Jesus on Screen

Some famous actors have played our Lord on film, as well as some you’ve probably never heard of. It’s unclear how many portrayals of Christ there have been – hundreds probably. I’m aware  of several dozen: from Robert Henderson-Bland in the Silent Era epic, From the Manger to the Cross (1912), to Joaquin Phoenix in Mary Magdalene, a 2018 film that has been shown overseas but not yet in the U.S., in part because it was a Harvey Weinstein project and also, perhaps, because it reflects a sensibility about Jesus similar to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

I mention Messrs. Henderson-Bland and Phoenix because every film about the life of Jesus – or, as in The Passion of the Christ (2004), an aspect of His life – succeeds or fails largely because of the performance of the actor portraying Him.

In George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Jesus is played by Max von Sydow, a now eminent actor and familiar face in movies, who was then mostly unknown to American audiences – except to arthouse film buffs enamored of the work of Ingmar Bergman. It was von Sydow’s first English-language film, and Stevens hired him because he wanted an actor whose image (in the senses both of visage and reputation) was unfamiliar and unsullied. He probably also admired von Sydow’s Scandinavian placidity and icy blue eyes.

Max von Sydow

Someone once told me (where he learned this, I’ve no clue) that Jesus never laughed. If that’s so, the Stevens/von Sydow interpretation is excellent. Another someone, who had just returned from Israel, told me she’d never seen so many blond-haired, blue-eyed people. I doubted it. In any case, I’m not sure I’d assume Jesus was quite so “fair” in appearance as is the great Swedish actor – or as dour.

Stevens took a cue from Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days (1956) by hiring some of the most well-known actors in the business and casting some of them in important roles (Charlton Heston as John the Baptist and Dorothy McGuire as the Blessed Virgin) and others for minor parts, including some cameos – most notably John Wayne as the centurion at the Crucifixion.

Most critics considered the film an overwrought bore. I disagree. I think it’s best among the theatrically released bio-pics that trace the full arc of His life: Nativity to Ascension. Sure, it’s schmaltzy at times, but I even like the scene in which, to strains of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, Van Heflin, Ed Wynn, and Sal Mineo rush to the gates of Jerusalem shouting: [Heflin] “The Messiah has come! A man was dead and now he lives!” [Mineo] “I was crippled and now I walk!” [Wynn] “I was blind and now I see!”

Robert Powell

            Greatest Story, filmed entirely in Hollywood and the American Southwest, is an epic, and – like The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben Hur (1959) – we may never see their like again. No film I know of has successfully recreated their scope digitally, although that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

The best depiction of the life of Christ (again, from Nativity to Ascension) is not in a theatrical motion picture but Franco Zeffirelli’s cast-of-thousands miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which stars Robert Powell and was shot mostly in North Africa. Like Max von Sydow (and Jeffrey Hunter in 1961’s King of Kings), Mr. Powell is a blue-eyed Jesus. He smiles rather more than others who’ve played Christ, but I cannot recall laughter in the performance. And it strikes me as odd to suppose that God-become-Man would never have expressed that most human of abilities, the capacity for laughter, which is so akin to our facility for joy.

Mr. Powell was a much better choice than the two Americans atop the producers’ original list: Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, about which enough said.

A compelling aspect of Powell’s performance is that (at Zeffirelli’s insistence) he rarely blinks, his eyes always watching.

Jim Caviezel

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is, as its title suggests, a more constrained story: just two days in the Lord’s life (with a few flashbacks included). Clearly, I’m referring to the film’s scope and not its powerful and unconstrained violence. And, really, although we know from the Gospels that our Lord was scourged before being crucified – that was the Roman way – we do not know that he was assaulted to the extent (hour upon hour) that Gibson shows.

Jim Caviezel is the Son of God, who speaks very little but suffers a lot, and most of the rest of the cast have but a few lines of dialogue or none at all.

Mr. Gibson chose to give Mr. Caviezel a much more “appropriate” look, including brown-tinted contact lenses to darken his blue eyes.

The Gibson/Caviezel Jesus is by far the most interesting depiction of Christ on film, although George Stevens would have been shocked to watch it and could never have imagined making it. Mr. Zeffirelli has bluntly stated that he considers Passion not only too violent but also anti-Semitic, a charge I never thought sustainable. It’s a mistake to read back into Passion the sad episode of Gibson’s 2006 DUI arrest during which he shouted the non-sequitur that Jews “are responsible for all the wars in the world.”

Watching Passion, I thought it was Romans who should be offended, not Jews.

            Passion did, it is reported, receive an extraordinary accolade – one that, perhaps, confirms Mr. Gibson’s decision to employ ancient languages (Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin), if not also the violence – when John Paul II said of the film, “It is as it was.”

It’s been about a year since there has been any further word from Mr. Gibson concerning a sequel about the Resurrection. Obviously, that’s a pretty big challenge: with Caviezel as Christ three days after Passion, filmed at least fifteen years later. In the event, Mr. Caviezel would have a chance to expand on what I think is the best movie Jesus of them all. I won’t expect laughter; I’m sure we will witness joy.

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The Greatest Story Ever Told (3:45) is rated G, as is Jesus of Nazareth (6:22), and both may be streamed for free on Amazon Prime (if you are a member). The Passion of the Christ (2:07) is rated R and maybe be rented on Amazon for $3.99, which is the same price for purchasing the DVD as an “add on” item. Each is available on Netflix in either DVD or Blu-ray formats but not for streaming.

Brad Miner

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.

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