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Reviews of "Classic" Jesus Movies
By Gary F. Zeolla
On Easter Sunday 2013 TCM aired six "classic" movies based on the life of Jesus or set in the time of Jesus. I recorded them and watched them later. In this two-part article I would like to give a review of each of these movies.
TCM airs its movies commercial free, that's one reason I like to watch movies on it. So the mentioned lengths of these movies are for the movies themselves without commercials.
Another reason I like TCM is all of its movies are older movies. As such, any violence and sex is usually very mild compared to today's movies or even TV shows, or there's no foul language. That makes them much more "family-friendly" than most programming made today. And that is the case for all the movies being reviewed here, except for the noted cautions.
All of these movies, except the second, are available on my cable service's "onDemand" movie section for just $1.99 each. And I am sure they are available from other services, so the reader should be able to find and watch any that sound appealing.
"The Robe" is a 1953 movie that stars Richard Burton as Marcellus Gallio, one of
the Roman soldiers who crucified Christ. As such, he was also one of the
soldiers who cast lots for Jesus' clothing (Mark 15:25). Marcellus wins Jesus'
robe (John 19:23-24). The robe then figures prominently in the rest of the
movie, hence the title.
Shortly after winning the robe, Marcellus gets sick. He comes to believe that the robe was cursed, and that is what made him sick, and that the only way to alleviate his illness is to destroy the robe. But the problem is, his slave Demetrius (played by Victor Mature) has run away to find out more about Jesus, and he took the robe with him.
Marcellus sets out on a search for Demetrius and the robe. Marcellus meets up with a community of Christians, of which Demetrius is now a part. Also there is a prominent Christian leader. Marcellus thus learns much more about Jesus, including the claim that He rose from the dead. Some of the Christians relate how Christ affected their lives. Hence, the movie powerfully depicts how faith in Christ can change people for the better.
Jesus is depicted three times in the movie. The first is during His "Triumphal Entry" into Jerusalem. But He is only shown from a distance. He is then shown carrying His cross through the streets of Jerusalem. When Jesus falls, Demetrius tries to help Him. This scene is not Biblical, but it sets up an important scene in the movie. Jesus is lastly depicted hanging on the cross. But in the last two instances, only His lower body is shown, most of His body and His face are not shown.
"The Robe" is rather interesting in its portrayal of first century Christianity. And it is entertaining, but it is 2-1/4 hours long, and seems to drag on at times. But for the ladies, there is a love story running through the movie between Marcellus and a friend from his childhood.
It is rated "PG" and for the most part is an uplifting, family-friendly movie. But there is a slave auction in the opening scene of the movie that should make parents cautious about letting their children watch it, unless you're ready to have a serious discussion about slavery with them.
Demetrius and the Gladiators
"Demetrius and the Gladiators" is a 1954 sequel to "The Robe." The final scene
of "The Robe" is the opening scene of this movie. Victor Mature returns as
Demetrius. He is still a part of the same Christian community. But Emperor
Caligula has learned about the robe and thinks it is magical. So he sends his
soldiers to that community to find it.
One of the soldiers attacks Lucia, Demetrius' love interest, and Demetrius intervenes. As a result, he is taken captive and back to Rome. There, he is forced to fight as a gladiator, hence the title of the movie. This presents Demetrius with a dilemma since, as a Christian, he has vowed not to kill another human being.
Also causing a dilemma for Demetrius is that Messalina, the wife of Claudius, Caligula's uncle, has taken a sexual interest in him. Demetrius also witnesses a personal tragedy. All of these dilemmas cause Demetrius to question his Christian faith.
The movie once again depicts well what life was like for first century Christians. And Demetrius' struggles with temptations and trials leading him to question his faith are things many Christians today have struggled with. So it is a very relevant movie.
This sequel is also rated "PG," but it is more violent than the first movie due to the gladiator scenes. But none of them are very graphic in their depictions of the violence. And the sex scenes are not explicit at all, just kissing is shown, then the camera fades away. But this all causes it to have much more action than the first movie. So it is a rather exciting movie, but not quite as family friendly as the first. And it is shorter than the first movie, lasting just over 1-1/2 hours, so it doesn't drag like the first.
The movie stars Susan Hayward as Messalina, Ernest Borgnine as the gladiators' trainer, and Anne Bancroft in a bit role. These are names that I am just old enough to recognize (I'm 52 at this writing).
King of Kings
"King of Kings" is a movie about Jesus's life made in 1961, starring Jeffrey
Hunter as Jesus. I thought I watched it years ago and remembered it as being a
good Jesus movie. But now as I watched it, my assessment was totally different.
It deviated from the Gospels in many ways, both small and great. It included
much material not found in the Gospels, while leaving out much material that is
found in the Gospels.
The movie starts long before the Gospels, in 63 B.C., with Pompey's conquering of Judea and Jerusalem. Some events from that time and the next 50 years are depicted. This provides some background to the Gospel events, but I have no idea how accurate any of the depicted scenes were, and it took time away from depicting Biblical events.
The movie then shows Joseph walking alongside a very pregnant Mary riding on a donkey. The narrator explains they are traveling to Bethlehem for the census. But this means the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary and all of their dialog is omitted, including most importantly, the fact that Mary conceived Jesus while still a virgin.
The movie depicts about there being no room at the inn, and has Jesus thus being born in a stable. Then it perpetuates the myths that there were three kings who brought gifts to the newborn Jesus and that they came to the stable. I address these falsehoods in my article Nativity Scene Misconceptions.
Herod hears about the birth of a Jewish Messiah in Bethlehem and orders the slaughter of all infants in the town. That much is Biblical (Matt 2:16). But what is not Biblical is the leader of the soldiers who carry out the slaughter is not only shown but given a name, Lucius. And this made-up character of Lucius then figures prominently throughout the rest of the movie.
Joseph and Mary are depicted as fleeing being the slaughter then later returning to Nazareth. The narrator then says that "12 years have passed." I assumed that meant the movie would depict the story Luke records of Jesus being lost in the temple (Luke 2:41-50). But instead, the movie has Lucius coming to the home of the holy family. When he sees Jesus, he asks who He is and how old He is. Mary tells him that Jesus is her son and that He was born 12 years before in Bethlehem. Lucius gets a look of remembrance on his face. The audience is given the impression that he realizes Jesus escaped the slaughter, but Lucius does nothing about it.
John the Baptist is then shown, in the Jordan River with others around him. But before that Biblical storyline is pursued, a completely unbiblical one is depicted. Barabbas is shown, getting ready to lead an ambush with a gang of Jewish rebels against a Roman legion. The Gospels do mention Barabbas and call him an insurrectionist (Mark 15:7). But he is not mentioned in the Gospels until the crucifixion of Jesus. But the movie has him playing an important role throughout the movie.
But worst is Barabbas has a fellow conspirator, who is not named initially, but turns out to be Judas. The two of them continue to have a relationship throughout the movie. There is nothing in Gospels about Judas even knowing Barabbas, let alone being a fellow-insurrectionist with him.
John the Baptist is shown again, with a little of his preaching from the Gospels presented, but not much. Jesus wades into the Jordan to him. But no dialog is exchanged between them, and Jesus is not actually shown being baptized, and thus the aftermath of His baptism is not shown. But the narrator mentions about these things as Jesus makes His way to the wilderness. Meanwhile, John the Baptists goes to Mary and tells Mary that he was not worthy to baptize Jesus, a totally unbiblical scene.
And that sets the pattern for the movie. It is mostly unbiblical storylines, with little actual Biblical events being depicted. For instance, only a couple of Jesus' miracles are depicted, but neither of them is strictly identifiable with any of the miracles recorded in the Gospels. And the audience only learns about a few of Jesus' other miracles by way of Lucius reporting them to Herod.
The first of only two times the movie presents significant dialog that is actually taken from the Gospels is for the Sermon on the Mount. For about ten minutes Jesus is preaching from a hillside to a crowd of people dialog that He is recorded as saying in the Gospels. However, a little of the preaching is twisted from what Jesus actually said, and some of it is not from the Sermon on the Mount, but is taken from later and was spoken to the Pharisees and not to the crowds in general. And adding an unbiblical touch to the scene is Pilate's wife Claudia and Lucius are attending the sermon.
After John the Baptist is arrested, Jesus goes to visit him. Such a visit is not recorded in the Gospels. But worst is the soldier guarding John is Lucius. And he recognizes Jesus, but again, does nothing to stop Him, and lets Him talk to John. Later, rather than his disciples, it is Lucius that John sends to Jesus to ask Him, "Are You the coming One, or are we looking for a different [one]?" (Matt 11:3; ALT3).
Meanwhile, Jesus is shown gathering the various apostles and a great following, which worries the Jewish and Roman officials. That much is Biblical.
But what is not Biblical is how they introduce Mary Magdalene. They have her first going to Mary, the mother of Jesus, before ever meeting Jesus. And they stick the parable of the lost sheep into the mouth of Mary. I guess Catholics would like the idea of Mary Magdalene asking Mary to intercede for her before Jesus, but there's no Biblical basis for it.
Throughout the movie, flashes are made to Barabbas and Judas and their rebels. Even after Judas joins up with Jesus, he keeps meeting with the rebels, talking about how they can use Jesus' popularity to their advantage.
This unbiblical theme continues through the time of Jesus' "Triumphal Entry." That Biblical event is barely shown. But depicted at length is Barabbas leading a revolt against a Roman fortress. Judas joins in on the attack. The rebellion is soundly squashed by the Romans. Hundreds of the rebels are killed, Judas is wounded in the leg by an arrow, and Barabbas is arrested. The remaining rebels meet together afterwards, complaining to Judas about Jesus not having helped them. Judas assures them he will get Jesus' support, and leaves for the Last Supper.
The Last Supper is depicted reasonably well, with it being the second time mostly Biblical dialog is presented. But the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane is passed by rather quickly, with only a little Biblical dialog depicted. Judas betrays Jesus, and He is arrested.
At His trial, when Jesus won't speak up in His own defense, Lucius is appointed His advocate and gives a lengthy speech defending Jesus. But again, there is no Biblical basis for any of this. And omitted is Jesus being taken before the crowds and the crowds crying out for Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified. Instead, Barabbas is just shown being released by Lucius and being told by Lucius that Jesus is dying in his place.
The crucifixion of Jesus is shown rather quickly. The agony Jesus endured is not at all exhibited, and only a couple of His sayings from the cross are given. At the cross are Lucius and Barabbas. At Jesus' death, Lucius says, "He is truly the Christ." And Barabbas says, "He died for me. Why? I never did anything for Him."
Judas then commits suicide, after Jesus' crucifixion, which is out of Biblical order. And then Barabbas finds his body. So their unbiblical relationship truly runs throughout the movie.
Jesus' body is taken down from the cross and put in the tomb. But there is no mention of the Roman guard. The movie just jumps to the empty tomb and the appearance of Jesus to Mary. But the way the scene is depicted is not at all as John describes it (John 20:11-17).
The next several appearances of Jesus to the apostles are not depicted but only mentioned about quickly by the narrator. The movie ends with the apostles at the Sea of Tiberius (John 21:1). Jesus' overly large shadow is shown but not His actual person. He speaks some words to the apostles, but they are all distortions of Biblical dialog. And thus the movie ends. Jesus' ascension is not depicted at all, nor His words at that time.
So there just wasn't much "oomph" in the crucifixion and resurrection scenes. Those most important parts of the Jesus story went by very quickly. Given that the movie lasted almost three hours, there was no reason for this. At least there wouldn't have been if so much time wasn't wasted on unbiblical events, such as the storylines involving Lucius (a completely unbiblical figure), Barabbas (a minor Biblical character) and his supposed relationship with Judas.
Conclusion to Part One
"The Robe" and its sequel are entertaining movies and worth watching for their
depictions of what life was like for first century Christians.
But "King of Kings" was a great disappointment. As mentioned, I thought I remembered it as being Biblically accurate, but it wasn't even close. The movie focused more on made-up stories about Barabbas, Judas, and Lucius than on the actions and words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.
Some of the details for these reviews are taken from the respective Wikipedia articles. But a word of warning, don't read the Wikipedia articles for the first two movies if you plan on watching them. Those articles detail the entire plots, so they would "spoil" them for you. In my reviews, I just provided the set-up and tried to explain why they'd be worth watching.
But for "King of Kings" I gave a detailed review so if the reader does watch it you'll know in what ways it deviates from the actual story of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. But frankly, I wouldn't recommend watching it. It is just an aggravating waste of time, at least for those of us who know the story of Jesus. And if you don't know His story, you're much better off reading the Gospels in the Bible to find out about it than depending on a movie.
These reviews are concluded at: Reviews
of "Classic" Jesus Movies - Part Two.
The above movie reviews were published in
Darkness to Light
They were posted on this Web site May 4, 2013.
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