Day of Triumph's claim to fame in the pantheon of Jesus films is often misreported, but essentially it's this: it was the sound era's first American film about the life of Jesus to appear in cinemas. Between it's release in December 1954 and the previous major Hollywood Jesus film, The King of Kings (1927) there were Jesus films from other countries, such as Golgotha (1935) and El Mártir del Calvario (1952); films in which Jesus featured around the margins of the main story, such as The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) and The Robe (1953); and even American Jesus films that played in smaller venues like churches or on TV, such as No Greater Power (1942) and 1951's Hill Number One. So whilst things are a little less clear-cut than is sometimes imagined, Day of Triumph's role is certainly a significant film and a forefather to the many American Jesus films that would follow in its wake.
What's surprising on watching the film again, after a great many years, is how well it tackles some of the issues latter Jesus movies have grappled with. Like many Jesus films there were accusations of anti-Semitism in the run up to its release, which apparently "made many theatre owners reluctant to book the movie".1 The film does have a few problematic elements in this respect. Judas, for example, is depicted with arched eyebrows and a devilish beard and is shown to be both overly ambitious and scheming ("I'll begin to offer casual suggestions on important matters, later I'll advise on more vital affairs."). Ultimately it's over-confidence and hubris that lead to his downfall. Yet at the same time, in other ways it is a sympathetic portrayal of Judas. He has strengths as well as his eventual weaknesses: he is eloquent and visionary, delivering the film's best dialogue in a scene affirming Jesus' humanity; his betrayal of Jesus is not in the least motivated by the money, but out of a desire to see Jesus elevated to Judah's king; and he is played with great sympathy by James Griffith such that ultimately it is Judas that is the character the audience is left rooting for. It's perhaps the most intimate and fleshed-out portrayal of Judas yet captured on film. It doesn't milk his suicide, unsensationally keeping it off camera. Had it, no doubt it would have detracted to a certain degree, from the film's "happy" ending.
The film attempts to try and present the historical and religious context of the film in a fair light. Various characters, including Jesus, are called by their father's names (e.g. Jesus bar Joseph), the Zealots - who here appear on very good terms with numerous disciples - are unmistakably Jewish, not least because they wear skull caps and pray. These key plot elements here were reproduced in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961) - a zealot party divided between those backing Jesus and those supporting Barabbas, ultimately betraying the former in favour of the latter, to Judas' heartbreak - but whereas Ray's film largely secularises the zealots, here they belong, and are very much motivated by the Jewish faith.
Historically speaking whilst the film still implicates Caiaphas and Annas, their actions are largely isolated from the general populace and Arthur T. Horman's script has them make it clear that only Pilate has the power to execute Jesus. Pilate himself is portrayed as being cunning and sly, deliberately trying to make the priests appear culpable. When it's suggested that Pilate might consult the people, it's the priests that instruct their servants to go and assemble a group of their supporters to deliberately influence the vote. The zealots infiltrate the crowd as well, of course, unusually with Judas still amongst their number. By this stage, however, whilst he is still with them in person, in spirit they have rejected his vision and switched their alliances to Barabbas. When Judas, seemingly alone in such a biased crowd, continues to call for the release of his master, he is struck on the head and knocked out by one of his fellow zealots who prefers Barabbas to the "weeping" Jesus. It's the last time Judas is seen in the film.
The strength of the portrayal of Judas, the fact that it is supposed to be a film about Jesus, and the presence of two major stars (Lee Cobb who plays Zadok and Joanne Dru's Mary Magdalene), does give the film something of a problem, namely that it's a little unclear who the film is actually about. At the time of filming, it was Dru that was the film's biggest star, having had the leading female roles in 1948's Red River and the following year's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, though her appearance is only brief. Interestingly, Dru's Magdalene is never specifically identified as a prostitute, indeed the film portrays her as a woman of some means - an assertion that there is at least some evidence to support.
As Zadok, Cobb (whose performance in On the Waterfront earlier that same year had propelled him to stardom) features far more prominently. Indeed in some ways the film is more about Zadok, and his path to faith, than it is about Jesus. As the most prominent of the various 'narrators' in the film, it is primarily through Zadok's eyes, or at least those of someone alongside him, that we watch the events of the film unfold. Jesus is the Amadeus to Zadok's Salieri. Zadok is a relatively neutral presence amongst the disciples and zealots who intermingle throughout the film repeatedly asking the various characters what news they have in order to gain updates about the latest developments. In addition to Judas the political schemer he also maintains a good relationship with Barabbas and his supporters (militant firebrands), Simon (the former zealot, who has now opted for Jesus's peaceful path) and, unusually, Andrew who is seemingly linked to both the zealots and the disciples. It's a device that means that Zadok, and by extension, therefore, the viewer get to hear about and ultimately witness the resurrection, in the scene that top and tails the rest of the film.
What, then of the film's depiction of Jesus? In many ways the film's most radical statement about Jesus was its decision to show his face. It's true that the film's producer/writer/director team of James K. Friedrich, Arthur T. Horman and John T. Coyle had already produced a series of short films (The Living Christ series, 1951) featuring the same actor, Robert Wilson, as Jesus, as well as a longer film for church use I Beheld His Glory (1952). But this was the first time since the introduction of the Hays Code that Jesus had appeared in US cinemas.
Having waited 27 years the filmmakers waste no time in revealing the face of Jesus. In a teaser shot, before even the credits we see Jesus in close-up, shot from below against a rich blue sky (top). It forms an interesting contrast with the long wait before Jesus' appearance in The King of Kings (1927) and his hidden performance in the previous year's The Robe. It also anticipates similar shots in Ray's King of Kings that would be released 7 years later in 1961. This appearance before the credits role is also somewhat reminiscent of the start of John's Gospel, a reminder of Jesus' preeminence, his existence before the beginning of the world/the film.
Within the main body of the film, Jesus' first appearance is also interesting. Jesus appears behind a drying fishing net which in effect places a veil between him and the audience. It is a veil that is soon to be torn down to reveal the face of God made flesh. Indeed the concept of a fully human Christ, one who fully partakes in human experience is close to the heart of the film's portrayal of Jesus. In the speech alluded to above Judas describes the man he is following in the most sold and physical terms:
I've lived travelled eaten and slept with Jesus bar Joseph for more than two years and I've studied him more closely than any man. He's learnéd, but he's human; mortal, flesh and blood, just like you and me. When briars scratch his legs, he bleeds. When the day is hot he thirsts. He hungers, he sweats, he tires, he laughs, he cries. Would God or the son of God have such weaknesses?
This conversation (between Judas and Zadok) is just one of many behind-the-scenes musings about who Jesus is and how he might be used to forward various individuals' differing agendas; they are left frustrated by his refusal to conform to the patterns of behaviour they expect of him. When he enters Jerusalem, swept along on a wave of euphoria and seemingly well poised to declare himself king, he stops at the temple, weeps and disappears from sight. The music shift in tone at this point from typical epic pomp to something more nightmarish. This is the music of Judas' perspective as his plan for Jesus fails just when it was set to succeed. Whilst Judas insists it could all happen again the zealots decide Jesus is not going to fulfil the role they had hoped and turn their attention to the urgent task of freeing the captured Barabbas.
This kind of speculation and dramatic license was a significant shift away from Friedrich and Coyle's earlier work on The Living Christ series, perhaps due to the introduction of Irving Pichel as director. Not only does the film include a far more varied and meaningful range of music in the film and a far more interesting use of the camera, but it is also liberated from the kind of slavish keeping to the text that made Living Christ good for Sunday schools but ultimately unsuitable for cinemas.
Having said that, in places the film's dramatic additions give it a few structural problems. Major characters such as Mary Magdalene appear prominently only to retreat to obscurity, their role reduced to little more than an opportunity to get Jesus to say or do a particular thing. More pointedly, the film seems to have three or four different beginnings and almost as many natural endings. Yet this weakness doesn't detract too greatly from the film's many strengths
1 - https://www.movieguide.org/news-articles/revival-of-distinguished-1954-classic-film-day-of-triumph.html
Labels: Day of Triumph