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A BRIEF CHRONOLOGICAL SURVEY OF SOME OF THE MAJOR MOVIES & TV PROGRAMS FEATURING JESUS
By Dr. Ted Baehr
MOVIEGUIDE® thought that this brief chronological survey of the major movies and television programs featuring Jesus would be of interest to you.
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.
Note: 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, the famous western star. 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. It is interesting to note that Edison had tried at first to give the patents to the motion picture apparatus to his church, but they didn’t want anything to do with the patents that changed the world.
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 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.
It was directed by Sidney Olcott for Kalem, the production company.
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.
R. Henderson Bland, an English actor, was both dignified and moving as Jesus. Later, he was a WWI hero.
In spite of its success, the principals, Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier, were forced to leave Kalem as a result of their insistence on making it.
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.
Howard Gaye played a grave and gentle Jesus in this release from Triangle Productions.
Griffith clearly depicted the opposition of the Rabbinate against Jesus and his revolutionary “New Law” as his example of ecclesiastical intolerance.
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.
Hollywood veteran Thomas Ince cast George Fisher in the role of Jesus Christ in CIVILIZATION. Ince employed allegory in this tale of the supernatural to show that all war is evil.
In this allegory produced by Triangle Productions, Jesus is depicted as wandering in a place called “borderland,” an area located between earth and eternity. When Count Ferdinand dies, he meets Jesus in borderland. Jesus announces that he will return to earth in the form of Count Ferdinand to preach peace.
The Moving Picture World’s review of June 17, 1916: “What we see is by no means clear, though it is weird and picturesque.”
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.
Mary Pickford plays Mollie, whose sick child is taken peacefully by Jesus in this movie distributed by United Artists.
This renowned version was directed by Fred Niblo for MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).
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 hand was too white and too delicate.
Furthermore, all the Christ scenes were in color, which destroyed the sense of reality for many viewers.
The Last Supper was shown as a replica of Da Vinci’s famous, but of course deliberately anachronistic painting.
At the end of the movie, superimposed on the scene of the Crucifixion, with the extraordinary addition of two lovers prominent in the foreground, are the words, “He died – but love goes on for ever.”
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. Produced by Pathé Exchange, Inc., 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.
The action starts when Jesus is already fully grown and preaching. The first half of the movie includes: casting the seven deadly sins out of Mary Magdalene; the raising of Lazarus; the driving of the money changers from the Temple; then the temptation by Satan is inserted; and, the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer. The second half concentrates on the Passion: the betrayal by Judas; the trial; the Way to the Cross; Jesus’ death; and, His Resurrection, which was followed almost immediately in a slight contraction of historical events by the Ascension.
Originally fifteen reels long, KING OF KINGS was later cut to eleven by the deletion of a number of scenes such as the calling of the disciples and the discussion over the payment of tribute money.
Throughout the filming, a Jesuit, a minister from the original Federal Council of Churches, and another clergyman were present to give advice. In order to avoid offending Jewish sensibilities, Caiaphas, rather than Judas, was made responsible for Christ’s death.
To ensure a proper attitude of reverence, extraordinary steps were taken and publicized. Only DeMille could speak to H.B. Warner when Warner was in costume. He was veiled and transported in a closed car when necessary. On location, he was given his meals in solitude. Prayers were said at the scene of the Crucifixion (which was filmed on Christmas Eve). Mass was celebrated every morning on location. The first day of shooting started with the uttering of prayers by representatives no only of the Protestant and Catholic faiths, but also by Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslem representatives.
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, surrounded by marble palaces, leopards, zebras, revelers, and slaves. This sequence was originally in color. Her lover, Judas, has been absent a good deal lately listening to a poor “carpenter.” Slighted, she storms off to see this “carpenter” who has lured Judas away. Of course, she falls for the “carpenter.”
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, wherein H.B. Warner gives an inspired and inspiring performance, in appearance halfway between the Victorian vision of the fragile Jesus and the tougher portrayals of later years.
One of the most poignant scenes involves a young blind girl who is listening to a boy’s story of a lame man who was healed. The girl is taken into a fisherman’s hut. All goes dark, as the audience is placed behind her sightless eyes. Gradually, from all corners of the screen, rays of light begin to radiate, growing ever brighter and more concentrated until, at first in a haze, then clearly, she sees the gentle face of her Healer smiling down at her. Even today, the scene has lost none of its power.
A minister noted to Warner some time later, “I saw you in KINGS OF KINGS when I was a child and now every time I speak of Jesus, it is your face I see.”
The disciples are unusually well differentiated characters with their own identity rather than a handful of supporters with one or two standing out as in other versions. Ernest Torrence is a splendidly impetuous, lovable Peter. Joseph Schildkraut’s somewhat theatrical Judas is the most arresting in movies. Alan Brooks is Satan in a highly original handling of the temptation scene.
It is clear that the reverence and prayers during the production made a difference.
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.
Using an obvious Christ figure, STRANGE CARGO is an unusual and well-acted redemption drama with strong performances by all the actors. The plot follows a group of convicts from their prison break to their deaths or final “escapes.” The Christ figure serves as the collective conscience with whom each has to deal or deny.
The story tells about prisoners from Devil’s Island who come back from a day of work and find an extra man, Cambreau, played by Ian Hunter, in their midst, who seems to have supernatural knowledge of the other convict’s lives and seeks to develop their better natures. As a cynical unbeliever, Gable hurls the stranger into the sea during a famous quarrel. The stranger clutches a wooden plank assuming a crucifixion-like posture. Gable realizes who the stranger is and is converted to belief in God. The stranger disappears.
STRANGE CARGO was directed by Frank Borzage for Pathé Exchange, Inc. and stars Clark Gable.
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.
John Ford’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel THE POWER AND THE GLORY about a revolutionary priest in Central America. An allegorical attempt to reflect the story of Jesus Christ with an American Outlaw as the Good Thief and a native informer as Judas.
In this RKO production, Henry Fonda plays a priest who is running away from soldiers during Mexico’s violent anti-clerical period and want anyone linked to Christianity dead. The Fugitive finds shelter with a faithful Indian Woman, who gives the priest directions to Puerto Grande, where he can board a ship and sail to freedom in America. On his journey, he meets a man who says he will protect him. In reality, he is the Police Informer.
THE FUGITIVE is one of the high points of black-and-white cinematography. With exceptionally good editing and music, this movie confirmed that Ford was also an “artistic” filmmaker.
Reviewed in this issue, QUO VADIS is one of those incredibly pro-Christian biblical epics that it is hard to imagine Hollywood producing. Directed by Mervyn Le Roy for MGM, this exquisite movie clearly shows the redemptive power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ transforming the evil world system of man.
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.
In word and deed, QUO VADIS magnificently shows how the love of Christ overcame the power of lust of the Roman Empire. For those who believe in taking up arms against their oppressors, QUO VADIS shows a better way. For those who don’t understand the power of the gospel, QUO VADIS is a ringing testimony to the power of the resurrected Christ. The miracles, the preaching, the teaching are all so well done that QUO VADIS can be used in a catechism teaching.
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. Burton plays Marcellus, a Roman centurion who won the Robe of Christ on the roll of a dice after the crucifixion. Tormented by nightmares, he returns to Palestine to try and learn what he can of the man he killed. His slave Demetrius swoops up the robe and converts to Christianity. Mad emperor Caligula cannot abide Christians and demands that Burton secure the robe for him. When Burton doesn’t give up the robe, he is sent to his death.
THE ROBE was the first to use Cinemascope. The addition of new magnetic sound tracks provides realistic sound effects. In size, color, the sweep of pageantry conveyed by the lavish costumes and backgrounds of Old Rome, and through the great story by Lloyd C. Douglas, this is an impressive movie. It is a well-acted drama. The simple urgency of the theme and its spiritual magnetism are complemented by the film’s trimmings and trappings, talkative scenes and broad, but expansive, direction.
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.
The movie starts with the birth of Christ and the visit by the Magi. Judah Ben-Hur of Judea (Charlton Heston) reunites with his friend, Massala (Stephen Boyd) who becomes the Roman commander of Jerusalem. However, Massala asks Judah to betray his own people by informing on the dissenters. When Judah refuses, Massala finds a way to frame his friend and send Judah to the galleys of the Roman war ships. He also sends Judah’s mother and sister to a dark, cold cell. In battle, Judah rescues the governor and becomes a Roman “favorite son.” In time, Judah becomes a skilled charioteer and defeats Massala in a daring chariot race. Judah then rescues his mother and sister who have become lepers and takes them to Christ. Though it is too late for them to meet Jesus, his shed blood makes renews them and regenerates Judah.
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.
Directed by William Wyler and shot in Italy for MGM, the movie is visually highly exciting though some critics say that it is less so than the old silent version.
THE BIG FISHERMAN
Directed by Frank Borzage for Centurion, this is a vast religious epic, from Lloyd Douglas’ book about the life of St. Peter. Regrettably, Peter is trivialized and the gospel is distorted. There is no Crucifixion, and Jesus Christ is shown without an enemy in the world.
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. Aside from the introduction of irrelevant battles, the movie lacks a clear emphasis on Jesus’ divinity, omits miracles and changes significant facts. Furthermore, Jeffrey Hunter does a poor job as Christ. However, the movie does portray a real resurrection.
Directed by Nicholas Ray for MGM, the movie came after his youth-oriented movie REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), and such movies as I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKNESTEIN and I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, and so it was dubbed I WAS A TEENAGE JESUS. Even the grammar was bad, with this Jesus tells the rebelling Jews, “Romans are conquerors. If you become conquerors, you will be no different than [sic] them.”
THE 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.
Pasolini shot his movie in Southern Italy on a very tight budget for Arco Film S.r.L. The cinematography, with chalky whites and dusty grays, strikingly reproduces the “feel” of the Palestine. He used huge facial close-ups and arrogant Pharisee head-dresses as well as a strange mix of music, which ranges from Bach to a Congolese Mass, to great effect.
Many of his scenes are unforgettable: the death of Herod, Jesus as a tiny boy running into Joseph’s outstretched hands, a radiant and unglamorous young Mary, the Jesus Christ on trial glimpsed from afar over the shoulders of the watchers and guards.
In traditional Jewish manner, the fact of the miracles is blunt, so the scenes of leper faces cuts to a healed face and the walking on water is literal. Peter’s denial is also blunt.
Regrettably, the apostles are never distinguished, and Judas and Peter even resemble each other.
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 including attempts to exonerate Judas, Judas falling into the sacrificial fire instead of hanging himself as the Bible tells us, and a very weak ending that has a conceptually resurrected Jesus appearing in the clouds in a vision that leans toward nominalism. These and other divergences from the Bible are so apparent that it is clear that Director George Stevens should have stuck to the facts.
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is a beautifully photographed movie, but, regrettably, some of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed lose all validity because of star cameos. It is difficult to believe John Wayne as a Roman centurion supervising Christ’s crucifixion. These cameos weren’t needed, though Charlton Heston is very good as John the Baptist.
George Stevens, its director, producer and co-writer, spent almost a decade bringing this project to the screen. Even with all his experience, he was unable to translate his vision into the cinematic experience he wanted. Whereas the book was a masterful historical novel with prose so powerful that the reader feels he is living the events, the movie is lifeless, meandering and somehow pointless. At times, however, the viewer can see flashes of what Stevens had in mind in translating the book to the big screen.
Individual sequences, such as the raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion, are magnificent. Max Von Sydow did an excellent job as Christ, and as an unknown in the US, he was very believable. He is a strong, virile, compassionate, and at times humorous Jesus who exhibits the attributes of the Son of God gentle Jesus of the child’s bedside as well as the Son of Man trudging from place to place. Furthermore, Telly Savalas and Claude Rains are convincing as Pilate and Herod.
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.”
The movie is adapted from the musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber which employed imaginative lyrics and contemporary sounds. Although it is theologically controversial, JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR has a wonderful score. Director Norman Jewison’s movie adaptation for Universal Pictures had echoes of the stage version, but was more reverent and even hinted at the resurrection which the play assiduously avoided.
Ted Neely played Jesus Christ in this modern re-telling of the gospel story which sets Christianity on edge by partially turning the villains of the story into the heroes. Used by God to accomplish His purpose, Judas is presented as noble and knowledgeable. Pontius Pilate is a troubled man who has premonitions of the truth about Jesus and his own role in his death.
GODSPELL is a 1960’s rock opera re-telling of the story of Jesus in a New York setting. Directed by David Greene for Columbia Pictures, GODSPELL lost out at the box office to the overshadowing JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR. Also based on a prior, successful theatrical musical, GODSPELL does not have the song recognition that JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR does. Furthermore, the New York City setting provides a colorful and distracting backdrop to the movie’s symbolic style. Even so, its cinematography is stunning.
GODSPELL uses a Jesus clown figure to summarize the life and death of Christ according to the Gospel of Matthew. The characters in GODSPELL are colorful, humorous and human. Regrettably, the movie reflects the brief ascendance of the humanization of Jesus promoted by the German school of higher criticism and avoids the divinity of Christ and His resurrection.
THE GOSPEL ROAD
Directed by Robert Elfstrom, who also plays Jesus Christ, and written and narrated by Johnny Cash, THE GOSPEL ROAD is a mediocre musical journey through Holy Land which tells the story of the life of Jesus.
JESUS OF NAZARETH (TV)
Directed by the renowned Franco Zeffirelli and produced by our friend and former history professor Vincenzo Labella for Sir Lew Grade and Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), 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. Aside from Robert Powell as Jesus, Olivia Hussey as Mary and Stacy Keach as Barabbas, many of the other characters are actually played by Semitic-looking actors. Of its six hour and twenty minutes, the first hour is devoted solely to the story of Jesus’ birth, and 12 minutes is devoted to the Last Supper as well as 12 minutes to the Crucifixion.
Regrettably, the resurrection is ambivalent and could either be real or Peter’s remembering Jesus. Also, some minor details of the biblical account are changed for dramatic purposes. For instance, Nicodemus comes to Jesus during the day rather than by night (John 3:2). Also, scenes are added to help the dramatic development that are not in the New Testament gospels.
While not graphic by today’s standards, some of the scenes–baby boys being ripped from their mothers’ arms and slaughtered, nails being driven into Jesus’ hands–may disturb young and/or sensitive children. –Kimberly Heinrichs –This text refers to the VHS edition of this video
Many critics believe that Franco Zeffirelli’s JESUS OF NAZARETH is by far the best depiction of biblical events ever filmed. James Farentino is superb as the apostle Peter. Even Robert Powell does a serviceable turn as 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. More than 108 million people have indicated they have placed their faith in Jesus Christ after seeing the film.
The movie has been translated into 566 languages with 232 in process. The audio/radio version is available in 54 languages, and another hundred languages will be added this year. Also, the JESUS film has been re-configured to reach different audiences (niche strategies):
– Special Soccer Edition for use during the World Cup
– New children’s version entitled “The Story of Jesus for Children”
– New “More Than Gold” version will be distributed during the Olympics this year
– DVD version allows a choice of 8 languages and connects to Internet web sites and additional film information.
– Internet web site allows people to view the film in 51 different languages
– A radio version uses an adaptation of the film script for radio drama
– An audiocassette version allows the radio version to be circulated easily
– Millennial Tribute to Jesus television broadcast reaches many we have not reached in other ways
– Special Cricket edition of the video was utilized in India during the Cricket World Cup
Produced by John Heyman, a Jewish believer, 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. Some critics have misunderstood the theological significance of this. From the biblical perspective, rooted in Judaism, God’s creation is real. The resurrected Jesus is a real. Angels are so real that any of us could be entertaining angels unawares. Thus, the very real earthiness of this version is in its favor. This is the obverse of biblical epics. It presents the story of Jesus without the usual Hollywood digressions and additions. The crucifixion is especially powerful.
Narrated by Alexander Scourby, produced by The Genesis Project and filmed in Israel, this movie retells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God raised by a Jewish carpenter. The movie encompasses the entire gospel story from the miraculous virgin birth to the calling of his disciples, public miracles and ministry, ending with his death by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire and resurrection on the third day.
It is interesting to note that the actor in JESUS film is not a believer. Rather, Brian Deacon, who played Jesus in this film, calls himself “a lapsed Catholic who hasn’t practiced his faith.” Deacon testified, “I’ve always found it difficult to know how truth can be proclaimed to others; to me it’s more of a private matter.”
Even so, as Campus Crusade for Christ notes, every two seconds, sometimes in the midst of global chaos and conflict, someone indicates a decision to receive Christ as personal Savior as a result of seeing the JESUS film. Therefore, many mission experts have acclaimed the “JESUS” film as one of the greatest evangelistic success stories of all time.
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.
Judas (Harvey Keitel) is strong, knows exactly who he is and what he wants. Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is weak, confused, fearful, doesn’t know who he is, from time to time falls on the ground in a faint after hearing voices. Jesus says he wants God to hate him. He makes crosses because he wants God to hate him. He doesn’t know if the voices come from God or the devil. Jesus says: “I’m a liar, a hypocrite, I’m afraid of everything. . . . Do you want to know who my God is? They’re fear. . . Lucifer is inside me. He tells me I am not a man, but the Son of Man, more the Son of God, more than that, God.”
Of course, for Jesus who is very God of very God to say this is blasphemy of the first order, as well as abhorrent for its metaphysical implications.
At the Last Supper, after the apostles partake of the Bread and the Cup, blood and flesh are seen dripping from some of the apostles’ mouths.
When Jesus visits Mary Magdalene’s house, the room is filled with men sitting down, watching Mary have sex with a customer. Jesus sits down and watches, implying that God lusts after human women.
Later, Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) fornicate, and Mary breathes, “We can make a baby.”
I screened the movie before it opened and had the opportunity to appear on television network news, THE ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER, THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW, THE MORTON DOWNEY JR. PROGRAM, THE SONYA FREIDMAN SHOW on CNN, many radio programs and in many newspapers, where I pointed out that Jesus was fully God and fully man, that He was sinless, and that He redeemed mankind through His death and resurrection.
It is interesting to note that director Martin Scorsese was expelled form a Roman Catholic Seminary and writer Paul Schrader went to Calvin College. Nikos Kazantzakis, who authored the novel upon which the movie is based, journeyed philosophically from Greek Orthodox to Marxism to Hinduism – all of which are represented in this historically and biblically inaccurate and befuddled movie.
There is no doubt that many people were hurt by seeing this evil, pantheistic movie desecrating the Gospel.
JESUS OF MONTREAL
Filled with profanity, pornography and promiscuity, JESUS OF MONTREAL is another blasphemous attack on Christ and the Church. The movie is set in Montreal, Canada, and revolves around the Passion Play that has been performed every year for the past 40 years by a Roman Catholic Church.
One summer, Father Leclerc, the worldly Roman Catholic priest in charge of the play, turns to a group of actors and actresses, including Constance, a single mother who has had an ongoing affair with Father Leclerc, Martin, whose bread and butter comes from pornographic movies and Daniel, a struggling, young, unemployed actor chosen to play Jesus and direct.
As the story unfolds, Daniel adopts Jesus’ identity both off and on the stage. In one scene, the Mary Magdalene-actress washes Daniel’s back in the bathtub as the film’s way of re-telling the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with precious oil. In another scene, Jesus’ descent into hell after his death on the cross is depicted by Daniel wandering around in Montreal’s subway, which is haunted by uncaring, oblivious people. Thus, the film dwells on artistic and symbolic portrayals of biblical accounts of Jesus’ humanity, but completely omits his divine nature.
The film’s intent is to leave the audience pondering if Daniel is an actor who played Jesus, or Jesus returned to Earth as an actor. Perhaps the movie’s most offensive scene occurs when doctors transplant various organs from Daniel’s body after he dies to other people in a pathetic attempt to use technology for a counterfeit, or substitute resurrection.
The director, Arcand, says his film has more to do with the plight of struggling young actors than his conception of the Scriptures. However, Arcand has confessed that he is not a churchgoer and makes it quite clear that he has no personal knowledge of the risen Savior, Jesus Christ.
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. The first in the Visual Bible series, MATTHEW, is one of the best and clearest translations brought to life through the movie medium. Indeed, the very words of Christ and every word by every character is lifted completely from the New International Version.
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. Also, since MATTHEW is visualized, it may not coincide with the way you imagined the scenes or characters in your own mind. (Indeed, every Christian has their own concept of how Jesus looks.) Many movies have Christ straight-faced and somber. Here, He is full of joy and life. Some may argue that this Jesus Christ is too joyous, too earthly, too intimate, but since the text is straight from the Bible, his portrayal is uncompromising and biblical.
The movie starts out with pastoral pictures of the Israeli countryside. Matthew is presenting some background information on himself and why he wrote the book, “to show that Jesus of Nazareth is the long awaited Messiah.” He then goes into the genealogy of Jesus, explaining it to scribes and even young children. (As the verses are stated, the chapter and verse are indicated on the lower right hand corner.) As the story progresses into the life of Jesus, the Bible text is read in narration by the Matthew character until the other players are given their lines. Then, dialogue and narration are traded back and forth throughout the rest of the movie.
This Visual Bible is useful for comment, preaching, teaching, and illumination, as well as entertainment for the family. It is literally, a Visual Bible that children and adults can appreciate. It is accessible, clear and entertaining. Furthermore, the Visual Bible is a well-made, worthwhile presentation of the Truth of the world of God, a tool needed to be seen by all the peoples of the world.
FROM JESUS TO CHRIST: THE EARLY CHRISTIANS (TV)
FROM JESUS TO CHRIST brings together the skepticism of the Jesus Seminar, some of whose theologians are represented in the program, and the pretentiousness of German higher criticism from the late 19th Century, to form a very confused portrait of Christianity.
In the FRONTLINE program, biblical scholars attempt to offer a thorough cultural analysis of the life and thought of Jesus. The analysis relates his teachings to the political environment, economic and material culture of his time, but the effect of the program is to present Jesus as just a product of his culture, and his thought and works as mere variations on what others were thinking and doing at the time.
Also, as Laurence Vittes wrote in The Hollywood Reporter on April 6, 1998, “by not explaining who the commentators are and what academic axes they may have to grind, it carelessly bestows upon them a kind of unquestioning credibility they may not deserve.”
The association with the Jesus Seminar is critical. The Jesus Seminar was described last August in the US News and World Report by Jeffery L. Sheler as “a notorious band of Bible Scholars” who had for 12 years “riled the religious community by declaring that Jesus is grossly misquoted and misrepresented in the Gospels.” He added that the group is made up of about 50 religion professors from around the country.
Since the first documents of our knowledge of Jesus are the Gospels, it takes real hubris to disregard the Gospels and try to patch together a portrait of Jesus from some limited archeological evidence. The reason for doing so is clear; it is a lack of faith. Perhaps even a lack of faith has become the root of bitterness. However, the good news is that the Truth of the Gospel cannot be contained.
FROM JESUS TO CHRIST quotes Scripture and then interviews theologians from institutions that have long lost their Christian worldview. The theologians start out by telling us that that Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem, although no reason is given to contradict the Gospel account of this historical fact. Also, the so-called theologians note that whereas the Gospels portray Jesus as a poor carpenter’s son, archeological evidence shows that he might be from upper middle class and very well-read. Of course, this archeological evidence has nothing to do directly with Jesus, but with recently discovered Roman ruins in the region of the Galilee. The scholars dismiss Jesus’ stilling of the waves and his feeding of the 5,000 as impossible, and they fail to explore the uniqueness of his message which is the basis for Christianity.
Here it should be noted that a theologian is someone who by definition has knowledge of God, and a Christian is by definition someone who believes in Jesus Christ as God. If these scholars do not believe in God or in Jesus Christ, how can they be called Christians or theologians?
Donald Crossan from DuPaul University notes in a derogatory manner that there were many so-called miracle workers at the time of Jesus and that Jesus was not even the best miracle worker. Crossan has been associated with the Jesus Seminar and has lost several theological debates when confronted by real theologians.
What is interesting about this program, rather than the misinformation, disinformation and constant belittling of Jesus by making such comments as there were better miracle workers and that there were better messianic leaders, is the question which the program can’t answer, “Why did Jesus Christ’s reputation grow and Christianity flourish while these other so-called Messiahs and their followers disappeared into the dustbin of history?” Of course, the reason the scholars can’t answer that question is that they do not know Jesus Christ personally and do not understand what would compel the early converts and martyrs to stand firm in the face of the terrible tribulation since they have no knowledge of the power of the Holy Spirit.
Some interesting theological problems emerge in the program such as the fact that the scholars harp on the line “My God, My God why has thou forsaken me?” as an indication that Jesus was not one with God as the Gospels’ say, but separated from God the Father on the Cross. They forget to note that Jesus used this line from Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?” to explain to his disciples and succeeding generations what was happening on the Cross so that all those who heard Him would know that His crucifixion had been predicted centuries before it happened and that it was part of God’s plan to redeem mankind. Anyone, such as the disciples, versed in the oral tradition of the Hebrew Church would understand that Jesus is citing the first line of Psalm 22 to explain what is happening to him (just as a minister saying “Our Father” will prompt the congregation to say the rest of the Lord’s Prayer). Read Psalm 22 and you read about the suffering Messiah, whose garments were divided and who was raised from the dead. Are these theologians so ignorant that they just don’t know the basics of Christianity 101?
The scholars also spend much time harping on a Q source which was a fabrication of the German school of higher criticism in the late 19th century. This school wanted to get rid of all the Jewish influences on Christianity and set the stage for the apostasy for many churches in Germany under Adolph Hitler. One can only wonder if the PBS producers understand that the position they are supporting has not only been discredited by modern theological criticism and archeology, but also is the position that undergirded the Nazi Holocaust. Maybe they do understand and their opposition to Jesus is much deeper than just a lack of faith, but truly an attack on Christianity, and in doing so an attack on other faiths.
As the famous skeptic and theologian, J. A. T. Robinson, pointed out so forcefully in his book Redating the New Testament, all the evidence points that the Gospels were written within the first few decades after Jesus death, and the reason that skeptics, including himself before he found Christ, re-dated the Gospels after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is that skeptics could not believe that Jesus could predict the fall of Jerusalem. Of course, if you believe that Jesus is God, then you have no trouble believing that He predicted the fall of Jerusalem. If not, you have to date the Gospels after the fall of Jerusalem to discount His prescience. This type of faulty theology and bad logic runs through the whole program.
The good news, however, is that in spite of the faulty theology, the program has to admit the triumph of Christianity. A faith which is now held by almost a third of the world’s population and which is growing at an exponential rate. The further good news is that the program does quote Scripture. God’s Word will not go forth without eliciting a response.
The sad part of this program is not the attempt to present misinformation and disinformation by scholars who have been dismissed by the Christian community, but the fact that these poor misguided individuals are blind to the truth that could set them free from the confusion that is keeping them from understanding the very thing they have spent their lives studying.
What happened to real Easter programs?
MARY, THE MOTHER OF JESUS (TV)
As Newton N. Minow said about television, it is a vast “wasteland.” Therefore, a little green sprout in the middle of this wasteland is often cause for rejoicing. MARY, THE MOTHER OF JESUS is such a spindly green sprout. Regrettably, several of its branches are fruitless.
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. This dried message is not at all fruitful, nor does it explain the power of the Christian faith that grew from 12 apostles to billions of people who call themselves Christians.
The story, though, tries to follow the Gospel from Mary’s point of view. She shows herself right at the beginning to be a woman who will stand up for her beliefs. After Roman soldiers come and harass a cousin of Joseph’s, an angel meets Mary in a manner that is quite true to the Jewish conception of angels, telling her that she will give birth to God’s son. In a dream, Joseph decides not to shun Mary, and the plot continues with the birth, the incident in the temple when Jesus is 12, Jesus’ time with the disciples, his crucifixion, and finally to a very ephemeral resurrection, although it is clear that the tomb is empty. As a young boy, Mary teaches Jesus to turn the other cheek and even some of his soon to become famous parables.
Regrettably, MARY, THE MOTHER OF JESUS denies the coherency and consistency of God between the Old and New Testaments by demeaning the “eye for an eye justice” that God instructed the Hebrews. Usually this type of flaw occurs when the scriptwriters are not theologians and don’t understand that justice must be consistent, and that the eye for an eye was a vast improvement over the rampant revenge expected of the other Semitic tribes. However, these theological blindspots are not fatal to the story.
What comes close to being fatal is Mary’s statement near the end when the Apostle John asks her, “What should we do next?” She tells him that they should tell people about Jesus’ great life, his moral virtues and his great love. It is this point where many who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ will yell foul. As even Pope John Paul II noted in his recent trip to India, the Gospel is not about good works nor moral virtues nor great love, it is about atonement of sin which is only available through Jesus Christ, who paid the price for sin on the cross and who was resurrected as a seal of salvation. Our inability to do good, even when we so desire to do so, the hardness of our hearts, the rejoicing in self and sin, all make the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus more powerful. Glossing over this, the movie turns this personal atoning and redemptive relationship into a dead religion that offers no hope, only good works, something that’s impossible to do.
It’s doubtful that many people will lose their faith by watching MARY, THE MOTHER OF JESUS. It is improbable that anyone will come away worshipping Mary. However, it’s likely that many people will persist in the confusion that Christianity is a religion rather than a personal relationship with a personal savior who is Jesus the Christ. Several other inconsistencies, which are not dreadful, include Mary getting baptized by John.
All in all, MARY, THE MOTHER OF JESUS shows us the need for Jesus Christ and the short-sightedness of our age.
JESUS, produced by some committed Christians, tries to give a contemporary slant to the story by adding some extra-biblical material. It is clear that the intention is to lift up an accurate portrait of Jesus, but the extra-biblical material and some little glitches slightly diminish the attempt.
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, a word for word movie taken from the Gospel of the same name, is one of the best movies ever made about the life of Jesus Christ.
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN brings John’s Gospel alive in a powerful way. For perhaps the first time in cinematic history, it becomes clear why Jesus and his Jewish followers were at odds with the Jewish establishment. Watching Jesus throw down the gauntlet of His messianic claims in the face of the Pharisees and Sadducees will clearly call people into the Kingdom of God. There is no ambiguity here: this is Jesus, the Messiah, the only Son of God, true God from true God, of one Being with the Father.
Although nothing is added to the biblical text, or taken away from it, the scriptwriter, John Goldsmith, a committed Christian, has done a superb job of staging and setting the story in a way that is constantly compelling. The lead, Shakespearean actor Henry Ian Cusick, gives an authoritative and yet warm and endearing portrayal of our Lord Jesus. Christians need to go into all the world to bring their friends to watch the Good News of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in THE GOSPEL OF JOHN.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is Mel Gibson’s masterpiece about the final hours of Jesus Christ.
The movie covers the time period from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Cross and beyond. Going beyond most Passion Plays, it highlights in stark, dark, intense terms the spiritual warfare raging around Jesus Christ during His Passion. The first scene has Jesus weeping in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Satan, an androgynous figure accompanied by a snake, tries to tempt Jesus away from his destiny on the cross. When Jesus arises, he stomps on the head of the serpent. Quickly, Judas leads the temple guards into the garden to arrest Jesus. From that point, the brutal treatment of the Messiah is shown in stark detail.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a must-see movie, beautifully directed, powerfully acted, and with terrific sound. Filmed in Latin and Aramaic, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST has a foreign sensibility. The violence and the glee of the Romans who were scourging Jesus highlight the demonic quality of the battle Jesus was fighting. Those who see it will understand, perhaps for the first time, the price that Jesus paid to forgive us our sins. This is real grace, not cheap grace.
THE NATIVITY STORY
THE NATIVITY STORY tells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ in a dramatic, authentic manner. It’s one of those very rare movies that brings the Gospel alive in a compelling, captivating, entertaining, and inspirational way that shatters expectations. The movie references and quotes Scripture throughout. King Herod sends out the troops to kill all the innocents in Bethlehem and stop the prophecy that there will be born a King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The movie then flashes back to a year earlier in the town of Nazareth, introducing the audience to the life of Joseph and Mary. Soon, an angel of God comes to Mary to tell her that she is with God’s child, born by the Holy Spirit. Joseph and Mary have to journey to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. In the fullness of time, the prophecies of God are fulfilled.
THE NATIVITY STORY is a nearly perfect movie. It has one of the best scripts ever for a biblical story. A sense of jeopardy is present throughout. The dialogue, the plot development, the turning points are refreshingly dramatic. Best of all, THE NATIVITY STORY testifies in every way to Jesus the Messiah and is clearly evangelistic without being preachy.
THE BIBLE (TV)
The superb miniseries THE BIBLE begins with Noah recounting Genesis One to his family as rain pours down on the Ark. It then shows the story of Adam and Eve, followed by the story of Abraham as he and his wife undergo many trials. It also focuses on the story of the Exodus. The middle of the miniseries shows Joshua at the Battle of Jericho, followed by stories of Samson, David, Solomon, and Daniel. The final two episodes focus on the birth and ministry of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection, and the preaching of Peter, Paul, and John.
The beauty of THE BIBLE is how it weaves the Biblical accounts together while keeping the spiritual, emotional integrity of Scripture. Mark Burnett and Roma Downey do a masterful job adapting Scripture. Some details are left out due to time, and there are some additions for dramatic effect. Even so, the miniseries succeeds in making history come alive while clearly preaching the Gospel. Caution is required due to some intense violence and implied sexual sin. Otherwise, however, THE BIBLE is tremendously exciting and inspiring.
SON OF GOD
SON OF GOD begins with John narrating God’s promise and covenant with His people through Israel’s history as the Romans take control of the countryside. After showing the birth of Jesus, 30 years later Jesus approaches Peter to call him to join His mission to change the world. Jesus confronts the Pharisees through His teaching and miracles. Then, as conflict mounts between the Romans and the Jews during Passover, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds and tension around Jesus increase as Jesus begins His journey to the Cross.
SON OF GOD is a captivating showcase of God’s grace. The acting is excellent, including the powerful ending. The movie is life changing, but the pacing could be tighter. Thus, the movie opens strongly, but the first half is too episodic. Also, some biblical episodes, including dialogue, seem too truncated. That said, the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish and Roman leadership is strong. The movie also has a powerful resurrection sequence. SON OF GOD clearly shows that the death and resurrection of Christ is a glorious reminder of God’s love.
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.