September 19, 2020

Two Other “Jesus” Movies Worth

Two Other “Jesus” Movies Worth Watching: Part Two

Jesus Christ Superstar was first released in 1969 as a recording. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had done a Biblical musical about Joseph, but this was a daring contemporizing of the Gospel story, with little possibility of escaping the wrath of official Christendom. By 1971, it was in a controversial, and relatively short run in British theater. In America, JCS also stirred up enormous animosity and only a modest success. In 2000, the production was revived in London, and eventually, in America, where it currently enjoys excellent success in a fresh interpretation and touring production.

Why would I list JCS as a Jesus Movie worth watching? Everyone knows that JCS is inaccurate, distorted, purposely provocative and devoid of the majority of normal Christian interpretation of any part of the story of Jesus. I’ve been watching JCS for two decades, and especially after watching and seeing the new “Gale Edwards/London 2000” production, I am convinced that JCS is a great way for Christians who are numbed with their familiarity with Jesus to encounter some of the most important aspects of the Gospels.

I won’t try to describe what JCS gets wrong. It would take too long and too much space. Let’s note what it gets right.

Jesus was a political figure in a volatile time. Many of his followers and fans were politically minded and wanted Jesus to be king. JCS shows this in a way that is unmistakable. Jesus could never get away from this, no matter how spiritual his message.

The disciples were slow to understand and often confused by Jesus. His personal mission and everything they knew about the “kingdom” and the Messiah didn’t mix.

Jesus was a human being. He reacted with emotion. He wasn’t above us. He inspired affection and loyalty, but also great animosity and fear.

Much of what Jesus said made little sense to his followers at the time.

Jesus had all the problems of “superstardom.” Crowds, distorted publicity and women hanging around.

Jesus’ relations with women were scandalous, and looked, in his time, to be inappropriate. Talking with a woman in public. Allowing women access to you. Being supported by women. Allowing a woman to touch you. Being single so long. It would have all been shocking.

It’s entirely plausible that people like Mary Magdalene and Judas struggled with just how they felt about Jesus, and vacillated between intense faith and more human emotions like love and jealousy.

It’s highly possible that Judas’ betrayal was because of a sense that “this has to be done” or even personal jealousy.

Pilate is strangely compassionate to Jesus.

Jesus isn’t all about miracles.

Jesus did struggle mightily with his decision in the garden of Gethsemane. And it was his Father who wanted him on the cross.

The crowd was the deciding factor in Pilate’s choice. They were vicious.

The end was crushing. Final. A moment of complete defeat and despair.

I’ve found these aspects of the story to be effectively communicated in JCS. In many cases, the new setting kicks things up “another notch” to a level we can be affected by the story in a way similar to the first century.

For example, In Jesus’ time, his behavior with women was shocking. But the same actions today, aren’t shocking. In order to get the same impact, JCS takes us into areas of Jesus interactions with women that are edgy, but the point is made. Jesus was perceived as being way outside the norm.

Let me say a word about the film you should watch. It is the London 2000 production starring Glenn Carter and Jerome Pradon. This is another world from the terrible 1973 movie with Ted Neeley and the late Carl Anderson. (RIP) Director Gale Edwards has turned JCS into a play with incredible depth in the personal interplay between Jesus, Judas and Mary. Plus, it’s just fun to watch, with a lot of hat tips to Star Wars and other mythic cinema. The gritty, urban, new-fascist atmosphere and the guerilla fighter image of the disciples are great. This version connects.

Jerome Pradon, a fine British actor I’ve seen in Shakespearean work like Ian Holm’s King Lear, knocks the ball out of two parks as the best friend of Jesus, now a disillusioned, fearful and jealous betrayer. Glenn Carter is a bit bland as Jesus, but sings like an angel. His Gethsemane is powerful. Renee Castle as Mary is outstanding. Fred Johanssen as Pilate is powerful and intense. The music is great and the cast makes everything work.

As I said, the real star is the direction. What Edwards has the actors do when they aren’t singing makes the play. Trust me. It’s brilliant.

There are some weak points in this production. Ryk Mayall as Herod is terrible. The cleansing of the temple comes off as an attack on Las Vegas, which is bad because Jesus was the friend of sinners and the overturner of the tables of the religious crowd. (How did they miss this?) Rice and Webber’s errors remain, like Jesus telling the lepers to heal themselves and the disciples all being zealots. The Lord’s Supper is a mess, though the music is great. Overall, Jesus is just too much like the cool guy at your school. You never believe this guy could inspire anyone to do anything.

JCS is a significant play in that it launched- in popular culture- the radical revisions of Jesus that today have inspired more and more transformations in the artistic view of Jesus, and even has had some effect on the church. It is flawed, but brilliant. At times, it gives a powerful window into some of the dynamics and relationships that surrounded Jesus. Don’t look for the real Jesus in this play, but you already knew that.

Two Other “Jesus” Movies Worth

Two Other “Jesus” Movies Worth Watching: Part One

Franco Zefirelli’s 1977 “Jesus of Nazareth” is a seven hour mini-series that covers the story of Jesus from birth to resurrection. It is easily the most ambitious “Jesus” project ever attempted. The movie uses a whole generation of great actors, including James Mason, Lawrence Olivier, Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, Ralph Richardson, James Earl Jones and Anthony Quinn. The screenplay was written by Anthony Burgess, and the script follows material in all of the Gospels, with a nice harmonizing of John and the Synoptics. Fictional characters are used effectively and sparingly, but the script isn’t afraid to go where the Bible doesn’t provide information.

One of my favorite things about Jesus of Nazareth is the creative placing of material in believable contexts. Mary Magdalen finds forgiveness at the feeding of the five thousand. Thomas is skeptical that Jesus can raise the daughter of his master, Jairus. Barabbas is a zealot who asks Jesus to lead a revolt, and instead hears Jesus’ words to “love your enemies.” Most effectively, the parable of the Prodigal Son is placed in a party at Matthew’s house, where a conflicted Peter finally decides to come to a party for prostitutes and tax collectors. In other words, rather than just “hang” passages out in space, Zefirelli creates a place in the story for these events to happen.

Robert Powell’s Jesus is alternatively accessible and charming, but also mysterious and intense. Some have found Powell to be somewhat “otherworldly,” but I believe he balances out the various opposites in the personality of Jesus in a way that is quite Biblical. Jesus could be the guy next door, and he could scare you with majesty and power. Powell lives and dies with believablity as the savior.

This movie shows exorcisms and miracles throughout the Galilean ministry, and also pauses for short doses of Jesus’ teachings. We get a good feel for how Jesus attracted crowds wherever he went, as Zefirelli used large numbers of extras to make real crowds. The relationship between Jesus and the disciples is front and center, with James Franciscus playing a first rate Simon Peter. Ample time is given to John the Baptist and the political undercurrents in Judaism. Christopher Plummer has great fun as a lustful, maniulated Herod Antipas.

An outstanding feature of this film is the major attention given to Judas. The story provides a full, and plausible, explanation of Judas’ action. Judas is a political dreamer who thinks that Jesus will be proclaimed King- if the Sanhedrin ever hears him up close. It is Judas who is betrayed by the authorities who have decided to kill Jesus all along. The fictional character of Zera makes the Sadduccees understandable.

I have used this movie as a teaching tool for almost a decade and it is very accessible and understandable. The birth section is wonderful and moving. The Passion is done tastefully, though modern audiences used to sophisticated make up and effects will be disappointed at the lack of gore. Surprisingly, even with 7 hours, much is left on the cutting room floor or was never filmed, and one of the few complaints I have about the movie is some sloppy editing. Also, at least one scene of overt adoration of Mary is bizarre, especially when Mary says “Who is his mother and brothers, etc.”, a line actually spoken by Jesus as a criticism of his mother in Mark 3. And she doesn’t age. :-/

The soundtrack is a bit redundant. The production values are excellent. Some performances are stunning in their power. I think Ann Bancroft’s Mary Magdalen and Rod Steiger’s Pilate are particularly well played. Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great is beyond compliment.

The movie was written with an awareness of the issue of anti-Semitism, but the Jewish bad guys are very bad, and without their persistent stalking of Jesus, and their insistence that Pilate kill him, the death wouldn’t have happened. It is the religious leaders who double-cross Judas, and it is the religious leaders who overrule sympathetic council members to insist on Jesus death. Interestingly, the movie shows NO deliberation about sending Jesus to Pilate, while the Gospels tell us there were hours of debate on what to do after Jesus was condemned.

This movie will, I believe, survive the current interest in “The Passion”, as THE movie to present the whole story of Jesus. This is a film that is cinematically and artistically well done, and spiritually satisfying. It has aged very well, and now that it can be owned on DVD for about $25, needs to be in every Christian’s library.