Jesus Christ, Movie Star: A Pilgrimage in Film
Jesus Christ, Movie Star
A Cinematic Pilgrimage, Following Jesus in Film
We will discuss 10 film versions of the life of Jesus.
* THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)
* KING OF KINGS (1961)
* THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (1964)
* GODSPELL (1973)
* JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)
* THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
* THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)
* MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979)
* JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)
* SON OF MAN (2006)
Eric David (M.A., U.S.C. film school, bio at bottom) is building on a lecture he gave at the Getty Center in Los Angeles on the history of Jesus films.
Each title is announced on Thursday, commentary posted by Sunday if not sooner.
Watch anytime at home, in any order. Read commentary below each week.
Alternative Jesus films, if you don’t like the selected film, are in the Appendix below.
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These films are free or inexpensive. (Kanopy & Hoopla use a library card for free viewing. JustWatch links to the lowest streaming rentals or subscription-based.)
Unlike in-person screenings, longer movies, subtitles and adult content are better for home viewing.
Commentary below will discuss:
* Scriptural accuracy and spiritual applicability.
* Jesus’ portrayal and ethnic representation.
* Anti-semitism, or the lack thereof.
* Selected reviews. Box office figures.
* Film techniques, use of camera, music, setting, screenplay structure, etc.
* The society of the times. Recent news and polling data to highlight issues raised.
* The representation of women, people of color, and if applicable, LGBT folk.
Précis: Purpose of the Series
Whatever you believe about him, or even if you don’t believe in him at all, it’s clear the person of Jesus Christ figures large in human history, and still influences our lives two millennia later.
However, many don’t know or haven’t read the original story, including many evangelicals who in recent polls are unable to name the four Gospels.
The way we imagine such a central figure -- devotionally, politically or otherwise -- impacts our world, our networks, and our individual lives. While we only have a few hundred words to go on and no physical description at all, the depiction of Jesus Christ in art for centuries has been a fascinating journey. Plus, the proliferation of screens (movies, TV, computers, portable devices, eventually VR and AR) have been a major input into our collective imaginations for the past century.
In this series, we’ll be looking at the social, political, cultural and religious milieu in which each Jesus film was made, from the first silents to the most recent versions, but choosing the most representative films for specific focus each week during Lent. We will also look at film technique, reviews from the times, and quote from a dozen scholarly books about Jesus in film.
In passing, we’ll mention transfigurations of Christ figures and relocations of the story structure to other settings, but our focus is on telling the actual gospel story. Last, each film can also be used devotionally for those who wish to do so,and we will have resources for further exploration of the spiritual dimensions the film raises.
Some key questions we’ll address:
* How is Jesus Christ cast? What does he look like, sound like, dress like, etc.?
* How closely does the script adhere to the Gospel texts?
* How is his humanity versus divinity depicted?
* How are miracles depicted, if at all? The resurrection?
* Why is he put to death?
* How are his family and followers depicted?
* How are his enemies depicted? (Anti-Semitism?)
* How is his relationship to God depicted?
* What does this depiction say about our own relationship to the divine? To others? To ourselves?
* What’s your answer to: “Who do you say that I am?”
FEB 18: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
G - 137 to 260 minutes (depending on version) - Free/$3.99
Watch the trailer on YouTube:
Stream the film on aggregator JustWatch:
Learn more about The Greatest Story Ever Told at the film's wikipedia page :
The Greatest Jesus Film Flop Ever Made, commentary by Eric David
“Jesus is far too important a figure to be left only to the theologians and the church.”
~ Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture
So. We'll be watching films slightly out of chronological order.
This first week, we underscore the title of this series with the version of the life of Christ that has the most movie stars, from Charlton Heston to John Wayne, featuring the ethereal Swede Max von Sydow playing Jesus. Directed by George Stevens, it received five Oscar nominations.
The Greatest Story Ever Told is a very loose adaptation of the novel of the same name by Fulton Oursler, which itself was an adaptation of a Peabody Award-winning radio series. It illustrates the "harmonization" approach: taking stories from all four Gospels.
All we have to go on regarding the life of Jesus are four Gospels and a little bit of the book of Acts, totalling about 90,000 words, the length of The Hobbit, or 1984, about nine hours on audiobook. And these were not narrative biographies in the modern sense of the word. They were faith declarations, testaments.
I’m assuming familiarity among my readers here with the basic outline of the gospel story, but if you don’t know them, The Message is an eminently readable paraphrase/translation and Mark is the shortest Gospel to start with (and probably the first written) and is online at any number of bible websites (see Appendix at bottom for links). Perhaps one of the best introductions to the Four Gospels and how very different they are from each other is the book The Four Witnesses: The Rebel, The Rabbi, The Chronicler and The Mystic, by Robin Griffith-Jones. The subtitle starts to show the differences already; the book goes into great depth:
So in retelling the story of Jesus, the first choice is whether to choose one of the Gospel or to “harmonize” them into one meta-narrative. The films in this series do one or the other. This week’s selection is twice-removed, for example, by drawing from a harmonization that was then novelized. (Note: an online hyperlinked harmonization of the Bible is in the Appendix at bottom.) The discipline of hermeneutics is essential: the theory and methodology of interpretation itself, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts.
Since early Christianity, followers of Jesus have tried to figure out how to depict him. We have no physical description. In film, of course, you must cast someone and lock down the image of Jesus to a particular individual actor. Most recent in time to the epic films in the public imagination was the famous devotional painting The Head of Christ, by Warner Sallman.
Yet we know precious little about how Jesus dressed, spoke, moved, or what he thought. And adaptation of any text to a moving image will involve change, addition, deletion. Plus, we have centuries of art and Passion Plays that affect how we’ve seen Jesus up to this point. Finally, there’s the issue of the belief, or lack thereof, of the creators (writers, directors, producers) as well as the audience. Filmmakers must confront all these difficulties when making a Jesus film.
This article from July 2020 describes both the recent scrutiny the depiction of Jesus has come under as well as the history of the depiction of Jesus as a white European:
Peter Malone, in Screen Jesus, has written of Jesus being characterized in a number of ways: Priest, Prophet, King, Redeemer, Liberator, Savior, and even the “Holy Fool.” Most importantly, Jesus is not just a figure from history or a subject for entertainment, but a vital person that many people feel they have a real relationship with here and now. To depict him in any way different from the preconceived notions people bring to a work invites controversy or, worse in the movie industry, indifference. Last, movies are the most expensive art to create and so many compromises and shortcuts need to be taken that don’t apply to writing down words.
The gospel story has been filmed almost since the first celluloid was exposed to the light. A couple of silent films are listed in the Appendix at bottom, but there were dozens before sound came along, usually pious and reverent, with Cecil B. deMille’s King of Kings (1927) taking the spotlight as the most popular of the lot. There was a lull for nearly four decades until the epic biblical spectacles of the ‘60s, where we begin our series.
While Catholics and Orthodox believers grow up with religious images and icons, Protestants have always been more focused on the word. Add the warnings about graven imagery (which technically film is not, but depicting divinity has always been problematic), and the fact that America is largely a Protestant nation, and you have obstacles to depicting Jesus on film. Yet if a picture is worth a thousand words then a moving picture is worth a book full of sermons. As if to illustrate that very point with words, just over a hundred years ago, even before sound was an option in movies, a prominent preacher put it this way:
I realized that I was wast