But the question remains, does the message fit the medium?

On the surface the idea of another film of the life of Jesus would seem to be a bit much. Besides the recent and very-much-touted Jesus of Nazareth, which Zeffirelli made for television, and The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, which attracted a good deal of interest some years ago by its rather spare, fierce, unsentimental picture of Jesus, one seems to recall a more or less steady stream of these things. (Didn’t they make one called The Greatest Story Ever Told? And wasn’t there a gigantic production of near Cecil B. deMille dimensions called The Bible that one remembers from one’s youth? And all those lesser productions in which one’s principal impression was of striped bathrobes and terry cloth towels and sandals?) How can anyone muster the sheer chutzpa to embark on yet another production? Perhaps there is an inexhaustible market for the commodity, like the market for books on jogging and losing weight and miracles.

Yet this film, Jesus (distributed by Warner Bros.), is better than its publicity, which fervently claims that it is “totally authentic.” Now that is an astonishing claim to make for a film whose setting is the ancient world. Very few historians, and fewer archaeologists, would claim surely, that we can approach “total authenticity” in recreating any epoch, the ancient world least of all. But my point is that the film is better than the publicity that would seem to leave itself open to the charge of sensationalism. The film itself steers as true a course as one might ever hope to see in a film on Jesus, in avoiding the soft sands of sensationalism and sentimentalism.

The wisest decision the producers made was to stick quite rigorously to the text of the Gospel of Luke; you cannot get a better script than that. The screenplay, by Barnet Fishbein, is to be commended for its fidelity to this text. Although one or two minor departures seem gratuitous—instead of mere scribes and Pharisees in one place, for example, we find “the hypocritical section of the scribes and Pharisees”—for the most part, a multitude of errors has been avoided.

The action of the film is quick and spare, since it must follow Luke’s narrative. This is exactly as it should be. This Gospel—indeed any of the Gospels—makes no attempt to give us a biography of Jesus, much less a drama. We are given as many of the bits of Jesus’ life as the Gospel writer chose for the particular pattern he wished, and no more. Here again, the producer, John Heyman, and the codirectors, Peter Sykes and John Kirsh, are to be commended for not being afraid of the sparse, selective nature of the Gospel materials. They move us along to the next incident, and the next, in obedience to Luke, calling the film a “docu-drama,” which, while we may deplore this hybrid word, does catch something of the angle and flavor of the film.

Article continues below

Apparently nine years of research went into the production. No effort was spared to get authentic costumes, and even authentic faces for the 5,000 extras. An “extras manager” ransacked the countryside of Israel for the sort of face they wanted for the crowd scenes, and came up with a throng, mostly of Moroccan and Yemenite people, none of whom were actors by profession, trying, they tell us, to avoid the picture postcard world of Renaissance painting.

A young English actor, Brian Deacon, was given the title role. The image he projects reminds one of those very rugged and handsome pictures of Jesus drawn in recent years by Richard Hook. Here again, artists and, a fortiori, film directors and actors, work with a terrible problem: how shall we show Jesus? The particular look of first-century Jews might not serve the special iconography of sanctity, purity, tenderness, and whatnot that Western piety has ordinarily sought. Suppose Jesus had a head full of coal-black ringlets, all tousled and matted with salt and wind and dust? It would not do, we suppose. But on the other hand, when we try to catch those qualities of sanctity and tenderness and so forth, we end up with Sallman and are in worse trouble. Brian Deacon’s face is probably a very good one, in that it is strong and handsome without being glamorous, and tender without being saccharine. They have fixed him up with what we have come to expect in Jesus, namely long straight brown hair parted more or less in the middle, and a short, uncurly brown beard. To depart from this imagery would be to make a laboriously conscious effort at iconoclasm, and would probably defeat its purpose by siphoning our attention off, making us whisper to each other, “Dear me—I don’t think I had thought of Jesus as looking like that.”

Mr. Deacon does well with the supernally difficult job of depicting Jesus. The problems must be insurmountable. There are no dramatic conventions available to an actor that are quite adequate to the task, surely. One would have to have achieved perfect charity himself in order to have any idea how Charity Incarnate might have spoken or acted. How do you say, “You have heard it said … but I say unto you,” or “This poor widow hath cast in more than they all”? And how do you arrange your face in the meantime, if you are the actor? When do you glower, if ever, and when do you decide to look foxy, or arch, or pained, or affectionate? Since the original script was not written by a dramatist, surmise plays a big part here. And you (the actor, and the director, and whoever else is in on it) are having to surmise about the most extraordinary character ever to appear on the stage of history. Can it be done at all? Or, more solemnly, ought it to be done? Who can say? After a hundred years of trying to get the gospel onto celluloid, we may all in the end conclude that we may as well have tried to reproduce Chartres in papier-mâché, or Mozart on an ocharina. It can be done, after its fashion, but something has ebbed away in the process.

Article continues below

Which is not to liken Brian Deacon’s performance to papier-mâché or an ocharina. The critic’s task is as elusive as the director’s and the actor’s: how do I know whether it was a good job or not? All of us are uneasy about even the best efforts to portray Jesus; there are simply too many imponderables entailed, not the least of which is whether it should be attempted to begin with. On the whole, Deacon has avoided the traps of sentimentality and eccentricity. He smiles, and even chuckles, and this seems not a bad note to strike. He is very good in the scene with the moneychangers, where he could have been pardoned for giving way to mere bombast and ham, but where he manages to convey the sort of ire and outrage Jesus both felt and wished to teach on that occasion. When we come to the Crucifixion, surely we are all in water altogether over our heads. To have Jesus yell in pain is certainly in the interest of dramatic verisimilitude: but does dramatic verisimilitude turn out to be grotesquely inadequate to the mystery of the Passion? It is not delicacy which objects here, it seems to me, so much as a certain paralytic hesitation in the precincts of mysteries as titanic as this. Outside of the biblical narrative, perhaps only liturgy and music are made of hard enough material to hold the burden.

The film makers are to be commended for avoiding several snares where less-disciplined imaginations might have blundered into all sorts of disconcerting banalities. The “special effects” used at the Annunciation and the Transfiguration, and at the rending of the Temple veil and the Ascension are very good—good because they come close to not existing at all. Extreme understatement has saved the day in all these cases. One blot on an otherwise clean sheet here, though, is the snake they used for the devil in the wilderness. Surely …

Article continues below

The film deserves a great deal of praise, and has done, we may venture to guess, as good a job as anyone has ever done with the attempt. Perhaps when film makers and actors approach the gospel story, their task is like a sculptor’s: all you have to do is take away what you don’t want. The sculptor chips away the excess marble; the director and actors must get rid of melodrama and schmaltz and ham and all the other things that try to cling to the drama. But when you have laid down strictures like this, you realize that nobody but a saint or a sage could do very much with it all. How a commercial enterprise, with the box office pistol held to its head, is to compete with Fra Angelico and Michelangelo and Saint Ignatius Loyola and Rembrandt and Milton in reworking the gospel materials, is a taxing question. We may keep it open, and at the same time give tentative laurels to this film.

Thomas Trumbull Howard is professor of English at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.