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Swords, Sandals, Scripture

King David
Erik Heinila

A Forehead of His Time: Leonard Nimoy (standing) communes with Jonathan Pryce in TV's "King David."

Why is Ted Turner turning the Bible into television movies?

By Zack Stentz

IN MARIO PUZO'S latest Mafia novel (soon to be a May sweeps miniseries), The Last Don, much of the action revolves around organized crime's efforts to infiltrate Hollywood and control the making of a new biblical epic.

"Ridiculous," sniffed the critics, marveling at how out of touch Puzo had become with the workings of the film industry. "Who makes biblical epics anymore?"

Ted Turner, of all people. The CNN/Superstation mogul­cum­ Time Warner vice president seems to be going through the major characters of the Old Testament one by one (Abraham, Moses, Solomon and Sheba, Samson and Delilah, and, this week, King David--who's next? Onan?) in an effort to live up to TNT's boast of being "the best movie studio on television."

As necessitated by small-screen limits and basic-cable budget constraints, these latest films aren't quite up to Cecil B. DeMilleian levels, but they're handsome productions nonetheless. Boasting respectable second-tier actors such as Elizabeth Hurley as Delilah, Dennis Hopper as a Canaanite general and now Leonard Nimoy as Samuel (who unfortunately doesn't perform a Vulcan mind-meld on David), the films have also used genuine Middle Eastern locations to add the verisimilitude missing when Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea on the Universal back lot.

But putting aside the vaguely blasphemous pleasure of watching television's cutest dead girl, Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks), play proto-sexpot Bathsheba, the question remains: Why is Ted Turner doing it? Is there really an untapped market out there hungering to watch Mr. Spock and Laura Palmer reenact a story dimly remembered from Sunday school or Temple?

ACTUALLY, there does exist a ready explanation for Ted Turner's unlimited appetite for swords, sandals and scripture: political cover. This is, after all, the guy who commissioned a series of expensive, earnest movies and documentaries on Native Americans (500 Nations, Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee) to mute criticism of his ownership of the Atlanta Braves and the attendant Tomahawk Chop.

In the same vein, might not the Bible movies simply be a pricey sop to the William Bennetts and Pat Robertsons of the world? After all, they have publicly cast aspersions on Ted's patriotism and piety, what with his sponsorship of the Goodwill Games (an answer in the "1980s" Trivial Pursuit supplement if ever there was one), friendship with Fidel Castro, marriage to that bête noire of the Right, Jane Fonda, and public characterization of Christianity as a "loser's religion" at a convention of humanists.

If so, Turner wouldn't be the first media mogul to make an effort to placate political opponents through his programming. Fire-breathing conservative Rupert Murdoch cannily keeps channels open in his English and Aussie Tory newspapers to labor opponents, and his Fox network is responsible for lefty programming of both the implicit (The Simpsons) and the explicit (TV Nation) variety.

Needless to say, Murdoch seems to have gotten the better end of the bargain, both artistically and economically. The biblical epics haven't been ratings bonanzas, even by the anemic standards of basic cable. But TV Nation has found life and profitability through syndication to Comedy Central, and The Simpsons' cultural impact can hardly be overstated, despite the show's merciless baiting of those good Christians, Rev. Lovejoy and the Flanders family (Mrs. Flanders to Marge: "I was off at Bible camp, learning how to be more judgmental").

Bathsheba
Tell Laura We Still Love Her: Sheryl Lee of "Twin Peaks" immortality travels back in time to star as Bathsheba.

Photo by Erik Heinila



THE IRONY, of course, is that there is one way Turner could goose the ratings of his Bible movies: by adhering more closely to the original stories themselves. Sex and violence sell, and there's enough of both in the Old Testament (the Song of Solomon, the prophet Elisha sicking two she-bears on a group of kids who were teasing him) to make Joe Eszterhas cross his legs or Sam Peckinpah cower under his seat.

So here's a proposal for TNT's next epic telepic: Imagine the story of a hero living in a violent, lawless city who takes in some strangers. When a lascivious mob comes along with the intention of restaging their favorite scene from Deliverance with the strangers (who are really heavenly messengers in disguise, just as in Touched by an Angel), the man offers them his virgin daughters instead!

Escaping the city just before its total annihilation (think the first half of Independence Day), the hero loses his wife but finds solace in having sex with and impregnating his own daughters, all with the blessing of God himself.

It's the story of Lot and his daughters, of course, and on the sordidness and savagery scale, it makes Bastard out of Carolina (the telefilm that Turner spiked) look like a pilot for The Barney Bunch.

"Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God," Thomas Paine wrote. "It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind."

It's a pity Paine couldn't be here to see this latest wave of biblical film adaptations. At the very least, he'd be amused at the prospect of having the networks slap them with one of those rarely used new "TV-M (for mature audiences)" ratings. But perhaps that, too, is all in Ted Turner's master plan.


David, Part 1, airs April 6 at 5, 7 and 9pm; Part 2 airs April 9 at 5, 7 and 9pm on TNT.

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From the April 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro

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