In his 1997 "Jesus at the Movies", W. Barnes Tatum points out that within three years of the invention of cinema there were as many versions of the Passion narrative committed to film. The Crucifixion also figures in D. W. Griffith’s 1916 epic, "Intolerance".
The life of Jesus has been recounted innumerable times, the earliest major version being "King of Kings". That 1927 silent was the work of master biblical epic-maker Cecil B. DeMille, though it was Nicholas Ray who helmed the 1961 remake with Jeffrey Hunter’s blue-eyed matinee-idol Christ.
Both Old and New Testaments continued to provide rich fodder through the transition to sound, with DeMille again leading the charge with such simultaneously reverential and racy fare as "The Sign of the Cross" (1932).
The stately, picture-postcard "The Greatest Story Ever Told" in 1965 – based on Fulton Oursler’s best-seller – featured a host of unlikely Hollywood stars in cameo roles: John Wayne as a centurion, Jose Ferrer as Herod and Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene, to name a few, and Ingmar Bergman-star Max Von Sydow as an imposing and reverential Saviour.
After these epic excesses, director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s no-frills rendering, "The Gospel According to St. Matthew", was widely acclaimed as the definitive telling of the story – though Mel Gibson’s 2004 box-office champ, "The Passion of the Christ", was the most detailed account of Our Lord’s final earthly day.
The year 1973 saw two musical incarnations of the Jesus story – both adapted from the stage. In Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s "Jesus Christ Superstar" and Stephen Schwartz’s "Godspell", the narrative was filtered through a rock star and hippie sensibility, respectively.
Christ’s birth received a picturesque retelling in 2006’s "The Nativity Story", though there was some consternation when star Keisha Castle-Hughes, who portrayed Mary, became the more usual kind of unwed mother in real life.
In terms of Old Testament adaptations, the prize goes to "The Ten Commandments" to dramatize the earliest passages of Genesis. But Steve Carell’s 2007 "Evan Almighty", with the star as a modern-day Noah, arguably trumped the earlier movie’s flood story.
Pious, often lengthy epics like DeMille’s 1949 "Samson and Delilah", 1959 "Solomon and Sheba" and 1960 "The Story of Ruth" continued to mine the Hebrew Scriptures with entertaining but less artful results.
Two popular scripturally themed 19th-century novels – Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz’s "Quo Vadis" and Lew Wallace’s "Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ" – have received multiple screen treatments
dating back to the silent era.
The former, which charts the activities of St. Peter in the early days of the church, was especially well-served in its 1951 MGM version.
The lavish 1925 silent version of "Ben-Hur" with Ramon Novarro still impresses with its evocative use of tinting and spectacular chariot race, but William Wyler’s 1959 remake with Charlton Heston was heralded as superior, picking up a then-unprecedented 11 Oscars, including one for best picture.
Other stories that intertwined fictional, biblical and historical events were adaptations of Lloyd Douglas’ "The Robe" (1953) and its even more kitschy 1954 sequel, "Demetrius and the Gladiators", as well as 1962’s "Barabbas".
Television picked up the biblical mantle early on, with Gian Carlo Menotti’s Nativity-themed opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors", a holiday staple, starting in 1951. Made-for-TV biblical movies – "Peter and Paul" (1981), "A.D." (1985), "Joseph" (1995), "Moses" (1995), and "David" (1997), among them – are too plentiful for discussion here, but let it be said that Franco Zeffirelli’s "Jesus of Nazareth" (1977) stands high in the pantheon of quality Gospel adaptations. - By Harry Forbes and John Mulderig.
-Forbes is director and Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.