• 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


    Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    The Great Commandment (1939)

    Which was the first "talking Jesus"? It's a question which is more complex than it might initially appear. Depending on how one defines what constitutes a Jesus film, where it plays, and the language in which Jesus is speaking there is a variety of different answers from 1935's Golgotha to 1961's King of Kings. And then there's the various silent Jesus films which were re-released with sound after the advent of the new technology. Do they count?

    Twelve years after the last, major silent Jesus film, DeMille's The King of Kings came the release of  The Great Commandment (1939). It's one of the many that can, perhaps, stake a reasonable claim to being the first Jesus talkie. It was also the first film made by Cathedral films; produced by John T. Coyle, assisted by Rev. James K. Friedrich and directed by Irving Pichel. The team would work together for almost twenty years creating a series of biblical and religious films which were shown in churches, cinemas and on television.

    That said, technically speaking, the film is not quite a proper Jesus film, but lies partway between a full Jesus movie and the kind of Roman-Jewish-Christian epic where Jesus' role is reduced to that of a significant cameo. Here Jesus does not feature until the halfway point and whilst we hear his voice, his face is shown only once as a fleeting reflection. Thereafter, we hear him speak, and even see things from his point of view, but his face remains off screen.

    The story revolves around a love triangle between two zealot brother who both have an interest in Tamar (Marjorie Cooley) a girl from their village. The elder brother Joel (John Beal) is in love with her, but she is betrothed to his younger brother Zadok (Warren McCollum). The dispute leads Joel to fall out with his pacifist scholarly father so he goes off in search of the charismatic leader from Nazareth about whom he has heard so much.

    Such a plot, where a zealot mistakes Jesus for a political leader before ultimately becoming one of his followers, was one that Coyle, Friedrich and Pichel returned to a number of times, most notably in the television movie I Beheld His Glory (1952) and the cinematic release Day of Triumph (1954).

    This early incarnation perhaps lacks the finesse and pacing of the latter version. There's not a great deal of chemistry between Joel and Tamar, and John Beal's boyish good looks make it hard to take his seriously as a hardened zealot rebel. That said, things pick up in the second half when Beal encounters Jesus. By giving only vague indications as to the story's date (30 AD) and location ("In between Jericho and Jerusalem") the film makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly whereabouts in Jesus' life Joel is encountering him. This adds a sense of tension and mystery to proceedings, even though the audience ultimately senses how things will end.

    This lack of a frame of reference is enhanced by the way the film selects material from the gospels. Aside from a couple of miracles, it largely utilises the sayings material, and even then the order of the material is jumbled up. The Beatitudes (Matt 5) come after the, much later, phrase "Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt 26). Material from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is mixed with parables from far later in Luke. The Jesus we encounter seems far closer than the one from the Q material unique to Matthew and Luke's gospel than any one of the canonical gospels.

    Joel is gradually drawn closer to Jesus, best expressed in a tracking shot of him whilst Jesus recites the Beatitudes. Shooting Joel from below he gradually moves from the outside of the crowd listening to Jesus to close to where Jesus is speaking. The lateral movement enables him to maintain a purposeful pace whilst his eyes remain purposefully fixed on his new master. There are a number of longer moving shots like this throughout the film often portraying a sense of togetherness of those captured together.

    One particularly striking example is a two minute long shot taken from Jesus' point of view. At first it is not even clear that this is perspective from which the shot is taken, but then the camera focuses on Joel's father before panning right to Joel and Andrew and then back to his father. The way the camera, and Jesus' gaze, links the two men and suggests a reconciliation which is never quite fully realised within the film itself.

    Perhaps the most significant of these extended shots occurs when Joel returns home for Zadok and Tamar's wedding, joining the guests in harmony before an abrupt cut to a close-up on Tamar's, slightly regretful, face. The scene is also significant for the emphasis it places on the Jewishness of its characters. The dress, music and dancing style of the characters may seem a little stereotypical, but it's an undeniably positive attempt to capture the Jewish nature of the story, and Jesus himself, just as the Second World War was beginning. Given the film's final scenes, perhaps it can be ready as a naive argument for appeasement, before the horrors of the Nazi regime had become apparent. Nevertheless, any such argument is based on and rooted in the Jewishness of Jesus and his early followers.



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