Religious films are almost as old as the very idea of filmmaking itself. The oldest surviving example is Soldiers of the Cross, dating all the way back to 1900. Commissioned by the Salvation Army as part of a multimedia lecture project, it was at one point thought to be the first feature film ever made.
So religious films, and Christian movies, in particular, are inextricable from the development of cinema as an art form. And in the 122 years since Soldiers of the Cross, contemplations of the divine have produced some of the medium’s landmark works.
To grant some perspective on the influence that religion has had on filmmaking, here are only a few examples of some of the best religious films ever made.
1. The Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments is not only one of the best religious epic films ever made, but it’s a verifiable piece of filmmaking history. If you’ve ever seen a depiction of the parting of the Red Sea in another movie or on TV, the filmmakers were very likely paying homage to this 1956 classic.
The last film of Cecil B. DeMille, a legend of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Ten Commandments is, in fact, a remake of DeMille’s own 1923 silent film of the same name. As you might well expect, it tells the story of the Hebrew’s exodus from Egypt.
You of course have Charlton Heston at the height of his powers as Moses, along with Yul Brynner as Pharoah Ramses, Anne Baxter as Nefertiri, and even horror film icon Vincent Price in a small role.
Admittedly, some of the performances verge on camp, especially to modern sensibilities. But it’s nevertheless hard to dismiss the film purely for how iconic it has become.
2. The Prince of Egypt
Before DreamWorks Animation devoted itself to pumping out Shrek and Trolls sequels ad nauseam, they produced arguably one of the greatest animated features of all time.
A pet project of DreamWorks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, The Prince of Egypt provides a more contemporary take on the story of Exodus if The Ten Commandments is a touch dated for your tastes.
More than 600 religion experts were consulted to ensure authenticity in the filmmaking, an investment that would pay dividends when the film turned out to be a box office hit. It would also net an Oscar win for the devotional song When You Believe, which still makes the rounds on religious radio stations from time to time.
It’s also a movie that you don’t have to be shy about letting the little ones watch, either. This is the same studio that brought us Kung Fu Panda, after all, so you rest assured that it never gets too intense for younger viewers.
3. The Seventh Seal
This Ingmar Bergman classic isn’t always thought of as a religious film. This is curious considering the title of the film is itself biblical, coming from the Book of Revelation. And although the movie isn’t a direct adaptation of Revelation, or indeed any other book of scripture, it is a meditation of themes that will be familiar to people of any faith.
Set in Sweden during the time of the Bubonic Plague, the plot of the film centers on a disillusioned knight returning home from the crusades only to find Death waiting for him. Literally, the Grim Reaper is the main antagonist.
Become entrenched in a chess match with the macabre figure, the knight seeks answers about the existence and nature of God, life, and death.
So it may not be the most uplifting film on the list, but instead challenges viewers to contemplate their own relationships to both the mundane and the divine.
4. The Last Temptation of Christ
Martin Scorsese’s epic about the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth continues to provoke as much now as it did in its own time.
Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel of the same name, the film caused a firestorm of controversy upon its release for its unconventional depiction of Christ. Rather than the unimpeachable embodiment of God on Earth, as he’s usually portrayed, this Christ is unsure of his mission. And as the title suggests, he is beset on all sides by temptations that would sway him from his cause.
While many condemned the film for this, others see it as an enlightening rumination on the conflict between transcendent spirituality and world enticements. No matter which side you fall on, it’s a film that’s bound to leave an impression.
5. The Passion of Joan of Arc
It’s a tale you probably know well, even if you haven’t seen the film yourself. Based on the historical record of the trial of Joan of Arc, it tells the story of a peasant girl who would become a national leader, only to perish for refusing to renounce the experience of God.
The original version of this 1928 silent masterpiece was considered lost for many years, with only an incomplete version surviving. It could be called a small miracle that the complete version would eventually turn up in a janitor’s closet of an Oslo mental hospital, of all places.
Whether the film survived through divine intervention or not, count yourself fortunate that a beautifully restored edition is available to us.
6. Contemporary Religious Films
The aforementioned films are all classics in their own right. However, they may not be suitable for all sensibilities. Some may show their age, be too far out there in their presentation, or too controversial in their subject matter.
Fortunately, modern consumers have more options than ever before. If you’re looking for more family-friendly, general audience content that still has strong Christian themes, there are entire production companies devoted to serving that demand.
Pureflix is the clear leader in the field, and in their brief existence has grown to the point that they now run their own streaming service. Whether you’re looking for religious comedy films, inspirational works, or even romance, they’re bound to have something for everyone. For a glimpse at the variety they have one offer, check out some of the best Christian movies on Pureflix.
The Greatest Stories Ever Told
Texts like the Bible aren’t just the foundations of modern-day faiths. They’re also among the oldest surviving examples of epic storytelling and have played an active role in shaping the world for millennia.
So it makes a great deal of sense that religious films would prove as popular as they have.
And these are only a few examples among many. To learn more about key works of cinema, be they religious or secular, new or old, be sure to keep up with our latest entertainment news.