Cinema Judaica: The Epic Cycle (1949–1971)

On View:

April 9 – July 11, 2008


Wednesday, April 9, 2008, 5:30-7:30 PM


6:30 PM Lecture by Ken Sutak, guest curator

Movie PictureGregory Peck as King David…Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments…Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus…Kirk Douglas as Colonel Mickey Marcus in Cast a Giant Shadow… Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca of York in Ivanhoe… Joan Collins as Queen Esther…Ava Gardner as Sarah…and Sophia Loren as the Haganah operative Judith

Hollywood films in the three decades after World War II portrayed 4000 years of Jewish historical identity and, in some of the biggest box office hits of all times, transformed the image of the Jew from embattled to triumphant.

Over one hundred flamboyant posters and bold advertising materials for films ranging from Samson and Delilah and Ben-Hur, to Exodus and Fiddler on the Roof are featured in Cinema Judaica: The Epic Cycle (1947-1971), on view at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum from April 9 through July 11, 2008.

“Hollywood’s depictions of Biblical heroes and love stories, courage in resisting anti-Semitism, and fighting for modern Jewish statehood offered a powerful reflection of the growing self-confidence of American Jewry during these pivotal decades after the Holocaust,” notes Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Director of the HUC-JIR Museum. “These iconic images influenced the positive Jewish self-image of the “boomer generation” and provided a cultural and sociological context for the successful Americanization of the Jewish experience, which we continue to enjoy in our own time.”

Ken Sutak, guest curator and author of a forthcoming book on this subject, explains that “Although Jewish victimization during the Holocaust is explicit or implicit in some of the films about anti-Semitism, the vast majority of the materials presented depict the celluloid heroes and heroines that are stirringly pictured as such in some of the most memorable advertising images ever created. These images originate in the Bible or classic novels that sprang to cinematic life in epic movies, or derive from movies based on historical events such as the Dreyfus Trial, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the State of Israel.”

The exhibition describes how the commercial success of Cecille B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) ushered in two decades of expensively produced ancient historical films, as well as Italian and Spanish “sword and sandal” knock-offs. It details how Ben-Hur capped a record Oscar sweep and a singular citation by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for “promoting the cause of goodwill and understanding among all peoples of the nation.”

The theme of modern anti-Semitism emerged in such 1950s films as The Young Lions and I Accuse (1958), based on the Dreyfus Trial. The exhibition documents the emergence of Holocaust films: The Diary of Ann Frank (1959), Kapo (1960), Conspiracy of Hearts (1960), and The Gold of Rome (1961). The 1961 capture and trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann spurred the production of Operation Eichmann (1961) and Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), while 1965 saw the first theatrical showings of Alan Resnais’s documentary short Night and Fog, Ship of Fools, The Pawnbroker, The Shop on Main Street, and Sandra, leading to The Fixer (1968), The Sorrow and the Pity (1970), and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970).

The exhibition also includes rare posters from films of limited distribution that were produced by Jewish or Israeli filmmakers during this period. Represented are Faithful City (1952), Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955), which introduced Israeli actress Haya Harareet before she costarred with Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur four years later; Israel (1959) created by Exodus author Leon Uris, composer Elmer Bernstein, and narrator Edward G. Robinson; A Story of David (1960), Sallah (1964) starring Topol; and Sinai Commandos (1968), a mission impossible war film.

Read the Catalog

Cinema Judaica: The Epic Cycle, 1950-1972 by Ken Sutak, 192 full-color pages, is illustrated with more than 400 images of Jewish heroines, heroes, and history — from the breathtaking movie poster art of the one generation-long rise and fall of the post-war cycle of spectacular epic films; the sequel to Cinema Judaica: The War Years, 1939-1949; $20; Available from the Dr. Bernard Heller Museum: or 212-824-2218.