Jesus on Film

by Gerald Forshey

Peter S. Hawkins teaches religion and literature at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 14-21, 1998, page 801. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


In the final analysis, the central problem is dealing with a sacred story in a technological and pluralistic society. A melodrama fashioned from the paradigmatic story of Christ works against itself.

In 1954, encouraged by new scholarship on Jesus' life and by the rising tide of church membership and attendance, the Episcopal Church helped finance a film on the life of Jesus, The Day of Triumph. It forthrightly pictured Jesus full-face for the first time since DeMille's King of Kings (1927). The film portrayed Judas as a Zealot and associated him with Barabbas. Judas hoped to force Jesus into the ranks of the Zealots -- a theme in accordance with theories about the political character of the eschatological kingdom of God. The Day of Triumph also broke important ground in being the first film to represent the voice of Jesus on a sound track (except for Salome, in which Jesus' voice was heard but the actor who spoke Jesus' lines was unseen).

Three years later a Nikos Kazantzakis novel was translated by Jules Dassin into the film He Who Must Die, about a modern passion play in which the characters' roles eventually become their reality, culminating in the death of the character who plays Jesus. The film, which many believe depicts the struggle between the Turks and the Greeks on Cyprus, received a good deal of exposure in art-house cinemas in large American cities. Churches organized group trips to see the film, whose obvious political overtones meant little to American audiences.

Five commercial films about Christ were made in the next 16 years. The most widely viewed were King of Kings (1961). The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Gaining more critical acclaim were the Italian-made Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1963) and Godspell (1973). Neither of these was produced in the spectacular style, and neither one gathered wide audiences in the United States. (Another film, Gospel Road 19731, had very few commercial bookings and is generally unavailable for viewing.)

Turning the Gospel accounts into spectacular big-budget melodramas was by no means a commercially safe investment. George Stevens is estimated to have lost a fortune on Greatest Story, even though the film grossed over $7 million in the U.S. Making a biblical spectacular was considered a great financial risk.

For marketing considerations, the scripts had to have both authenticity and wide commercial appeal. Filmmakers had to present a treatment that would win the approval of as many groups as possible. DeMille had found the formula with Moses, but Jesus presented quite a different problem because he was the object of faith. Some thought that the life of Jesus was intrinsically dramatic. But Judith Crist questioned whether the story could be told at all:

I wonder if there is not instant diminution when we put a figure of Christ upon the screen. How to personify the mystery and divinity and, once personified, how to make the figure move among men? These are of the imagination, and our traditional film-makers leave nothing to the imagination. How then are they to "visualize" the vision that has endured for centuries primarily within the human heart? ... No, the great big screen and the great big names are too much for the survival of matters of the spirit. So many aspects of big movie-making intervene that the Passion cannot predominate ["A Story Too Great To Be Told?" New York, Herald Tribune, February 21, 1965, p. 271.]

An example of this "bigness" is the problem of depicting Jesus' miracles. They must somehow be portrayed plausibly and not appear to be optical illusions or cinematic tricks. Additionally, the resurrection cannot be omitted, for it is the evidence of Christ's divinity. Yet to show it means that an empirically minded audience is required either to acknowledge that its world view does not encompass things of the spirit or that there is some other explanation for the resurrection that is not portrayed.

Did God plan to have his son murdered? According to the Gospel accounts, Judas caused the crucifixion because that was his role in the divine plan. But for those who do not believe that the supernatural intervenes into the natural order, Judas loses his legitimation. This raises the question of why Judas betrayed Jesus -- complicated by an additional consideration: Was it possible that the infallible Christ made a mistake in choosing Judas as a disciple? Or given divine foreknowledge of his fate, did Jesus masochistically seek self-destruction? Various film interpretations of Judas's role seek to resolve those perennial questions.

The problem of portraying Jesus is even more troublesome. The question of whether to allow a recognizable actor to play Jesus has plagued the Hollywood community. Even more perplexing has been the question of how to portray him. In commenting on the choice of Max von Sydow for Greatest Story, Ivan Butler wrote:

"Max von Sydow is a strong, virile, compassionate and even at times a humorous Christ. Edward Connor describes him as the best since H. B. Warner [DeMille's Christ] -- it is arguable that he even surpasses the earlier performance. Warner, for all the beauty, tenderness, and dignity of his portrayal, or perhaps because of these very virtues, never quite convinced as the Son of God. Warner was the "gentle Jesus" of the child's bedside as well as the Teacher, the Healer, the Reformer, the Man of unquenchable will and inner determination. Von Sydow satisfies one on all these points, but in addition is also the trudger from place to place through the hot dusty countryside, the craftsman's son. The physical strength to undergo the strains imposed on Christ is evident in von Sydow -- with Warner one occasionally has doubts in this respect [Religion in the Cinema, (A. S. Barnes, 1969), pp. 48-491.]

In the final analysis, the central problem is dealing with a sacred story in a technological and pluralistic society. Since the United States is at least nominally Christian, and since Christian doctrine has supplied the imaginative resources for much of our literature, it is understandable that artists would want to present the story of Christ in the most technologically advanced medium. Since the story is so fundamental to society, the spectacular form seems the only proper genre. But the spectacular form, no matter how it is manipulated, seems to demand a melodramatic archetype; and a melodrama fashioned from the paradigmatic story of Christ works against itself, creating a "moral fantasy" out of what has been considered the supernatural norm of realistic behavior.