Rated G. Running time: 3 hours 45 min.
Our Content ratings (0-10): Violence 3; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (0-5): 3
George Steven’s 1965 biblical spectacular is an overly reverential Life of Jesus film. Steven’s Jesus was played by Scandinavian actor Max Von Sydow—who was brilliant in the somber films of Ingmar Bergman, but far too dour and slow moving and talking to make an effective Jesus! The supporting cast seems to have included every major star connected with the studio — Charleston Heston, Sidney Poitier, Pat Boone, Carroll Baker, Dorothy McGuire, Telly Savalas, even John Wayne (horribly miscast in a thankfully tiny role of the centurion at the cross!), and more than enough other notables to fill two Upper Rooms. Other stars in cameo roles are Richard Conti, Jose Ferrer, Van Heflin, Martin Landau, David McCallum, Roddy McDowell, Sal Mineo, Donald Pleasance, Claude Raines, Shelly Winters, and many others. The result is a dilution of the drama, the viewer tempted to play the game “Spot That Star” as the film progresses.
Also serving to distract the viewer was Stevens’ decision to shoot the film in the American West. Thus Jesus is often overshadowed by spectacular views of canyons and buttes in Arizona and Utah that in no way make us think of Palestine—when I see these scenes I expect to see Shane or ole John Wayne riding around a corner and pausing to listen to Christ. Thus it is little wonder that, despite the fans of all of the actors, the film failed at the box office.
The Swedish actor’s Christ is so dignified and so slow of speech, and the editing so languid, that you wonder how Jesus ever got anything done, and the director’s use of so many long shots makes Jesus seem very distant from our human situation. In one scene Jesus and the disciples sit under a bridge, where he is teaching them. Overhead a series of travelers pass by, some of them stopping to listen. Mostly shown in long shots, the travelers above the little band divert our attention from what Jesus is saying. Indeed, there are so many languid long shots that I sometimes felt more like I was watching a stage pageant than a film. Like the 1961 film King of Kings the film draws on all four gospels for its script and adds fictional characters and events, with again an attempt to lessen the guilt of Judas, as well as that of the Jewish leaders—there is no Sanhedrin scene of judgment, just that of the Roman court under Pilot.
One incident that is effectively filmed is the Temptation scene, in which the script eschews the spectacular approach of other Jesus films for a more personalized one: Satan is portrayed as an old hermit in a cave tempting the newly baptized Messiah to follow paths that would draw attention to himself and gain great power, rather than fulfilling his divine mission of submitting to the cross.
Also intriguing is the way the film begins visuals combined with John 1:1-5. We see a mosaic of Christ in a cathedral dome. This kind of image, often designed for such domes, is called a “Pantocrator,” depicting Christ as the Ruler of the universe. After the lengthy front credits, the screen turns black for a moment, and then we see overhead the dome of a Byzantine church with paintings of Jesus’ trial and his carrying the cross. The camera slowly pans downward while narrator Orson Welles quietly reads the opening words of John. As he intones “…and the Word was God,” we hear the voice of Jesus saying, “I am he.” The camera continues its downward movement, revealing a Christ Pantocrator, its face bearing the features of actor Max Von Sydow, who of course plays Jesus in the film. As Welles reads, “He was life, and the life was the light of man,” the painting dissolves into a star-studded night sky. As we hear “and the light shines on in the darkness,” the bright central star dissolves into the flame of a lamp. The person carrying the ancient lamp (presumably Joseph) moves slowly to the left, revealing a cow tethered in a stable. We hear the sound of a baby, and, as the narrator intones “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the camera centers on the hand and wrist of a baby. This is quickly surrounded by a disc that changes into a sun-like orb. At the sound of trumpets, the orb dissolves into a scene of a tower atop which four trumpeters sound forth at the rising of the sun. The camera shows a panoramic shot of the vast walls of Jerusalem. Following the brief fanfare the scene dissolves into that of the three Magi astride their camels heading toward the Holy City. After the Easter sequence the Pantocrator image again appears. It’s a good theological image, but unfortunately the rest of the film sandwiched between the faux icon with Von Sydow’s face is anything but convincing.