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

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 12:23 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) 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.

Jeffrey Hunter in "The King of Kings." (.) Jeffrey Hunter in "The King of Kings." (.)

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.

A scene from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." (.) A scene from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." (.)

“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.

Charlton Heston drives a chariot toward the finish line in a scene from the 1960 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classic "Ben-Hur." (Associated Press File Photo) Charlton Heston drives a chariot toward the finish line in a scene from the 1960 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classic "Ben-Hur." (Associated Press File Photo)

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.

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.

Like DeMille, the devout Zeffirelli approached his subject with an earnest reverence, portraying Christ as “an ordinary man — gentle, fragile, simple,” but still possessed of an otherworldly mystique indicative of his divine calling. To achieve this, Zeffirelli directed his star, English actor Robert Powell, not to blink (According to IMDB, Powell blinks only once during the entire mini-series.)

Eclipsing even the History Channel’s recent ratings phenomenon, “The Bible,” “Jesus of Nazareth” was also massively successful, attracting an estimated 91 million viewers in the U.S. when it aired. Since then, it has become an established Easter classic.

Finally, no discussion of Christ’s varied depictions in film would be complete without Mel Gibson’s divisive “The Passion of the Christ.”

The actor-turned-director staked his reputation — and about $30 million from his own pocket — on the project, which was widely viewed as the epitome of folly in secular Hollywood.

Despite claims of anti-Semitism and brutally graphic content that alienated some audiences, “The Passion of the Christ” went on to earn more than $600 million worldwide.

Gibson later released an edited version that significantly tones down the violence, making “The Passion” accessible to a much broader audience.

While its value as either an adaptation of the Gospels or as pure filmmaking is still debated by believers and non-believers alike, “The Passion of the Christ” speaks, like many of the films that have attempted to portray Christ’s earthly ministry before, to the intense appetite and appreciation for Christian stories that still exist today.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company