The piece was first written in early 2004. As it is no longer available at the website where it was first published I have reproduced it here and placed it along with the other reviews that were produced before the launch of this blog in 2006. Matt Page 15/2/2017
On December 28th 1895 the Lumiére brothers projected a series of moving images for the first time to a paying audience and cinema was born. It’s not difficult to imagine the excitement and anticipation of those early audiences as they waited for the first film to start. Almost 110 years later and many people still experience a sense of awe and anticipation going to the movies.
It is perhaps because of the awe that films create that the most powerful of all stories (that of Jesus) has never been far from the silver screen. In the ten years after the Lumieres’ historic screening there were at least 10 films made about Jesus. Technological limitations meant that these first few films were only short (and silent), and as a result most of them were simply filmed passion plays (a traditional play about Jesus’s death). In fact, no fewer than seven of the first ten films had the word ‘Passion’ in the title. As filmmakers’ ambition grew, and the technology improved, so the early Jesus films were able to show parts of Jesus’s life as well as his death.
The first full-length Jesus film was From the Manger to the Cross
(1912). This ran to seventy minutes, and was largely shot on location in Palestine and Egypt (including a scene in front of the Sphinx). The film harmonised material from all four of the gospels and added only a couple of scenes to the biblical text. The inter-title cards (used to convey the dialogue) even quoted the verse they were from. Jesus was portrayed as a man of good deeds, but put little emphasis on his identity as the Son of God. Jesus also made a brief appearance in D.W.Griffth’s 3-hour Intolerance
just four years later.
Although numerous short films continued to be made about the life of Jesus, they were all to be eclipsed by the great Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 film The King of Kings
. DeMille’s name was almost synonymous with the biblical epic, and there were few films he was so proud of. In his 1959 autobiography DeMille claimed that at least 800 million people had seen the film to that point and that "probably more people have been told the story of Jesus of Nazareth through The King of Kings
than through any other single work, except the Bible itself".(1)
Despite the advent of sound and ‘talking pictures’ just a few months after The King of Kings
was released, very few Jesus films were made for the next quarter of a century, (though the French film Ecce Homo
(1935), released as Golgotha
in the US,
was one notable exception). Two Roman Catholic financed films I Beheld His Glory
(1952) and Day of Triumph
(1954), both starring Robert Wilson as Jesus, brought this sparse period to a close. The fifties also heralded a revival in the historical / biblical epic with films such as Samson and Delilah
(1949), The Ten Commandments
(1956) and Spartacus (1960). Central to this revival were five major Hollywood films that reduced Jesus to a cameo role Quo Vadis?
(1951), The Robe
(1953), Ben Hur
(1959) and Barabbas
Flushed by the commercial success of these films, the sixties witnessed the release of three major Jesus films in a period of just four years. Although in some ways they are all products of that period, it is surprising how differently Jesus is depicted in each film. Nicholas Ray’s 1961 film King of Kings
portrayed Jesus like a Californian surfer, preaching a message of love and peace against a background of Jewish - Roman violence. The miracles were minimised and Jesus almost plays second fiddle to the magnificent battle scenes. Four years later, another Hollywood production, would also overpower Jesus, this time dwarfing him against the awesome landscape of The Greatest Story Ever Told
. The effect was worsened by a drab performance, and the intended ‘mystical Jesus’ instead left viewers wondering why anyone would follow this man anyway. Both films were panned by the critics, and bombed at the box office.
Marxist director Pier Paolo Pasolini completed his Jesus film, The Gospel According to St Matthew
in 1964 - in between the two Hollywood films above. Jesus is depicted as a passionate, and driven activist. His anger at injustice and religious hypocrisy frequently results in confrontation with the religious authorities he encounters as he rushes round Galilee and Jerusalem. The film is frequently cited as the critics favourite for its stark black and white cinematography, its dreamlike feel, and its erratic edi
ting. At first Jesus seems remote and unrelational. It is only on repeated viewings and subsequent analysis that it becomes apparent that Jesus actually smiles quite a bit and enjoys time with children far more than almost every other film. The initial disorientation is perhaps because we are not so used to such an untamed, angry and direct Jesus. Despite being the first film to only use the words from just one gospel, Pasolini’s direction jolts us out of the image of cosy, mild saviour. The BBC’s 1969 televised play Son of Man
, based on Dennis Potter’s script achieves a similar result. Its overweight, haggard fiery preacher Jesus seems completely alien to us, eventhough the gospels don’t describe Jesus’s physical appearance. There’s a tendency for Christians to picture Jesus as being like us. Films such as these guard against us making Jesus in our own image.
After the box office failure of King of Kings
and The Greatest Story Ever Told
production companies began to opt for safer investments. Jesus Christ Superstar
, both released in 1973, were filmed versions of the hit musicals of the same names. Both employed ‘modern’ approaches to costumes (now terribly dated), although Jesus Christ Superstar
located the action in 1st century Palestine. Godspell
was an attempt to update the story within the context of modern day New York. Although both films were criticised for their failure to portray the resurrection, both made valuable contributions as well. Superstar
uses the musical solo to allow us inside the heads of the main characters and reflect on the story from their perspective. Godspell
, put a strong emphasis on retelling of the parables
and restored some of their original creativity.
Perhaps the most widely known, and appreciated, Jesus film amongst western audiences in Jesus of Nazareth
(1977). If it were possible to count just how many people picture Robert Powell when they pray, the results would probably be quite worrying. The film does have much to commend it. It is beautifully shot, goes to great lengths to get the look of Jesus’s time, and tries to remain faithful to the gospels. However, although the series ran to over six hours, there was much that was omitted. Episodes such as the Transfiguration, and the more dramatic miracles which emphasise the extent of Jesus’s divinity are absent. Conversely, Powell’s glazed, starring eyes, his beautiful appearance, perfect teeth and nails, impeccable accent, and slow emotionless speech all detract from his humanity. The result is a bland Jesus, neither fully human nor fully divine, let alone both. Whilst such a portrayal appeals to a mass TV audience, it sterilises the radical nature of Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus’s more controversial teaching is either sidelined or drained of its power, whilst his immediate audience listen passively, unaffected by his words.
Many of the same criticisms could be levelled at the 1979 film Jesus
. Thanks to its translation into hundreds of languages, and its use by missionaries all over the whole this is now thought to be the most watched film of all time. Millions of people have been saved as a result of watching it and praying its concluding prayer. Whatever the artistic quality of the film it certainly appears to carry something of an anointing.
The following decade saw more controversial versions of Jesus’s life being made. Monty Python’s Life of Brian
(1979) was labelled as heretical on its release for allegedly mocking Jesus and the crucifixion in particular. On reflection the intended target seems more likely to be intolerant religion, a target Jesus himself might have approved of, although the crucifixion scene is still hard to stomach. More protests were levelled at Martin Scorcese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ
(1988) - in both cases many of the protestors had not even seen the film in question. Last Temptation
is a strange film. It certainly appears to be a genuine attempt to explore the humanity of Jesus, and although parts of it are very effective other parts seem to be unnecessarily offensive, whilst others are just dull. This ‘fictional’ version of Jesus results in him being tempted on the cross to give up God’s call on his life and settle for marriage to Mary Magdalene and children. Ultimately Jesus rejects this temptation and submits to God’s will. It was this final section that drew most of the criticism, which is odd because the temptation to live an easy, domesticated life is hardly scandalous. Conversely, earlier scenes in the film such as those where Jesus rips his heart out of his chest, or watches Mary prostituting herself with a number of customers, were largely unmentioned by the protesters. Ironically the film reaffirms a conservative theology.
Its Jesus is both human and divine, and at the end of the film he dies rather than choosing the easy path. However, the film’s major weakness is perhaps not a low view of Jesus’s divinity, but rather that its view of his humanity is too low. This is in marked contrast to Jesus of Montreal
(1989) which is sceptical about Jesus’s incarnation and resurrection, but presents a strong, yet sensitive Christ figure at the centre of its modern day tale of a group of actors re-working a traditional passion play.
There have been a few recent additions to the ranks of films about Jesus. The Visual Bible’s The Gospel According to Matthew
(1994) was a word for word presentation of the gospel, even including the narrator adding "he said" in between some lines. Whilst the film has some merit as a visual accompaniment to reading the text, its literalness squeezes the interest out of it. A gospel is a totally different artistic medium from film and it shows. Further more there is a danger that it becomes seen as how things really happened rather than just an interpretation of a gospel.
Two films arrived in time for the millennium. Jesus
(1999) was a mini-series shown in the US and on satellite. It flirted with some of the ideas that Scorcese wrestled with without taking such a controversial approach. Numerous extra-biblical scenes were added which filled out several aspects of Jesus’s humanity, without being too unfaithful to the biblical text, or compromising his divinity. That said Jesus’s sense of fun is overplayed to distraction, though it does form a useful balance to decades of overly serious and pious Jesus films.
Possibly the most balanced depiction of Jesus comes in the claymation of Russian - Welsh collaboration The Miracle Maker
(1999). Not only does Jesus have a range of emotions whilst still maintaining some otherness, but he is also the most Semitic looking Jesus to date - a relief after years of blond and / or blue-eyed Christs. The varied and creative animation is also a major highlight.
Into this long and varied tradition step two new films. The first is another release from the Visual Bible, this time The Gospel of John
. This was first aired at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2003, but is unlikely to receive wide release in the UK. The other is Mel Gibson’s hotly anticipated The Passion
, to be released some time before Easter 2004 (at least in the US). Seemingly going full circle and returning to the origins of the Jesus film The Passion
will focus solely on the last 12 hours of Jesus’s life (although it appears from the trailers that there may be the occasional flashback).
The Passion is returning to origins in other ways. In some of the publicity surrounding the making of the film, Gibson has stated that the film "will show the passion of Jesus Christ just the way it happened... like travelling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred".(2)
He clearly wants to make it "in a realistic manner so that it doesn't suffer from the traps of a lot of biblical epics, which quite frankly, suffer from either being too corny, or laughable, or have bad hair".(3)
is returning to origins in other ways. In some of the publicity surrounding the making of the film, Gibson has stated that the film "will show the passion of Jesus Christ just the way it happened... like travelling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred".(4)
He clearly wants to make it "in a realistic manner so that it doesn't suffer from the traps of a lot of biblical epics, which quite frankly, suffer from either being too corny, or laughable, or have bad hair".(5)
There appears to be a number of ways in which he hopes to achieve this. Firstly, Gibson has recorded the film in the ancient languages of Aramaic (Jesus’s mother tongue) and Latin (the Roman language), though not in New Testament Greek. His original plan was to release the film without subtitles, relying on audience familiarity with the story, and hoping he will be able to "transcend language barriers with visual story telling".(6)
The idea has received a mixed response. The curious omission of the much more widely spoken koine
Greek has led some to wonder whether with Gibson’s use of the original languages is motivated more by his strong preference for the Latin liturgy. Nevertheless, many are eager to see if Gibson can pull it off, hoping for imagery that for once really does transcend dialogue. Others, particularly church leaders, are trying to persuade Gibson to use subtitles, hoping that making the film more accessible will encourage a wider audience to participate.
Gibson has also attempted to bring in an historical accuracy with the look of the film, "right down to the clothing, right down to the eating customs of the Jews of the old law".(7)
This has been slightly undermined by various visual aspects of the film that side with traditional church iconography instead of the historical consensus. It is fairly widely acknowledged that Jesus would have carried only his crossbeam through the streets before being totally stripped and nailed to the cross through his wrists. Instead the trailer shows such historical reconstructions being ignored. However, by choosing dark-haired James Caviezel to play Jesus, and artificially darkening Caviezel’s blue eyes, it is likely to give us the most Semitic looking Jesus yet to grace our screens.
Perhaps Gibson’s most trumpeted effort to improve historical accuracy has been his treatment of the violence associated with Jesus’s death. He has criticised many of the previous Jesus film for sanitising Christ’s death, and making it like "a fairy tale".(8)
He has a point. The crucifixion in Jesus of Nazareth
(1977) of Nazareth is so beautiful and bloodless the horror of it is almost absent. King of Kings
(1961) even went to the extent of shaving actor Jeffrey Hunter’s armpits for the occasion! The trend in recent years has been to show a more bloody resurrection, and it appears that Gibson is seeking to go one step further. James Caviezel has said that "by the time [audiences] get to the crucifixion scene, I believe there will be many who can't take it and will have to walk out - I guarantee it".(9)
The trailer would appear to confirm that this will be the bloodiest Jesus film ever made.
The potential similarities between The Passion
and the last film Gibson directed, Braveheart
(1995), have not gone unnoticed. Both stories climax in a hero facing torture and a bloody death to which the people give their wholehearted approval. A brief look at many of the roles Gibson has chosen to play also reflects a fascination with similar themes. Some critics are wary of such an overemphasis on the violent aspects of Jesus’s death. Peter T Chattaway notes: "The depiction of violence for its own sake has become all too common in modern cinema, even in films that purport to take it more seriously, and I would say this is especially evident throughout Gibson's career. I hope he will be able to take his audience beyond the physical torment to some deeper spiritual place".(10)
He certainly appears to want to. "My intention... is to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences".(11)
This seems to be driven in part by his impression that God wants him to make this movie. "I really feel my career was leading me to make this. The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelize".(12)
"There is an interesting power in the script. There have been a lot of unusual things happening, good things like people being healed of diseases, a couple of people have had sight and hearing restored, another guy was struck by lightning while we were filming the crucifixion scene and he just got up and walked away".(13)
Other sources have cited conversions of various members of the crew on set.
Interestingly enough, such claims are similar to those of one of the films that Gibson seems to have criticised, Campus Crusade’s Jesus
(1979). It’s important to remember that God’s grace and presence on set do not necessarily equal divine approval. In fact there’s a danger, at least within church circles, that such claims put the film beyond criticism.
Gibson has certainly had no such luck outside of the church. The film, and Gibson’s beliefs, have frequently been condemned, months ahead of its release. Top of the list is the charge of anti-Semitism. This is nothing new for films on the life of Jesus. Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings
(1927) underwent changes after its initial release following protests from some Jewish groups.
It is indeed a difficult issue. Jewish people have suffered horrific persecution at the hands of Christians for two thousand years, largely due to their alleged role in Jesus’s passion. On the other hand the Gospels do appear to blame the Jews, or at least the Jewish Authorities for Jesus’s death. Whilst this has led some to claim that the gospels themselves are anti-Semitic, most Evangelical Christians would either be unaware of this, or they would strongly disagree with it. The fact that Jesus was Jewish seems to have escaped the attention of the persecutors of the Jewish people. It is unfortunate that James Caviezel will be wearing a loincloth in The Passion,
because as Gordon Thomas notes "The loincloth hides the essential Jewishness of Jesus... If the Jesus on the cross had been a visible constant reminder that he was a Jew, would Christians down the centuries have carried out all those pogroms"?(14)
There is, of course, also a range of Jewish opinion on the matter. Most would be happy with any presentation of the gospels which does not add to the "anti-Jewish" sentiment found in them. However, others object to any presentation of the gospels which shows the Jewish people as responsible for Jesus’s death, fearing reprisals like those that have gone before. The debate is already becoming tiresome, but will no doubt roll on until well after Passion
’s release. Gibson has shown the film, with major edits, to his most vocal critics the Anti-Defamation League, who insist that they are still not satisfied. Everyone else will have to make up their minds once it is released.
Hopefully The Passion
will remind Christians instead of the incredible love that Jesus demonstrated WorldNetDailyin his death. Gibson himself has said, "This is a movie about love, faith, hope and forgiveness. [Jesus] died for all mankind. He suffered for all of us. It's time to get back to that basic message. The world has gone nuts. We could use a little more love, faith, hope and forgiveness".(15)
Perhaps only when we too begin to demonstrate that love to Jesus’s people will his life truly become good news to his own (Jewish) race.
1 - DeMille, Cecil B., Autobiography , London: W.H.Allen 1960, p.258
2 - Andrew Gumbel - The Independent – 16th August 2003
3 - Holly McClure - New York Daily News, January 26, 2003
4 - Zenit Staff - Zenit - "Mel Gibson’s Great Passion" - March 6, 2003
5 - Holly McClure - Baptist Press - "First Person: Mel Gibson's 'Passion' for Jesus" - February 24, 2003
6 - Kamon Simpson - Colorado Springs Gazette - "Mel Gibson brings movie to city's church leaders" - June 27, 2003
7 - Raymond Arroyo - Wall Street Journal, March 7 2003
8 - Holly McClure - New York Daily News, January 26, 2003
9 - Christopher Goodwin – The Sunday Times, July 13, 2003
10 - Peter T Chattaway, BC Christian News, September 2003
11 - Janet Rausa Fuller, Chicago Sun Times, August 3, 2003
12 - Kamon Simpson - The Gazette (Colorado Springs) - "Mel Gibson brings movie to city's church leaders" - June 27, 2003
13 - Holly McClure- New York Daily News, January 26, 2003
14 - Thomas, Gordon; Trial: The Life and Inevitable Crucifixion of Jesus, Lion (Oxford) (1997) p.26
15 - Original words spoken in an interview on "The O’Reilly Factor" (Fox News Channel) - January 14, 2003 - transcript here, these are not exactly those quoted above, the form of which first appeared in WorldNetDaily.com "Mel Gibson under attack for Jesus film?", also January 14, 2003. This form of the quote later appeared in the book "The Passion: Photography from the Movie The Passion of the Christ" (2004)
Labels: Passion of the Christ