Jesus Christ has been portrayed on film more than 300 times, if you include images seen in movie characters' visions and hallucinations, as well as less-than-reverent depictions, according to the Internet Movie Database.
Despite such digressions, however, many of these movies are indeed biographical, if only nominally biblical, ranging from the rock operas "Godspell" (1973) and "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973) to Martin Scorsese's controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) and Mel Gibson's hugely successful but no less notorious "The Passion of the Christ" (2004).
The story as played out in movies, however, goes back to some of the earliest pictures ever made, adapted passion plays filmed in both France and the United States during the late 1800s.
One such early effort was mounted by Thomas Edison's company, "The Passion Play of Oberammergau" (1898), which has been cited by historians as both the first narrative feature film and the first to divide the backstage jobs of director and producer. And as there were no movie theaters yet, it was shown primarily in churches around the country.
Certain scenes from Jesus' ministry as recorded in the Bible are also in D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916) and the 1925 version of "Ben-Hur."
But it is the life of Jesus as depicted in Cecil B. DeMille's silent epic "The King of Kings" (1927) that is responsible for setting the pattern of reverent treatment (some would argue too reverent) that Hollywood adhered to for decades after, leading to a pinnacle of sorts in the 1960s.
At this pinnacle, two stand out — the 1961 "King of Kings," starring Jeffrey Hunter, and Max von Sydow's 1965 interpretation in "The Greatest Story Ever Told." And on this Easter weekend, since both films are in video stores with new Blu-ray upgrades, perhaps it's time to take a closer, 21st century look at them.
Both "King of Kings" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" are full-blown studio epics of the kind they just don't make anymore; big-budget pictures shot on far-flung locations, each boasting lavish sets and costumes, along with a cast of thousands, back when that meant real people, not a cast of computer-generated images.
They also included big-name movie stars, familiar faces (to '60s audiences) filling familiar biblical roles — a marketing ploy that backfired for both films.
Critics and audiences alike complained about "King of Kings" using Hunter, a handsome, popular matinee idol, in the lead role, and veteran tough-guy Robert Ryan in his 50s as John the Baptist. And "The Greatest Story Ever Told" was even more widely criticized for its use of marquee names in distracting cameos. Oh, look, there's Sidney Poitier helping Jesus carry the cross. Is that John Wayne as a centurion?
Today, however, except for those who are baby boomers or older, it probably doesn't matter. None of the actors will be recognized by young people unless they are among those rare kids whose parents raised them on Turner Classic Movies.
Of course, to enjoy biblical movies, it's also necessary to put aside any strong feelings we may have about story elements that diverge from the sacred text. I remember seeing "The Greatest Story Ever Told" with my family when I was in high school, and as Judas commits suicide by throwing himself into a pit of fire, I leaned over to my dad and whispered, "Didn't Judas hang himself?" (And let's not even get into the fact that the actors who play Jesus in both films have blue eyes.)
Hey, they're Hollywood movies. And no one in Hollywood will ever be accused of letting the truth get in the way of a good story.
So, with that mountain of caveats, how do they fare today?
"King of Kings" (Warner/Blu-ray, PG-13, $19.98) holds up best. Hunter — best known in 1961 for having co-starred with John Wayne in "The Searchers" and Fess Parker in "The Great Locomotive Chase" (but now perhaps more famous for his lead role in the original "Star Trek" pilot) — gives a sincere, understated performance, one that plays well against some of the more flamboyant actors around him.
A surprisingly prominent subplot plays up the activities of Barabbas (Harry Guardino), making him a friend of Judas (Rip Torn) and a politically polarizing rabble-rouser, which is contrasted with Jesus' ministry. It doesn't always work; there are times when everything gives way to sword-and-sandal action cliches. But it does reinforce Jesus as an outsider who rejects the status quo — which is also in keeping with themes that dominate the oeuvre of the film's director, Nicholas Ray ("Rebel Without a Cause").
The location scenery (filmed in Spain) is shown to great advantage in this edition, which has been remastered with care so that the sharp Technicolor imagery really stands out, as does the sound for Miklos Rosza's excellent score, all of which demonstrates what Blu-ray can do at its best.
"The Greatest Story Ever Told" (MGM/Blu-ray, G, $19.99) is slow and deliberate, meant to inspire contemplation as much as entertain. But that's not a bad thing. And there are some nicely re-created Bible-inspired moments.
As for Swedish actor von Sydow as Jesus, much has been made of his physique, which to many makes the character appear weak, even frail. But von Sydow is a terrific actor (best known at the time for his many appearances in Ingmar Bergman's stolid, bleak Swedish films), and his performance is strong, making up for whatever his physical appearance may lack.4 comments on this story
This one has a local angle, of course, having been filmed partly in Utah, with Moab filling in for Bethlehem and the Sermon on the Mount delivered in Canyonlands, with areas of Kanab and Lake Powell also put to good use. But the Blu-ray here is a bit disappointing. Not that it doesn't look good; it does. But it isn't really much better than the DVD (although the sound, especially that memorable, moving Alfred Newman score, is very good).
Let's face it: Playing Jesus in a movie is a fool's errand. No actor can possibly appeal to the entire audience. Every Christian audience member has in his or her mind a unique image of what he should look like. Even a mere sidelong glance at classical paintings revered by millions reveals the Savior in myriad ways. No two of them quite alike.
If you're thinking about purchasing one of these Blu-ray choices, "King of Kings" is your best bet. And for those who already have a copy of "The Greatest Story Ever Told," the Blu-ray may be an unnecessary expense.