It’s interesting that the most timeless and unchanging narratives of the Western world–the accounts of human history recorded in the Bible–have also been among those most thoroughly affected by social and cinematic fashions. The recently released film The Gospel of John represents a new and interesting trend in cinematic historical narrative.
Early Biblical films, such as From the Manger to the Cross (1912), were as simple as the medium itself. Single-shot scenes were the norm in such films, as in others of the time. A scene would be introduced with a printed intertitle; a tableau, say of Jesus healing a blind man, would play out in a single shot as if on stage; and then the scene would fade out and a new title would introduce the next sequence. The fades and intertitles worked much as the curtain and easel, respectively, in a simple stage drama.
When the movies began to increase in technical complexity and make scads of money in the 1920s, and when big stars, huge sets, spectacular action sequences, and grand stories became the norm, the scale of biblical films increased accordingly. Among the most effective, and subsequently underrated, of filmmakers in the 1920s was Cecil B. DeMille, and his silent-era biblical films are among the best ever made.
DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), for example, is a grand and moving retelling of the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. DeMille makes the issues more understandable for contemporary audiences by adding a modern-day story depicting two brothers, one of whom keeps the commandments while the other blithely breaks them, as they compete for the affections of a winsome young woman played by Leatrice Joy. Filmed partially in Technicolor at great expense, and including several dramatic modern-day scenes including a motorboat chase and the collapse of a church, in addition to the plagues on Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, the film is an impressive cinematic accomplishment. It certainly achieves what DeMille set out to do.
His King of Kings (1927), is even better, and is one of my favorite films. To tell the story of Jesus’s life as presented in the four Gospels, DeMille used Scriptural quotations for all his subtitles. This choice gives the film an explicit foundation in the Bible, which strongly complements the director’s realistic and persuasive visual treatment (which he still manages to make as grand as any of his other films). DeMille made some fascinating interpretive choices in the narrative, such as showing precisely what he believes Jesus wrote in the dust when he challenged the Pharisees to step forward and, if without sin, cast the first stone at the woman taken in adultery. In addition, DeMille’s depiction of Mary Magdalene as a wealthy courtesan is an eminently plausible interpretation of the Biblical material and makes for a quite moving and morally persuasive secondary narrative.
In Hollywood’s Golden Age, the 1930s and early ’40s, stories explicitly based on Biblical accounts were significantly less common, and religious concerns migrated into tales of more worldly matters. One of the best of these is Frank Borzage’s lovely Strange Cargo (1940), in which a group of escaped prisoners from a New Guinea penal colony find God in the person of a mysterious man played by Ian Hunter, and slowly abandon their evil ways.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, big stories featuring grand locations returned to vogue, as the studios attempted to lure viewers away from their televisions and out of their suburban homes. Grand and impressive Biblical films enjoyed great popularity, with such memorable releases as The Ten Commandments, The Robe, Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis? (another of my personal favorites), Samson and Delilah, Barabbas, and many others, which presented Bible-based stories with an impressive combination of reverence and entertainment values. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew was much less spectacular in its presentation, but was likewise impressive and faithful to it source; even the several eccentric touches the director includes are effective.
Devout grandeur reached its extreme with the Biblical musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973, and the Biblical film fell out of vogue in the 1970s and ’80s. The highlight of that period was probably Franco Zeffirelli’s six-hour-plus TV movie Jesus of Nazareth, which premiered in.1977. In keeping with the standards of the time, which applauded individual artistry and detailed explorations of character while downplaying spectacle and real grandeur (all of which Star Wars would blow to smithereens that same year), Zeffirelli’s film takes a sensitive and intimate look at its central character. The Christ it presents, played by British actor Robert Powell, is both powerful and enigmatic, and the film’s tasteful and realistic settings and acting give the viewer a strong sense of how it might have felt to be there.
In recent years, producers have included many religious themes, motifs, symbols, and ideas in non-Biblical films, as in the 1930s and ’40s. They have also made numerous thrillers based on Biblical ideas, if not Biblical events–films like End of Days and the numerous other action movies based on ideas about the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Jesus, such as The Omega Code and the Left Behind movie adaptations. Many quite eccentric treatments of Biblical material have also been offered up, in accordance with the general anarchy of the film world today and the emphasis on individualistic interpretations of traditional material. Jesus of Montreal, Second Coming, Commandments, The Book of Life, Dogma and the like are all suitably eccentric but seldom insightful, inspiring, or convincingly reverent.
Today’s American culture is nothing if not varied, however, and several good Biblical films (especially the made-for-TV epics) and miniseries have appeared in the past decade or so. The Gospel of John, directed by journeyman filmmaker Philip Saville and now slowly making its way around the country since its release late last year, is one of the best of these, and it represents an interesting change in cinematic approach to Biblical material.
Saville’s film (from a screenplay by John Goldsmith) tells the story of Jesus Christ as laid out in the Gospel of John, as the title implies. Taking DeMille’s intertitling process in King of Kings to its logical extreme, the producers present the entire Gospel in the words of the Good News translation. Every word of the Gospel is spoken by the film’s superb cast of largely unknown performers or by off-screen narrator Christopher Plummer.
Given the amount of talk involved, even for a three-hour film, one might expect The Gospel of John to come off as somewhat static and preachy, but it is not so at all. Saville uses a wide variety of cinematic techniques to keep things interesting. The camera moves about constantly, prowling through streets and passages, panning about, and shifting from one character to another, to give the viewer something interesting to look at while Plummer narrates. The visual tableaux are often quite beautiful, especially in the use of contrasts between light and shadow, but never in a way that distracts the audience from the story. In addition, the producers took great care to make the settings and costumes look as true to the time as possible, giving the film a new and interesting look. Even the soundtrack reflects this care, as the arranger included authentic recreations of instruments of the time.
In addition, Saville evoked an excellent performance from Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus Christ. Cusick presents the Christ as significantly more cheerful and self-assured than most such depictions have been. He smiles easily and often, and has a pleasant but strong demeanor and can be quite determined when that is appropriate. This makes his Christ rather less enigmatic than is usual for a screen depiction of Jesus, and it does not in any way decrease our reverence for him–the main point of John’s Gospel, after all, is Christ’s divinity. Given that emphasis, Cusick’s and Saville’s choice to show Jesus as a person who enjoys life and particularly enjoys serving God, his Father, in addition to being supernaturally wise, temperate, loving, and courageous, is exactly right.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about the film from a cinematic viewpoint is its unusual narrative flow. Given the filmmakers’ choice to follow John’s text word for word, there was really no chance for them to create the usual, classical arc of narrative, with an initial problem, rising action, climax, falling action, and the like. These conventions, of course, are responsible for much of the artificiality that has doomed more Biblical films than excessive reverence for the source texts ever could (even if we assume that such faithfulness ever could be too strong).
And the proof is right here, in Saville’s The Gospel of John. Instead of an artificially dramatic narrative, Saville and the film’s producers accept the idea that their source material is extremely important and quite moving without any massaging from mere mortals. They are content to present the events in the order given in John’s narrative, and only those events, and they include all of the Gospel author’s narration, disdaining to choose to delete any of it.
As a result, the film takes on the style of an A&E biographical documentary: A narrator tells the story, and actors clad in period costume reenact the events in settings as realistic as the producers can afford (which in this case, as mentioned earlier, are very persuasive indeed). The camera moves about the settings while Plummer articulates the Gospel text, just as the shot in a TV documentary pans across a still photo to create some sense of movement while the narrator describes the events it shows. Black-and-white flashbacks are also used to good effect here, tying the narrative strands together visually as Plummer recites the text.
And you know what? It works. The story of the Word who was God and was with God before all things were made, and through whom all things were made, is a story that has drawn hundreds of millions of readers and changed countless lives over the course of nearly two millennia. It took the new popularity of an unusual form of narrative, the biographical documentary, to give new life to the cinematic presentation of Biblical texts. That such a style could be effective in a theatrical film and on this type of material was by no means assured, yet the producers’ gamble has paid off admirably. But then, we already knew that God works in mysterious ways.
–S. T. Karnick is editor in chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute, and an NRO contributor.