motifs. Egyptians, Babylonians and, distantly, Romans.
‘The ten commandments’: what is that gem doing there?
The ten Commandments, by Cecil B. DeMille (1956), is a monumental epic in which very diverse characters, times and settings have a place. Therefore, it is also a perfect space for fabulation. Moses, for example, does wear the usual garments in the Near East: a simple tunic fastened at the waist with a sash or belt, and some simple overlapping garments. Where it fails is to go perhaps too warm – most Egyptians were half naked, or dressed only in very light linen garments, due to the warm climate – and, above all, in the colors. There are too many red and purple garments in their attire, and already at the time those colors were exclusive to the ruling classes or, at least, addicted to luxury, because of their very high cost.
Of course, if something is left over The ten Commandments, it is luxury. You just have to see Yul Brynner playing the pharaoh Ramses (?) Dressed as if he were going to star Pharaoh’s court at the Teatro de la Zarzuela. It must be remembered that, except for funerary pageantry, the Egyptians were an extremely austere people, who wore garments of few colors in simple fabrics – essentially linen – and who reserved all the luxury for the afterlife. That also included the pharaoh, who here, however, seems to have put on all Tutankhamun’s grave goods with the aesthetic criteria of a circus strongman. In her outfit, the fabrics become metallic and the military elements are filled with rhinestones. It is something similar to what happened with Mónica Bellucci’s Cleopatra in Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, but without the pretext of the comic.
‘Ben Hur’: but in Judea they wore loincloths!
Fear not: the myth of his childhood (and that of his father, possibly) comes off pretty well in terms of historical rigor. When it comes to dressing, at least. The movie that raised Charlton Heston, Ben Hur (William Wyder, 1959), respects in general terms the chromaticism of the time (many muted colors) and the garments, although with some exceptions: there are some more sleeves than it should, taking into account that in the poor Roman province of Judea most of the population wore only a loincloth (yes, like the one Ben Hur wears when he is condemned to galleys) or a rectangle of cloth folded in two with a hole for the head.
There are also some colors that do not quite fit, such as the abundance of reds, pinks and violets that we see in the costumes of the scene in the photo and that, remember, were very expensive at the time. A lesser evil, in any case.
‘The sacred tunic’: those colors do not add up to me …
The “Roman” films tend to feature too much armor outside the battlefield, but this also happens in medieval-themed cinema. In The sacred robe (Henry Koster, 1953) there are soldiers dressed as soldiers to walk through the city, garments that are more reminiscent of Istanbul at the beginning of the century than of the Judea of the first century, and, above all, an excess of styling that sometimes weighs too much. Have you noticed that most of the characters in this scene wear colors in the same range?
‘Samson and Delilah’: bras and tight skirts before Christ !?
Seven years before The ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille signed a maddened adaptation of the biblical story of the fearsome Samson (Victor Mature) and the perfidious Delilah, a twisted fatal Woman played by the legendary Hedy Lamarr (who, in addition to being an actress, was an inventor). In Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille, 1949), historiographical rigor does not appear anywhere. Nor is it necessary. Who wants a boring costume history class being able to dress Delilah as an oriental dancer from the early 20th century?
That is what Cecil B. DeMille must have thought, because many of his female protagonists dress exactly like those dancers who danced for tourists in Cairo and who still appear suddenly in any Arab tea shop worth its salt today. In the Mesopotamian culture of the twelfth century BC, in case you had doubts, there were no such bras, nor those skirts fitted to the hips, nor those iridescent and silver embroidered fabrics that Victor Mature wears and that seem directly taken from a bazaar Egyptian. But oriental luxury is oriental luxury, DeMille must have thought. And possibly did very well.
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’: ‘jeans’ and 70s sideburns
Although the biblical epics are a cinematographic genre historically linked to the fifties (year older, year younger), the following decades also wanted to give their own version of events. And they did it their way, of course. The 1960s saw the emergence of a type of religious cinema that, in line with the Second Vatican Council, tried to strip the biblical story of the orientalist tinsel of yesteryear. If there was a new religion, it had to appear so. That is why the apostles of The Gospel according to Matthew (1964), by Pier Paolo Pasolini, dressed like Italian peasants of the time, and that is why the anti-Franco student Enrique Irazoqui, the protagonist of the film, hardly had to alter his appearance to play the role of Jesus.
Something similar happens with the recreation of the life of Francisco de Asís that Franco Zeffirelli filmed in key hippy (Brother Sun, sister Luna, 1972). Also with Jesus Christ Superstarby Norman Jewison (1973). By adapting the rock opera, Jewison transferred the spirit of the story to the film: if the characters sang to the accompaniment of electric guitars, they had to wear jeans, T-shirts and other symbols of the youth of the seventies. The result is eclectic and shocking, but deep down much more coherent than misunderstood historicism.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.