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CHRISTIAN MOVIES 13 Jesus Movies: The Good, Bad, Ugly and Heretical
How many of these films did you ever know existed? #1: The King of Kings (1927) The famous H.B. Warner played Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings—still the classic of all movies about Jesus Christ. Produced by Pathé Exchange, Inc., this was the most famous, the most discussed and the costliest religious movie made up to that point and was used for many years by missionaries to evangelize. The action starts when Jesus is already fully grown and preaching. The first half of the movie includes: casting the seven deadly sins out of Mary Magdalene; the raising of Lazarus; the driving of the money changers from the Temple; then the temptation by Satan is inserted; and the teaching of the Lord's Prayer. The second half concentrates on the Passion: the betrayal by Judas; the trial; the way to the Cross; Jesus' death; and, His Resurrection, which was followed almost immediately in a slight contraction of historical events by the Ascension. In order to avoid offending Jewish sensibilities, Caiaphas, rather than Judas, was made responsible for Christ's death. King of Kings shows DeMille at his best and his worst. The movie opens with a very inaccurate portrayal of a bejeweled Mary Magdalene living in unbelievable splendor, surrounded by marble palaces, leopards, zebras, revelers and slaves. This sequence was originally in color. Her lover, Judas, has been absent a good deal lately listening to a poor "carpenter." Slighted, she storms off to see this carpenter who has lured Judas away. Of course, she falls for the carpenter. Just at this point when the gospel story appears to be reduced to a sex triangle, DeMille changes direction and produces the rest of the movie with rare restraint and dignity. The result is an unsurpassed masterpiece, wherein H.B. Warner gives an inspired and inspiring performance, in appearance halfway between the Victorian vision of the fragile Jesus and the tougher portrayals of later years. One of the most poignant scenes involves a young blind girl who is listening to a boy's story of a lame man who was healed. The girl is taken into a fisherman's hut. All goes dark, as the audience is placed behind her sightless eyes. Gradually, from all corners of the screen, rays of light begin to radiate, growing ever brighter and more concentrated until, at first in a haze, then clearly, she sees the gentle face of her healer smiling down at her. Even today, the scene has lost none of its power. A minister noted to Warner some time later, "I saw you in King of Kings when I was a child and now every time I speak of Jesus, it is your face I see." The disciples are unusually well differentiated characters with their own identity rather than a handful of supporters with one or two standing out as in other versions. Ernest Torrence is a splendidly impetuous, lovable Peter. Joseph Schildkraut's somewhat theatrical Judas is the most arresting in movies. Alan Brooks is Satan in a highly original handling of the temptation scene. It is clear that the reverence and prayers during the production made a difference. #2: The Robe (1953) Directed by Henry Koster for 20th Century Fox, The Robe is utterly inspirational. Starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons and Victor Mature, this Hollywood classic is the story of a slave under the rule of Rome, who turns to Christianity when embracing the robe of Christ. Burton plays Marcellus, a Roman centurion who won the Robe of Christ on the roll of a dice after the crucifixion. Tormented by nightmares, he returns to Palestine to try and learn what he can of the man he killed. His slave Demetrius swoops up the robe and converts to Christianity. Mad emperor Caligula cannot abide Christians and demands that Burton secure the robe for him. When Burton doesn't give up the robe, he is sent to his death. The Crucifixion scene is one of the more successful. The Cinemascope screen gives a hint of tragic grandeur. Christ's words from the Cross are heard while we are shown the agonized up-turned face of a Greek slave (Victor Mature). Blood drips onto Mature's hand. #3: Ben-Hur (1959) Ben-Hur ranks among the most honored of films, taking 11 of 12 Academy awards. The movie starts with the birth of Christ and the visit by the Magi. Judah Ben-Hur of Judea (Charlton Heston) reunites with his friend, Massala (Stephen Boyd) who becomes the Roman commander of Jerusalem. However, Massala asks Judah to betray his own people by informing on the dissenters. When Judah refuses, Massala finds a way to frame his friend and send Judah to the galleys of the Roman war ships. He also sends Judah's mother and sister to a dark, cold cell. In battle, Judah rescues the governor and becomes a Roman "favorite son." In time, Judah becomes a skilled charioteer and defeats Massala in a daring chariot race. Judah then rescues his mother and sister who have become lepers and takes them to Christ. Though it is too late for them to meet Jesus, his shed blood makes renews them and regenerates Judah. #4: King of Kings (1961) The 1961 King of Kings was a great disappointment, which should not to be confused with Cecil B. DeMille's impressive 1927 movie of the same name. Not only was the movie poorly edited, but this version also treats the gospel as a revolutionary underground movement, with Barabbas and Judas working together to destroy Roman oppression, and Jesus is caught up in the upheaval. Aside from the introduction of irrelevant battles, the movie lacks a clear emphasis on Jesus' divinity, omits miracles and changes significant facts. Furthermore, Jeffrey Hunter does a poor job as Christ. However, the movie does portray a real resurrection. Directed by Nicholas Ray for MGM, the movie came after his youth-oriented movie Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and such movies as I Was a Teenage Franknestein  and I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and so it was dubbed "I Was a Teenage Jesus." #5: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) The Greatest Story Ever Told is slightly overlong and crammed with stars but not as bad a movie as many critics claim. In spite of the involvement of the Protestant Film Office, the movie has some theological inaccuracies including attempts to exonerate Judas, Judas falling into the sacrificial fire instead of hanging himself as the Bible tells us and a very weak ending that has a conceptually resurrected Jesus appearing in the clouds in a vision that leans toward nominalism. These and other divergences from the Bible are so apparent that it is clear that Director George Stevens should have stuck to the facts. The Greatest Story Ever Told is a beautifully photographed movie, but, regrettably, some of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed lose all validity because of star cameos. It is difficult to believe John Wayne as a Roman centurion supervising Christ's crucifixion. These cameos weren't needed, though Charlton Heston is very good as John the Baptist. George Stevens, the film's director, producer and co-writer, spent almost a decade bringing this project to the screen. Even with all his experience, he was unable to translate his vision into the cinematic experience he wanted. Whereas the book was a masterful historical novel with prose so powerful that the reader feels he is living the events, the movie is lifeless, meandering and somehow pointless. At times, however, the viewer can see flashes of what Stevens had in mind in translating the book to the big screen. Individual sequences, such as the raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion, are magnificent. Max Von Sydow did an excellent job as Christ, and, as an unknown in the U.S., he was very believable. He is a strong, virile, compassionate and, at times, humorous Jesus who exhibits attributes of the gentle Son of God of a child's bedside as well as the Son of Man trudging from place to place. Furthermore, Telly Savalas and Claude Rains are convincing as Pilate and Herod. #6: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) Jesus Christ Superstar presents a Jesus figure, using the musical idiom of the 1960s. It is interesting to note that it now appears very dated. The movie is adapted from the musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber which employed imaginative lyrics and contemporary sounds. Although it is theologically controversial, Jesus Christ Superstar has a wonderful score. Director Norman Jewison's movie adaptation for Universal Pictures had echoes of the stage version, but was more reverent and even hinted at the resurrection which the play assiduously avoided. Ted Neely played Jesus Christ in this modern re-telling of the gospel story which sets Christianity on edge by partially turning the villains of the story into the heroes. Used by God to accomplish His purpose, Judas is presented as noble and knowledgeable. Pontius Pilate is a troubled man who has premonitions of the truth about Jesus and his own role in his death. #7: The JESUS Film (1979) The JESUS Film, released in 1979 by Warner Bros, has been viewed by 3.3 billion people as of this writing thanks to the efforts of Campus Crusade for Christ. More than 108 million people have indicated they have placed their faith in Jesus Christ after seeing the film. The movie has been translated into 566 languages, with 232 more in progress. The audio/radio version is available in 54 languages, and another hundred languages will be added this year. The JESUS film has also been re-configured to reach different audiences. Produced by John Heyman, a Jewish believer, The JESUS Film is theologically very accurate, although it is not, as many people assume, the entire text of the gospel of Luke, and it does add some material to adapt the gospel to movie drama. Whereas Jesus of Nazareth has an ethereal quality in many scenes, such as when special effects and classical music announces the angel appearing to Mary, The JESUS Film  follows the Jewish tradition of realism, so that when an angel appears, he walks on screen. Some critics have misunderstood the theological significance of this. From the biblical perspective, rooted in Judaism, God's creation is real. The resurrected Jesus is real. Angels are so real that any of us could be entertaining angels unawares. Thus, the very real earthiness of this version is in its favor. This is the obverse of biblical epics. It presents the story of Jesus without the usual Hollywood digressions and additions. The crucifixion is especially powerful. Narrated by Alexander Scourby, produced by The Genesis Project and filmed in Israel, this movie retells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God raised by a Jewish carpenter. The movie encompasses the entire gospel story from the miraculous virgin birth to the calling of his disciples, public miracles and ministry, ending with his death by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire and resurrection on the third day. It is interesting to note that the actor in The JESUS Film is not a believer. Rather, Brian Deacon, who played Jesus in this film, calls himself "a lapsed Catholic who hasn't practiced his faith." Deacon testified, "I've always found it difficult to know how truth can be proclaimed to others; to me it's more of a private matter." Even so, as Campus Crusade for Christ notes, every two seconds, sometimes in the midst of global chaos and conflict, someone indicates a decision to receive Christ as personal Savior as a result of seeing The JESUS Film. Therefore, many mission experts have acclaimed The JESUS Film as one of the greatest evangelistic success stories of all time. #8: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) Distributed by Universal Pictures, The Last Temptation of Christ is the most blasphemous movie ever made. As if that wasn't bad enough, it is boring. Judas (Harvey Keitel) is strong, knows exactly who he is and what he wants. Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is weak, confused, fearful, doesn't know who he is, from time to time falls on the ground in a faint after hearing voices. Jesus says he wants God to hate him. He makes crosses because he wants God to hate him. He doesn't know if the voices come from God or the devil. Jesus says: "I'm a liar, a hypocrite, I'm afraid of everything. . . . Do you want to know who my God is? They're fear. . . Lucifer is inside me. He tells me I am not a man, but the Son of Man, more the Son of God, more than that, God." Of course, for Jesus who is very God to say this is blasphemy of the first order, as well as abhorrent for its metaphysical implications. At the Last Supper, after the apostles partake of the Bread and the Cup, blood and flesh are seen dripping from some of the apostles' mouths. When Jesus visits Mary Magdalene's house, the room is filled with men sitting down, watching Mary have sex with a customer. Jesus sits down and watches, implying that God lusts after human women. Later, Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) fornicate, and Mary breathes, "We can make a baby." I screened the movie before it opened and had the opportunity to appear on television network news, The Entertainment Reporter, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Morton Downey Jr. Program, The Sonya Freidman Show on CNN, many radio programs and in many newspapers, where I pointed out that Jesus was fully God and fully man, that He was sinless, and that He redeemed mankind through His death and resurrection. It is interesting to note that director Martin Scorsese was expelled from a Roman Catholic Seminary and writer Paul Schrader went to Calvin College. Nikos Kazantzakis, who authored the novel upon which the movie is based, journeyed philosophically from Greek Orthodox to Marxism to Hinduism—all of which are represented in this historically and biblically inaccurate and befuddled movie. There is no doubt that many people were hurt by seeing this evil, pantheistic movie desecrating the Gospel. #9: Jesus of Montreal (1989) Filled with profanity, pornography and promiscuity, Jesus of Montreal is another blasphemous attack on Christ and the Church. The movie is set in Montreal, Canada, and revolves around the Passion Play that has been performed every year for the past 40 years by a Roman Catholic Church. One summer, Father Leclerc, the worldly Roman Catholic priest in charge of the play, turns to a group of actors and actresses, including Constance, a single mother who has had an ongoing affair with Father Leclerc, Martin, whose bread and butter comes from pornographic movies and Daniel, a struggling, young, unemployed actor chosen to play Jesus and direct. As the story unfolds, Daniel adopts Jesus' identity both off and on the stage. In one scene, the Mary Magdalene-actress washes Daniel's back in the bathtub as the film's way of re-telling the story of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with precious oil. In another scene, Jesus' descent into hell after his death on the cross is depicted by Daniel wandering around in Montreal's subway, which is haunted by uncaring, oblivious people. Thus, the film dwells on artistic and symbolic portrayals of biblical accounts of Jesus' humanity, but completely omits his divine nature. The film's intent is to leave the audience pondering if Daniel is an actor who played Jesus, or Jesus returned to Earth as an actor. Perhaps the movie's most offensive scene occurs when doctors transplant various organs from Daniel's body after he dies to other people in a pathetic attempt to use technology for a counterfeit, or substitute, resurrection. The director, Denys Arcand, says his film has more to do with the plight of struggling young actors than his conception of the Scriptures. However, Arcand has confessed that he is not a churchgoer and makes it quite clear that he has no personal knowledge of the risen Savior, Jesus Christ. #10: Matthew (1996) While other movies and television programs about Jesus Christ have paraphrased the Bible for dramatic effect, Matthew, produced by Visual Entertainment, translates the Bible verbatim. The first in the Visual Bible series, Matthew is one of the best and clearest translations brought to life through the movie medium. Indeed, the very words of Christ and every word by every character is lifted completely from the New International Version. Since the movie is a verbatim rendition of the Gospel, it doesn't have the emotive dramatic structure of a Jesus of Nazareth, which included a large amount of text written by screenwriters. Also, since Matthew is visualized, it may not coincide with the way you imagined the scenes or characters in your own mind. (Indeed, every Christian has their own concept of how Jesus looks.) Many movies have Christ straight-faced and somber. Here, He is full of joy and life. Some may argue that this Jesus Christ is too joyous, too earthly, too intimate, but since the text is straight from the Bible, his portrayal is uncompromising and biblical. The movie starts out with pastoral pictures of the Israeli countryside. Matthew is presenting some background information on himself and why he wrote the book, "to show that Jesus of Nazareth is the long awaited Messiah." He then goes into the genealogy of Jesus, explaining it to scribes and even young children. (As the verses are stated, the chapter and verse are indicated on the lower right hand corner.)   As the story progresses into the life of Jesus, the Bible text is read in narration by the Matthew character until the other players are given their lines. Then, dialogue and narration are traded back and forth throughout the rest of the movie. #11: The Gospel of John (2003) The Gospel of John, a word for word movie taken from the Gospel of the same name, is one of the best movies ever made about the life of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John brings John's Gospel alive in a powerful way. For perhaps the first time in cinematic history, it becomes clear why Jesus and his Jewish followers were at odds with the Jewish establishment. Watching Jesus throw down the gauntlet of His messianic claims in the face of the Pharisees and Sadducees will clearly call people into the Kingdom of God. There is no ambiguity here: this is Jesus, the Messiah, the only Son of God, true God from true God, of one being with the Father. The lead, Shakespearean actor Henry Ian Cusick, gives an authoritative and yet warm and endearing portrayal of our Lord Jesus. Christians need to go into all the world to bring their friends to watch the Good News of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in The Gospel of John. #12: The Passion of the Christ (2004) The Passion of the Christ is Mel Gibson's masterpiece about the final hours of Jesus Christ. The movie covers the time period from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Cross and beyond. Going beyond most Passion Plays, it highlights in stark, dark, intense terms the spiritual warfare raging around Jesus Christ during His Passion. The first scene has Jesus weeping in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Satan, an androgynous figure accompanied by a snake, tries to tempt Jesus away from his destiny on the cross. When Jesus arises, he stomps on the head of the serpent. Quickly, Judas leads the temple guards into the garden to arrest Jesus. From that point, the brutal treatment of the Messiah is shown in stark detail. The Passion of the Christ is a must-see movie, beautifully directed, powerfully acted, and with terrific sound. Filmed in Latin and Aramaic, The Passion of the Christ has a foreign sensibility. The violence and the glee of the Romans who were scourging Jesus highlight the demonic quality of the battle Jesus was fighting. Those who see it will understand, perhaps for the first time, the price that Jesus paid to forgive us our sins. This is real grace, not cheap grace. #13: Son of God (2014) Son of God begins with John narrating God's promise and covenant with His people through Israel's history as the Romans take control of the countryside. After showing the birth of Jesus, 30 years later Jesus approaches Peter to call him to join His mission to change the world. Jesus confronts the Pharisees through His teaching and miracles. Then, as conflict mounts between the Romans and the Jews during Passover, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds and tension around Jesus increase as Jesus begins His journey to the Cross. Son of God is a captivating showcase of God's grace. The acting is excellent, including the powerful ending. The movie is life changing, but the pacing could be tighter. Thus, the movie opens strongly, but the first half is too episodic. Also, some biblical episodes, including dialogue, seem too truncated. That said, the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish and Roman leadership is strong. The movie also has a powerful resurrection sequence. Son of God clearly shows that the death and resurrection of Christ is a glorious reminder of God's love. Conclusion There are many portrayals of Christ, but none of them measure up to the true. Napoleon Bonaparte is famously credited with saying: "I search in vain in history to find the similar to Jesus Christ or anything, which can approach the gospel. Neither history, nor humanity, nor the ages, nor nature offer me anything with which I am able to compare it or to explain it. Here everything is extraordinary. The more I consider the gospel, the more I am assured that there is nothing there, which is not beyond the events, and above the human mind" (quote excerpted from The Book of Jesus, Simon & Schuster, 1996, p. 71).