A Mockingbird Guide to Movies About Jesus

The films that communicate ‘the power and the glory’ of Jesus, the Savior of the World.

Paul Zahl / 5.9.22

The following list appeared in our 2015 publication Mockingbird at the Movies:

It would be easy to overdo the preface to this little guide. There are many movies about Jesus.

There are also many singular and unusual movies about him — eccentric interpretations and odd approaches. And what Jesus are we talking about? The historical Jesus as portrayed so grittily and ‘realistically’ in Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew? The modern Passion Play Jesus, yet one still with broadswords, red capes, and Roman centurions, as in Jesus of Montreal? Or Godspell, for heaven’s sake, which is just as true as it can be (except for the resurrection) to St. Matthew.

We could have an argument about theology right here, right now. Paging Albert Schweitzer, and Martin Kaehler, and golly, John Dominic Crossan.

But I’d rather not do that.

I’d rather just talk about the movies, for some of them are wonderful. Therefore here goes: A short guide to movies about Jesus that work. [1]

These are the ones, according to me — and I think I can say I’ve seen every one, except maybe the Godard and one or two to which I gave a deliberate miss because they felt, or rather the publicity about them felt, as if they were politically correct in an imposed sense — as I say, these are the ones I think communicate ‘the power and the glory’ of the man, who is for me the Savior of the World.

A Mockingbird Guide to Movies about Jesus, which this is, is going to naturally underline lives of Christ that don’t gloss over or soften the distinction between the Gospel and the Law in His interactions with people. At least two cinematic lives of Christ that I can think of do gloss that over, so they will have to place on someone else’s list. One of them, The Last Temptation of Christ, is a very good movie.

Here goes:

1) The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

In my opinion this is still the best movie version of the life of Christ. From the soundtrack, which is inspired (J.S. Bach to the Missa Luba), to the literalness of Christ’s miracles (the loaves and the fishes stand out, as does His walking on the Sea of Galilee), to the fiery power of the actor who plays Christ (especially in the Jerusalem section where He delivers the ‘Woe’s’), to the faces, every one of them, of His disciples: This is a wonder of a movie. I think Pasolini made it under the direct inspiration of a great man, Pope John XXIII. I don’t think this movie will ever be superseded. Oh, and the angel who visits sleepy Joseph! I’ve seen the film thirty times, and the visitation scenes still don’t fail me.

2) The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

This version doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. The script is extremely painstaking — Carl Sandburg was an active consultant, by the way — and the direction, by George Stevens, whose concept the film was, is perfect. Sometimes people complain about the Hollywood cameos, such as John Wayne’s Centurion. With maybe that one exception, the cameos work, and are touching, such as Ed Wynn’s as the Blind Man, and Carroll Baker’s as Veronica. (There are many others.) Oh, and the king of cameos has got to be Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene. It’s just the most moving moment ever, when Max von Sydow, as Christ, thanks Sidney Poitier, as Simon, with one look.

The spiritual high point of the movie is the raising of Lazarus, just before the intermission. In that profoundly shot sequence, the actor Van Heflin bears powerful emotional witness to the miracle that Christ has done. That may be my second most favorite conversion-sequence in a Jesus movie. (The first is Charlton Heston’s conversion as he observes Christ’s humility during the travesty of Christ’s trial before the Priests and Pontius Pilate. That, too, is unforgettable.)

3) Ben Hur (1959)

People rightly praise the silent version of Ben Hur, which came out in 1925. It is very good, and the scene ‘down by the river,’ in which women who are washing clothes talk about Christ’s ministry — not to mention Christ’s bloody footprints as He bears His Cross to Calvary — these are still powerful and raw even though they appear in a silent film. (Incidentally, the Crucifixion sequence in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) is something you shouldn’t miss. It looks as if it is taking place in hell and Griffith and his cameraman were photographing it in hell. I don’t know how they did it — in 1916.)

But for us the version of Ben Hur that will probably never date is the William Wyler version that was released in 1959. In particular, the Sermon on the Mount, Christ’s Via Dolorosa on the way to His death, and the Crucifixion itself — one image of which is taken directly from a painting by James Tissot entitled “What Our Lord Saw from the Cross”: These are magical moments, especially for Christians. I defy you to watch the final third of the 1959 Ben Hur and not be touched right down to the ground.

4) King of Kings (1961)

Professional critics often try to pigeonhole or label a work of art. Thus King of Kings is sometimes called “I Was a Teenage Jesus,” because Jeffrey Hunter was very young when he played the lead role. It is also labeled a ‘Protestant’ interpretation — or rather, a ‘liberal Protestant’ interpretation, because Philip Yordan’s script downplays Christ’s miracles and underlines very forcefully His teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

King of Kings is really just a very good movie, perhaps a little more intimate in feeling or less like an epic than Greatest Story. The director, Nicholas Ray, likes close-ups more than George Stevens, so yes, he tends to humanize the drama.

But there are splendid jewels in King of Kings, especially that Sermon on the Mount, with Hunter striding through the crowd and captured by extremely fluid camera movement. And don’t forget the ‘God’s-Eye-View’ of The Last Supper, and, best of all, Christ’s appearance, and sort of disappearance, at the very end, on the Sea of Galilee. This last scene and shot of King of Kings is one of the high points of all these movies.

While you’re at it, don’t miss the 1927 version of King of Kings. It’s silent, and yet still excellent. A blind boy receiving his sight is one of the high notes of this ‘battle axe’ of a movie, which is actually not a battle axe at all. It was directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

5) The Robe (1953)

It is the sequences in Palestine that make this movie so religious and devout in the best way. Richard Burton and Victor Mature get caught up accidentally in Christ’s Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, yet you see Christ Himself only in long shot. It’s like Mizoguchi, and it’s fabulous.

Then the Crucifixion itself, when Richard Burton as Marcellus navigates through the traditional lookers-on at the Cross, as if they are silent, watching chess pieces and he has been extruded into their timeless (theatrically static) roles: This sequence is one of the most effective and memorable of all Hollywood Crucifixions. Also, the sequence in which Dawn Addams, as Junia, sings the story of the Empty Tomb is not only moving, it is instructive, as that is the way many Gospel memories were preserved initially — and the moviemakers have demonstrated it.

People look down on The Robe as being ‘Eisenhower-era’-religio-maudlin. But that’s unfair. When people talk that way about The Robe, you can almost be sure they haven’t actually seen it.

6) Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

This long, made-for television mini-series was directed by Franco Zeffirelli. It is very good, and have you ever seen it? Robert Powell plays Jesus.

What distinguishes this version of the life of Christ is that it is able to ‘take its time’ telling the story. Jesus of Nazareth is not compressed. Moreover, the Crucifixion sequence — that litmus test for the ‘attitude’ behind every one of these movies — is beautiful, extended, and moving. I believe Sir Laurence Olivier plays Nicodemus, and that it falls to Sir Laurence to read Isaiah 53 as the voiceover to Christ’s sufferings. It is a perfect reading, and a perfect visual/verbal unity, and a perfect instantiation of the heart of the matter.

“Don’t Forget the Motor City” — Don’t Forget to See the 1977 version of Jesus of Nazareth.

7) The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Mel Gibson got a lot of grief for this movie. But it wasn’t deserved. The main problem many people seemed to have with it, outside of their opinion of Mel Gibson himself, was the violence involved in the scourging of Christ. It was pretty intense. But I found that few of the film’s ‘liberal’ detractors had actually been to the theater and seen the movie for themselves. (This travesty of criticism was parallel to the travesty of criticism that overtook The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. But in the case of The Last Temptation, the criticism came from the religious right. And they never saw the movie, either.)

Anyway, The Passion of the Christ is cinematic while also being emotionally religious. Who can forget the teardrop coming down from the eye of God? And the Resurrection of Christ, in and from the Tomb. Gibson took major risks here, in the visual telling of the Greatest Story Ever Told. For my money, he succeeded.

I do find The Passion of the Christ to be a little on the ‘heavy’ side. What I mean is, I have to work myself up to seeing it, muster up my emotional strength to survive it. But when I do, which is about once every two years, then it makes a big impact and indites its message onto my chest as if I were Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

Conclusion

Well, I’m still tallying up in my mind all the other movies that tell the story of Jesus Christ, or engage with it directly. Then I start to think about the television shows over the years — right down to the New Outer Limits in the late 1990s, believe it or not — and MTV videos, such as that inspired video for “The Power of Love,” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

But what I’ve given, I have given. The seven movies listed above are sure fire. They all reflect, tho’ in different ways, a faithful and reverent ‘take’ on the life of Christ, yet not one that is boring or wooden. There was a quite wooden dramatization of His life made, which became a world-wide sensation because it was distributed free almost everywhere you could imagine. But it’s pretty low octane, I have to tell you.

There have also been some good movies about characters in the Gospel story other than Christ. For example, there is more than one good movie about Mary the Mother of Christ. There is also The Big Fisherman (1959), which is odd but a personal favorite of mine; and concerns mainly Peter, tho’ in a somewhat fantastic Arabian background.

I leave these seven movies, seven rich and affecting treatments of the life of Christ, for you to see and feel and think about. Like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, they are probably the best that human beings can do to put into word and image an event that St. John said was so massive that “not even all the books in the world could contain the things he did” (21:25).

COMMENTS


4 responses to “A Mockingbird Guide to Movies About Jesus”

  1. Jeff Rolfe says:

    Great List! I agree that “The Greatest Story Ever Told” has not been given its due. The cinematography, those wide camera shots, just beautiful. And of course, Donald Pleasance as “the dark hermit.”

  2. Joe says:

    All due respect…
    The animated film “The Miracle Maker” is a fantastic version of the Passion story. You can borrow our dvd copy ;). Or you can check it out on YouTube
    https://youtu.be/Vm_uHE1956I

  3. Danny Nix says:

    Exellent list. Jesus of Nazareth is my favorite ( although I was unaware of The Gospel According to St. Matthew, I will try to find that ).

  4. Jack says:

    Stunning to me that the recent Roony Mara Mary Magdalene never comes up on these sorts of lists. So well done!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.