Max von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told; Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth; Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings (Photos: UA; NBC; MGM)
With Easter just around the corner, now’s an apt time for viewers to come to Jesus.
The list of movies based on the life of Christ is a lengthy one, ranging from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew (considered by many to be the best Biblical flick ever made) to 1973’s delightful Godspell (with Victor Garber as Jesus) to the same year’s The Gospel Road (co-written by, co-produced by, and co-starring Johnny Cash). Below are six more films about the Son of God, ranked from best to worst.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Forget the unwarranted criticism that greeted Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel: This is the most faith-inspiring religious epic ever made, as Scorsese gives us a fictionalized account of the trials and tribulations suffered by Christ (Willem Dafoe) in His final days. Jesus was both fully God and fully man, and this is the rare movie to understand that, as such, He must have possessed such qualities as a thirst for answers and an appreciation for the pleasures and agonies of life itself. Thus, by presenting Him as an immediate figure rather than an untouchable icon, we’re allowed to feel closer to Him than ever before. David Bowie makes for a thoughtful Pontius Pilate, and Peter Gabriel’s score is nothing short of phenomenal. ★★★★
Jesus of Nazareth (1977). For those preferring something more traditional than Temptation, the best bet is Franco Zeffirelli’s six-hour TV miniseries (it was released theatrically overseas, which is how I first caught it). The length allows each chapter of the life of Christ (Robert Powell) to be properly developed, and Zeffirelli shows tremendous reverence without ever adopting a sanctimonious tone. Powell is one of the best Christs yet seen, effectively mixing a divine countenance with recognizably human emotions. Many major stars are smartly cast (Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Michael York as John the Baptist, Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate), with the most notable turn coming from James Farentino as Simon Peter (appropriately, he was the only actor in the supporting ranks to earn an Emmy Award nomination). ★★★½
King of Kings (1961). Because the makers of this film took a chance by casting heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter as Christ, this was quickly labeled I Was a Teenage Jesus (a play, of course, on the era’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein). But the film is far better than that tag would suggest, even if Hunter, for all his sincerity, is a bit too bland in the pivotal role. Treading off the beaten path of most religious epics of its era, this one foregoes many of the traditional scenes (e.g., the money changers in the temple) to focus more on the politics of the Roman court, as well as to offer a running contrast between the efforts of Christ to free Jewish souls and the attempts of Barabbas (Harry Guardino) to liberate the Jewish flesh. Miklos Rozsa’s score is outstanding. ★★★
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Introduced to the original London album at an early age, I can immerse myself in that magnificent soundtrack anytime, anyplace, anywhere … but my enthusiasm doesn’t completely carry over to Norman Jewison’s screen adaptation. Jewison’s minimalist approach (scaffoldings in the middle of the desert) and modern touches (jets flying overhead) neither enhances nor detracts, but many of the singers simply don’t compare to their original counterparts, and even Barry Dennen, who does reprise his role as Pontius Pilate, is far less subtle in his film portrayal. Still, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice score and the complex interpretations of Christ and Judas win out over any shortcomings. ★★★
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Director George Stevens certainly knows his way around an awe-inspiring shot, and some well-staged sequences are primarily what this ambitious epic has going for it. But the movie is ultimately crippled by the poor spot-the-star casting. In his first English-language film, Max von Sydow (RIP) is too pious as the Messiah — his lack of animation is better suited to a fresco than a movie — while, on the other end of the spectrum, hammy performances are hand-delivered by Charlton Heston as John the Baptist and Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate. And in a notorious bit of casting, there’s John Wayne as a Roman centurion present at the crucifixion. “Truly, this man was the son of God,” he drawls, evoking his Western persona so strongly that you half-expect Walter Brennan to pop up alongside him as his sidekick, Gimpus Maximus. ★★
The Passion of the Christ (2004). Many of Mel Gibson’s movies have displayed a fetishistic fascination with blood and guts, and this one’s no exception. In relating the saga of Christ from his betrayal by Judas through the crucifixion, Gibson has taken the greatest story ever told and turned it into a snuff film. The pacifist teachings aren’t even allowed to take a back seat to the beatings suffered by Jesus (Jim Caviezel) — instead, they’re locked away in the trunk, with Gibson paying them only fleeting lip service. The emphasis is squarely on employing the best visual effects, makeup designs and slo-mo camerawork that money can buy to lovingly reveal every whip mark slashed across Christ’s back, every thorn driven into His head, every nail hammered into His flesh. It’s Kill Bill for the hypocritical religious right, an unrelenting orgy of evangelical ire that’s sorely missing any type of meaningful context. ★★