Lee Brown looks at Jesus on film…
It’s Easter and while many of you will be tucking into your chocolate eggs there really is somebody you ought to thank for your edible wonders. The reason behind the season. The man who can. The reason behind your hot cross buns! Jesus.
Before DC and Marvel entered the world of the superhero the Bible got there first. Over 2000 years ago in fact. To the Christian Jesus Christ entered the world to battle against evil, to save our souls from eternal damnation, and perform the ultimate sacrifice. His life for ours! And as is the norm in comic books these days Jesus may have died but He also came back to life, His resurrection power. Astounding! Not His only super power of course. He also came with the power to heal, cast out demons, and even turn water into wine. Genius!
It may be that your chocolate covered fingers could reach for the remote, turn off the football, forsake Jeremy Kyle the self proclaimed saviour of none, and consider, whatever your faith and beliefs, one of the following films that showcase Easter’s ultimate hero.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
“Truly that man was the Son of God.” John Wayne quoted there as the centurion standing guard at the crucifixion and a bit of a distraction in this expensive, long (nearly 4 hours in running time) but quite beautiful account of the life of Christ. Max Von Sydow takes on the mighty mantle of Jesus and is surrounded by a whole host of guest stars including Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, Telly (who loves ya baby) Savalas as unlovable Pontius Pilate, and the aforementioned John Wayne. Director George Stevens was a devout Christian and therefore seemed very keen to make a film that would appeal to the masses with his gallery of Hollywood superstars, and the length of the piece shows his enthusiasm for getting as much of Jesus’ life into the cinema as possible. It is clearly a big Hollywood production and lacks a little bit in authenticity in trying to display everything on a grand scale. Despite the director’s faith some elements of the Bible story are altered, possibly as a means of some greater artistic symbolism. Traitor of Jesus, Judas Iscariot hangs himself in the Bible, guilty and ashamed of his actions, but in the film he kills himself by jumping into a fire. Sending himself to Hell anyone? Despite this it is a film worth watching, even if it takes you all day. It really is that long!
Prepare ye the way of the Lord! Not the only movie musical based on the life of Jesus. The perhaps more famous ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is another, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extravagant but overblown piece which does not deserve to be shown at Easter as it ends with Jesus’ death and erm.. that’s it! No resurrection! Blasphemous. And the film features tanks which surely were not invented back then.
This film too plays fast and loose with the Bible story giving it a contemporary update set in New York. It looks dated now, the big hair, the costumes, the flower power, it’s locations (the newly built Twin Towers) but the music is infectious, the message is powerful, and the songs pack an emotional punch. Of all the films telling the story of Jesus this is one of the most faith building, capturing the love that the disciples had for Jesus, and the love that Jesus had for them. Victor Garber stars as Jesus, a portrayal that was controversial at the time as Jesus is made up to look like a clown (with a Superman t-shirt). I can imagine the gasps from traditional churches at the time but I am sure the filmmakers were aiming to show the joy and humility that Jesus tried to share. A touching scene is where Jesus also face paints the other disciples, bringing out the people He believes them to be and forsaking their past lives without Him. A film to tap your toes too as well as being profoundly moved.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Franco Zeffirelli’s mini-series is 6 and a half hours long so possibly not something you would watch in one sitting. Many consider this as the best adaptation of the Gospels put on screen and it is certainly one of the most detailed. It has the time to be after all! Robert Powell is Jesus this time around and his performance is considered by many to be the definitive Jesus. There was a little outcry at the time complaining that Jesus had blue eyes in the film and that his skin wasn’t the right shade of brown. Maybe Jesus did have blue eyes, maybe he didn’t. It doesn’t matter, Powell’s performance evokes both the humanity and godliness that the Jesus of the Bible contained. It also focusses on His Jewishness amidst the politics and religious beliefs at the time, setting Him in a world that of all the film adaptations could be the closest in attempting to understand what it may have been like to live back then. For added authenticity layer sand onto your carpet, walk around bare footed, and open a jar of flies.
The Miracle Maker (2000)
The first animated film of Jesus to get a major cinema release this was also part of a series of similar animated tellings of the Bible that were screened on British television at the time and a great tool for Sunday School teachers. It is produced by Mel Gibson who would later return to Jesus and his own Catholic faith for the Passion Of the Christ. Unlike that film this one is perfect for family audiences, and does a wonderful way in capturing the life of Jesus with traditional animation intertwined with stop motion puppetry that sounds messy but works well, and is possibly more advantageous to the telling than CGI would have been. Ralph Fiennes voices Jesus with power and emotion, and the film also features the considerable vocal talent of Ian Holm as Pontius Pilate, William Hurt as the soldier Jairus, and Julie Christie as Rachel. Never has plasticine been so movingly depicted.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Martin Scorsese directs the most controversial telling of Jesus yet. Willem Dafoe plays a Jesus who is conflicted in His mission and this is reason why many religious folk took offense at the film. Here was a Jesus who experienced fear and doubt. Here was a Jesus who had sexual thoughts. Here was a Jesus who while dying on the cross considered if it was all worth it. Here was a Jesus who was not perfect, and that to some is blasphemy. However the haters of this film do not consider the Biblical truth of who Jesus was. Not only was He God’s son filled with the divinity of God, He was also man, living with all the emotions, feelings, and temptations that we as humans go through. This was the paradox of Jesus. God and man rolled into one, and yet with the capacity to resist temptation and the courage to know the plan God had for Him. It was His ability to stand firm that set Him out as different to those of us who would buckle under the strain of sexual temptation, self-doubt, and who would run a mile if we discovered our ultimate fate was to be crucified regardless of the promise of resurrection. The film shows a Jesus who identifies with us and yet perseveres to complete the mission at hand, while having the capacity to forgive those who tormented and abused Him. A powerful and thought provoking experience for those willing to go in open minded.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson again, this time in the director’s chair for this film whose graphic violence caused ripples around faith and non faith communities, but which perfectly encapsulates the lead up to Christ’s crucifixion and His suffering (passion) that He endures. This is not a watered down film depicting the torture and death that Jesus suffered, it is by all accounts an authentically shocking depiction of how it must have been. Beaten repeatedly until his back is a mass of broken flesh and blood and the crown’s thorns on his head which are much bigger than the rosebush thorns of more watered down depictions. Jesus suffered and we see it all in it’s horrible glory. The criticism the film received for the violence was not warranted, particularly from other Christians, as this film is the greatest evangelistic tool in showing how much Jesus went through for His love of humanity. There is much more to the film too than the depicted violence. Flashbacks include the pivotal moments of Jesus’ life including Jesus washing the Disciples feet displaying His servanthood, the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper. As Jesus carries His cross to the place of His crucifixion He stumbles and his mother Mary runs to His aid, just as she had done in a flashback to His childhood. It is an emotional moment.
After seeing the film the cinema was silent. Some were in tears at what they had just witnessed. For the Christian this film is a must see if they can get over the violence. It is a powerful religious experience and an exceptional film. And if you doubted my analogy of Jesus as a superhero just check out Jesus’ final pose post resurrection in the clip below.
And for more proof that Jesus is a superhero check out the clip below and sing along. It’s better than being on Songs of Praise. Really!
Lee Brown, writer, film buff, TV geek, and avid reader.