As you know, I have been blogging about great movies to watch during Lent. But really, when you think about it, most “religious” movies are pretty bad.
Case in point: King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Jeffrey Hunter as the Son of God. Now when the dual personalities were little girls, we loved this movie. We thought Jeffrey Hunter was the perfect Jesus. Granted, the music by Miklos Rozsa is great and Jeff does have beautiful blue eyes, but really now, this rendition is hardly “the life of Christ intelligently told and beautifully filmed,” as the movie poster promises. The journeyman screenwriter Philip Yordan, who actually won an Oscar for another potboiler Broken Lance in 1955, was way out of his league. The gospel here is presented as a biblical Rebel Without a Cause, strictly trying to appeal to a teen crowd with Jesus as a dreamy all-American quarterback hero.
And as far as actual screen time, Barabbas, memorably played by Harry Guardino as a New York thug, gets way more than poor, sincere Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus. The respected Irish actress Siobhan McKenna is just ghastly as the Virgin Mary promising to “intercede” with her son for the lovelorn Mary Magdalen. It is just awful. I must admit that I kind of like Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, who has a certain disgusted look on his face that I can relate to. And he gets all the good lines: (to Herodias, played by the fashion model Rita Gam) “Woman, is not your cup of abominations full enough?” This movie is full of abominations.
Then there’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), the second to last movie directed by the great George Stevens.
It was a major fail for him. It is based on a book by Fulton Oursler who wrote the story of Jesus with the expressed intention of trying to “make it as interesting as a serial story in a popular magazine.” Well, there you have it. This movie is deadly dull and deathly serious, while at the same time poor Max Von Sydow as Jesus is unintentionally humorous as he says his lines with a Swedish accent. “BapTIZE me, Yon,” he says to Charlton Heston (as John the Baptist) who manages to keep a straight face. This movies is chock full of famous actors and actresses in cameo roles–everyone from Pat Boone to Sidney Poitier and Shelley Winters got into the act. Even David McCallum, at the height of his Ilya Kuryakin fame, plays Judas. This is all very distracting. One is always trying to figure out who is who. Oh look, it’s Angela Landsbury! Blerg. It is just awful.
There are a few good ones. I really like the Franco Zeffirelli mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which is an appropriately reverent and close adaption of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Anthony Burgess (of all people) did a fine job with the screenplay. There is no “He betook himself to Jerusalem” hokey narration like in King of Kings. He does not try to improve on the scriptures, taking much of the dialogue straight from them and the actors make it work. All the actors are excellent, especially the English actor Robert Powell as Jesus.
To watch the whole thing takes all week, so we better get started!
(The best movie about Jesus is the one where ironically his face is never seen–Ben Hur. This movie deserves its own post, so stay tuned.)