The Reel Jesus

The image of Christ in the visual arts is a history of reverence, wonder, and controversy. Art historically, one can trace the depiction of Christ from an icon of power and transcendental remoteness to a depiction—especially prevalent in modern times—of Christ as a man of flesh and blood, seemingly more human than divine. In the 20th century, the image of Christ became more immanent and intimate. It was even appropriated by various ethnic, sexual, and political groups for propaganda purposes. For instance, the Mexican muralist Orozco portrayed an angry Christ chopping up His cross as a symbol of revolution. Artist Alex Gray superimposed a crucified Christ over a nuclear explosion to protest arms proliferation. And a descendant of Winston Churchill, the sculptress Edwina Sandys, made a feminist statement in portraying a naked female on a cross and calling her “Christa.”

Of special interest, too, in the history of art, is the phenomenon whereby the artist or a group of participants in a ritual act identify with the very Person of Christ. The artist Albrecht Durer portrayed himself as the Man of Sorrows. Many an artist after him assumed the role of the “alter Christus.” This identification accelerated in the 19th and 20th centuries with ever-greater frequency as artists shook off the medieval notion of being mere craftsmen and adopted the elevated image of themselves in the role of prophet, seer, or mystic, enjoying special entrée into the world of the spiritual, supernatural, and surreal. At the devotional level, on the other hand, the faithful had long fostered an empathetic association with the sufferings of Christ in such popular pieties as Passion plays and the rituals of public penitents.

With the advent of film as the most popular art form of modern times, some questioned the propriety of showing the God-man on celluloid. Like the theater before it, film was initially looked on as lowbrow entertainment, something akin to vaudeville and the circus. Film was also a highly realistic medium. Could the supernatural aspects of Christ’s life and ministry be appropriately conveyed in the cinema? These are questions that filmmakers have had to face from the silent era onward.

Early Silent Films

The first film ever made depicting Christ was produced in 1897. It lasted only five minutes. But it was probably the first film in history to draw its inspiration from Scripture. Produced by a company named Lear, it presented a brief version of the typical Passion play. Unfortunately, like a good percentage of the silent films made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this film no longer exists. The nitrate base of so many of the early films proved to be unstable, causing them to be lost through fire or disintegration.

A multitude of Passion plays were filmed at the dawn of cinematic history, especially in France, where the film companies of Lumiere, Gaum, Pathe, and Melies all tried their hand at it. For years these films were shown in Catholic churches for their educational value, but in 1912, with the Modernist controversy raging full steam, such showings were banned by papal decree.

Of special note in the early years of cinema are the films made about Jesus Christ by the first female director, Alice Guy Blache of France. In 1899, Blache created a film on the life of Jesus composed of eleven tableaux inspired by paintings of the great masters. Then again in 1906, she made another film composed of 25 tableaux, La Vie du Christ, inspired this time by the art of her compatriot, James Tissot, whose illustrated Bible printed some years before had become a great publishing success. Tissot had gone to the Holy Land to collect visual data that would properly reflect life in the Middle East. In her memoirs, Blache also claims that two Jesuit priests were present for the filming of every scene to ensure the movie’s religious accuracy.

Needless to say, apprehension about religious cinema could not be sustained for long. Movies about Christ were still being made, and people were flocking to them out of curiosity, if not reverence. In 1912, the Kalem Film Company produced what is considered the first important religious film made by an American company, From the Manger to the Cross. It was also one of the first American films to be shot on location outside its home studio. In this case, the cast and crew went to Egypt and the Holy Land. For interior shots, special sets were constructed in Jerusalem. Here you can already evidence the desire of the filmmakers to brush as closely to the historical Jesus as possible. It too drew much of its visual inspiration from the illustrated Tissot Bible. But what art and film historians fail to recognize is that Tissot’s illustrations were not just influenced by his travels to the Middle East but also by the mystical revelations of Christ’s Passion made to the stigmatic nun, Ven. Anne Catherine Emmerich, as recorded by the Romantic poet Clemens Brentano early in the 19th century. Thus, besides being inspired by the dictates of Scripture, much of the visual vocabulary established in the cinema of Christ’s Passion owes its origin to a mixture of Catholic mysticism and art.

The adult role of Christ in From the Manger to the Cross was played by an actor named Robert Henderson Bland. The popular actress Gene Gautier played the role of Mary and wrote the original screenplay for the production, which covered the life of Christ from birth to crucifixion The film cost $100,000—a record for that day! It employed 42 actors for the principal roles and took three months to film. Bland became so engrossed in the film that he later wrote two books about the making of the production and his role in it. He firmly believed that he escaped death in the trench warfare of World War I due to having played Christ just before that conflict. On October 3, 1912, it was given a special performance at Queen’s Hall in London, and afterward, Cardinal Bourne, the archbishop of Westminster, commented, “A new art has been turned to a noble use with wonderful success.” From the Manger to the Cross was a great success and still holds up today. It ranks historically as one of the most important films ever made about a religious subject.

In 1916, D.W. Griffith made a film called Intolerance. It was filmed in Hollywood and was a sensation because it was produced on an unthinkable scale of magnificence, surpassing all other great silent epics before it (like Birth of a Nation, Cabiria, Quo Vadis), and because it was the first time a motion picture had been used as a means of expressing an abstract idea. The Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein called it “the most important creative experiment of the American screen.” Intolerance was actually four stories intertwined: a modern story, a Judaean story of Christ, a French story, and a Babylonian story. Each was an indictment against the notion of intolerance. The Judaean story took three episodes from the life of Christ (the miracle at Cana, the woman accused of adultery, and the crucifixion). In the last, Griffith cast Jesus as the victim of intolerance. But according to an article found in Variety at the time, the B’nai Brith brought pressure against Griffith to omit sequences that showed the Jews not only asking for the death of Jesus but actually crucifying Him. For those scenes, Griffith hired all the orthodox Jews he could find in Hollywood. According to the article, the Jewish lobby proved too much for Griffith to defy (his portrayal of African Americans caused an uproar in an earlier film, Birth of a Nation). In the presence of the B’nai Brith committee that made the complaint, Griffith burned what were considered anti-Jewish scenes. He later reshot the sequences showing Roman soldiers nailing Christ to the cross.

In 1927, Cecil B. DeMille made his famous silent film classic, The King of Kings. This was after he had made a string of bedroom comedies and sex farces starring Gloria Swanson. Trying to mend his ways by turning to religious subject matter like The Ten Commandments, DeMille turned his attention to the New Testament. King of Kings was regarded for decades afterward as the greatest telling of the story of Christ on film. Since its release, it has been seen by over 500 million people, and it has been intertitled or narrated in 24 languages. Originally 18 reels, it was scaled down to eleven reels for general release. The opening and closing scenes were in two-color technicolor, though most prints seen today are only in black and white.

It does not cover Christ’s childhood but begins with the scene in the palace with Mary Magdalene. Taking his own artistic license with the biblical text, DeMille portrays Mary Magdalene as a rather eccentric, wealthy, wanton woman. You get the idea when she orders her slaves to harness her zebras to her chariot so that she can go and meet the wonder-working carpenter.

Christ was played by H.B. Warner, who exhibited a quiet and reserved dignity throughout the film. But during the filming, he was literally policed by DeMille and the studio (Producer’s Distributing Corporation) lest any indiscretion in his private life generate bad publicity. They thought it would not look seemly for the cinematic Jesus to be caught out on the town intoxicated or in a bordello. Despite the fact that the actor had a long career, he was always associated with this particular role. William Boyd played Simon of Cyrene and later became famous as Hopalong Cassidy. Joseph Schildkraut played Judas. His father, Rudolph Schildkraut, played Caiaphas. Thus, father and son were cast by the director to play the villains of the piece. Jacqueline Logan played the flamboyant Mary Magdalene.

A portion of the movie, which was later deleted, featured a love relationship between Judas and Mary Magdalene. DeMille became famous for his efforts to make scriptural accounts more entertaining. The crucifixion scene was filmed on Christmas night, December 25, 1926, and publicity of this sort gave the film the added religious boost that helped sell tickets in those days.

When it debuted, the movie met immediate success. Will Rogers summed up the greatness of the movie when he said, “There will never be a greater picture, because there is no greater subject.”

The 20s and After

As a consequence of stricter censorship, there was a drawing away from the full-bodied depiction of Christ in the cinema and a reluctance to show his face from the latter 1920s to 1960. Except for one or two instances, Christ was not personified at all in those decades. For instance, in the films The Last Days of Pompeii (RKO, 1935) and Quo Vadis (MGM, 1951), the portrayal of Christ goes no further than to feature a hand or foot on the silver screen and never a profile or full-faced image. In 1951, Variety reported that British censorship demanded the depiction of Christ be deleted from Quo Vadis and that personification was put on the same scale of censorship as the crunching sound made when a gladiator is shown breaking the neck of a bull in the Roman arena. Curiously enough, these two were equally viewed as affronts to British taste and were deleted. Unless the cuts were made, the British censors declared, the film would be banned to all children (and this is an odd chain of events when associated with the Savior who once declared, “Suffer the little children to come unto me”).

In 1954, Century Films distributed a movie on the life of Christ called Day of Triumph. Rev. James K. Friedrich, head of Cathedral Films, had produced it and shown it in schools and parishes with such success that Century Films picked it up and distributed it to theaters across the country. It tells the story of the Savior within the framework of a fictional plot: a secret group in Jerusalem, to which Judas belongs, wants to use Jesus to start a revolt against the ruling Romans. Made at $600,000 and shot around the Vasquez Rocks area of southern California, it featured, for the role of Christ, a nonprofessional actor named Robert Wilson. He was chosen for his remarkable resemblance to the endless array of portraits of Christ favored by many in the western world (i.e., white, Anglo-Saxon), especially the widely disseminated image created by Warner Sallman. Stilted and weighty with reverence, Day of Triumph remains a superb example of 1950s Christian taste, now all but rejected by the cinema-going public.

The ultimate Aryan to grace the screen as Christ came in the person of the blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter in MGM’s 1961 production of Samuel Bronston’s King of Kings. Filmed in Spain as a remake of the 1927 classic, it met general rejection from both critics and public alike. Time called it “Incontestably the corniest, phoniest, ickiest, and most monstrously vulgar of all the big Bible stories Hollywood has told in its last decade.”

Hunter gave a noble but passive performance. When interviewed, he claimed that he had been chosen because he was 33 (supposedly the age of Christ at His death). Judas was played by Rip Torn, and Hurd Hatfield played Pontius Pilate. The Shakespearean actor, Frank Thring, played a rather effeminate and affected Herod Antipas, thus providing unintended humor to the dull proceedings. (Note, too, how Thring played a sissified Pontius Pilate in the 1956 production of Ben-Hur. Elsewhere in biblical epics and early Christian stories, the actors playing such villains as Pilate, Herod, Nero, and Caligula often deliver a performance that is outrageously gay, a common Hollywood stereotype used to personify world-weary sophistication and decadence in contrast to the stoic virility of the protagonists.)

In the updated version of King of Kings, all the major miracles are omitted and the vapid screenplay by Philip Yordan deliberately waters down the character of Christ to make him digestible to an intended large and diverse audience. For instance, no mention of Christ’s divinity is made in the film, and a large shadow greets the apostles at the end of the movie to imply that Christ has resurrected.

The most embarrassing aspect of the film seems to have been the critic’s attention to Jeffrey Hunter’s shaved armpits. Some wits called the movie, “I was a Depilatoried Jesus.” Obviously this was done by the filmmakers as a concession to the still overly reverential hesitance of the times to depict Christ as anything less than superhuman. As ludicrous as this artistic decision seems today, however, it does harken back to an earlier canon of beauty. Body hair was seen as a sign of humanity’s animal nature. The artistic depiction of gods in the classical past and in the Renaissance reveled in smooth-bodied perfection. This artistic depiction of such elevated figures was not compatible with the hirsute, and therefore, artists eliminated all signs of that lower nature. Such thinking persists in our own day, not in the area of religion but in the area of science fiction. In that genre, highly evolved creatures from other planets (as found in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E. T.) have big eyes and no hair. They don’t even have hair on their heads! Conversely, the legendary “Missing Link” is portrayed as a beast covered from head to toe with matted fur. The medievals called such hairy humanoids wild men and women, and they had close associations with the demonic. This mythology of hairiness persists in popular horror films with the cult of the werewolf.

60s Hyperrealism

Certain artistic masterpieces have so overwhelmed western culture that they begin to be caricatured in popular art and especially in film. This is true for Leonardo de Vinci’s Last Supper: the ubiquitous icon has been mimicked in the silent version of Ben-Hur and the talking version of Quo Vadis and mocked in such films as Viridiana, M*A*S*H, and Jesus Christ Superstar. But art, whether quoted or caricatured, is no match for the wonders of nature. In 1962, the film Barabbas included a scene of the crucifixion of Christ incorporating a real and total eclipse of the sun. Producer Dino De Laurentiis said it was an attempt to re-create the same darkness over the earth that occurred at Christ’s death.

In 1965, the American director, George Stevens, made for United Artists his star-studded film, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Before filming even began, it was reported that he boldly predicted that every major city in the western world would construct a cinematic shrine where his version of the story of Jesus Christ—expected to be the best ever to be put to film—would be seen continuously until the end of the 20th century at least. His hubris was justly rewarded. This film hardly lived up to its title. It opened to critical drubbings and audience apathy. Originally cut to run for 260 minutes, it was later whittled down to 190 minutes. It tried too hard to be the ultimate religious epic. Too long, too stilted, with too many cameos by big-name stars who only got in the way of the story, George Stevens’s film ended up high on opulence and low on inspiration. Max Von Sydow did more than an adequate job playing Christ, and Dorothy McGuire played a very fine Mary. But the best acting cited went to Donald Pleasence who played Satan, without makeup or traditional horns, as he tries to tempt Christ and bring about his ruin.

On the other hand, the most ill-cast role was that of John Wayne’s centurion at the crucifixion. The actor’s one line (“Certainly this was the Son of God”) necessitated several takes during the filming. Seemingly inebriated, Wayne looks out of place in ancient Roman costume and his one-liner sounds so ludicrous as to cause ripples of laughter at the most inappropriate time.

In the early 1960s, the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini was visiting Florence on the same day that Pope John XXIII was making his historic visit to that city. To avoid the crowds, Pasolini took refuge in a hotel. While there, he thumbed through a copy of Gideon’s Bible and came to the dramatic possibilities of filming the life of Christ according to the Gospel he read—that of St. Matthew. By 1965, he made his film, and it was dedicated to “the dear, familiar memory of Pope John XXIII.”

Pasolini was a Marxist. The irony that such a person should create a film of such religious power and energy came to be seen as a very big problem for many a Christian group. The Legion of Decency and the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures gave it an A-1 rating (that is, good enough for all to see), but they did not give it any positive recommendation above and beyond its approval. At the Venice Film Festival that year, it won the loudest and most-prolonged applause from the critics and audience, but 100 rightists and demonstrators booed and threw eggs at the director. Originally it was turned down by a score of U.S. distributors for the reason that it appeared too arty (e.g., hand-held camera, no glamorous costumes, small budget, no big stars for the major roles—Pasolini even cast his own aged mother, Susanna Pasolini, for the role of Mary). Eventually, it made an impact on this country and was wholeheartedly supported by church groups.

The movie used nonprofessionals as actors. The role of Christ was given to Enrique Irazoqui, a Spanish student living in Rome. To the surprise of many, the film was not blatantly Marxist in tone. Pasolini himself said: “My film is a reaction against the conformity of Marxism. The mystery of life and death and suffering—and particularly of religion— is something which Marxists do not want to consider; but internally nothing I’ve ever done has been more fitted to myself than The Gospel According to St. Matthew. My tendency is always to see something sacred and mythic in everything, even the most humdrum, simple, and banal objects and events.” This simple realism of the filmmaker has been compared to that of the Renaissance artist Caravaggio.

To show that his film was not out of sync, even with the pope, Pasolini declared, “Pope John XXIII was not in sympathy with the bourgeois type of humanity, for under his sweetness and good humor (after all he was from the Italian North) he had firmness of intention. Also, his moments of sweetness were accompanied by…realism and humor.”

Not all who saw the film thought it was a great breakthrough: On April 1, 1966, a clergyman wrote Life to complain that “the Christ of love, of forgiveness and compassion has been perverted into a stern, imperious judge and lawgiver.” Indeed, nearly 30 years later, this film does seem to have aged. ‘While the visuals still retain the stunning appeal of Italian neorealism, the pace and strident tone of the actor playing Christ becomes monotonous. In effect, The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a masterpiece—but only visually.

In 1971, the British director Ken Russell directed his highly controversial film, The Devils (based on The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley). In that film of gross medieval possession, the hunchbacked mother superior of an Ursuline convent (Vanessa Redgrave) fantasizes about the famous, uncelibate, local priest, Fr. Urbain Grandier, and imagines him as the crucified Christ while she recites the rosary. Due to her demonic hallucinations, and a clever political appeal to the interests of Cardinal Richelieu, Grandier is eventually condemned and burned at the stake. Russell’s film is filled with excess and burlesque fantasy. The director also took great liberties with history (for instance, Sr. Jeanne and Fr. Grandier never even met). Not without reason, Russell’s film received an X rating from the motion picture industry and a “condemned” rating from the Catholic Church. After much cutting, the film fared a little better but remains today a typical piece of Russellian folly filled with salaciousness and twisted facts.

In 1973, the hit musical from the 60s, Godspell, reached the screen with all the clowning innocence of the original. Victor Garber played a “hip” Jesus complete with frizzy hair and wild makeup, while David Haskell played a Sgt. Pepper-styled John the Baptist. The score for this production infiltrated many a liturgy, which looked to Broadway now for inspiration. Yet Godspell’s slap-happiness and the wide-eyed pose of innocence did not endure.

It seemed shallow when compared with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Based on the stage musical written by Webber and Tim Rice, this film also drew its power from the hippy generation. Its brilliant score was coupled with an innovative filmation by Norman Jewison. In one scene, as Christ contemplates his end in the Garden of Olives, there is a powerful art historical survey of the images of the crucified Christ flashing on the screen. Not without its lighter side, the film features Zero Mostel’s son, Joshua, playing Herod with a fey brilliance that almost steals the show. Desperate to witness a miracle, his Herod sings, “Christ, won’t you walk across my swimming pool?”

Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth of 1977 was well-received by a worldwide audience. Here in America, it was a television miniseries. Unlike George Stevens’s ponderous work, Zeffirelli’s cavalcade of stars appeared more integrated into the story. Each scene was constructed as a work of art, and the only criticism leveled at the production was the often-repeated complaint that Christ was cast to be a northern European (as indeed the star of the production was the British actor Robert Powell).

A film simply called Jesus was produced in 1979 by Warner Bros.’ Genesis Project. It attempted to tell the story of Christ by being strictly faithful to the Gospel of Luke. Variety called it the “Classic Comic version” of the Gospel. It is notable for the fact that the actor playing Christ, Englishman Brian Deacon, broke the traditional smooth-skinned portrayal of Christ with his furry physique. But this was accompanied by a false hairline and wig that has become nothing less than a parody of biblical figures in film.

On the more ridiculous side, Schick Sunn Classics produced in 1980 a cheaply made movie called In Search of the Historic Jesus, starring pianist Artur Rubenstein’s son, John. In the publication Son of the Golden Turkey Awards, Harry Medved and his brother, Michael, gave this film the award for the “Least Uplifting Conversation with God in Motion Picture History.” What is more interesting is the thesis proposed in this film that the Christ child traveled all over the world— from England to India—to gain the spiritual knowledge he needed for his ministry as an adult. The pseudoscientific manner in which claims are made about Christ’s peregrinetic search for wisdom make this movie a cult classic of bad taste.

But even bad taste is to be preferred to blasphemy. In 1976, one of the most controversial films about Jesus, The Passover Plot, was made, taken from the 1960s best-seller written by Dr. Hugh Schonfield. This U.S./Israeli venture produced by Atlas Films did not last in theaters longer than a few weeks. The main thesis of the book and film was that Christ staged His death and only appeared to die on the cross so that He could be revived later, be declared “resurrected,” and lead His people to victory against the Romans. Unfortunately, the unexpected thrust of the lance fatally wounds Him, and the plot is foiled. Movie history was made in this production for the fact that the actor who played Christ was actually Jewish, thus further destroying the bias (found even among Latin directors) of portraying Christ as a northern European. Cannon Films, which inherited this box-office bomb, was ready to cut up the footage and use it to make a new film on the lives of the early apostles. Had it not been for the successful scandal of The Last Temptation of Christ, this film would have been cast into oblivion. But with the notoriety generated by Martin Scorsese’s movie, The Passover Plot has been snatched from obscurity and is now resurrected in video form.

As in art, cinematic depictions of Jesus have been less and less devotional in contemporary cinema and more geared toward controversy. In 1988, ex-seminarian Scorsese directed The Last Temptation of Christ, a work that caused turmoil from its very inception. It was based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, wherein the crucified and dying Christ fantasizes about having an affair with Mary Magdalene. While this is presented as Christ’s last temptation, one that He successfully overcomes, the work caused the author to be excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church. Scorsese vividly portrayed this fantasy and broke new ground by filming the crucifixion of Christ (played by Willem DaFoe) in the nude. Christians protested. But unlike the sanctions that rendered The Passover Plot a deadly blow upon arrival, public protests seemed to give Scorsese’s film new life and an undeserved importance.

 Jesus Ideologized

By 1989, filmmakers were less interested in the historical Jesus and more concerned with making political, social, and religious statements around a Christ-like figure. That year, Canadian director Denys Arcand made Jesus of Montreal, a comedy drama that criticized religious hypocrisy and greed. Focusing on an unemployed actor (played by Lothaire Bluteau) hired to revive a Passion play at a Montreal shrine, the story becomes a parable about the kind of intolerance that led to Jesus’ death. Arcand, estranged from his Catholicism like Scorsese, used his film as a catharsis for deeply rooted spiritual questions, many of them biographical. In a similar vein, African-American actor Blair Underwood challenged common religious stereotypes by suggesting that Christ was a man of color in his independent film, The Second Coming (1992). In Underwood’s film, Jesus returns to earth only to be institutionalized. In Arcand’s film, the Christ-like figure dies suddenly and has his body parts recycled so that others can live more fully.

Televised versions of the Jesus story have adhered more closely to what is biblical and familiar. But the art of cinema at the beginning of the 21st century is no longer tethered to the Passion play motif that defined that religious genre 100 years ago. Just as the medium itself faces new and revolutionary transformations in technology, so the life of Christ remains for the cinematic storyteller a challenge and a wonder.


  • Rev. Michael Morris, O.P.

    Fr. Michael Morris, O.P., is an art historian and teaches courses in religion and film at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. He is also the director of the Santa Fe Institute for Catholic Faith and Culture.

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