“Whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” Philippians 4:8
At Mass on the second Sunday of Lent, the homilist at my church decried films about Jesus and the saints as shallow and, in some cases, profane. Instead of watching movies during Lent (and, I presume, Holy Week), he suggested reading good biographies about the saints. I take the point, although I’d add that such books are sometimes hagiography, not history.
In an earlier column about portrayals of Jesus in the movies, I mentioned that Jesus never laughs on screen. Father Schall told me it’s also true in Scripture. But he referred me to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which speaks about Christ’s openness (“He never concealed His tears. . .”) although Jesus did keep something hidden: “one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”
I want to expand at length on that earlier column by focusing on three films about faith you may not have seen. I beg the reader’s indulgence because all are from the Silent Era: From the Manger to the Cross (1912); Ben-Hur (1925); and The King of Kings (1927). The links below are to YouTube versions, but these films do pop up now and then on Turner Classic Movies.
Even serious movie lovers may lack patience for silent films, but great Silents reward the viewer in ways many Talkies, old and new, don’t. Narrative art without spoken dialogue can be stunning, just as black-and-white images may be vivid.
Among the very first silents about the Lord was La vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ (1898):
America’s greatest director, John Ford, began his illustrious career in 1917 and made more than sixty films before the advent of sound, which he embraced right away, although with caution:
I fear the art of telling stories by motion picture is being lost. It is too simple to take the easier way of telling stories through dialogue, and thus lose the most vital factor of the motion picture, the motion.
From the Manger to the Cross (1912)
Canadian-American director Sidney Olcott (1872-1949) began as an actor but turned to directing in 1907. By 1910, he’d already made . . . 187 movies! There was an unwritten rule that films should never be more than 20-minutes long and always done on the cheap. So making one a week wasn’t hard.
But Olcott broke ranks. No American filmmaker had ever traveled more than a few miles for location shooting when Olcott and his crew, including screenwriter/actress Genevieve Gauntier Liggett (known professionally as Gene Gauntier), traveled to the Holy Land to make From the Manger to the Cross.
This was not the first film about Jesus, and it wasn’t even Olcott’s first stab at a “religious” story. In 1907, he’d filmed the very first movie version of Ben-Hur. Among the reasons for taking his cameras overseas was a desire to escape the rancor of an ongoing lawsuit stemming from his producers’ decision to adapt the bestselling Lew Wallace novel without permission. (That film is fifteen minutes of amateurish embarrassment: lots of milling extras, a few chariots, and no Christ.)
From the Manger to the Cross, however, is a standout because it was the longest film ever made at that point in movie history, because of its quality, and because, on a modest investment, the film turned a profit of what today would be $30,000,000. (Kalem Company, the producers, never paid Olcott more than his basic $350 per-feature salary.)
Faithful TCT readers may have noticed that the paintings of J.J. Tissot (1836-1902) illustrate our columns as often as any other artist’s work. The versatile Frenchman worked in pastels, oils, and gouache (opaque watercolors), and in this last medium painted a series of more than 350 pictures in what became The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ (La Vie de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ), which in its entirety was acquired by the Brooklyn Museum in 1900. (Sad to say, the paintings are rarely on display there.) I know and love these paintings. Tissot’s “The Annunciation” is among my favorites, so it was a thrill to recognize it in Olcott’s Annunciation scene:
And it’s true throughout the film: in tableau after tableau, there is the great Tissot. Olcott had with him a copy of the 1903, three-volume collection of Tissot’s Biblical paintings. The film crew arrived in the Mideast fifteen years after the last of Tissot’s three trips there and likely had the same impression Tissot described about his first visit in 1886: “As soon as I arrived in Egypt. I saw that there was no fear of my losing any of my illusions,” because what he saw gave him “the direct impression of antiquity.”
From the Manger to the Cross, although well worth seeing, is a good but not great film that, in some ways, is just a static, celluloid Passion play, except for some nice shots in the Valley of the Kings accompanying the Flight to Egypt.
Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur, on the other hand, is a film that aspires to greatness and now and then achieves it. What Niblo (and four other second-unit specialists) made was less a film of the Wallace novel than a recreation of the successful 1899 theater extravaganza that even included the famous chariot race – real horses galloping on a treadmill against a rotating backdrop – that had been seen by twenty-million people in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia by the time it closed in 1920.
Ben-Hur began filming in Rome in 1923, but after a series of small disasters (actor-and-writer firings, serious accidents, and budget overruns) moved back to Hollywood, where 26-year-old Irving Thalberg (the original Boy Genius) took control of production. That didn’t help its budget, though, which became the largest of any film in the Silent Era. But that was fine with the visionary Wunderkind. What Thalberg wanted (and what became the signature of his short career) was quality and prestige for the newly formed M-G-M studio: money (and plenty of it) would follow from that. (The YouTube link above is to the print of a 1930 re-release that includes a musical soundtrack and dubbed-in crowd murmurings.)
The film stars Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala. Bushman was making a bit of a comeback in Ben-Hur after the scandal that arose when he’d left his wife of fifteen years for one of his co-stars in 1918. His agent had warned him that the Catholic Church would never approve of his divorce and re-marriage. Rather like John Lennon’s sarcastic quip about the Beatles that “we’re bigger than Jesus,” Bushman asked his manager, “Is the Catholic Church bigger than Francis X. Bushman?” In any case, the muscular and strutting Bushman was perfect in the role.
The story begins, as in most versions it has, with the Nativity, shot in tableau style after Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Holy Family.” The Virgin is played by Betty Bronson, who may be the loveliest, most compelling Virgin ever on film. She really seems full of grace: whenever characters look at her, they’re transformed. Key scenes in the film, the Nativity being the first, were filmed in a primitive version of Technicolor (using just red and green filters) – a thrilling surprise for audiences in the Twenties.
The crowd sequences are impressive. But N.B.: in one Jerusalem street scene, a woman is roughly pushed to the ground by a laughing Roman soldier, causing her garment to fall open and reveal her bare breasts. (This was five years ahead of the Motion Picture Production Code.)
A bit of trivia: Although you won’t spot them, there are alleged to be “cameos” in the film by M-G-M actors who were or would become some of Hollywood’s biggest stars: John and Lionel Barrymore, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Janet Gaynor, John Gilbert, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Harold Lloyd, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Mary Pickford, Fay Wray, and . . . Samuel L. Goldwyn (the “G” of M-G-M). They’re Roman soldiers, race spectators, and slave girls. All were on set for panoramas of the chariot race because M-G-M declared a work holiday in order to fill the arena with 10,000 live bodies in the arena built at what is now the intersection of La Cienega and San Vincente Boulevards in West Hollywood
The performances echo the histrionics of 19thcentury theater – most of the actors had been born between 1860 and 1905 – in a method called the teapot style: one hand on a hip and the other raised, spout-like, to declaim – a necessity in theaters full of drunken, rowdy patrons. It’s muted in Ben-Hur, but it’s there, and you simply have to accept that it’s what Niblo (1874-1948) expected of his actors.
As in the stage play, we only see Christ’s hands or, in manifestation of Him, a beam of light.
In any case, as in all cinematic versions of Ben-Hur, it’s all about the chariot race, which here is nearly as impressive as in William Wyler’s 1959 version. Niblo deployed forty-two cameras around the arena. And whatever happened as he filmed, accidents included, he used in the final cut.
The King of Kings (1927)
But the finest of the films discussed here is Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings, a movie that might be one the priest-homilist at my church would decry because DeMille interprets – freely. He careens from Gospel to Gospel, from fact to fantasy, and, in the manner of Ben-Hur’s chariot, scrapes and sparks against the borders of silliness. But DeMille (1881-1959) also points the way to a new style of cinema, one which placed great storytelling above all else. This is why he is justly considered a master of the art and its most successful practitioner – the veritable founder of “Hollywood.”
To wit: the film begins with Mary of Magdala (Jacqueline Logan) entertaining rich men in her, well . . . brothel. She’s indifferent to these “suitors” and pines for the true love of her life, none other than Judas Iscariot (Joseph Schildkraut). Indeed, The King of Kings is nearly as much about Judas as about Jesus.
Miss Logan as Magdalene has one of the best, funniest lines in movie history, “spoken” (it’s words on a title card, of course) when one of her courtiers announces that Judas is with a Galilean carpenter called Jesus:
“Harness my zebras – gift of the Nubian King!” she cries. “This Carpenter shall learn that he cannot hold a man from Mary Magdalene!”
Sure, it’s silly, but what comes next is not.
Magdalene comes upon Jesus, the Apostles, and the Virgin just as a blind girl has been brought to the Lord. “I have never seen the flowers nor the light” the girl says. “Wilt Thou open mine eyes?” DeMille suddenly fades to black. We’re seeing now as the girl has always seen. Then comes the faintest beam of light. The light spreads, growing brighter. Another title card: “I come a light into the world – that whosoever believeth in me shall not abide in darkness.”
DeMille cuts again briefly to the viewer’s p-o-v on the girl’s face. Then we fade again into her vision of the spreading light. Then our vision of her again, as she exclaims, “Oh – oh – I begin to see the light!” Now she sees that light resolve into a sun-like circle and an image clarifies: it is the face of Christ (H.B. Warner, b. 1876). He is the first thing the girl has ever seen, and it’s the first time we see Jesus.
Mr. Warner affects the slightest smile, and you’ll have to tell me if you don’t see in his compassionate eyes just the slightest hint of mirth.
Warner was about 50 when DeMille cast him a Jesus. He’d been in several dozen films before The King of Kings and would do a hundred more before his final appearance as Amminadab in DeMille’s greatest success, The Ten Commandments (1956). But Warner is probably best remembered as the distraught druggist, Mr. Gower, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1948).
I believe Warner is the best Christ in movie history, and The King of Kings is among the best film versions of our Lord’s life, death, and Resurrection. As I’ve written before, the best depiction of the Gospels overall is Franco Zeffirelli’s miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Robert Powell’s performance as Jesus in the series is very fine, as are Max von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and, of course, Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004). But Warner is my favorite because of his stillness. That may seem an odd adjective, but his economy of motion and his unwavering dignity astonish me at every viewing. [N.B. The Criterion Collection version linked to above at YouTube is actually about two-and-a-half hours long. Somehow, another, shorter version is tacked on at the end, so don’t be put off when you see that the whole video runs to almost four hours.]
The first time I saw the film (at a 1974 silent-movie festival in Columbus, Ohio), I came away much moved by two scenes: the healing of the blind girl and the encounter of Thomas with Christ after the Resurrection. Thomas (Sidney D’Albrook) falls to his knees, touches the wounds in the Lord’s hands, and then – back to the actors in the scene – Warner pulls open his robe and D’Albrook places his hand inside: “My Lord – and my God!” Recognition. Finally, Thomas sees.
Blessed are we who have believed but not seen. Olcott, Niblo, and DeMille help us to see.