MOVIES: Jesus & the films He inspires

by Phil Boatwright, posted Wednesday, April 16, 2014 (7 months ago)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP) -- "The Jesus Film," released in 1979, has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the "most translated film" in history, having been written in more than 1,200 languages.

Celebrating the film's 35th anniversary, Cinedigm and Mission Home Video have added a new musical score and digitally remastered the production frame by frame for DVD and Blu-ray.

While other film adaptations of the life of Jesus have been bolder in their Hollywood sensationalism, The Jesus Film is engaging and heartwarming.

Admittedly, film adaptations of Jesus' life are not my favorite. It's indeed a case of the book being better than the movies. I guess my main problem with these productions is the difficulty of casting an actor, no matter how talented, to play the Son of God. How does one capture the magnetism, compassion, wisdom and God-like qualities that attracted a following and changed the world?

I have always preferred films that reveal the effect Christ had on individuals, rather than focus on an actor playing a man who was also God. "Ben Hur" and "The Robe" come to mind, where we see the spiritual change Jesus brought to the world.

In Ben Hur, for example, the story of Christ serves as the backdrop for this epic adventure of a Jewish man sold into slavery only to find freedom after becoming a gladiator. The ending uplifts as we see Christ's impact on the lives of the house of Hur. The film contains one of the most penetrating lines I've ever heard spoken in movies, as the newly converted gladiator states, "And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand."

Each screen recounting of the greatest story ever told has its spiritual strengths and cinematic weaknesses.

Here's my take on several of them.

The Jesus Film

The Jesus Film failed to move me on a thematic level as much as some other screen attempts, as it included only elementary representations of parables. But the ending contains a powerful evangelical message that made viewing this production a worthwhile experience. I kept thinking of people unfamiliar with Jesus as Messiah. For them this may be the best of the Jesus films, because it maps His ministry and makes it clear that He knew who He is and what He is meant to do.

From the publicity notes: "The Jesus Film is a faithful depiction of Christ's birth, ministry, death and resurrection as told in the biblical account from the Gospel of Luke. Virtually every word Jesus speaks ... is quoted from Scripture, with 450 leaders and scholars having reviewed the script for biblical accuracy. Further historical accuracy was ensured using clothing, pottery and other props made with first-century methods to portray a 2,000-year-old Palestinian culture."

Although some may find fault with the interpretations of a few depicted incidents, I think most Christians will argue that it does well in telling the unsaved about our Savior, and brightens the believer's path with a reminder of God's grace and Christ's sacrifice. (G)

"Jesus of Nazareth" (1977 TV-miniseries)

Franco Zeffirelli's epic production of the life of Christ is considered by many the best film portraying Jesus. It is acclaimed for its thorough biblical and historical research and contains many memorable performances, including those of Robert Powell, Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, and Laurence Olivier. Its length, 371 minutes, will take a couple evenings to view, but I recommend the effort.

"King of Kings" (1961)

Jeffrey Hunter stars as Jesus, with an all-star cast and narration by Orson Welles. Though big on pageantry, it lacks Zeffirelli's artistry. Still, it has its moving moments and a musical score to stir our emotions. (PG-13)

"The Passion of the Christ" (2004)

Mel Gibson's brutal yet undeniably artistic rendering of the final hours of Christ's life blew away skeptics when it earned over $350 million at the box office. Aided by superb cinematography, lighting, music, some dynamic special effects and Jim Caviezel's sincere and muted performance, director Gibson brought a mood and sensitivity never before captured in telling the story of the Christ. Justly rated R for its graphic depiction of scourging, piercing, beating and crucifixion, the movie is meant to shock and unnerve us, and clarify the ordeal of Christ's sacrifice. But the film, while showing the physical horrors Christ endured, is not really about what mankind did to Him, but about what He did for us.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965)

Max von Sydow heads an all-star cast in this grandiose, if long (199 minutes) version directed by George Stevens. Although the story of Christ can't be topped, this film version can. Cameos by stars just get in the way. I love the "Duke" John Wayne, but had trouble receiving him as a Roman centurion. (G)

"The Miracle Maker" (2000)

With the use of claymation and graphically striking two-dimensional animation, ABC brought the story of Jesus to television Easter Sunday, 2000. Now on DVD, it concerns an ill little girl who encounters Jesus through different stages of His life, giving us a remarkably accurate retelling of Christ's ministry. Often, animation's most important strength is in its ability to avoid the familiarity of the actors playing pivotal historical roles and focus the attention on the importance of what is being said by their characters. That attempt works effectively in this production. (G)

"Son of God" (2014)

Taken from the made-for-TV miniseries "The Bible," which aired in 2013 on the History Channel, Son of God attempts a comprehensive representation of Jesus' ministry. It's long (138 min.), and it doesn't always flow. Quite honestly, the first half of the film did little to inspire me. But despite the cinematic weaknesses, about halfway through, I started to get involved and found several sequences that completely engaged me. (PG-13)

And what about Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ?" Amid its many scriptural lapses, the film had Jesus questioning His objective. By studying the Scriptures, it is impossible to come to the conclusion that Jesus was unaware of who He is and His mission. So to portray Him otherwise is misguided. Christ said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6 NIV). With everything He said and did, that assertion rang loudly, and with authority. (R)


In addition to writing for Baptist Press, Phil Boatwright reviews films for www.previewonline.org and is a regular contributor to "The World and Everything In It," a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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