He Who Must Die (1957)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Jules Dassin
Run Time
2 hours and 2 minutes
Not Rated

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★4 out of 5

(Celui qui doit mourir)

Not Rated. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Ous star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been fee

    Ezekiel 34:2

 “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place[ and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

John 11:48-50

In 1957 while still a college student I saw a film that made such a deep impression on me that I never forgot it, even though it was not available for a long time outside of New York City. Because the dialogue was in French I thought the director/writer of He Who Must Die was a Frenchman—even his name sounded French. In reality Jules Dassin was American born, one of many Americans who left Hollywood for refuge in France because he was blacklisted for having briefly belonged to the Communist Party in 1939. His film, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantkakis The Greek Passion, is about a young man who suffered an even greater persecution by the leaders of his village.

The story is set during the 1920s when the Turks and Greeks were engaged in war against each other. (Two early reviewers claim the setting is Crete, whereas the book is set in Anatolia, part of modern day Greece where the two groups massacred each other during that period.) When villagers rebel against their Turkish oppressors, troops attack their village, burning it to the ground. Those who survive follow the lead of their charismatic priest Father Fotis (Jean Servais), trudging along a dusty road in search of sanctuary. Meanwhile in another prosperous village whose leaders have made an accommodation with their Turkish governor or Agha (Grégoire Aslan), plans are underway for their annual staging of a Passion Play.

The local priest Father  Grigoris ( Fernand Ledoux) announces to the assembled people the names of those chosen by himself and the mayor, or Patriarcheas (Gert Froebe). Even though he stutters, and thus is extremely shy, the shepherd who watches over the Mayor’s flock Manolios (Pierre Vaneck) is chosen for the role of Jesus. Lukas the village butcher (Carl Mohner) is chosen as Judas, a role he at first resists vehemently. Other villagers are picked to play the disciples, and appropriately the village widow-prostitute Katerina (Melina Mercouri) is to play Mary Magdalene.

Then the refugees show up, exhausted and starving. Many would reach out to help them, but Father Grigoris commands them to stop. Both he and the Mayor fear that sheltering the rebels might bring down the wrath of the Agha on them. (Nor are these two share-the-wealth Christians!) Manolios starts toward them, with the priest forbidding him. A starving woman dies, and the Jesus stand-in continues toward them. Fr. Grigoris rushes up, examines the woman and declares she has cholera. Everyone pulls back in fear. Father Fotis pleads that they at least be allowed to stay and till the unused land near by, but the village priest forbids even that, using the charge of cholera as his excuse. He demands that he group move on.

The refugees follow the road up the nearby mountain. Exhausted, they settle down and make camp, eventually deciding to stay there despite their hostile neighbors. Manolios, Michelis, the Mayor’s son, and others playing the disciples, including Katerina, who is drawn to Manolios because he was the first to want to help the refugees. There follows an intense tug of war between Fr, Grigoris and Manolios and his followers as to whether or not to help the travelers. Just as Caiaphas and his fellow preists wanted to maintain order lest the upstart from Nazareth upset the Romans and destroy the cozy arrangement between Temple and Praetorium, so Fr. Grigoris decides that Manolios, who in the stress of the conflict suddenly finds that he can speak without stuttering, indeed in regard to the villagers persuasively, must be eliminated. How this is brought about is appropriate to the Greek-Turkish situation of the time

Shot in stark black and white, the film is blessed with excellent acting on the part of the entire cast. The romance is very underplayed, and the events unfold very much in keeping with its gospels parallels. Those who appreciate Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal will love this film too. (To see how this neglected but great film affected other viewers also go to the Imdb site at  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050237/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1. After watching this passionate attack on a church leader more interested in stability and wealth than the teachings of the Christ he claimed to follow, one can see why the Greek Orthodox Church excommunicated author Nikos Kazantskakis. (In his novel The Last Temptation of Christ his description of the priests’ garb is not that worn by Jewish priests, but rather, the black clothing of Greek Orthodox priests!) Like the novel, the film calls for us to think about the question, asked and answered directly by one of the characters, “What would happen if Christ came back to earth a second time?” You can watch the entire film on YouTube. What an especially appropriate film for Good Friday.

The full review with a set of discussion questions is in the March 2013 issue of Visual Parables, available to those with an annual subscription or for sale as a single issue at The Store.

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