EDITOR’S NOTE: Easter, of course, has a little something to do with Jesus. Since we’re a visual people, NRO’s Elizabeth Fisher asked some familiar moviegoers what their favorite Jesus flicks are.
The Robe (1953): Subtracting The Passion, a film so noteworthy in its singularity it has dominated headlines for over two years, finding a season-enriching Easter/Passover movie released in the last ten years is nearly impossible. So I say, why bother looking–especially when the Golden Age of Hollywood offers so many edifying (if, occasionally campy) options like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, King of Kings, and Lilies of the Field.
Of those grand, faith-affirming films, one of the grandest is certainly The Robe. Through the story of the callous, spoiled soldier who wins the wager for Christ’s crucifixion garment, it contrasts the brutality of the Roman culture against the humble strength of an emerging faith. And it illustrates why the victory that Christianity would win against the greatest empire the world had ever known came not through battles, or coercion, or even argument, but through changing men’s hearts…one by one.
As we enter an Easter season in which state-sanctioned killing is endorsed by our courts, it serves as a much-needed reminder that grave injustice has always been the lot of man. But mercy, joy, and redemption can also be our portion…at least for those of us still naïve enough to believe in them.
My favorite Jesus movie is Friendly Persuasion, a 1956 flick about Christians (in this case, Quakers) trying to live their faith in difficult times (the Civil War). The scene where Gary Cooper confronts the Confederate soldier who has murdered his best friend is deeply moving.
Nothing comes close to the Gibson film, of course, but the only Jesus movie that I’d say is even watchable is the epic 1977 Franco Zeffirelli TV miniseries production, Jesus of Nazareth. A few years back, I had to watch every Jesus movie available on video for a piece, and the only one I could stand was the Zeffirelli. To be fair, it’s much better than watchable; it’s meat-and-potatoes naturalism was an oasis of storytelling sanity after having suffered through Cecil B. De Mille’s King of Kings (1927), and the ghastly Sixties countercultural double-whammy of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, both of which nearly made a Zoroastrian out of me. I expected to like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s highly regarded The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), but it is the insufferably strident work of a gay Marxist filmmaker who depicts its hairless Jesus as a ticked-off Palestinian commie. If you like that kind of thing, you wouldn’t be me.
Which leaves us with good old Zeffirelli and his stately, crowd-pleasing picture that doesn’t try to do anything fancy, just lay out the facts as we know them from the Gospel. The problem is that the life of Christ is so well known that it’s difficult to make it compelling art. Jesus of Nazareth is a well-appointed, respectful pageant, not the vital, riveting work of art that Mel Gibson’s film is. But believe me, after you’ve sat through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dull bombast, and the nauseatingly precious hippies warbling “Day By Day,” you have a whole new appreciation for the virtue of cinematic squareness.
John J. Miller
Ben-Hur (1959): I’m no expert on films about Jesus, but I do like chariot races and the best Jesus movie with a chariot race is Ben-Hur. It certainly has won more Academy Awards than all the other Jesus-and-chariot-race movies. Actually, its treatment of the Messiah is fascinating. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time, and when He does we don’t even see His face. Yet His presence is felt throughout. One quibble: The movie is on the long side.
Probably the best movie about Christ was made for television: Jesus of Nazareth, written in part by Anthony Burgess. By far the most inadvertently hilarious movie about Jesus is King of Kings, with pretty boy Jeffrey Hunter. King of Kings came out in 1958, at a time when Hollywood had gone “young-hunky” with creatures of ambiguous sexuality and even more ambiguous names–Troy Donahue and Tab Hunter primary among them. It was also a time when Hollywood was shocked and amused by the box office success of a B-movie called I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Some Hollywood wag achieved a moment of immortality when he gave King of Kings an unforgettable alternate title: I Was a Teenage Jesus.