Movies about Jesus and the Romans

One Hollywood movie sets the scene for the coming ministry of Jesus in the land of Galilee. It is the story of John the Baptist and his fatal encounter with Salome. Based loosely on New Testament gospels, this is a first look at encounters between Christians and Romans in the movies. In this time, Herod Antipas built his capital city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and named it after his Roman patron, Emperor Tiberius. It is spelled “Tiberias.”

Salome  (1953)

Set in the land of Galilee during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, this sword-and-sandal movie stars Charles Laughton as King Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. A Jewish king, he rules his domain under the yoke of Rome with his wife Queen Herodias (Judith Anderson). The Queen is a scheming woman who seeks to improve the prospects of her headstrong daughter, Salome (Susan Hayworth). The King takes an unwholesome interest in his stepdaughter. There are differing histories of these three in the New Testament and in Jewish history.

The story opens with the concern of Herod and Herodias over the appearance of John the Baptist in Galilee. He brings word of the coming of the Messiah and has harsh criticisms of the monarchy. Meanwhile,  the high-spirited Salome has been sent to Rome to acquire some refinement. She has displeased Emperor Tiberius, however, and is sent home on a boat.  Along the way,  she meets a Roman commander (Farley Granger) who is also bound for the palace at Galilee. His mission is to inform Herod and Herodias that they are to be placed under the authority of Pontius Pilate in Caesarea, the Roman port city and seat of government for the occupation of Judea. The King and Queen are feeling threatened on two sides.

As her relationship with the Roman commander (Granger) deepens, Salome learns that he is a secret convert to Christianity. Pilate objects to Herod’s tolerance of sedition from John the Baptist and advocates the quick solution of crucifixion. Salome goes to the marketplace to hear the Baptist speak. He is a strident and inflexible man, come to prepare the way for the true Messiah. He advocates the stoning of Queen Herodias for adultery. Salome gives her love to the Roman commander, and then implores him to arrest the Baptist. The Queen takes matters into her own hands and tries to have him assassinated. The plan aborts, but the Baptist is arrested and brought before Herod. He contemptuously denounces the King and promises that the King of Kings is coming. Herod tries to bargain with the Baptist. He is unbending, and Herod imprisons him.

The commander goes to Pilate in Jerusalem to argue that the people will revolt if the Baptist is not freed. He says that he believes that this new religion will surge across the earth, and teach people to live together in peace. Pilate observes that now there is another Messiah, a carpenter, making trouble in the area. The commander is stripped of his rank and sets off to Bethany to find this new Messiah, hoping to witness his miracles.

Back in Galilee, Herod is presiding over his birthday celebration while the rabble are at the gates, crying “Death to the Queen!” The distraught Herodias proposes that Salome dance for the King (becoming his possession) in order to persuade him to execute John the Baptist. Salome finds the commander and begs him to take her away. He takes her instead to the prison to see the Baptist, who confirms that the Messiah has come. Salome becomes a believer. She decides to dance for the King to get the Baptist freed. The commander forbids it, and says he will get the job done.

Salome knows what she wants to do. When next we see her she is performing her coy striptease. Herod clearly loves this display, and so does Salome. When the King says he would give half his kingdom to possess this beauty, the Queen steps in demands that he deliver the head of John the Baptist. The King is reluctant to comply, but his wishes are misinterpreted and John the Baptist is decapitated. Both Herod and Salome are appalled, but Queen Herodias is cackling like a witch. Salome is never held responsible  for bringing about this tragedy. She and the commander join hands and go off to listen to Jesus deliver his Sermon on the Mount. He speaks of loving one’s neighbor, and it would seem that from this point forward, the world would be a loving and harmonious place. On the screen, come the words, “This was the Beginning.”

The most often told tale of the clash of Christians and Romans is the story of Jesus. From the first authors of the New Testament to the moviemakers of our time, the events in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus have been retold from every possible point of view. Here is a selection of movies about Jesus that reflects how changing times alter the telling of the story.

“Christ” in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916)

 King of Kings  (1927) – Cecil B. DeMille

Golgotha (1935) – Julien Duvivier

Two of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers gave the story of Jesus the silent treatment in the early stages of the industry. The first of these was a somewhat submerged sequence in the ambitious anthology film, Intolerance, from D.W. Griffith in 1916. The second was an unorthodox framing of the tale by Cecil B. DeMille in 1927, called King of Kings. In this version, Mary Magdalene takes the lead, appearing to have a double life as a Roman courtesan who is in love with the good-looking Judas. Her jealous love drives the story. A distinguishing characteristic of these pre-youth culture films is that Jesus has the look of an older man. A more obscure film, called Golgotha (1935), by Julien Duvivier, takes the aging of Jesus a step further by making him look almost sinister. DeMille would make a talking version of King of Kings in 1961.

King of Kings  (1961) – DeMille

The Greatest Story Ever Told  (1965)

Two movies in the early 1960s attempted to present the official Hollywood version of the life of Jesus and both were viewed as failures. King of Kings (1961) was a remake by Cecil B. DeMille of his 1927 silent movie, though it took a very different approach. Here the politics of the Roman occupation of Jerusalem get strong attention and the rise of Jesus as the enemy of imperial power is set in this context. The young-looking Jeffrey Hunter took some punishment for his portrayal of Jesus though he was supported by some stronger box office names, most notably Robert Ryan as John the Baptist. Public opinion has mellowed over the years.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) was released only four years after King of Kings and received mostly ridicule for its retro attempt to give the story a full Hollywood treatment. Perhaps an indication of its being out of touch was in the choice of the older-looking Max von Sydow as Jesus. John Wayne as the Roman centurion at the Crucifixion was out of his element.

The Countercultural Jesus

 

Godspell  (1973)

Jesus Christ Superstar  (1973)

Some confusion exists about which of the two hippie Jesus figures came first, Victor Garber in Godspell or Ted Neely in Jesus Christ Superstar. Both of these works appeared in New York as stage productions in 1971 and both were released as movies in 1973.  The period between 1968 and 1972 produced many young men who thought of themselves as manifestations of Jesus and just as many young women felt themselves perpetually transformed into Virgins, or more accurately, Mary Magdalenes. Even Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969) took himself to be the Savior on a motorcycle. It was an age that encouraged holy foolishness and exhibitionistic self-indulgence as rebellion against sanctimonious conformity.

Both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar transferred the story of Jesus to contemporary settings and employed young performers to update their themes. No British actors were brought in to represent the Roman establishment. Both movies used the idioms of musical theater to support upbeat hopefulness and each strove for racial and gender balance. If Godspell was vaudeville revival, Superstar was classic rock opera built on the shoulders of the 1968 prototype, Hair. They each made a concerted attempt to draw parallels between the 1960s and the time of Jesus just under 2000 years ago. They remade Jesus as a flower child and bestowed on his hippie disciples the mantle of innocence, certainty of purpose, and readiness for risk that characterized the original Christian movement under the Romans.

The Postmodern Story of Jesus

Jesus of Nazareth  (1976)

Jesus  (1979)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian  (1979)

The Last Temptation of Christ  (1988)

Jesus in Montreal  (1989)

Jesus  (1999) – The Epic Miniseries

The Passion of the Christ  (2004) – Mel Gibson

The Da Vinci Code  (2004)

The shift from the gentle, suffering Christ of Christian tradition to the joyful, sensual Christ of the early 70s, and later to the tormented Christ of the turning millennium, reflects the changing prospectives of the movies in those years. The late 60s and early 70s were a turning point. From then onward, the movies reflect the efforts of creative people to try new lenses. Some telescoped to the future and others looked to the past in efforts to reframe history. Postmodernism is all about finding new frames for new lenses, and is not favored by traditionalists.

Jesus of Nazareth  (1976)

This is a retro Jesus movie. It seems that the studios had given up on the definitive Hollywood Jesus project and that this ambitious made-for-TV-movie by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli was something of a Hail Mary. He was riding on major classical successes with The Taming of the Shrew (with Burton and Taylor) in 1966 and Romeo and Juliet in 1968. This film has a spectacular cast, but the epic approach had exhausted its credit by this time. Maltin did not list it in his movie guide through the end of the 20th century.

No trailer available.

Jesus  (1979)

This film was a meticulous effort by Christian filmmakers to tell the unembellished story of Jesus according to the Book of Luke. It suffered at the box office from being too much like Sunday school. Since that time, however, it has had an extraordinary shelf-life within the Christian community. Wikipedia quotes from The New York Times, “Jesus is likely the most-watched motion picture of all time.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian  (1979)

The year 1979 saw the pendulum swing to the opposite extreme. The Monty Python comics produced their Jesus parody, The Life of Brian. It famously ended with their crucifixion song, “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.” I can find no instance before this where Christianity was openly spoofed in a major motion picture.

The Last Temptation of Christ  (1988)

This film flew in the face of Christian orthodoxy and the obligatory reverence Hollywood had shown in the past for this subject. Based on the 1960 novel from Nikos Kazantzakis, this is a revisionist telling of the story of Jesus as revolutionary. Martin Scorsese directs, and Willem Dafoe plays Jesus. He does not die on the cross but becomes a kind of Everyman Jesus, partnering with Mary Magdalene in a foreshadowing of the proliferation of the Magdalene controversy in the coming decades.

Jesus in Montreal  (1989)

The last gasp of the hippie Jesus, this film is about a long-haired young man who plays the role of the Savior in a passion play in Montreal. He takes his role much too seriously, doing a nude scene on the cross and accomplishing his resurrection by becoming an organ donor. Self-indulgence killed the 60s.

Jesus  (1999) – The Epic Miniseries

Another made-for-TV-movie, this one makes sometimes sincere and sometimes ludicrous efforts to cement the Jesus legend for the postmodern audience. Debra Messing, Grace from Will & Grace, does a brief nude scene as Mary Magdalene, as did Barbara Hershey in The Last Temptation. We are meant to wonder how a man like Jesus could resist. Hootie and the Blowfish play on the concept album inspired by the film.

The Passion of the Christ  (2004)

This film had a strong opening in February 2004 and maintained its strength through the Easter holidays. Most of the controversy around the extreme view taken by director Mel Gibson centered on the protracted violence in his depiction of the scourging of Christ. Strongest support came from evangelical Christians who identified with the sacrifices required of true believers. Strongest objections came from members of the Jewish community who felt unfairly held to account for the death of Christ. This film was hotly debated on many sides, and set records at the box office.

The Da Vinci Code  (2004)

In this movie, a young woman named Sophie Neveu is said to be the living vessel of the bloodline of Jesus Christ and his wife, Mary Magdalene. Although the novel of the same name is fictional, much of the material employed in the building of this drama is presented as factual. Sophie is played by French actress Audrey Tautou, best known before Da Vinci for the title role in Amelie (2001).

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