The history of the Savior's life, ministry and crucifixion in film

By Jeff Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, March 29 2013 2:30 p.m. MDT

In this scene, Jesus (H.B. Warner) embraces the young Mark (Mickey Moore) while two of his apostles look on. On the left is John (Joseph Striker) and on the right is Peter (Ernest Torrence). The love of Christ for people shines through in Cecil B. DeMille's "The King of Kings."

Deseret News Archives

Jesus Christ is one of the most frequently portrayed characters in the history of film.

According to IMDB, he has been depicted in movies and TV shows a total of 368 times. That’s more appearances than Sherlock Holmes (267) and Dracula (316). In fact, only three other characters — Napoleon (445), Santa Claus (870) and the Devil (961) — have shown up more often.

What’s more, Christ is also one of the oldest sources of inspiration for filmmakers. Long before D.W. Griffith invented the vocabulary of cinema, pioneers of the new medium had already tried multiple times to bring the Gospels to life for audiences.

Since then, actors as diverse as Jim Caviezel, Willem Dafoe, Christian Bale and Ralph Fiennes have all donned robes and grown out their beards to play the Son of God.

To commemorate the Easter season, here is a look back at some of the most significant and artistically relevant depictions of Christ over the last 120 years of movie history.

The silent era

The earliest portrayal of the Savior in film dates back all the way to 1897, just two years after the first-ever commercial screening of a film was held in Paris.

As detailed in Charles Musser’s “The Emergence of Cinema,” while traveling through Europe an American representative of the Lumière brothers, Charles Hurd, arranged to film a traditional Bohemian miracle play that had been performed regularly since 1816 by a cast of untrained actors.

“The Horitz Passion Play,” as it came to be known (named for the town in which it was shot), starred Jordan Willochko as the cinematic medium’s first Jesus Christ.

After making its American premiere at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, “The Horitz Passion Play” was described by a local paper as the “most notable, and certainly the most noble use to which [the Lumière brothers’] marvelous invention, the cinematograph, has yet been put.”

As the medium continued to develop, Christ became a frequent subject for silent films, including what some scholars argue is the first American feature-length picture, Sidney Olcott’s 1912 “From the Manger to the Cross.”

Shot on location in Palestine and Egypt, the production was extravagant for its day. However, it became a huge success, earning close to $1 million — around $23 million in today’s currency.

Olcott’s film is also notable for helping create some of the cinematic language used to portray Christ in later adaptations. In particular, Steven D. Greydanus of the National Catholic Register points out the similarly staged Annunciation scene in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 classic, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

But it was legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille who was responsible for many of the most lasting images of Christ from the silent era.

With the same eye for grandiose spectacle that made his 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments” a hit, DeMille’s 1927 “The King of Kings” was a lavish panorama depicting Jesus’ mortal ministry.

During production, DeMille rather famously required his cast to refrain from “un-biblical” activities, including drinking, cussing, attending ball games, playing cards, frequenting night clubs, swimming and riding in convertibles. He also forced his stars, H.B. Warner (Christ) and Dorothy Cumming (Mary), to sign an agreement to not appear in any films that would tarnish their “holy” images for a five-year period.

DeMille’s reverence toward the subject, born from his own religious background, made “The King of Kings” the quintessential portrayal of Christ for decades to come.

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