• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Tuesday, October 24, 2006

    Nativity Movies

    With Catherine Harwicke's The Nativity Story coming soon, I've been thinking of looking at portrayals of that story over the years and a conversation with a friend recently spurred me into action.

    Whilst I think that, overall, films about Jesus's life have got the balance between his birth and the rest of his life about right, I'm surprised at how little the story has been filmed as a self-contained story. All films form the bible are stories within a big story, and this gives film-makers unusual liberty as to when and where to begin and end their narratives. For example, the recent One Night With the King starts with an event outside the story it is portraying, but this works because it's all part of a broader narrative. The story of Jesus's life is in fact a number of self-contained stories, hence why Mel Gibson can film the story of his death, just on its own. In fact Gibson adds on the story of the resurrection, so he too ends the film with part of a different story.

    Of course, in this sense the nativity story is a story in its own right as well as a part of the story of the life of Jesus, and the bible story as a whole. Given the huge significance of this story to our wider culture - it's the basis for our society's largest festival/celebration - it's surprising, that the story has been filmed so infrequently in it's own right, rather than as the prologue to the story of Jesus's life. This hasn't always been the case as the list below demonstrates:
    1908 - Edison - The star of Bethlehem - 10 mins - B/W
    1909 - France - The Birth of Jesus - short - hand tinted colour
    1910 - France - La Nativité - short - B&W
    1910 - France - Gaumont - Herod and the Newborn King - B&W
    1912 - US-Thanhouser - The Star of Bethlehem - 3 reeler - B&W
    1913 - US-Selig - The Three Wise Men - 1000 ft - B&W
    1914 - US - Edison - The Birth of our Saviour - 1000ft - B&W
    1921 - Germany - Der Stern von Bethlehem - B&W
    1950 - US-NBC TV - A Child is Born - 30 mins - B/W
    1956 - GB - The Star of Bethlehem - 90 mins (remake of the above)
    1960 - Italy - Herod the Great - 93 mins - colour
    1969 - Czechoslovakia - Hvezda Betlemska (The Star of Bethlehem) - 10 mins - animated colour.
    1978 - US-short - The Small One - 20 mins - colour
    1978 - US-TV - The Nativity - 98 mins - colour
    1979 - Ca-TV - Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith - 152 mins - colour
    1982 - Italy - Cammina, Cammina (Keep on Walking) - 171 mins - colour
    1985 - France - Je Vous Salue, Marie (Hail Mary) - 97 mins - colour
    1989 - Italy-TV - Un Bambino di nome Gesù (A Child Called) Jesus - colour
    2001 - Italy-TV - Close to Jesus: Joseph of Nazareth - 90 mins - colour
    This list excludes recent cartoon treatments, and also films where the nativity story is only a part of the main story. I was tempted to include Mary, The Mother of Jesus, but whilst about half of that film includes the nativity, really it's a film about Mary's life, rather than just the nativity. For the record it was made in the USA in 1999, and was 88 minutes long.

    So all in all there are 18 films about the nativity. Incredibly, seven of those appear in as many years, in the mid-silent period (1908 to 1914). Since the advent of sound at least half of the remaining films have been made for TV, and only 2 have been made in the US, 1 in Canada, and the rest have come from Europe.

    I have actually seen precious few of these films, partly because they are usually so full of Christmas card tradition it's hard to take all the gloss and piety seriously. The sole exception is Jean Luc Goddard's Hail Mary. I do own a copy of Joseph of Nazareth and so I will be reviewing that within the next month or so. The one I would most like to see is Ermmano Olmi's Cammina, Cammina. I very much enjoyed his version of Genesis, and so would be keen to see his treatment of this one as well. (Edit: Now I have)

    I wrote a few more comments on a selection of these films back when I first heard the news about The Nativity Story.

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