Jesus has starred in more than a hundred movies since the film industry began in the late 19th century, with one of the earliest and most audaciously misleading representations being filmed on the roof of a New York hotel in the 1890s and passing itself of as the genuine ‘Holy Land’.
The greatest of them all for many decades – and perhaps still – is Cecil B DeMille’s 1927 The King of Kings. Made in the last months of silent movies, the film became something of a template for later directors. The four gospels are arranged thematically and compressed to accommodate extra material that provides continuous narrative, a DeMille innovation that later became standard.
The result is a milestone in film history – for the first time a producer moves away from the ‘passion play’ Jesus of tableaux and creates an identifiable personality in a social context. But that personality and world were moulded to suit the prevailing pressures of the 1920s, where censorship and religious boycotts were constant threats.
Strangely, Jesus went out of filmic fashion after DeMille and it was not until 1961, in a vastly expensive remake of King of Kings, that he returned to the silver screen. But it was a remake in name only. The film downplays the supernatural, preferring a Jesus who preaches peace, love and brotherhood. This was Jesus for the hippie generation.
Other takes on Jesus followed. In 1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told saw Max von Sydow as the Messiah. Although famous in Europe, von Sydow was little known in the US at the time, and as the film was stacked with famous names doing cameo roles it was an oddity that minor characters were instantly recognisable to American audiences while the central character was not.
Other versions came and went, but in 1973 a musical Jesus hit the screen for the first time with Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar, turning the huge stage success of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice into a movie filmed on Roman ruins in the Israeli desert.
Fifteen years were to pass before a highly controversial life of Jesus appeared. The Last Temptation of Christ, brilliantly produced by Martin Scorsese, interprets Jesus in a way that sweeps away religious conventions. The film was much criticised as blasphemous, but unsettling or disturbing are better words for it. Last Temptation was nominated for six Oscars but lost millions at the box office.
By contrast, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004 made millions. Controversially brutal and accused of anti-semitism, it is nevertheless a superbly crafted rendering of Jesus’ last 12 hours. Because of the tight timeframe there is little opportunity (except in flashbacks) for the rest of the story.
These are just a few of the most famous – or notorious – among the depictions of Jesus of Nazareth in the first century of cinema.
Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-figures in Film, 2000
Adele Reinhartz, Jesus of Hollywood, 2007
W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies, 2004