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Reviews of "Classic" Jesus Movies
By Gary F. Zeolla
This article is continued from Reviews of “Classic” Jesus Movies – Part One.
“Ben Hur” is a 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston as Judah Ben Hur, a Jew living in Judea. He is rather well-to-do at the start of the movie, but runs into much misfortune very quickly. Due to an accident, he is falsely charged with attempting to assassinate the governor of Judea. He is jailed and made a slave as a result. But he endures the brutality of his slavery to see his misfortunes turn abound. This leads to him competing in the chariot race that the movie is best known for.
The movie is not about Jesus per se, but is set in the time of Jesus. And it depicts Jesus on several occasions. His birth is first depicted, but the scene perpetrates many of the myths surrounding Jesus’ birth, such as there being three wise men at His birthplace. But in the movie, one of those wise men has an important role later in the film.
Jesus as an adult then appears, showing mercy to Ben Hur by giving him water to drink while Ben Hur was in his slavery and water was being withheld from him. Jesus is later shown speaking to a large crowd of people, a gathering that a couple of Ben Hur’s female relatives attend. And finally, the movie ends with Jesus’ crucifixion. But an interesting point is that Jesus’ face is never shown.
It is a long movie, running almost four hours, but it is worth every minute of it. It is truly an epic and classic movie. I know I saw it before, but a long time again. I only remembered a few of the scenes, such as Jesus giving the water to Ben Hur, and of course, the climatic chariot race. No one can forget that scene.
There are many such exciting scenes in the movie, but some touching and inspiring ones as well. It will leave the viewer with an adrenaline rush and warm-hearted feeling at the same time. If only Hollywood still made movies like this. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it.
But one caveat, slavery is depicted in a rather brutal fashion in some places. So this is not a movie for children to watch, unless you’re ready to have a serious discussion about slavery with them. And some scenes in the famous chariot race are also rather brutal, but still not near as graphic as you’d see in much of today’s programming.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
The Greatest Story Ever Told is a 1965 movie about the life of Christ. Max von Sydow portrays Jesus. Most people probably never heard of him. But many of the other actors many people my age or older will recognize: Charlton Heston portrays John the Baptist, Telly Savalas (“Kojak”) is Pontius Pilate, Martin Landau (“Mission Impossible” and “Space 1999”) is Caiaphas, Roddy McDowall (“Planet of the Apes”) is Matthew, and David McCallum (“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “NCIS”) is Judas. There are also cameos from several other notables, such as Pat Boone, Jamie Farr (“M*A*S*H”), Richard Conte (“The Godfather”), John Wayne, and Shelley Winters.
But in a way, it was a waste having all of these big names, as personally, I didn’t recognize most of them. Maybe that’s because of the costumes, or maybe because they were mostly younger than I remember them. Charlton Heston, for instance, I did not recognize at first due to the beard he was wearing, but his voice gave him away. Telly Savalas, however, was very recognizable due to his famous bald head.
That said, this movie starts good. A narrator quotes accurately from the Prologue to the Gospel of John, verses 1:1-5. But then it jump to Jesus having already been born in a stable. So it skips over all of the events leading up to His birth, including the fact that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus. Given that this is a long movie, lasting almost 3-1/2 hours, you would think they would have been able to fit in this very important detail. And in the birth scene, they perpetrate the same myths about there being three wise men and that they came to Jesus’ birthplace.
Jesus is depicted as speaking much dialog directly from the Gospels, but often, it is spoken at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and to the wrong people. For instance, Lazarus is said to be rich, and most of Jesus’ comments about the dangers of riches are spoken to Lazarus. He even relates to Lazarus the story of the poor widow casting in two “pennies” into the temple treasury. However, Lazarus is only mentioned in the Gospel of John, where he is not said to be rich, and none of these statements of Jesus are recorded in that Gospel, let alone being spoken to Lazarus.
Jesus also speaks quite a bit of dialog that is not found in the Gospels, including quoting Old Testament Scriptures that He is never recorded as quoting. But more so, other characters speak a whole lot of non-Biblical dialog, and there are many depicted events that are not Biblical.
For instance, John the Baptist does a whole lot more speaking in the movie than he is recorded as having spoken in the Gospels, while much of what he is recorded in the Gospels as saying he does not speak. Also, when Roman soldiers come to arrest John, he boldly says he will not go with them, and wades into the Jordan River. The soldiers wade in after him, and John fights back against them, thrashing around in the water, trying to drown the soldiers. He is also depicted as struggling against the soldiers after he is taken to prison. None of this is Biblical. But I guess if you’re going to have a star like Charlton Heston portray John the Baptist, you have to give him a significant speaking role and some action scenes to engage in.
There were also factual mistakes in the movie that were simply inexcusable. For instance, Matthew and James were said to be brothers, while the woman taken in adultery was said to be Mary Magdalene. The Gospels never make these connections.
Meanwhile, only a couple of Jesus’ miracles are actually portrayed. Most of His miracles the audience only knows about by way of reports being made to Pilate or Herod about what Jesus is doing.
But one miracle that is portrayed in detail is the raising of Lazarus. But here, as with the rest of the movie, you have a mixture of dialog and details taken from the Bible with dialog and details that are unbiblical. After Lazarus is raised is where it gets really weird. The “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah” is sung by what sounds like a large choir, while people are shouting to soldiers on top of the wall of Jerusalem about the miracles that Jesus performed on them. It all seemed rather “over the top” to me. This then leads to the “Intermission” of the movie.
After the Intermission, probably the best scene of the movie is portrayed, that of the Last Supper. The dialog is mostly taken directly from the various Gospels. This left me hopeful that the coming all-important events of the life of Jesus would be well depicted, but that would not be the case. The next events of the arrest and trials of Jesus are again a mixture of Biblical dialog and details with unbiblical ones. Probably the most unbiblical is Judas is depicted as committing suicide by dropping himself into a fire-pit.
The crucifixion scene is Biblical in that Jesus speaks several “sayings” from the cross which are taken from the Gospels. But the whole scene only lasts about five minutes and seems rushed. There is no sense of the agony Jesus is going through or the importance of the event. And it ends with a thunderstorm rather than an earthquake. But with being passed over so quickly, the crucifixion scene is hardly graphic at all. And the flogging of Jesus is skipped altogether, which makes the movie less Biblical, but less violent as well.
The depiction of the resurrection then is really poorly done. The empty tomb is shown and several people running to it. But that’s it. None of the resurrection appearances of Jesus are depicted. The movie just jumps to Jesus’ ascension from a hilltop. There He speaks to the apostles dialog that is actually spoken much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, while He does not speak what Luke records Him as saying at that time. Jesus then expands to fill the screen and fades away. All the while Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” is once again being sung. But again, these most important events only last about five minutes.
Maybe if the movie hadn’t spent so much time depicting unbiblical events and dialog, it would have been able to expand on these most important events, giving them the forcefulness they deserve. But as it was, all of the unbiblical events and dialog made the movie so long that it dragged on at times.
I’ll close this review by mentioning a few strange things about the movie. First, when Judas first goes to the Pharisees to talk about betraying Jesus, there is a dead body lying head downward on the steps of the temple. I have no idea what that was about. Second, during Jesus’ trial before Herod, I could have sworn one of Herod’s attendants looked just like a Klingon often seen in the original “Star Trek” series. Third, Jesus’ ascension being depicted as Him expanding and fading away reminded me of what happened to the Greek god Apollo at the end of an episode of “Star Trek” titled, “Who Mourns for Adonis?”
Godspell is an interesting take on the story of Jesus. Rather than being set in ancient Judea, it is set in modern-day New York City, with “modern-day” meaning 1973 when the movie was made. Victor Garber portrays Jesus.
The movie does not depict the birth of Jesus at all. It begins with John the Baptist. But with being set in NYC, it goes without saying that the movie does not follow the action of the Gospels. John the Baptist, for instance, baptizes people in a water fountain rather than a river.
However, the movie begins by saying it is “Based on the Gospel of St. Matthew.” And most of the dialog is taken word for word from Matthew. However, many of the sayings of Jesus are not spoken by Him but by His disciples, about half of whom are women.
The bulk of the movie involves the apostles acting out many of Jesus’ parables, but often in a silly and even slapstick kind of way. Some would consider this to be irreverent, but I found it to be rather comical. One of the parables they act out is not taken from Matthew but from Luke, the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31). And rather confusing is the same actor (David Haskell) portrays John the Baptist at the beginning of the movie but Judas at the end.
It is a musical. The songs for the most part are not taken from dialog from Matthew, but they are entertaining, especially the best-known song of the movie, “Day by Day.”
It is a “G-rated” movie, so the crucifixion scene is not graphic at all. Jesus is just tied to a chain-link fence. After Jesus dies, the apostles (including Judas) carry away the body of Jesus. That is where the movie really deviates from the Gospel of Matthew. But worst of all, that is the end of the movie. The resurrection is not depicted at all.
However, I will say that if you watch it not expecting Biblical accuracy, Godspell is an entertaining movie. And you might learn some of the dialog of the Gospel of Matthew in the process. And this is definitely a kid-friendly movie. In fact, children would probably find all of the silliness and slapstick very entertaining. It lasts 1-3/4 hours, so it’s probably not too long for children either.
But one eerie part needs to be mentioned. The Twin Towers are prominently shown in several scenes of the movie. The Twin Towers opened on April 4, 1973. This movie was filmed just as construction was nearing completion, so that is probably why they are featured so prominently. Living on this side of 9/11, seeing those Towers in old movies or TV shows always sends shivers up my spine.
Conclusion to Part Two
Of the half a dozen movies reviewed in this two-part article, I would have to say “Ben Hur” is the best of them all. It is filled with action and is also heart-warming at times. And including Jesus at certain places makes it an inspirational movie.
But watching “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was just frustrating. I expected it to be Biblically accurate, but it wasn’t even close to being so. I simply don’t understand why if you’re going to make a movie about Jesus you don’t just follow the Gospels, without alteration or embellishment.
However, I actually found Godspell to be rather entertaining. But that is because when I watched it, with it being set in 1973 NYC, I didn’t expect it to be Biblically accurate, and none of the action was. But at least the dialog closely followed the Gospel of Matthew. And the silliness and slapstick was just fun to watch.
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 “Ben Hur” if you plan on watching it. The article details the entire plot, so it would “spoil” it for you. In my review, I just provided the set-up and tried to explain why it would be worth watching.
But for “The Greatest Story Ever Told” 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.
There wasn’t much of a storyline to “Godspell,” so neither my review nor the Wikipedia article will “spoil” it for the reader. It is mainly entertaining to watch due to the slapstick and musical numbers.
The above movie reviews were published in
Darkness to Light
They were posted on this Web site June 22, 2013.
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