I was very surprised to discover my LiveJournal account was still around. This is one of my favorite essays (from 7th May 2004). I’ve updated it a tiny bit and edited it a good bit because I hope I write at least a tiny bit better now than then.
Any time one tries to tell the entire Gospel on film, there will be controversy or, at least, someone will not be happy. Events surrounding a recent film (The Passion of the Christ) may underscore that. I’ve not yet seen that film (which doesn’t tell the whole story anyway) so it’s not included in this post, but I have just finished my re-viewing of The Greatest Story Ever Told (United Artists, 1965) and Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977). I’ve noted some marked differences that I thought might be interesting.
First the scope – both purport to tell the story from the beginning to end. In The Greatest Story Ever Told (TGSET), the “beginning” is Christmas. For Jesus of Nazareth (JoN), the beginning is just prior to the Annunciation, the betrothal of Joseph to the Theotokos. Therein lies a clue the biggest difference: TGSET is, at heart, a Protestant Gospel while JoN is Catholic. Yes, all the right parts are there, and yes anyone could watch TGSET and come away moved (or not) but there are many subtle clues that this Jesus opened the local LifeWays bookstore and wouldn’t have anything to do with the Papists up the street. The JoN Jesus knows how to honor his mother and has a Pope. Both movies end just after the Resurrection, with the promise that Christ will be with us until the end of time.
First, the parties involved: JoN has a lot more family in it. The Theotokos is there, St Joseph, his kids. John the Baptist is Jesus’ cousin. The Theotokos visits Elizabeth, and they celebrate their impending birthgivings. There is a life in which Jesus lives here. The Apostles have families, too: wives, mothers-in-law, etc. In TGSET there is only the sketchiest of families involved: the Theotokos shows up and weeps a lot at several points, but she’s really only a decoration. Joseph is not there following the return from Egypt. John the Baptists never once talks about his familial relationship with the Messiah.
Now, I realize that part of this is the time involved: at 382 mins, JoN is nearly twice as long as TGSET with its 199 mins. One just doesn’t have time to go into all the minor details. But the effect is as I have described – to create a Jesus more divorced from all that silly Catholic stuff. This Protestant Jesus has one thing to do, and one thing only, and He needs to do it Himself – everything drives forward to this. This one-note Jesus is not heard of very often among non-Protestants.
Next the locations: yes, neither movie was shot in the Holy Land. George Stevens wanted to film in Israel, but things got heated up there, war wise, just about the time he wanted to film TGSET. There were safety concerns and so he filmed in the American southwest – in a valley that was about to be filled up with water after the building of a damn. The idea was no one will ever be able to film in the same place again. The amazing shots of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount from the top of a pinnacle over looking the Grand Canyon are moving beyond measure – but again they create a decidedly American Protestant Jesus. Think circuit riders and Movie Western Parsons and even Mormon pioneers. Zeffirelli filmed in Italy. The JoN shots of Jesus surrounded by olive branches and rolling greenery, or towns filled with fisherman and whitewash houses with thatched rooves (or is that “roofs”) look more, well… they look more like what one may imagine the Holy Land to look like.
One thing that TGSET does twice is show one-on-one frontier evangelisms: shepherds yelling at each other across a canyon. “Who is that?” “Jesus of Nazareth!” Personal evangelism is decidedly missing from JoN, which shows a lot of people following Jesus, but very few events of “bringing others to Christ”. The Greatest Story Canyons serve to emphasize how lonely people are – even when standing in line to be Baptized, they don’t talk amongst themselves. They do, however, in JoN: crowds are messy, people come in clumps, they climb on top of each other. The only time it looks like that in TGSET is one scene in Capernaum when Jesus is standing on a pier and the crowd is pressing towards Him hands outstretched. They form a wall of hands. In JoN they would have pushed each other way and mobbed Jesus. In TGSET, they just about have to touch each other now, don’t let us go any further along, thank you. Rather unlike all the minorities that tend towards those touchy-feely religions, the WASPs in TGSET never ever get down and dirty.
The actors, of course, help in this respect. Max von Sydow’s Jesus is cold and distant. Robert Powell’s Jesus is warmer and inviting: he touches people, he looks longingly into their eyes. Von Sydow tends to “get a grip” on himself and then look off into the distance. He never really touches folks – beyond a shoulder pat or a handshake.
Much has been said about the “spookiness” of Robert Powell’s portrayal. Having just watched both movies back to back, and having always thought the “spookiness” was in Powell’s creepy blue eyes, I’ve decided to change my tune. JoN’s spooky Jesus is because he is God and Man. He knows it and so does the actor, the director, and all the crew. Jesus does miracles. He multiplies loaves and fishes. He raises the dead. He heals the sick. Max von Sydow only really does three miracles: He makes the crippled man walk. He makes the blind man see, and He raises Lazarus. Yes, He cures Shelly Winters’ flow of blood, but it’s just a cameo miracle. Von Sydow spends a lot more time teaching than healing. Miracles happen in JoN that are not mentioned (or else are mentioned – but not seen) in TGSET. Again, the effect is one of Protestant (mainline) vrs the other, more messy religions. Rome and the East are used to Bleeding statues, myrrh-gushing icons, and saints who elevate when they pray. Not so much in the Protestant mainline world. Von Sydow creates a cold, distant, almost deistic Messiah who comes, does, then goes, thank you. The spooky Powell, however, seems to be standing right here all the time.
This touchy-feely quality carries over into the “evangelism” of the movies. Von Sydow never reaches out to the audience in the theatre. Powell talks, a couple of times, directly to the camera – as do other cast members. Zeffirelli wants to draw us into this ancient story. Stevens wants to show us something. At one point in JoN, Peter says, referring to the Apostles’ abandonment and betrayal of Jesus, “He has forgiven us!” And then Peter turns to the camera and says to the viewer, point blank, “All of us.” Pope inDEED! This one-to-many evangelism is not just a fluke: during many events the camera moves the viewer in and through the action. During the Mystical Supper the viewer is all over the room. We become involved in the life of the Church thereby. We are invited in.
In the Greatest Story, “the story” is presented by Stevens and shown forth to us. We’re as passive as a crowd at a lecture in a Billy Graham rally.
Zeffirelli goes, repeatedly, for iconic images (taken from icons): the crucifixion has three bars. There are scenes in the movie that look exactly like Giotto frescoes. The Mystical Supper looks like icons of, well, the Mystical Supper. The effect is one that some can recognize: one gets the events as one would in Liturgy, accompanied by pictures on the Church walls. The evening light of a campfire only serves to draw Jesus further out of the darkness – like an icon with its only lighting scheme in candlelight. There are moment that look (as I mentioned) like Giotto or other famous artists. But we move through those images. The director wants us to see the images as part of the context. We venerate and move on. That Zeffirelli was producing for TV only makes the experience warmer. A TV – even the huge modern things – is a warm intimate experience. The story is told, not so much by static shots as by moving. Even on wall-sized screens, the picture is never very large so things must keep moving to show everything. Things must be alive. Thus folks have a lot of colorful garments and they wave them a lot. Garments, by and large, in JoN are more exciting. I’d like to wear a good few of them. Not so much in TGSET where they resorted to the classic bed-sheet togas.
George Stevens, on the other hand, tends towards Renaissance and Romantic paintings. The Last Supper looks nearly exactly like Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The crucifixion looks like a Duhrer Woodcut. The Betrayal looks like another Romantic painting. This use of images in TGSET creates an effect that a few folks might recognize: There is story… and it moves towards this staged shot that looks like a famous (often-used-by-Protestants) painting. Everything stops for a moment, then it moves on with more story. The effect is exactly the same as a large, coffee table Family Bible, illustrated with Great Christian Paintings. Stevens’ 70mm “Ultrapanavision” results in a lot of set shots where people are draped about like props, only to fill up the screen. People don’t move so much. They look, they gasp. They sleep, yes, in the corners. But they never really do anything. Also, they all tend to dress alike. It’s spooky, actually, to see a room full of folks and not one of them differently dressed. There is one place where this widescreen is used to the fullest: the betrayal in the garden. One can see the line of torches leave the city gates and proceed, one by one, down the hill. The soldiers do not reach the Garden until they should – the line has left the gate, the end is about halfway down the hill. The first soldier marches into the Garden. It’s very well done and an odd moment of background movement in an otherwise static film.
Yes, TGSET is a cameo-fest, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood in the late 60s. All the “unknowns” who were unknown when asked to play Apostles or whatnot later became quite well known themselves. Thus the cameo fest is only extended. Instead of an unknown playing St Thadeus, it is our old pal Max Klinger, I mean, Jammie Farr – still in a dress, however. Angela Landsbury as Mrs Pilate is preparing to write a murder. Yes, Telly Savalas is Pilate. But then JoN has Ernest Borgnine playing the Centurion Cornelius (just as campy as John Wayne in TGSET), and Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great is priceless – but no more priceless than Claude Rains in TGSET. JoN, however, uses a large crowd of unknowns who are, mostly, still unknown. All the Apostles look like one might imagine Apostles to look, provided one was looking at the aforementioned Giottos or icons. Where TGSET bows to studio politics, putting blondes in some odd roles, JoN bends over backward to avoid such things.
This is equally evident in the background: TGSET uses a very intermingled crows of blacks and whites. Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene shows up out of the crowd and looks very much like someone walking out of a blacksploitation film. Jesus not only lets him carry the cross, but also grips his arm for strength. It’s very pc in a Great Society kind of way. Love Thy Brotha. In JoN, however nearly everyone is “ethnically appropriate”. The Romans look much as one might expect Romans to look. The masses are, mostly, Semitic youths – or at least Semitic looking. The shots of crowds could easily be shot today in Gaza. George Stevens restricted his crowd to biblical phrases or else to shouting “Hallelujah!” or “Touch me, Master!” Zeffirelli, uses biblical phrases, plus some political ones thrown in: Arab teenagers yelling at Jesus, “You are the Prophet!” I wonder if there is a fatwah out on Zeffirelli.
The divisions between Protestant and Not-Protestant Jesus come to a head, if you will, in the Last Days.
Robert Powell raises Lazarus, rides Triumphantly into Jerusalem, clears out the Temple, has a fight with the scribes, teaches some children to say Hosanna and then has the Mystical Supper. In clearing the Temple, Jesus makes His comments about “tearing down this temple and in three days it will rise…” and he teaches (as in the Biblical descriptions) about the two sons who reply to their father’s requests. Powell’s Jesus is majestic in nearly all his acts. There is one scene when Jesus is returning from scourging, wearing the purple robe of mocking and the crown of thorns. He walks into Pilate’s office with the rising sun behind him. Pilate looks up in shock – in the shadowy profile, an unknown king is standing there and as he walks forward, it resolves into the Bridegroom of the Church, the Suffering Messiah, God.
Von Sydow’s Jesus raises Lazarus, rides Triumphantly into Jerusalem, clears out the Temple – and here things change drastically. Instead of following the Biblical script, George Stevens has Jesus preach a sermon – a full-on revival sermon in the dark with torches and people yelling “Hallelujah!”. Then, when it’s time to end and leave, Jesus walks out of the room like a minister walking up the aisle during the final hymn, patting a few people here and there, working his way to the back door for the meet-and-greet after the service. The Romans march in afterward and slay people in the Temple who stand around reciting the 23rd and 24th Psalms (if you’re using the Western numbering system).
So, by the time these two Jesuses get tried and crucified, there is not a difference of intent, but rather a difference of content. Both are betrayed by very forgivable Judases – but von Sydow lands in the hands of a very angry Jewish Court. Powell lands in the hands of political intrigue. Von Sydow’s words and reported miracles annoy the court. Powell’s non-politics disturb the political types on all sides of the issues – the Zealots, the Sanhedrin, and, after a while, the Romans. The Jesus or Barabbas choice for the crowd TGSET is pretty much 50-50. It includes the priceless line from McCarthy America, directed at a “pro-Jesus” screamer: “That’s traitor talk. He’s a traitor and if you like Him, you’re a traitor, too.” After a little conniving by the Sanhedrin, von Sydow is crucified by the Romans while most of Jerusalem looks on in shock and awe. There is a stunned silence broken only by weeping.
Powell, however, is crucified by nearly everyone. The Sanhedrin, the Zealots, and, a bit unwillingly at first, the Romans, all join in. Zeffirelli, like Orwell, clearly understands how fickle the Masses are. The same folks can be led to believe exactly opposite things about exactly the same events because of whispers. George Stevens may wonder how anyone could have come to hate this “good man” but Zeffirelli knows quite well how that could happen – the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Powell’s Jesus is hailed as king on Sunday and by midweek everyone hates Him. Most folks are yelling and screaming and jeering when Powell walks through with the cross. There is no silent shock.
There is one other curious Protestantism in TGSET. The music. Most of it is standard-issue movie soundtrack. Alfred E Newman is good, although for my taste he’s no Max Steiner. JoN has even more standard-issue music – it’s a TV miniseries, don’t forget. But TGSET uses music from Verdi’s Requiem to create a mournful atmosphere during the Via Dolorosa. Not only that, but the lyrics are “requiem aeternam, dona eis requiem.” This application of mood music – without any sense of context other than “I heard this and it sounded good for here…” is very much like my experience growing up in Protestant churches. All of them used music just where ever it seemed good, without any sense of what the music was written for in the first place. I remember the horror I felt at listening to a four-part acapella mass setting used in a Christmas Eve service, one with communion: the music was just spaced out through the service. Something would happen, and then the choir would sing another “anthem” that was liturgically unconnected to what had happened, but it was pretty, you know. That this happened at an Episcopal church indicates to me that there is no reason to imagine I’m talking about a liturgical/non-liturgical division. No Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church would ever space out random music through the service. The Gloria would be sung where the Gloria goes.
Steven’s use of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah as the Easter Morning background makes sense, at least that’s what it’s supposed to signify in the oratorio, too. But then there are these crowd shots of people running through the streets of Jerusalem hugging each other and jumping up and down as if they had just won a football game. Yet, the Risen Von Sydow, far from being with them, spends a lot of time doing a voice-over from off-camera and then dissolves into a ghastly painting that looks, oddly, just like Von Sydow. Von Sydow gets lost in the clouds and then turns into a Sunday School picture. It’s not only protestant, but it’s also Jesus Seminar protestant: it’s almost like he were alive.
JoN is filled with “ethnic” music – not 50s style orchestrations of ethnic-sounding music, but rather 70s style “you could do this yourself but not quite” television attempts at ethnic music. When Salome dances, you know she’s hot, and when the crowds are singing folk songs, they are songs you can imagine folks singing. When the Apostles gather with no women folks in the Upper Room they are trying to dance like straight men without their wives. It is totally cringe – and hence real. Powell manages to be spooky right to the very end: in this movie, he is playing the God-Man. The scenes after Pascha Morning are both moving (I could watch Anne Bancroft whisper “I’ve seen the Master” a thousand times) and realistic. We didn’t win a football game, we just won eternity. No one knows quite what to do until Jesus shows up.
And John the Beloved rests his head on Powell’s shoulder, along with Peter, and there is a deified man between them. This is not a fresco, but rather an icon: the room is filled with light.
I must underscore both of these are among my favorite movies. They do not show the blasphemously ditzy failed political Jesus of “Superstar” nor the heretical cutesy Jesus of “Godspell”. Yet these movies manage to show two very different Jesuses. That these are both Jesuses I have known is perhaps why I am comfortable with them. That these are Jesuses that have moved me is, perhaps why I love them.
I ask your prayers that I may come to know the real One, though.