Conceptually intriguing if problematically executed, Charlton Heston Presents The Bible was a late-career pet project for the actor known for his religious and historical epics, including larger-than-life roles as Moses, Ben-Hur, and John the Baptist. A combination religious sermon, historical documentary, and one-man show, this four-episode miniseries consists of Heston traveling to biblical landmarks like Bethlehem and the Garden of Gethsemane. These provide historical context and visual aid to his redacted readings from the Bible, often delivered from a 1st century Roman amphitheater just north of Jerusalem. There are four episodes: "Genesis," "The Story of Moses," "Jesus of Nazareth," and "The Passion." "Genesis" runs a bit over an hour while the other three are 47-48 minutes each, and each show gets its own disc.
The big drawback to this series is the manner in which it was shot. It appears to have been photographed in Super 16(mm) with editing and other postproduction work all done on tape, resulting in an extremely poor image that resembles really lousy cable reception. It's very soft and hard on the eyes, especially on big monitors, and all the more unfortunate considering that Tony Westman's (The 4400) original photography seems to have made excellent use of the (mostly) Israeli locations. It's one of those programs that, in this high-def age, would clearly benefit if its owners were to go back to the original film elements and reassemble it like a big jigsaw puzzle, but that the high cost of such a venture would far outweigh the financial return.
The series was a co-production of A&E, Jones Entertainment Group, GoodTimes Home Video Corp., and Heston's own Agamemnon Films. The Internet Movie Database lists this as a late-1997 release in the U.S., but the shows themselves bear 1992 copyright notices, so it may have sat on the shelf for a while. In any case each disc includes the same behind-the-scenes documentary, the only special feature.
Charlton Heston Presents the Bible works on several levels. For Christians the appeal is obvious, especially as viewers get to visit, vicariously, many of the famous religious sites through Heston's eyes, he himself a deeply religious man. The shows also reach a broader audience insofar as Heston's introductions try to put the Bible into historical and cultural context, which is consistently interesting. It's one thing to read about events at the Red Sea, but actually seeing it as it exists today helps make the text come alive. The program also makes extensive and good use of hundreds of famous paintings and sculptures of religious icons.
And there's the pleasure of watching Heston's readings, getting into character as the Devil, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and many others. He introduces himself as a storyteller, and his approach is that of an actor telling famous stories from the Bible in much the same way as anonymous others have passed them down through the centuries. With Heston it's like an intimate one-man show, with all of the advantages and disadvantages that entails. He oozes sincerity and often is very effective, but he also plays everything big and monumental with no let-up, and in the end a little of Heston goes a long way.
The readings are fine but I wish there were more of Heston as Heston, touring the famous sites with the camera filming his unscripted reactions, rather than the slightly pompous ones he reads from cue cards. More than anything Charlton Heston Presents The Bible could have used some humble improvisation like Michael Palin's travelogues.
Video & Audio
As described above, the full frame presentation of Charlton Heston Presents the Bible is flawed, presumably not because of the way it was shot but rather because of the way it was finished on tape rather than film. What the camera shoots is visually interesting but the technology getting it to broadcast is soft and ugly. On big screen TVs the shows look pretty awful though when I referred to it on my computer while writing this review it didn't suffer as badly. The Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack is pleasant, and includes a movie-like score by veteran composer Leonard Rosenman. The region 1 discs have no subtitle or alternate language options.
The only extra is the aforementioned behind-the-scenes documentary, included on each disc. It's okay, more a selling tool than an informative mini-documentary, but it does include much behind-the-scenes production video and includes several decent interviews with the crew.
A special interest title if ever there was one, Charlton Heston Presents the Bible is fairly good for what it is, an interesting late-career project for the late actor and worthy of his specialized talents. Rent It.
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