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(photo credit: Gener8Xion Entertainment)
"'Christian money makes Jewish film' - that's the headline I'd like to see above your article," Matthew Crouch, producer of One Night with the King, suggested in an interview.
The film, based on the Book of Esther from the Purim holiday, "brims with adventure, intrigue, romance and wonder," said Crouch, the son of mega-televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch. "Its vision is to inspire a generation to embrace the destiny God has for them."
Despite its somewhat titillating title, One Night with the King contains nary a hint of sexual abandon or even cleavage, and opened in North American movie theaters on Friday. The drama placed ninth at the US box office over the weekend with estimated ticket sales of $4.3 million.
The movie has aroused considerable advance interest in Hollywood and elsewhere, particularly as a major entry in the burgeoning genre of Christian-produced films aimed at "faith families," including some 75 million evangelists in the United States.
Crouch, one of the pioneers in the field, mortgaged his house to make 1999's Omega Code. Launched without the usual mass-marketing campaign, the film found an astonishingly large audience among churchgoers.
But what really rang Hollywood's bell was the phenomenal box office in 2004 success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. "It took Hollywood a few years to catch up," said Kris Fuhr, vice president of Provident Films, but Passion's $612 million worldwide gross did wonders to speed up the process. Fuhr's own company has just released Facing the Giants, an inspirational film about a small town high school football team whose six-year losing streak is reversed by faith in God.
Jewish organizations by and large haven't weighed in on the rapid growth of the Christian film phenomenon. An exception is Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak of the Los Angeles-based http://www.JewsonFirst.com, who sees the faith films as an encroachment by the Christian right on schools and popular culture.
On the other hand, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, thinks One Night will have a "positive impact" and urges potential Jewish critics to "stop being so prickly."
Lapin, a Seattle-based ally of Christian conservatives, said he was consulted by the filmmakers on whether certain depictions in One Night might upset Jewish sensitivities.
Among other rabbis and Jewish spokesmen, who had seen previews of all or part of the movie, opinions varied on the film's artistic merit. The general consensus was that while the storyline departs in some details from the biblical original, the film provides a positive portrayal of Jews.
Most enthusiastic was Rabbi Harvey Fields, a veteran leader in Los Angeles interfaith relations, who praised the movie as "beautifully done and artistically end emotionally very satisfying."
He lauded the filmmakers for omitting the final portions of Megillat Esther, in which the newly empowered Jews take bloody revenge on their enemies.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he liked the film and "felt comfortable with it."
Foxman, one of the sharpest critics of The Passion of the Christ, said One Night "is not the gospel and it's not a documentary, but I found nothing offensive or troubling."
Most critical was Rabbi Richard Levy, Los Angeles director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College, who described One Night as "a dull movie that has little to do with the Book of Esther."
He strongly objected to a promotional flier attached to preview DVDs, which described Esther as "an orphan minority," but never mentioned her Jewishness.
Crouch, 44, who founded Gener8Xion Entertainment company in 1993, promotes his picture and message with biblical fervor, but still keeps a sense of humor.
At one point in a lengthy interview, he pithily summarized his movie as "Cinderella meets The Lord of the Rings." Later on, he told of his futile attempts to persuade Hollywood moguls to make more pictures reflecting "family values."
"I stood before them like Moses before Pharaoh and said, 'Let my people go to the movies,'" he quipped.
Crouch denied that the film was a subtle means of proselytizing Jews. "The Esther story predates Christ by 500 years, so there is no connection," he said. "This is a life-affirming movie with a message of dignity and love.
One Night was shot at an old majestic palace in Rajasthan, India, and made on a $20 million budget. That's not a great deal by Hollywood blockbuster standards, but the film is the most expensive of Crouch's productions, with an added $6 million for marketing and advertising.
The movie's publicity makes much of "stars" Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif, who get their names above the title - and may lead some to expect a reprisal of their masterful collaboration in Lawrence of Arabia - but it's a bit misleading. Sharif has a substantial through not leading role as an adviser to the king, but O'Toole gets only about 15 seconds of exposure in a prologue as the Prophet Samuel.
The cast includes Luke Goss as Persian King Xerxes (better known as Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther) and John Rhys-Davies as Mordechai. Jewish actor James Callis makes a satisfyingly evil Haman, Tommy Lister is a notable royal eunuch and Israeli actor Jonah Lotan portrays Jesse, a childhood friend of Hadassah, the name of the heroine before she became Esther.