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FIRST-PERSON: Jesus in the movies

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–How does an actor portray a personage that is both man and God? Here are several movies that have tried. While Jesus is not the central figure in some of these films, the power of who He is is evident:

The Passion of The Christ. Director Mel Gibson’s objective here is to detail the final 12 hours of Jesus’ physical existence, when mankind was allowed to destroy His mortal life in order that we might have an eternal one. Justly rated R for its graphic depiction of man’s inhumanity to man, this cinematic masterpiece is meant to shock, unnerve and clarify the ordeal of Christ’s sacrifice.

Jesus of Nazareth. This Franco Zeffirelli two-part, six-hour TV production is considered by many as the best film about the Christ. Acclaimed for its thorough biblical and historical research, it’s a very moving and spiritual experience with many memorable performances. Robert Powell heads the all-star cast. My favorite scene features Ernest Borgnine as a Roman soldier who asks Jesus to heal his servant. It is a seminal moment, one that reveals the need for and the power of faith.

The Gospel According to Matthew. This Italian/French film, made by Pier Paolo Pascolini, though unconventional with the use of an amateur cast, takes its viewpoint solely from the writings of the Gospel of Matthew. Elegant filmmaking that is also spiritually thought-provoking.

King of Kings. Orson Welles’ narration lends authority to this 1961 production, as does the great Miklos Rozsa score. Although we must endure Jeffrey Hunter looking a little too GQ, with his striking blue eyes and chiseled good looks, it is an earnest account, one that depicts Jesus’ life from manger to resurrection. Beautifully filmed and containing the Sermon on the Mount, this epic was filmed in widescreen.

The Greatest Story Ever Told. Ridiculed by critics when first released, I recently viewed it and appreciated the scope of the production. The ever-present cameos by major stars of the day detracted from the sincere approach of director George Stevens, but it contains several moving moments and spectacular cinematography.

The Robe. Richard Burton portrays a Roman centurion haunted by his participation in the execution of Christ. One significant scene has the Roman giving a donkey to a Hebrew boy. It is probably the finest gift, if not the only one the child has ever received; yet, the next day he bestows it to another peasant boy. This visual signifies, “It is better to give than to receive;” it startles the soldier into an awareness that there is something to this new religion. We see Jesus through the use of long shots and camera angles that focus the attention not on an actor portraying Christ, but on the people who came into His presence. This method also was effectively used in “Ben Hur,” and gives both productions a great dignity.

Ben Hur. Starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler, it won 11 Oscars. It is the story of a nobleman forced into slavery and the effect Christ had on his life. It has a powerful ending, the exciting chariot race is among the great action scenes ever filmed, and catch the figurative language of the converted Ben Hur as he states, “And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.”

The Fourth Wiseman. Martin Sheen stars in this made-for-TV production now available on video from Gateway Films/Vision Video. Based on the Henry Van Dyke tale of a good magi seeking the birthplace of Jesus, but, because of his duty to others, is delayed in the desert for 33 years, only to see (from afar) the Savior as He is being crucified. Full of compassion and illustrations of how our Lord would have us treat our fellow man.

Jesus. Campus Crusade presents an effective two-hour documentary on the life of Christ. Called the most historically accurate film ever made on the life of Christ, it has been seen by hundreds of millions around the world and through it millions have come to Christ.

The Gospel of John. This word-for-word account from the fourth Gospel is three hours long. Extremely well done, with narration by veteran actor Christopher Plummer.

Cotton Patch Gospel. In 1988, a musical comedy/drama placed the Gospel of Matthew in modern-day Georgia. Funny, moving, inspirational, this was a very satisfying treatment of the New Testament, effective for both teens and adults. Available on video from the Bridgestone Production Group.

The Miracle Maker. This full-length feature film, first aired on ABC in 2000, uses claymation and graphically striking two-dimensional animation to present the life of Jesus through the eyes of a sick little girl who encounters Christ through different stages of His ministry. Perfect for families with little children.

    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright