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

By Jeff Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, March 29 2013 3:19 p.m. MDT

Of its 112-minute runtime, a full 48 minutes are devoted to the Passion and Resurrection, the latter of which was filmed in Technicolor, emphasizing the transcendent finale.

Biblical epics

DeMille’s early success with religious subjects paved the way for the large-scale biblical epics that dominated big-budget studio filmmaking in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Among them, movies like “Quo Vadis” (1951) and “The Robe” (1953) dealt indirectly with the New Testament Gospels, portraying Christian stories from the perspectives of outsiders, while William Wyler’s 1959 version of “Ben-Hur” interweaves the life of its protagonist, a Jewish noble-turned-Roman slave played by Charlton Heston, with that of Jesus.

Wyler, a German-born Jew, admitted to directing “Ben-Hur” as an attempt to “out DeMille DeMille.” Eventually winning 12 Academy Awards, “Ben-Hur” is one of the most successful films ever made about the Savior.

Riding on the wave of biblical melodramas, the ‘60s saw three more memorable portrayals of Christ in film.

Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings” (1961) tells the story of Jesus beginning with the Siege of Jerusalem in 63 B.C., through the Nativity and finally ending with the resurrected Savior’s appearance to his apostles at the Sea of Galilee.

Critics, however, complained about Ray’s choice of casting — in particular, as Jesus, a youthful-looking, blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter, who had previously co-starred in John Ford’s “The Searchers” as John Wayne’s sidekick.

In 1964, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini — a Marxist Catholic who had actually received a four-month jail sentence for an earlier film’s depiction of religion — applied an Italian neorealist aesthetic in “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.”

A surprisingly devout portrayal of Christ, Pasolini’s stark, unglamorous alternative to the biblical epics of Hollywood has recently been named by the Guardian as one of the greatest art house films ever made.

Finally, 1965’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” starring another blue-eyed actor, Swedish thespian Max von Sydow, marked the most ambitious portrayal of Christ ever put to film. With a budget of $20 million ($142 million today), the almost four-hour-long adaptation of the Gospels was also the most expensive movie ever made up to that point in the U.S.

Despite cameos by a who’s-who of Hollywood stars, including John Wayne, Telly Savalas, Charlton Heston, Angela Lansbury and Sydney Poitier, among others, the film only grossed around $8 million.

Its box office failure effectively ended the era of the biblical epic.

Other depictions of Christ in film

Over the last few decades, depictions of Christ in film have run the gamut.

From musicals (“Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Gospel Road,” all from 1973) to irreverent comedies (“Monty Python’s Life of Brian” in 1979 and “The History of the World: Part I” in 1981) to auteur-driven art house fare (“The Last Temptation of Christ,” 1988), Christ has continued to have a strong presence on the silver screen, though frequently one mired in controversy.

However, the years following the golden age of the biblical epic in Hollywood have also yielded some of the most worthwhile portrayals of Christ.

Particularly, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 mini-series, “Jesus of Nazareth,” excels as an adaptation of the Gospels in a way few other films have. In fact, when it originally aired on TV, it received an official endorsement by Pope Paul VI, who recommended it to Catholics as appropriate Easter viewing. Zeffirelli later said the Pope was also instrumental in getting the mini-series off the ground.

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