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A BRIEF CHRONOLOGICAL SURVEY OF SOME OF THE MAJOR MOVIES & TV PROGRAMS FEATURING JESUS
by Dr. Ted Baehr
** THE EARLIEST REPRESENTATIONS
The earliest representations of Jesus on film were straightforward recordings of various Passion Plays.
This film was produced by American theatrical producers, Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, in Horitz, Bohemia.
R.G. Hollaman and A.G. Eaves photographed the Passion Play on the roof of a NY skyscraper. The length of the film was 2,100 ft or about 20 minutes. A narrator took the place of captions.
Oberammergau Passion Play
This film was photographed by a Mr. Hurd, Lumiere’s American representative.
French Passion Play
This film was produced for the Musee Eden.
French Passion Plays
The best known French Passion Play was produced by Ferdinand Zecca and was 2,000 ft. in length. It made use of panning shots which were an innovation at the time.
V. Jasset and Alice Guy reproduced Golgotha at Fontainebleau and used a gramophone to help the actors with their emotions. This may be the earliest use of an artificial aid.
Despite concern about the reverence of portraying Jesus Christ in person on the screen, there were many other hastily prepared Passions and Lives. Often they were little more that a series of crude living tableau. Several of these films came from the Italian Cines Company.
THE LIFE OF CHRIST
Pathe produced this three reel Passion in color. In 1914, it was expanded to seven reels. In 1921, a modern prologue was added.
For many years from the earliest early days of movies, the length of a motion picture was indicated by the number of its reels. Each reel ran about 10 minutes, so a movie was a “one-reeler,” a “two-reeler,” or longer. Since modern projectors accommodate reels holding 3,000 feet of 35-millimetre film or more, the word reel has lost its original meaning in terms of time.
This early version of the famous novel was directed by Sidney Olcott and starred William S. Hart. Kalem was the production company.
THE KISS OF JUDAS
THE BIRTH OF JESUS
This was a French production.
THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM
THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM was produced by Thomas A. Edison.
THOUGH YOUR SINS BE AS SCARLET
Charles Kent played Jesus Christ and Julia Swayne Gordon played Mary Magdalene in Vitagraph’s THOUGH YOUR SINS BE AS SCARLET.
SATAN: OR THE DRAMA OF HUMANITY
This was a four part Italian spectacle from Ambrosio, directed by Luigi Maggi. The second episode featured the life of Jesus Christ.
FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS
This is the first major Life of Jesus from his infancy to his death on the Cross.
The movie was a great success. The Crucifixion was effective in its simplicity. The Bishop of London declared it better than the Oberammergau Passion. W. Stephen Bush, a reviewer of that time, wrote: “It is not a Passion Play: it is the very story of the Passion and of the many incidents recorded by the evangelists. It is indeed a cinematographic gospel. Because of this sublime work, it will be easier than it was before to go forth and teach all nations.”
The film was shot on location in Egypt and the Palestine. The Way of the Cross was shot on the actual Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.
Jesus Christ appeared as a character in several films of this period from 1909 to 1920, including:
Pathe’s SAVED BY DIVINE PROVIDENCE, where a vision of Jesus leads a mother to her lost son;
THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER, in which He restores a dead girl to life; and,
THE CARPENTER, in which He reconciles a family split by the Civil War.
Reacting to the outcry over his BIRTH OF A NATION, D.W. Griffith focused on the theme of intolerance as the cause of wars and as a prime mover of the world in all ages in his movie by the same name. Griffith used four stories to define intolerance: the Judean story, which presented a small portion of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and avoided the resurrection; the medieval story, which was a dramatization of the war between Catholics and Huguenots in sixteenth-century France; the fall of Babylon, which was a memorable epic of the ancient world; and, the modern story, which was a dramatic conflict between capital and labor.
This is a large scale production from the Italian Cines company and directed by Guilo Antomoro. Giovanni Pasquali played Jesus.
CHRISTUS was filmed in Egypt and designed after famous paintings. It was very successful.
LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK
In the first part of this four part movie from the Danish Nordisk Film company, the Devil disguises himself as the Pharisee who leads Judas to betray Christ. Halvard Hoff appeared as Jesus.
Robert Wiene’s I.N.R.I. tells about a convicted murderer who is told the life of Christ by the chaplain. The recounted scenes are enacted in the form of a Passion Play wherein Gregor Chmara plays Jesus Christ. Eventually, The murderer repents.
In 1934, the German production company, Universum Film A.G., I.N.R.I. was reissued as THE CROWN OF THORNS.
Jesus was portrayed, but never in close up. Only, parts of Jesus Christ are shown, such as a hand, the torso, etc. This coyness was irritating to many reviewers.
THE KING OF KINGS
The famous H.B. Warner played Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille’s KING OF KINGS – still the classic of all movies about Jesus Christ. This was the most famous, the most discussed and the costliest religious movie made up to that point and was used for many years by missionaries to evangelize.
KING OF KINGS shows DeMille at his best and his worst. The movie opens with a very inaccurate portrayal of a bejeweled Mary Magdalene living in unbelievable splendor. Just at this point when the gospel story appears to be reduced to a sex triangle, DeMille changes direction and produces the rest of the movie with rare restraint and dignity. The result is an unsurpassed masterpiece.
Written and directed by Julien Duvivier for Film Union, GOLGOTHA was the first Passion to be made in sound. Robert le Vigan plays Jesus Christ, and the renowned Jean Gabin plays Pontius Pilate. Since it is a Passion, the movie covers only the events of Holy Week.
Oberammergau Passion Play
Oberammergau Passion Play was filmed again as a silent movie.
Luis Alcoriza played the part of Jesus of Nazareth in this Mexican movie. Luis Alcoriza gave an impressive performance in a deeply felt and fairly successful production.
Reviewed in this issue, QUO VADIS is one of those incredibly pro-Christian biblical epics that it is hard to imagine Hollywood producing. In QUO VADIS, Roman General Marcus Vinicius, played by Robert Taylor, is caught between the tyrannical Nero and the beautiful Christian Lygia. The events from the life of Jesus Christ are shown as tableau during a sermon by St. Peter.
ST. MATTHEW PASSION
Robert S. Flaherty made the ST. MATTHEW PASSION based on the choral work by J. S. Bach.
Directed by Henry Koster for 20th Century Fox, THE ROBE is utterly inspirational. Starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons and Victor Mature, this Hollywood classic is the story of a slave under the rule of Rome, who turns to Christianity when embracing the robe of Christ.
The Crucifixion scene is one of the more successful. The Cinemascope screen gives a hint of tragic grandeur. Christ’s words from the Cross are heard while we are shown the agonized up-turned face of a Greek slave (Victor Mature). Blood drips onto Mature’s hand.
DAY OF TRIUMPH
Robert Wilson played Jesus in the Rev. James K. Friedrich’s movie, DAY OF TRIUMPH, produced by Century Films Inc. This was the first Technicolor, English-speaking sound film in which one actually saw and heard an actor playing Jesus Christ (whose face was never shown in such films as BEN HUR or THE ROBE. Once shown on TV annually, it now seems very dated.
BEN HUR ranks among the most honored of films, taking 11 of 12 Academy awards.
There are not enough superlatives to acclaim this picture. Its honors are rightly deserved and its legacy should continue throughout the generations. BEN-HUR contains brilliant ironies and counter-points that tell an indisputable tale of compassion and forgiveness found through Jesus Christ.
KING OF KINGS
The 1961 KING OF KINGS was a great disappointment, which should not to be confused with Cecil B. DeMille’s impressive life of Jesus 1927 movie by the same title. Not only was the movie poorly edited; but, also this version treats the gospel as a revolutionary underground movement, with Barabbas and Judas working together to destroy Roman oppression, and Jesus is caught up in the upheaval.
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW
Director Pier Paola Pasolini’s GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW adheres rigidly to the facts and the spirit of this one gospel. Only at the Crucifixion is the Virgin Mary allowed to be emotional, and the effect is shattering.
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is slightly overlong and crammed with stars but not as bad a movie as many critics claim. In spite of the involvement of the Protestant Film Office, the movie has some theological inaccuracies. These and other divergences from the Bible are so apparent that it is clear that Director George Stevens should have stuck to the facts. Individual sequences, such as the raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion, are magnificent.
SON OF MAN (TV)
SON OF MAN is Dennis Potter’s theologically aberrant reading of the life of Christ. Jesus is portrayed as a fiery carpenter who believes people love their enemies rather than fight and who is racked by self doubt as to whether or not he is the Messiah.
JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR
JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR presents a Jesus figure, using the musical idiom of the 1960s. It is interesting to note that it now appears very “dated.”
This modern re-telling of the gospel story sets Christianity on edge by partially turning the villains of the story into the heroes.
GODSPELL is a 1960’s rock opera re-telling of the story of Jesus in a New York setting.
GODSPELL uses a Jesus clown figure to summarize the life and death of Christ according to the Gospel of Matthew.
JESUS OF NAZARETH (TV)
JESUS OF NAZARETH was originally made for TV in 1977. This excellent television movie attempts historical accuracy. Many passages of the Bible are quoted verbatim, the locations look authentic. Regrettably, the resurrection is ambivalent and could either be real or Peter’s remembering Jesus. Many people have said that they came to Jesus Christ as a result of this television epic.
The JESUS Film, released in 1979 by Warner Bros, has been viewed by 3.3 billion people as of this writing thanks to the efforts of Campus Crusade for Christ. 108 million people have indicated they have placed their faith in Jesus Christ after seeing the film.
Produced by John Heyman, the JESUS film is theologically very accurate, although it is not, as many people assume, the entire text of the gospel of Luke and it does add some material to adapt the gospel to movie drama. Whereas JESUS OF NAZARETH has an ethereal quality in many scenes, such as when special effects and classical music announces the angel appearing to Mary, the JESUS film follows the Jewish tradition of realism, so that when an angel appears, he walks on screen.
LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST
Distributed by Universal Pictures, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is the most blasphemous movie ever made. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it is boring.
JESUS OF MONTREAL
Filled with profanity, pornography and promiscuity, JESUS OF MONTREAL is another blasphemous attack on Christ and the Church.
While other movies and television programs about Jesus Christ have paraphrased the Bible for dramatic effect, MATTHEW, produced by Visual Entertainment, translates the Bible verbatim.
Since the movie is a verbatim rendition of the Gospel, it doesn’t have the emotive dramatic structure of a JESUS OF NAZARETH, which included a large amount of text written by screenwriters.
MARY, THE MOTHER OF JESUS (TV)
First, it should be pointed out that both Protestant and Catholics respect Mary and this movie does not deify her, which would be anathema to many Protestants. In fact, the problem with this movie is that it errs in the other direction, making Mary a slightly politically correct woman. She is a do-gooder who finally tells the apostles to go out and do good.
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, a word for word movie taken from the Gospel of the same name, was one of the best movies ever made about the life of Jesus Christ.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST was Mel Gibson’s great masterpiece about the final hours of Jesus Christ.
THE NATIVITY STORY
THE NATIVITY STORY tells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ in a dramatic, authentic manner.
** A conqueror’s praise
“I search in vain in history to find the similar to Jesus Christ or anything, which can approach the Gospel. Neither history, nor humanity, nor the ages, nor nature offer me anything with which I am able to compare it or to explain it. Here everything is extraordinary. The more I consider the gospel, the more I am assured that there is nothing there, which is not beyond the events, and above the human mind.”
- Napoleon Bonaparte, THE BOOK OF JESUS, Simon & Schuster, 1996, p. 71.