And The Early Years 11 finally, the film touches for the first time the delicate issue of how to represent the responsibility for the death of Jesus, an issue which must be faced even with the most recent Jesus-films. In his original version, and notwithstanding the presence on the set of a rabbi and an Episcopalian priest as advisors,32 Griffith had shown the leaders of the Jewish community not only persecuting Jesus but also crucifying him; the director gave in to justified pressure from Jewish groups and "burned the negative already shot, refilming the [crucifixion] scenes with Roman soldiers substituted.
Perhaps the first "spin-off' film, that is, a film generated by a character or an episode in a previous film, it recounted in four episodes and in one-hundred minutes, the eternal struggle of humanity against Satan. In the triumphant climax of the film, Satan, having formed "an unholy alliance,,34 with the German Kaiser, met with Jesus, evidently well-resurrected from his crucifixion in Intolerance in which the Resurrection was not represented.
Palestinian Braveheart | America Magazine
The film was no doubt popular, because ten years later, it was re-released in a shortened version and with the more dramatic title of The Conquering Christ. A theme similar to that of Restitution formed one of the first of the Jesus-epics, the Danish work, Leaves from Satan's Book, an early film of Carl Theodor Dreyer.
Based on a popular novel by Maria Corelli, and lasting over one hundred minutes, it imitated the structure of Restitution. The film has four episodes and documents Satan's largely successful attempts, by assuming a human identity, to corrupt people in different periods and different places: the Spanish Inquisition in fifteenth-century Seville, the French Revolution and the execution of Marie Antoinette and the Civil War in Finland in the period following the Russian Revolution.
In the first episode, lasting twenty-two minutes, Satan, in the guise of a Pharisee, successfully tempts Judas to betray Jesus. The character of Jesus is clearly of secondary importance: in the foreground are Satan, the protagonist of the entire film, and Judas who struggles dramatically both before and after his sin. Dreyer portrays three moments in the final days of Jesus' life: a visit to the home of Simon the Leper where during a silent musical interlude Dreyer inserts, using a primitive dissolve-technique, a shot of Jesus as the good shepherd, then the Last Supper and the agony in the garden and the betrayal.
It is clear in a number of shots that Dreyer is imitating Renaissance paintings. He wants to suggest Jesus's transcendence, his divine and human natures; but the formal, theatrical looks and gestures, the slow deliberate movements, reminiscent of the Jesus of Intolerance, create a Jesus who is, strangely severe, impassive and set apart from the rest of the characters.
In , four years after his classical expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Not based on the Bible but adapted from a novel by Peter Rosegger, it was seventy minutes long and starred the husband-and-wife team of the Danish Asta Nielsen and the Russian Gregori Chmara, in the roles of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Wiene shot some of the film on location in Palestine and followed the already established tradition of basing his compositions on masterpieces of Renaissance art. The silent I. The uncontested high point of the era of the silent film about Jesus, Cecil B.
Following the first DeMille biblical spectacular, The Ten Commandments, in , and preceding his epic story of the persecution of the early Christians, The Sign of the Cross, in , The King of Kings, released in , was nearly two hours in length. Based on a screenplay by Jeannie MacPherson, and filmed in black and white, but surprisingly breaking into color for the Resurrection scene, the film tried valiantly, but not entirely successfully, to break out of the episodic, elliptical structure of the earlier Jesus-films, into the more organic, narrative style that characterizes its descendants.
The King of Kings is of interest in the history of the Jesus-film for a number of reasons, most of which have to do more with its producer-director than with the film itself. DeMille created around his lead actor, Henry B. Warner, with his "carved Jewish profile,,,36 a kind of mystical star aura. The actor, at forty-nine years of age undoubtedly the oldest film-Jesus ever, was forbidden by contract to appear in public during the filming, and once in makeup and costume, he was "transported in a closed car and wore a black veil when leaving it for the set He shrewdly retained as advisor the Jesuit priest, Daniel A.
Lord, one of those responsible for the U. Motion Picture Production Code, and in addition held daily prayers during production led by representatives of various religious groups, including Islam and Buddhism. When the Magdalene discovers that her lover Judas has forsaken her to follow a certain preacher from Nazareth, she leaves the party-in-progress, hops on her chariot and, as if imitating Ben-Hur, rides off to get him back. Upon meeting Jesus she is converted and the scene of the ghostly seven deadly sins reluctantly quitting her body, by the use of simple double exposures, is a dramatic high The Early Years 13 point early in the film.
It was as if DeMille, fearful of the insufficiency of the over-exposed biblical material, "felt that only the quick introduction of sex would grip and hold the audience. Though even today some few critics approve of H. Warner's portrait of Jesus, saying that his "acting throughout is impeccable" and that he was a "a virile, charismatic figure, both convincingly human and convincingly divine,,,43 the overall effect of Warner's ferformance was to create a formal "static, otherworldly Distributed internationally, except in Poland, where it was banned,46 it was "so widely seen, and occasionally shown on television well into the s, that another major film version of Christ's life was not produced until the similarly titled King of Kings in The first sound film on the life of Jesus, it limited itself to the events from Palm Sunday to the Ascension, and as suggested by its alternate title, Ecce Homo, it placed much emphasis on the Jesus-Pontius Pilate encounter, giving the role of the latter to the famous actor, Jean Gabin, and that of Jesus to Robert Le Vignan.
At one hundred minutes in length and complete with massive sets and crowds of people, it examined in a particular way the complex political realities against which the events of Christ's passion were played. Duvivier's film, although in many respects superior to its predecessors, manifested some of the weaknesses endemic to many of the later Jesus-films. The elaborate sets and huge crowds of extras, for example, did not promote a very profound treatment of the spiritual reality of the passion, of the mystery of Jesus' suffering.
Another problem was the imbalance between the two principal actors: a powerful, dominant Gabin as Pilate who overpowers Le Vignan, a "sad, anguished, languid" Christ whose "distracted look and soft voice [make him] appear almost effeminate. Perhaps this is another case of a certain reticence to portray too directly the more transcendent, mysterious dimensions of the Christ-event, a phenomenon which carries through to the second generation of Gospel spectaculars. Most often they are based 'not on sacred scripture but on devotional novels, some of which provided repeated, if limited, inspiration to filmmakers: Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, inspired sixteen film adaptations, Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Va dis?
They were films full of action, mostly violent, with gladiators, chariot races and the liberation struggles of Christians and slaves. Inevitably too, they depicted the development of sentimental relationships: typically, an unlikely pagan-Christian love experience which resulted in the final conversion of the pagan. In these religious "peplum" films, the distinctions between good and evil were clear: the persecuted Christians were always good, the persecuting emperors were evil, often sadistic, sometimes insane. Then into this smorgasbord of action, melodrama and very vague religious sentiments, and as if hoping to give their product depth, credibility and respectability, the directors of these films introduced appearances of Jesus.
Usually he was seen very briefly, sometimes as part of the action, sometimes in flashbacks or memory sequences. In a number of films, his face was mysteriously hidden from the camera, which pictured him from the back or registered only his hands or feet or, particularly mysterious, his shadow. One of the first of these films was the American production of The Last Days of Pompeii, directed by Ernest Schoedsack, the unlikely story of a gladiatorturned-horse-thief and occasional accomplice-in-crime of Pontius Pilate, and whose injured son is healed by Jesus.
Late in the film, the gladiator, one Marcus, witnesses the crucifixion, and the director would have us believe that these two contacts with Jesus are responsible for his conversion and heroic martyrdom in Rome at the end of the film. Schoedsack's film is memorable for a number of things: Basil Rathbone's performance as a curly-haired and guilt-troubled Pontius Pilate; its impressive recreation of the eruption of Vesuvius, prepared by the same special-effects team as worked on King Kong, a film made two years earlier by the same director.
This film Vesuvius produces "an amazing illusion of carnage and mass destruction. On the other hand, perhaps the least memorable aspect of Shoedsack's spectacular is its portrayal of Jesus, so The Early Years 15 inconsequential that the name of the actor who played Jesus was not included in the film's credits. Jesus was glimpsed very briefly only three times in the film: when he heals the son of Marcus, then seen from afar during the crucifixion, and finally in a double exposure "vision" to encourage Marcus as the ex-gladiator is about to die a martyr.
The studio and the film's director Mervyn LeRoy were poised to take advantage of the post-War "return to religion,,53 in America, and they chose a sure bet: the novel, Quo Vadis? From the novel which tells the story of a worldly Roman officer who falls in love with a Christian slave, and who in the end converts to Christianity and saves his loved one from the lions, LeRoy created a film spectacular.
With massive and elaborate sets, he represented the splendor of Nero's Rome and of the imperial court at Anzio. He gathered a roster of stars such as Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov and some eight thousand extras, including Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren,54 and he repeatedly staged scenes of triumphal marches and arenaexecutions of Christians, and, of course, the burning of Rome. Perhaps the dramatic high point of the film is the high-camp performance of Ustinov as an insane Nero. MGM's hunch paid off: the film cost seven million dollars but it earned almost four times that much.
The role of Jesus is even more limited: a shot of him carrying the cross in the opening of the film, and then, during a climactic sermon of Peter, a flashback tableau of the Last Supper, a meticulously precise recreation of Leonardo da Vinci's fresco.
The first film produced in the new wide-screen Cinemascope, it introduced Richard Burton in the central role of the Roman centurion responsible for carrying out the crucifixion of Jesus. As Marcellus, Burton wins Jesus' robe in the toss of dice at the foot of the cross, and the possession of the garment then moves his life in new directions. After a period of questioning and crisis, and effected by the conversion of the woman he loves, he too becomes a Christian. In the conclusion they both die as Christian martyrs at the hands of the crazed Emperor Caligula.
The film, which cost eight million dollars, was a resounding international success at the box office. The critics, on the other hand, were not so enthusiastic, noting something that could be said about most of these films of "Jesus in the bit part," namely, that the spectacular production values, the wide-screen photography, the monumental sets, the huge cast, the elaborate choreography, the constantly swelling musical score, militate against any hope of real, credible personal or spiritual development in the characters.
He is shown only from the back or from the knees down, and his voice is heard. Even the Disney organization got into the business of making these pseudo-religious spectaculars, with the film The Big Fisherman, based on another Lloyd C. Douglas novel and directed by Frank Borzage. Jesus is glimpsed several times but in an annoyingly indirect way: the camera shows only the hem of his garment, or his hand extending awkwardly into the frame.
Memorable especially for the great sea battle and the twenty minute chariot race that took more than three months to film, the film won a record number of eleven Academy Awards. Ben-Hur narrates the epic story of the adventures and vicissitudes of a Jewish prince condemned into slavery and later adopted by a Roman noble.
He returns to Palestine, defeats his great enemy in a chariot race, discovers that his mother and sister, believed to be dead, are in fact lepers. Reunited, they return to Jerusalem, searching for the healer Jesus, only to meet him as he carries his cross to Calvary. After the crucifixion, the mother and sister are miraculously healed. Jesus is glimpsed indirectly in the static, Hallmark-card nativity scene early in the film, and later at a well in Nazareth, when the adult Jesus, seen from the back but emanating a mysterious supernatural light, offers water to the slave, Ben-Hur.
In another occasion, Jesus is seen briefly from behind, as he preaches to the crowds. Towards the end of the film, as Jesus climbs to Calvary, seen mostly from a distance or with his face strategically, and annoyingly, hidden by the cross, Ben-Hur returns the earlier favor and offers him water. The crucifixion is filmed mostly in long shots, with a couple of dramatic close-ups of Jesus' nailed hands, and of his blood dripping into pools of water, thus preparing for the final healing of the two women who are cleansed of their leprosy by the rain.
In Ben-Hur, as in many of these films in what one irreverent but perceptive critic calls "Hollywood's toga sweepstakes,"S?
The Early Years 17 One of the last of what one critic refers to as the "endless list of extravaganzas The film narrates the rigorous adventures of Barabbas, as a gladiator and then as a slave, after the crucifixion of Jesus. Barabbas tries to blot out the memory of his contact with Jesus the day of his death but luckily for him, unsuccessfully.
When in the conclusion of the film, Barabbas too is crucified, he dies repeating Jesus words, "Into your hands, I commend my spirit," and thus is redeemed. As if to set the note of apparently endless suffering that dominates this film, Jesus is seen being scourged at the pillar in the opening credits of the film. Later in the prison cell they share, he speaks with Barabbas. Finally, Barabbas witnesses Jesus condemned and crucified and he hears his dying words to God, "Into your hands Jesus is photographed much of the time from behind or is limited to the far right or the far left of the screen, and neither he nor Pilate nor anyone else are portrayed with any depth or sensitivity.
In the history of the Jesus-film, Rapper's Pontius Pilate holds a unique record: the actor John Drew Barrymore, "in probably the most bizarre piece of gimmick casting ever seen, plays both Jesus and Judas, both of them badly. In the early s, after decades of representing Jesus as a secondary character, Hollywood produced two major biblical films in which Jesus was once again the principal character, King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Both films were made in grand Hollywood epic-spectacular style and boasted important stars supported by hundreds of secondary actors, massive sets, elaborate costumes, and no apparent limits on costs.
Both films took full advantage of all that the new film technology could offer: wide-screen images, ever more vivid colors, elaborate music scores and sound tracks and special effects. It was precisely because of these high production values that both films - "disedifying and even antireligious,,2 - were failures both in transmitting faithfully the content and meaning of the Gospel narrative and in representing adequately the person and significance of Jesus the Christ.
Nicholas Ray's King of Kings The first of these "Jesus as Superstar" films is the MGM-Sam Bronston production, King of Kings, directed by Nicholas Ray, who, six years earlier had directed the award-winning Rebel without a Cause, for which the Jesus of the new film is sometimes referred to facetiously as "a rebel with a cause. It featured the voice-over narration of Orson Welles - a performance which went uncredited 5 - and included an omnipresent and dramatic music score, almost four hundred elaborate sets, hundreds of minor actors and two huge battle scenes.
Once the production team 6 had decided to make the film in this epic-spectacular style, then in order to attract the largest possible viewing public, they had to effect two major transformations on their basic source-text, the gospels. On the one hand, they had to transform the spare, elliptical, linear, non-dramatic text of the gospels into a full, organic 18 The Gospel According to Hollywood 19 narrative, characterized by dramatic action and movement, character interest and suspense, in order to grab and hold onto the attention of the audience.
On the other hand, they had to transform the tough radical, uncompromising, prophetic content and tone of the Gospel text into a form that continued to edify, of course, but in a softer, safer manner, without offending or alienating any member of the viewing public. The challenge was to seduce gently the audience by amplifying the Gospel narrative and by domesticating its message.
It was precisely in effecting this double transformation that the production team of King of Kings inevitably ended up making a film about the life and mission of Jesus that was historically, biblically and theologically inaccurate,7 and that created a distorted and unacceptable image of Jesus the Christ.
Among the significant historical distortions in the film are the two battle scenes, in the opening moments and during the Palm Sunday sequence. Created to illustrate the conflict between the Romans and the Jewish zealots, and to give substance to the character of Barabbas, they are complete fabrications, introduced into the film "out of a desire not for fidelity to the Gospels but to the codes of s and s epics.
For example, Pilate and Herod Antipas, the latter described as an Arab, are continually pictured together during the film, in the end giving the impression that they and only they are responsible for the death of Jesus. Then the Roman centurion present on Calvary, a certain Lucius, is also present from the beginning of the film in crucial moments of Jesus life: at the slaughter of the innocents, later when Jesus is growing up in Nazareth and, along with Pilate's wife, at the Sermon on the Mount; at Jesus' trial in front of Pilate, where Lucius acts as his "defense attorney.
Several times,. Jhe biblical event represented in King of Kings is a complete falsification. For example, Mary - played by Siobhan McKenna, an "Irish touch for the Jewish mother"lO - is gifted with an almost divine omniscience about her son's mission; she seems to know more about it than he does, and she annoyingly keeps dropping hints to this effect.
Further, Jesus visits John the Baptist in his cell to encourage him before his death. Again, the film makes Barabbas and Judas friends and basically sympathetic characters and Judas' betrayal of Jesus is, in effect, a well-motivated and "not-ignoble calculation. For example, and evidently to avoid the accusation of anti-Semitism, totally and conspicuously absent from the film is the role of Jewish authorities in the persecution of Jesus throughout his ministry and in the conspiracy to arrest him and put him to death.
The critic Bosley Crowther summarizes well both the facts and the effects of Ray's manipulation of the Gospel, saying that he has "obfuscated the healings, avoided the miracles and skipped altogether the judgment of Jesus as a blasphemer and seditionist by the Jews. Sometimes the miracles are reported after the fact and not by eyewitnesses, clearly a strategy of "asserting the Then, the crucial issues of Jesus' divinity and of his consciousness of being the Son of God are not touched. If the integrity of King of Kings is vitiated by its specific treatment of the Gospel content, there are also serious problems with the film as a whole, that is with formal, extradiegetical choices of the production team.
To begin with, the formal choice to beef up the Gospel text with series of subplots, interconnected by parallel editing and rapid cutting, confers an artificial soapopera quality to the film. There is the story of the centurion Lucius and his gradual conversion; the story of Barabbas and Judas and the zealots, and their radical political option; the story of the strange partnership of Pilate and Herod; and finally, the peculiar and annoying story of Mary, the mother of Jesus as a much-sought-after spiritual counselor.
The logical result is that Jesus gets lost in the process,19 and the film remains "limp, spiritually The Gospel According to Hollywood 21 empty,,,20 a "series of tableaux inspired by Christian paintings,,21 rendered statically with "the nature of an illustrated lecture. The battle scenes - one critic, making a pun, suggests that Ray had his attention more on "mounted cavalry than on Mt. Calvary,,23 - are purely gratuitous and have nothing to do with the Jesus-story. The Sermon on the Mount is clearly the piece de resistance of Ray's film. In a scene which was to have been almost a half-hour in length,24 and which took more than a month to shoot, Ray pulled out all the stops: All the characters of the story are assembled - Pilate's wife and Lucius, Barabbas and Judas, Nicodemus and Caiaphas, the disciples and Jesus' mother, the adulteress and Mary Magdalene.
Starting with the Beatitudes at sunrise, Jesus talks to camel drivers, the rich young ruler, elderly people, cynics, merchants, members of the Sanhedrin, students and child25 reno Martin Scorsese, who later omits the Sermon on the Mount from his Jesus film, was much impressed by Ray's version, speaking of the "extraordinary camera work, full of surprising angles," and he added enthusiastically, "Ray films it like a modern press conference. Though Ray portrays the passion of Jesus and the crucifixion in a very subdued, controlled way, he adds to them two details, quite unjustified and if anything, in high key.
The table for the Last Supper is Y-shaped, something absolutely unique in the Jesus-film tradition. In an interview, Ray attempted to defend his revolutionary choice with some elaborate and exaggerated rea29 soning. Referring to the famous Last Supper fresco, he insisted that he did not want to imitate Leonardo da Vinci;30 the "da Vinci" form of table would not permit the washing of the feet;31 the Y-shaped table would allow Jesus to give the broken bread directly to everyone at table; and finally, in Ray's own words, the Y -shaped table represented "the cross not yet formed.
The dynamic result is quite disconcerting, shocking - possibly why Scorsese imitates it twenty-seven years later - and totally inconsistent with the very static quality bf most of the film. The melodramatic music score, that swells in all the right moments to modulate the right emotionai response of the viewer, is a distraction, as is the 22 The Jesus-Film choir behind the music which hums transcendentally throughout the film, and chants "Amen" at the end of the "Our Father" and a chorus of "Hallelujah" after the Resurrection.
As well, the conspicuous and ubiquitous voice-over narration of Orson Welles, whose authoritative, booming voice connects episodes and redundantly explains things that are often self-evident, frequently seems superfluous, evidence perhaps that the producers did not trust the power of their images to carry the meaning of the events. All of these problems and limits of the film as a whole, are reflected in the film's specific portrait of Jesus. First of all, the choice of "teen heartthrob,,34 Jeffrey Hunter to play the role of Jesus was clearly a strategic error.
Though tall, well-built, blond, good-looking, he was an actor with little experience and "barely enough histrionic ability to playa Hollywood marine. He portrays a strangely empty, "amorphous and passive,,,37 expressionless and almost inarticulate Jesus: "Christ is there as a physical presence, but His spirit is absent.
Imitating the "old methods of the star-system,,39 as they had been applied to H. Warner, the first "King of Kings" thirty-four years earlier, the studio forbade Hunter to appear in public during the elaboration of the film, an enforced mystical isolation which extended also to interviews with the press. Apparently Jesus, clearly intended by Ray and company to fit into the "secular, idealized-heroic traditions of Hollywood masculinity,,,47 could not be permitted body hair, and so Hunter sports shaved armpits and torso.
This strange detail - today almost perverse - is clearly evident during the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus and makes Hunter's Jesus a strong contrast to the two very hirsute criminals crucified with him. Parallel to the limits imposed on the Jesus-character by the actor Hunter, the director and screenwriter seem determined to emphasize Jesus' humanity in an exaggerated way.
The character of Jesus appears to suffer from a basic lack of human insight, a basic lack of self-understanding as a The Gospel According to Hollywood 23 result of which he seems to stumble forward into the various events of his mission without having made any clear decisions in freedom. The most glaring example of this strange passivity, with which, for example, neither Barabbas nor Judas seem to be afflicted, is the moment of the crucial messianic decision to leave Galilee and go to Jerusalem. Jesus has been taking a break at home in Nazareth with his mother.
When the apostles return to Mary's house from their missions and announce that it is time to go to Jerusalem, Jesus puts aside the chair on which he has been working and says, "I'll finish this work when I return. Astonishingly though, Mary understands, as she says a little too knowingly, almost smugly, directly into the camera, "The work will never be finished. The film does everything to limit the scope and range of Jesus' messianic identity and role.
His preaching is limited to the scene of the Sermon on the Mount, and this gives it a detached, out-of-touch quality, anything but the case with the Jesus of the gospels. Then what Ray's Jesus does say is strangely without any incisive or challenging quality, almost an academic exercise. When an onlooker asks him rather forcefully, "Are you the Messiah? There are none of the parables, and there is no critical or prophetic edge to anything Jesus says in the.
Certainly too, there is nothing of the Gospel critique of the Jewish religious institutions of the time, no chasing of the money-changers from the temple, no discussion of what is licit on the Sabbath. Nor is there any reference to the issue of personal or social sinfulness: there is no summons to moral responsibility and conversion, no encounter with the rich young man, no conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, no sense of eschatological urgency.
Ray's Jesus seems oddly unaware of the Old Testament and his own sharing in that prophetic tradition. In fact, the film is almost void of references to Jesus' Jewishness, a most crucial aspect of his being Messiah, and of which the gospels give repeated testimony. In the end, when this Jesus dies on the cross, a thoroughly sanitized, domesticated version of that atrocious death, the event seems to be oddly disconnected with his life and mission. If King of Kings generally skirts the issue of Jesus' prophetic messiahship, it decisively avoids the issue of Jesus' divinity.
Ray's Jesus has absolutely no growing self-awareness of an exceptional degree of intimacy with God, to the point of addressing God as "Abba" or "Daddy. The film makes a glaringly obvious "effort to rationalize or obfuscate,,48 Jesus' miracles. Only two minor miracles and one exorcism are represented. The latter happens by chance, the demoniac stumbling into Jesus arms while voices from off-screen shout, "He's crazy, he's crazy. Regarding the Resurrection, the confirmation by God of Jesus' salvific divine mission and identity, Ray and company fudge the issue once again.
First of all, Jesus' own Gospel references to the Resurrection are neither depicted nor reported. Then the event itself is represented in a most unconvincing way: first by an all-too-human meeting of Jesus with Mary Magdalene near the tomb, and then by an eerie scene by the Sea of Galilee in which Jesus himself does not appear but his voice is heard amplified by ave? Then using a "somewhat stagey, formalised device," 1 Ray has a gigantic shadow appear, clearly that of Jesus, which then stretches across the beach, to form a perfect cross with the nets of the Apostles, accompanied all the while by heavenly chants of "Hallelujah.
In an effort to avoid offending anyone and thus risk the boycotting of the box-office, Ray and his team watered down the Gospel and consequently the figure of Jesus the Christ. The result is a strange, disembodied representation of Jesus, "neutralized Instead, this one is a tranquilizing drug By far the most costly Jesus-film ever made, The Greatest Story Ever Told was both "the apogee of the Passion Play [and] one of the box-office duds of all time. Perhaps the major difference between them is that Stevens' Jesus is clearly meant to be divine, the incarnate Word, from the very beginning of the film.
His identity as Son of God is clear to him and it is clear to us. Stevens has him speak repeatedly of God as "My Father," and when he is proclaimed by Peter and others as the Messiah, the Son of God, he affirms this identity. Further, this film, in contrast to Ray's is essentially faithful to the gospels, with a tendency to favor John's version. Almost all the Jesus-material is directly from the Gospel texts. The material having specifically to do with the conspiracy against Jesus, though not always precisely evangelical, reflects the spirit of those passages in the Gospel. Stevens studiously avoids the elaborate and distracting subplots of Ray's film: "he steers away from fictional events, providing only as many as are necessary to hold the story together.
By avoiding the distracting subplots, Stevens also avoids the constant parallel editing and rapid cross-cutting that gives King of Kings that devastating soap-opera effect. Because his material is basically and clearly evangelical, Stevens has no need of the voice-over narration that annoyingly dominates Ray's film. Further, unlike Ray, Stevens does not totally avoid the delicate issue of the complex responsibility for Jesus' crucifixion. Accountable, along with Herod and Pilate, are Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Yet cleverly, and not really in contradiction of the Gospel accounts, "Stevens split[s] the Sanhedrin,,,64 opposing Caiaphas and company with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who sympathize with Jesus and argue against his condemnation.
He divides the crowds of onlookers during Jesus's trial: along with the shouts of "Crucify him! But these spectacular element-s are not in themselves responsible for the failure of the film. The fatal flaw of The Greatest Story Ever Told lies elsewhere, namely in the total control that Stevens had over the project.
George Stevens was not only the director of the film: he was also its 26 The Jesus-Film producer and the co-writer of the screenplay, which, in effect, gave him unlimited authority over the entire production.
Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film
One critic, perhaps somewhat uncharitably, addressed precisely this problem when he described The Greatest Story Ever Told as a "dinosaur," which he then qualified by adding: "Just as the dinosaur's huge bulk concealed the tiniest of brains. When the film was first released, The Greatest Story Ever Told was four hours and twenty minutes long. Shocked by the very negative reactions of audiences, Stevens put the film through a series of at least seven further "editions," one of which was less than half the length of..
I verSIOn. Stevens' fundamental production concept for the film is already suggested in the fact that he maintained the title of Oursler's book. Stevens' basic position was clearly announced in the opening and closing scenes of The Greatest Story Ever Told, in effect, the frame within which the action of the film takes place. There are the fresco images of a Christ Pantocrator, in the heavens and in the apsidal arch of a great cathedral and the words of the Prologue of the Gospel of John and the music and sung words of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah.
But already in these opening images is evident one of the problems which plagues the film: the image is not that of a Byzantine Christ, but rather of the actor Max von Sydow, a "strange In a further production decision of dubious merit, Stevens decided not to make his film in Palestine, insisting that the Holy Land had lost all of its biblical quality. The critics immediately noted the inappropriateness of Stevens' choice: one spoke rather sarcastically of "sets by Hallmark, panorama by Grand Canyon Postcards, Inc.
The Lord's Prayer gets lost in the scenery. Further, Stevens did not realize that the spectacular beauty of the natural landscapes of the film was in extreme contrast to its massive and elaborate outdoor sets, the palace of Pilate, the courtyard of the Temple, to mention two of them. In the version I previewed just weeks before the opening, the film assumes a balanced position.
Furthermore, not everyone in the large crowd is against Jesus. Dissenting voices can be heard. A few moments later Gibson shows crowds of people crying out in favor of Jesus as he struggles to ascend Calvary. Their protests are so strong that the Roman soldiers have trouble controlling them. This is the only time in the film that Gibson breaks the dramatic frame of the narrative and addresses the viewers directly. This shot, lasting a long 20 seconds, invites the viewers to enter the narrative and assume their responsibility, as sinners, for the death of this Jesus, who—the film repeatedly makes clear—has died for our sins.
Gibson here is saying, more strongly than any other director has done, that it is not the Jewish people who killed Jesus; every one of us sinful human beings is responsible for his death. Pasolini limits the dialogue of his film exclusively to the words of Matthew, while Gibson develops it widely. While Pasolini inserts a few brief excerpts of classical music contrapuntally, Gibson enhances most of his film with an original music score. Where Pasolini favors very basic and unobtrusive camera angles and movements; Gibson employs a wide variety of self-conscious and often dizzying photographic techniques, including some shocking digital special effects, all staples of the contemporary Hollywood action drama.
Each director also announces the theological position of his film in its title. He focuses narrowly on the suffering and death of Jesus and his free decision to take onto himself—like the scapegoat, like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah—the sins of humanity and to live this horrific ordeal to redeem sinners. Every lash of the whip during the extended scourging scenes represents one of these human transgressions. There is no joy or hope in the scene.
Gibson, caught up in the extreme preoccupation with the sins of humanity that informs his atonement theology, misses a chance to give all of us sinners hope. The physical violence visited on Jesus goes on seemingly without end and has earned the film an R rating. In the Spiritual Exercises of St. This offers us hope. We remain at the foot of the cross, passive and despairing with the other mourners. In his interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC, Gibson admitted that he views the bible as a literal history--at odds with post-Vatican II interpretation of Scripture, which recognizes the diverse sources and literary forms within the inspired texts.
The anti-Jewish tensions found in the Passion narratives, in fact, reflect the late first-century conflicts between followers of Christ, many of whom were Jews now expelled from synagogue worship, and a developing orthodoxy within Judaism that no longer had room for followers of the "Nazarene. Most importantly, I cannot support this film for what it lacks: a focus on the life and mission of Jesus leading up to his Passion, and the celebration of Easter, the Resurrection, the essential source of Christian hope.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline "Palestinian Braveheart," in the February 23, issue. Lloyd Baugh, S.
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