• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, March 13, 2006

    Jesus (1979)

    From a worldwide perspective, Jesus is possibly the most influential image of Jesus in history. The film, made by Campus Crusade for Christ in 1979 to be a tool for evangelism, has apparently, been seen by over 5.4 billion people.1 Whilst that figure includes numerous repeat viewers, and may not be that accurate, it is still incredibly impressive. Cecil B. DeMille, years after he directed The King of Kings claimed that his 1927 film had reached more people with the gospel than any other work except the bible. Today that position has been usurped by this film - an even more impressive task given how much bigger the world's population is today compared to 50 years ago.

    What is strange, is that few people in countries that speak its original tongue would claim to have seen it. Yet it has been translated into 909 languages with another 232 in progress.2 When a new translation is made native speakers of that language are asked to play the various parts. I can't help but wonder if one day they'll be a great Jesus actor re-union, where all the actors who've provided his voice in the different version meet up to exchange stories over fish and bread. The Papua New Guinean Jesus is explaining to the Mongolian Jesus how there is no word for lamb in his culture, whilst the Yup'ik Eskimo Jesus explains to the Swahilian actor that they have 15 words for snow and he didn't get to use any of them.

    The film was originally made as part of The Genesis Project - producer John Heyman's (A Passage to India) plan to film the entire bible word for word. Heyman had already made Genesis but needed more financial backing and saw a film about Jesus as a good way to raise revenue to fund the rest of the project. As a result the entire gospel of Luke would be filmed, with the final film being edited together based on footage from that film. In the end there would be a few extra moments of dialogue that were not based on the gospel, but they are fairly minor. As well as being faithful to the biblical text, the film also aimed to be as historically accurate as possible as well, at least within the restraints of using one gospel. Hence all of the actors except for Jesus were Yemenite Jews - supposedly the Jewish racial group whose features have altered the least in the last 200 years. It was also only the second film to show the nails going through Jesus' wrists rather than his hands and him carrying a just the beam, rather than the whole cross.4 That said, when Mel Gibson stated his quest for accuracy by improving on the "bad hair" of other Jesus films, this one cannot have been far from his mind.5

    It's too easy to judge a film 30 years later for how quickly it has dated. Whilst some films still look like they could have been made yesterday (e.g. 1977's Jesus of Nazareth), others, such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), that supposedly looked good at the time look awful today. Nevertheless, Jesus was made on a small budget, a fact reflected by it's poor budget. This is accentuated by the wooden use of the biblical text. It's hard to know who to blame for this - writer, actor, director, or all three - but the end result is that the written dialogue, from an undynamic translation comes across as stilted. At times the natural rhythm of the scene is ruined by the need for one of the characters to deliver the verse by rote. That said occasionally the film liberates itself from the text, such as the moment when Jesus stands up and is cast into darkness as he says "that is enough".

    What is also unusual about the film's use of the bible is that the film ends on a quote from John's gospel, not Luke's. This actually epitomises relationship to that gospel as well as Luke's. Whereas Luke's motivations for writing are not entirely clear, John's stated intention for his gospel is that his readers "may know that Jesus is the messiah, the (S/s)on of God". This correlates with the film-makers' aim to create a film that is an evangelistic tool. Luke's narrative arc is more engaging, and as such was a wise choice, but John's influence is never far away.

    That said, the film does also retain a strongly Lucan emphasis at points. This is possibly the only Jesus film ever not to have included the crown of thorns, which is absent in Luke.5 Actor Brian Deacon caught pneumonia during the baptism scene in order to fulfil the literal landing of a dove on Jesus's shoulder. In Mark's gospel this is only a simile. The film is also one of the only ones to tell the story of Zaccheus, and retains distinctly Lucan parables such as the Good Samaritan.

    Jesus then, reflects the roots of its project. The film-makers were allowed more freedom to abridge, add to and shape the text of Luke compared to the later Visual Bible's Matthew and Gospel of John, and, as a result, the film is interesting on a literary level. However, film is primarily a visual medium, and despite the attempts at historical accuracy Jesus fails in almost every sense visually. Not only does it fail to exert any sort of cinematic vision, or use the camera in a distinctive or original manner, but it also offers a weak portrayal of that which is in front of the camera. Brian Deacon is a believable Jesus, and Luke a believable storyteller, but somehow the film fails the link the two in a credible cinematic fashion.


    1 - From "The Jesus Film" website.
    2 - - From "The Jesus Film" website.
    3 - The first film to show the nails going through the wrists was 1935's Golgotha. The first film to show Jesus carrying just the crossbeam was Jesus of Nazareth (1977).
    4 - Holly McClure - New York Daily News, January 26, 2003, reproduced at BP News
    5 - Nevertheless the film was criticsed in some Christian circles for excluding it.



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