• 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


    Sunday, February 13, 2022

    Obscure silent Jesus the Christ (1923) to be released in July

    Thanks to Sterling Jones for alerting me to this. Grapevine Video – one of the long-running heroes of the silent film world, held a kickstarter in December to fund a digital, DVD and Blu-ray release of an obscure silent Bible film Jesus the Christ purportedly from 1923.

    I don't use the term obscure lightly here. I'd never heard of the film before Sterling's tip off and neither had he. An email from the team at Grapevine explained that they themselves "were unable to unearth really any info that wasn’t in the film itself, and the film itself has no credits for the director or actors." I've consulted with all the recognised works on the subject and various other lists, and asked a number of other people who might have been able to uncover something about this, but still absolutely nothing.

    Judging by the trailer it was a relatively expensive production. The size of the crowd is considerable at certain points (e.g. above) and the costumes look of reasonable quality. My hunch is that this film may have also been released under another name, but even then it's hard to think of a candidate. My mind leapt to 1928's Jesus of Nazareth, but the footage Grapevine have released is at odds with the stills from that film in Kinnard and Davis' "Divine Images". 

    Perhaps when the restoration is complete and the film is released some more evidence might emerge from the wider community. In the meantime, if you have any ideas, please let me know!

    And the kickstarter itself? Smashed its target in just 7 hours – before even I had a chance to sign up. The DVD and Blu-ray are already available for pre-order and are likely to be released in July. Grapevine have also told me they are hoping a digital download option will be available as well.

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    Which is the Best Book About Jesus Films / Bible Movies?

    There are so many books that discuss Jesus movies or cinema and the Bible, that it's hard to decide which is the best. I have over 30 books on those subjects specifically and many many more where Bible films form a substantial part of the publication. There is a bewildering choice for those looking to buy one. Which will work best for you?

    Full disclosure though, I'm biased, because I've written my own book on the subject: 100 Bible Films.

    Yet, that doesn't disqualify me as much as some might think. Reading and regularly using so many of these books has given me a lot of time to really figure out what goes in to making a really good book on the subject and then finding a publisher that was able to fulfil that vision. I channelled all I've learnt from 20 years pouring over those 60+ books (and many, many more!) into writing "100 Bible Films". I looked at what made these books good or bad: how interesting, accessible, useful, academic, credible or helpful were they.

    So instead of pretending to be objective on this question I'm going to explain some of the things I focused on when trying to write what I thought would make the best book I could produce on the subject of the Bible on Film.

    Many of the books in this field are, sadly, very expensive, even in 2nd hand or electronic format. This isn't a criticism. It's a niche area so Academic publishers often have to charge high prices to recoup their costs. Nevertheless, where there's a book in this field that I don't have, it's nearly always due to its price. 

    Well researched
    I've been researching and writing about Cinema and the Bible for over 20 years now and writing this book for about 15 of them. As a film critic I've sought to write about each film in its own context, typically looking at other relevant works by the director, but I've also run various kinds of teaching on the Bible over the years as well.

    Peer Reviewed
    The hallmark of quality for any book these days is peer review - a process whereby an independent expert in the field examines the book to see whether is it well-researched, coherent, etc. While this book is produced by the BFI a lot of the production has been done by Bloomsbury Academic who have given it a thorough peer review. And the finished product is far stronger as a result of the the changes that were suggested at this stage. I'm really grateful for the academics who gave their detailed analysis and helped me make the book even better.

    While "100 Bible Films" passes the test for academic rigour, I've also sought to make it accessible for those outside of universities. The 100 films format makes it easy to dip into, and just read about a specific film. Because film lovers and Bible fans are rarely experts in both fields I've tried not to assume too much, or resort to too many technical terms or acronyms.

    While I'm talking about accessibility, I should also mention that the book is also available electronically, which means it should be compatible with assistive technology like screen readers or refreshable braille displays. There isn't an audio-book version, yet... but if this is a genuine accessibility requirement for you, please contact me (emailTwitter) and I'll see what can be done.

    "100 Bible Films" is particularly good for students for two reasons. Firstly, because the price works for those on limited budgets – I've been there trying to stretch a limited budget to pay for text books. Secondly though, because word limits are so tight, I really had to boil down the content to the good stuff. It was a painstaking process, going through sentence by sentence trying to make the contents as lean as possible. A positive consequence of this, though, is that if you're a student trying to include quotes in essays or exams you can do that without blowing your word count or giving yourself too many words to recall in an exam.

    World Focus
    The Bible's influence is so widespread that it has permeated into cultures worldwide. As a result there are Bible films from across the world. I've really sought to bring out the international nature of the subject and move the focus from 'Hollywood'. There are films by filmmakers from 6 continents. Hollywood still accounts for roughly half the films, but over 20 countries are represented.

    Full History 
    Too many film books these days focus too greatly on recent film history and short-change the silent era. While many of the other books in this field do give the silent era decent consideration, 19 of the 100 films are from that first thirty years of cinema history. There's a slight bias to newer films but I've sought to stress the obvious importance of that first quarter of film history. Moreover, I cover each of the 14 decades from the birth of cinema to today.

    The BFI were my first choice of publisher, in part because they have such a strong track record of creating books that are beautiful as well as from top authors in their fields, but also because they have an archive of photos which we've been able to draw on. And the team that helped me pick out an image for each film, and that designed and laid-out the book have done an amazing job. I'm very fortunate to have worked with them.

    Expertise in both Film and the Bible
    Over the last 20 years I've been paid both to work in & speak to churches and to write as a film critic. I'm not a film scholar who dabbles in the Bible, or a theologian who appreciates film, I have knowledge and expertise in both.

    BFI published
    It really is an honour to write for the British Film Institute. For decades they have encouraged a deeper understanding and fuelled readers’ passion for film with their books. They're a highly respected institution, and their good reputation across the UK cinema scene is well deserved. Hopefully that offers some reassurance!

    So there it is. Yes, this is a pitch, but I really hope you can catch the heart of what I've tried to do with "100 Bible Films". 

    If you're interested you can already order a copy.

    If not, that's fine!
    There are a lot of other great books on the subject. This post is not to denigrate them – I've learnt loads from reading them and would recommend most of those in the above picture barring one or two.

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    Wednesday, February 02, 2022

    The Chosen (2019) s1e04

    Having enjoyed episode 3 of The Chosen not quite as much as I enjoyed episodes 1 and 2, I'm a little apprehensive about sitting down to number 4. Will it return to the appeal of the first episodes, or has the novelty worn off? It starts bizarre;y enough with Peter on a rowing boat with a group of Roman soldiers when he "accidentally" directs them onto a sand bar – damaging their boat – one of them uses his sword to cut his ear. Presumably this is nod to the moment in the Garden of Gethsemane where Simon Peter (according to John 18:10, but not the Synoptics) cuts off Malchus' ear.

    Of course, at this point in the episode he is only Simon, but this is the episode where Andrew tells him about Jesus, then he meets Jesus after a disappointing night fishing, Jesus produces a multitude of fish, Simon believes and decides to follow him and gains his nickname "Rocky". 

    What's interesting is that this formula is fairly well worn in Jesus films, but it's not really like that in the Gospels. Without checking, I'm reasonably certain that Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Jesus (1999) and The Miracle Maker (2000) all follow this pattern. The Gospels however have it slightly differently. Mark and Matthew just have Jesus meeting Andrew and Peter at the same time at the Sea of Galilee and calling them without any miracle. Luke doesn't really have the story of Simon being called. Simon just appears in 4:38, as if everyone already knows who he is, with a mother-in-law in need of healing. 

    The groundwork for the story of Peter's mother-in-law is foreshadowed in this episode. We're introduced to Peter's wife, who tells him that "Eema" is sick and rebukes him for not looking after her enough. Peter reveals he's in trouble. He has tax debts and has been fishing on the Sabbath (here called "Shabbat" throughout) and is in increasingly desperate need of "a miracle". He needs a big catch of fish. "Where is your faith?" his wife demands "You've not pursued the Lord lately. Not like the man that I married".

    The miraculous catch of fish episode appears only in two gospels, and in radically different places. In Luke it appears at the start of ch.5, just a few verses after the healing of Simon's mother-in-law. In John, however, it's tagged on to the end of the Gospels, as a post resurrection appearance. Some claim these are two entirely separate incidents, perhaps even making the point about Simon's failure to learn, or that it gives the moment when he sees the miracle for a second time he knows this is Jesus even though he's a distance away.

    John's other innovation is to change the role of Peter's brother Andrew. In the Synoptics he's a bit of an also ran. In John (1:35-42) he gets promoted to being one of the two disciples who initially follow John the Baptist (the other is not named, though Jesus films that include this incident nearly always make him John), until the Baptist points them towards Jesus and they then transfer their allegiance. Andrew then goes and tells Peter who meets Jesus and joins up. Jesus changes his name then and there (in Mark isn't mentioned until 3:16, likewise the other Synoptics).

    As  with the three films mentioned above here we have these various bits harmonised into one story, that doesn't really match what any one of the Gospels says. Andrew, is the wide-eyed dreamer: Peter the practical based realist. Andrew returns excited about "the Messiah", Peter thinks he is just being naive. They go out to fish, catch nothing, but when they return Jesus tells them to try again, Peter points out this is impractical. Cue miraculous catch of fish, Simon's exclamation ("You are the Lamb of God. Depart from me. I am a sinful man... you don't know who I am and the things I've done") and his conversion and calling.

    Here however, there's a far greater level of desperation in Peter's circumstances and far more severe character flaws than is typical for this soon-to-be-leader-of-the-(whole?)-church. He's been a gambler and got into trouble and now he's in trouble for tax fraud. There's suggestions of violence and drunkenness in there as well. And now he's working on the Sabbath.

    The moment when the miracle happens is far more dramatic as well, and certainly wants to emphasise that this is a miracle. It comes as Simon is about to be seized for his tax debt - "its my last night as a free man and I'm fishing". The catch takes place in very shallow waters and the nets don't even seem laid out in such a fashion that a bunch of fish could get suddenly trapped. Yet here the pull from the net is so sever that the boat almost capsizes. There's also a God shot at this point - the first in the episode, and perhaps even the series.

    All of which makes this quite a showy and dramatic way to present this story. The films mentioned above follow a similar structure and while they also suggest that this is a miracle by Jesus, these "enhancements" are absent. They all involve interpretation but whereas those other leave the door open for more natural/coincidental/God-working-through-nature interpretations, here only one reading seems possible. It's interesting too that the film's director, in the after the credits chat, actually calls the recording of that scene itself "a miracle". This is a step above Mel Gibson's claims about the "Holy Ghost" when he was making The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    Several other named biblical characters also feature several times in this episode. Firstly I've already mentioned Andrew, but James and John appear in the background and get a few lines. There's also a role for Zebedee whose warm, avuncular, portrayal contrasts significantly with the spiky antagonist of Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

    Nicodemus also makes a few appearances without really moving things on, I'm guessing they're positioning him as a character the audience can relate to, who can be converted as per the John 3:16 passage, relatively early on in the series. The episode ends with him seeking out John the Baptist to ask about "the miracles".

    Matthew also makes another appearance. He's portrayed very differently to Simon. Yes he's a tax collector, but he's nervous and clearly not at all comfortable with his form of employment. It's interesting that whereas The Chosen is making Peter a bit rougher round the edges than the Gospels do, trying to remove that saintly edge, they seem to be semi-rehabilitating Matthew to lessen his complicity in Rome's oppressive machine. He's also fascinated by what is going on and Jesus in particular and the way Matthew always carries a pen and parchment and regularly jots things down, is clearly intended to mark(!) him out as an eye-witness Gospel author who can be relied upon because he was literally noting things down as they happened. 

    Again this is a very conservative view point solidified a bit via the series' presentation of him. But then Christian history has spent a long time developing the romance of Matthew's character and his narrative arc. The opposite viewpoint – that Matthew was not one of the disciples who used other people's accounts and recalled sayings (and may even have written in Hebrew not Greek or Aramaic) has not really been retold with the same level of fond devotion. As a result it's far less appealing despite historical probability being in its favour. 

    Lastly given the last episode took place seemingly before Jesus' ministry, it's a surprise that we've skipped over Jesus' baptism. But then the series is certainly happy with a jumbled chronology and seems to use it (well) as a narrative device a fair bit, so I imagine we will circle back to this moment later. I guess this enables the series to telescope a fair bit. I've no idea if there has been a crucifixion scene yet, but, in theory the filmmakers could keep this constantly within reach, without getting there for quite a long time.

    I do like the way this episode manages to roll a number of episodes in together in a way that is dramatically satisfying, even is the theological positioning is a bit strong at time. It reflects, I suppose, the bite-sized way they Gospels are typically read and in some ways written. Chronology is a secondary concern to serving the narrative and the portrayal and the episodes work as relatively self-contained stories within a grander narrative.I'm interested to see if this is going to be a regular feature of the series.

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