The Messiah at the Movies: Several Classic (and Not-So-Classic) Films About the Life of Christ

For Eastertide: several films about the life of Jesus. There are fewer movies on this subject than you might think given the dominance of the Christian religion in America, but I think a combination of the risk involved and the difficulty in dramatizing events that are ritually restated for many people every Sunday combine to make it a daunting, even prohibitive prospect for many. It takes a special breed to dare it. Here are a few, for better or worse, who did.

From the Manger to the Cross (1912)

This landmark film really ought to be better remembered for several reasons. It was the first five reel American picture (considered a feature in those days), the first to earn a million dollars, one of the first to shoot on location in the Middle East, and as you see, one of the first bio-pics about the Christian Savior. It became eclipsed in the history books by Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which is erroneously believed by many to have earned a couple of those superlatives, just one of many reasons the traditional worship of that film needs to be re-examined. From The Manger to the Cross was directed by Sidney Olcott for Kalem, with the title role played by poet R. Henderson Bland in his first ever screen performance. He would only appear in five subsequent films.

The King of Kings (1927)

Like so many palm branches strewn upon the roadway, the path was prepared for Cecil B. DeMille’s landmark epic by all sorts of tellings, near-tellings and related films: the above film, as well as the Jesus section of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), the 1913 and 1924 versions of Quo Vadis?, Fred Niblo’s Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), and DeMille’s previous The Ten Commandments (1923). Stage veteran H.B. Warner (best remembered now as drunken druggist Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life) was cast as Jesus — despite being 51 years old at the time! But DeMille liked his face, especially his large soulful eyes, and that has been a mainstay of cinematic Jesuses down to the present day. The silent era was nearly over when The King of Kings came out, but DeMille loaded it with spectacle (Mary Magdalene rides in a chariot drawn by zebras!) making this a rewarding film to watch even today, despite its 155 minute length. Some of the scenes are in two-strip Technicolor! Hugo Riesenfeld did music. The cast also includes Ernest Torrence , Jacqueline Logan, and Dorothy Cumming. That DeMille’s film was considered the last word in screen tellings of the life of Christ may be gleaned from the fact that it was over three decades before Hollywood made another one (although DeMille revisited the subject of early Christianity in 1932’s The Sign of the Cross).

King of Kings (1961)

For sci fi nerds, Jeffrey Hunter is a double messiah; he’s Jesus but he’s also Captain Christopher Pike in the pilot episode of Star Trek. At the time, Hunter was best known for co-starring with John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers (1957). The 1950s had seen a huge swath of Biblical blockbusters, most of them in Technicolor and/or widescreen, including the 1951 Quo Vadis? remake, David and Bathsheba (1951), The Robe (1953), The Silver Chalice (1954), DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, Solomon and Sheba (1959), and the 1959 Ben Hur remake. By then MGM was ready to risk another life of Christ, now with the benefit of dialogue and color. Though titled King of Kings, it was not a remake of DeMille’s film; the script is drawn directly from the Gospels. Nicholas Ray, best known for Rebel Without a Cause (1955) was hired to direct; his most relevant experience at that point had been the 1952 adaptation of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. This was fated to be Ray’s penultimate Hollywood film, due primarily to his drinking. Orson Welles narrated, Ray Milland provided the voice of Satan. Robert Ryan, normally thought of as an action star, is suprisingly well cast as John the Baptist. Rip Torn is memorable as Judas Iscariot. Siobhan McKenna portrays the Blessed Mother. This one spools out at 168 minutes,

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

George Stevens’ penultimate film features no less than Max Von Sydow in the Christ role, and while the Germanic thing is getting tired with regard to this eminently Levantine tale, Von Sydow in particular brings an air of Lutheranism and a history with the existentialist Ingmar Bergman that is at least thought-provoking. Stevens also produced the film, and here he out-DeMilles Demille, and the film becomes quite hilarious in the number of celebrities who drop in, Around the World in 80 Days fashion. The unseriousness of many of these actors really saps the film of the weight it ought to have. It includes Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, Claude Rains (in his final screen performance) as Herod, David McCallum of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as Judas Iscariot, Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary, and also Martin Landau, Jose Ferrer, Donald Pleasence, Michael Anderson Jr, Roddy McDowall, Ed Wynn, John Wayne, Shelley Winters, Marian Seldes, Sidney Poitier, Michael Ansara, Carroll Baker, Robert Blake, Pat Boone, Victor Buono, Richard Conte, Jamie Farr, Van Heflin, Russell Johnson (the Professor from Gilligan’s Island), Angela Lansbury, Robert Loggia, Janet Margolin, Sal Mineo, Nehemiah Persoff, et al. That’s a lot of ham for one Easter feast!

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Every age gets the Jesus it deserves, and in the late ’60s and early ’70s that meant hippies. As I wrote here, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of my favorite musicals. It was undoubtedly inspired by the countless ambitious concept albums and rock operas that had been released by that time, especially The Who’s Tommy, which features a Christ-like hero. I am of a perfect age and class for JCS to have played a major role in my life. On Sunday school field trips we went around singing the title song to this show until we got yelled at (but really because we were singing the lyric “Who in the hell do you think you are?”) Andrew Lloyd Weber’s music is my cup of sacramental wine and I’ve internalized virtually the whole score (can recall it to memory in a twinkling). The show I feel is intriguing in managing to be several things at once: 1) intentional camp; 2) unintentional kitsch; 3) a theatrical risk; 4) an even riskier cultural critique verging on a literal heresy; and 5) last (but not least) a work of genuine devotion and religiosity. “Superstar” is a Warhol coinage, I beg you to recall. And what do we call all those celebrities Warhol painted? Icons—a word once used exclusively for mass produced paintings of Christ. Christ as rock star (especially in the leper scene). Christ as revolutionary—his squabbles with Judas here seem somewhat based on the difficulties of moderate movement leaders –martyrs—like Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, with their hardline left wing. Christ as man—the most heretical notion in the show, quite literally expressed by Mary Magdalene in the gorgeous and stirring “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, and no doubt a little detail that pissed a lot of people off. Christ as the subject of a musical. For pluck I don’t think that will ever be topped, and the miracle is that they pulled it off. In addition to the majestic title song and the aforementioned hit, other great songs include “Hosanna”, the gorgeous “Everything’s Alright”, “What’s the Buzz”, “Blood Money”, and the vaudevillian “Herod’s Song (Try It and See”) sung by Josh Mostel in the movie. The dude Ted Neeley as Jesus has a great voice (sounds like David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat and Tears) though he looks like a dopey pothead. He is perhaps the most dramatically well conceived of screen Jesuses — a bit of a self-righteous nudge. He has hubris, which gives us our tragedy. It’s more courageous than most versions. Yvonne Ellimen as Mary Magdalene is also a standout. We should also give honorable mention to the other hippie Jesus musical Godspell here, although since it tells the story far less literally, we omit it from this list.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

This British-Italian made-for TV mini-series was a huge television event when I was a kid (especially for me, since I was a 12 year old altar boy when it premiered). It was part of a trend, falling right in between Roots (1976) and Holocaust (1978) chronologically. It was promoted as a major event, an attempt to tell the “true” story with less of the miraculous and artificial about it, lots of location shooting, and fewer special effects. The seed was planted in the brain of ITV’s Sir Lew Grade by Pope Paul VI. Franco Zeffirelli, then best known for Romeo and Juliet, was hired to direct, with no less than Anthony Burgess as the lead screenwriter. As with all major TV miniseries in those days, the all-star cast ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, although in this particular case the distinguished names outnumber the ones with sillier associations. Overall, it is not nearly as laugh-provoking as the cast of The Greatest Story Ever Told. The roll-call includes: Rod Steiger (Pontius Pilate), Ian McShane (Judas Iscariot), Peter Ustinov (Herod), Michael York (John the Baptist), James Farantino (Peter), Anne Bancroft (Mary Magdalene), and Stacy Keach as Barrabas. The Three Kings of the Nativity are James Earl Jones, Fernando Rey, and Donald Pleasence, and it also has Sir Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Christopher Plummer, Ian Holm, Cyril Cusack, James Mason, Anthony Quinn, Tony Lo Bianco, and Ernest Borgnine. If there is a weak link from the point of view of star power, it is ironically the guy at the center of it all, played by Robert Powell, then fresh off of two Ken Russell films (The Who’s Tommy and the bio-pic Mahler). He is very striking to look at, and got good notices for his performance, but had Grade stuck to his original concept and cast someone like Dustin Hoffman it would have pushed the endeavor over into landmark status I think, both from the point of star power and of accuracy. Scholars agree that the historical Jesus, being (elephant in the room) JEWISH, he would not resemble the conventional Aryan image of religious paintings and major movies. In the end, the producers caved however so as to placate the English speaking market. To this day, I have yet to witness a screen Jesus who looked like the real one probably did, though I have yet to see them all.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

I braved cohorts of picketing protestors to see this film at New York’s Ziegfeld Theatre during its first run. Certain people went looney over Martin Scorsese’s revisionist Christ movie based on the eponymous Nikos Kazantzakis novel. In reality, the film ought to appeal to the truly religious in spirit, as it depicts Christ being exposed to many of Satan’s temptations (including most poignantly, the possibility of living out the rest of his life as an ordinary man) and NOT YIELDING to the temptation. The heresy for some apparently was even showing IMAGINED scenes in dream sequences, though, as is usually the case, few of the people who protested the film actually saw it. I remember the film as less painterly than I would have hoped for from a Scorsese film on this topic. It’s more in line with Pasolini’s Italian neo-realist The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). One thing I especially loved about it, which I had not seen in a movie before, was that Scorsese made Jesus and his followers down-to-earth and relatable — the whole point of this particular religion, one would think. Willem Dafoe is Christ, Harvey Keitel is slightly hilarious as Judas, Harry Dean Stanton is St. Paul, John Lurie is James the Apostle. Verna Bloom of Medium Cool and Animal House is Mary Mother of God. Barbara Hershey is Mary Magdalene. Andre Gregory is John the Baptist. And no less than David Bowie is Pontius Pilate. It is another masterstroke to make the Romans all aloof and British.

Jesus (1999)

This two part TV miniseries, an Italian-U.S. co-production attains the full cheesiness that Jesus of Nazareth only glanced at. Jeremy Sisto of Law and Order is Jesus. Now: the real life Sisto’s darker hair color, and his short natural curls would have been a much better, more accurate look for Christ. But the producers once again altered his look, which was naturally perfect, into the artificial Aryan ideal as Christ. Gary Oldman is impeccably cast as Pontius Pilate. Jacqueline Bisset is Mary Mother of Christ, with Debra Messing of Will and Grace as Mary Magdalene. G.W. Bailey (Rizzo from M*A*S*H) is also in the cast.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic excursion is no doubt for somebody, but most people recoiled from his graphic, excrutiating staging of the Stations of the Cross. It is valid to focus on Jesus’s suffering, of course, but somewhat unnatural to dwell on the gory details as Gibson does here, as if he relishes it. That said, there is something about the relentlessness of it, the pathological fanaticism of it, married to the technical excellence, that might have lifted it to something like art, were it not also marred by Gibson’s famous anti-Semitism (in the form of stereotypes and myths), to boot. The end product is repugnant overall. Although, I will say, there was one scene, featuring shifting facial features on some little demon children which I found very striking and memorable. A good director should steal whatever that special effect was and put it in a more worthwhile movie.

These are far from all of the movies about the life and death of Jesus, but some of the more major ones. Perhaps I will resurrect the post at some future date and add some others. Happy Easter!