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'The Light of God's Law': Violence and Metaphysics in the '50s Widescreen Biblical Epic

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image of Biblical Interpretation

The essay offers a reading of two episodes from widescreen biblical epics of the 1950s: Henry Koster's CinemaScope The Robe (Twentieth Century Fox, 1952), the story of the Roman centurion who played dice for Jesus' robe at the foot of the cross, and Cecil B. De Mille's VistaVision The Ten Commandments (Paramount, 1957). Widescreen technology was developed in response to a catastrophic postwar slump in cinema attendance. In this respect, it was extremely successful: by 1960, De Mille's film was top of Variety magazine's all-time grossing list. More important, however, is the fact that it transformed the very nature of the cinema image. This article reassesses the historical and theoretical significance of the '50s biblical epic, and argues not only that the metaphysics of presence it inscribed within the Hollywood frame has not been adequately theorised, but also that its transcendental values anticipate the challenge to poststructuralist thinking that has been gathering momentum in Jacques Derrida's readings of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.

Affiliations: 1: University of Sheffield


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