From the very earliest days of cinema, the life of Jesus, and especially his passion and resurrection, was a favorite subject of filmmakers.
Few of the earliest films were more than a few minutes long, and most were primitive compared to the level of cinematic technique common in later decades. One way to explore how cinema developed as an art form is to watch a trio of Jesus movies from the first three decades of the 20th century.
The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1905), directed by Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nonguet for the French company Pathé, is among the earliest surviving feature-length films.
On DVD, The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ is paired with a Jesus movie from 1912, From the Manger to the Cross, directed by Sidney Olcott for the Kalem Co. For an example of how far cinema came by the end of the silent era, one might turn to Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927).
Compared to the later films, The Life and Passion of Jesus is primitive, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in power. The film is composed of 35 brief, pageant-like tableaux, each introduced with a title card such as “The Annunciation,” “The Flight into Egypt,” “Baptizing Christ,” and so forth.
Most of the scenes are staged on theatrical sets with painted backdrops and stage props and filmed in a single shot with a static camera, offering a front-row center perspective. The film is notable for its striking hand-coloring technique; individual objects — an angel’s golden wings, red and green robes, and so on — are painstakingly dyed frame by frame using Pathé’s trademark stencil process.
Two of my favorite episodes are “The Resurrection” and “The Ascension,” which together depict a three-storied cosmos, similar to a Greek stage play or a medieval painting. In “The Resurrection,” Jesus rises up from Sheol via a stage elevator; in “The Ascension,” the apostles watch as Jesus ascends to a heaven in the sky, with a white-bearded God the Father and a choir of angels playing musical instruments. The effect is rather like Raphael’s Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, remarkably transcendent and effective.
Turning from The Life and Passion to From the Manger to the Cross, it’s obvious how far cinematic technique advanced in just a few short years. Instead of stage-bound scenes, the film makes effective use of location shooting in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Middle East, including Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. The Flight into Egypt even depicts the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza.
The greater depth of space encourages shots that are both more artful and more naturalistic, with the camera placed in the midst of the action (for example, with actors walking toward the camera and disappearing behind it, or even appearing from behind the camera and moving away from it).
The camera is still almost totally immobile, though a long pan in a healing scene is more dramatic than The Life and Passion’s utilitarian little pans. Most scenes are still filmed as much as possible in single takes — but watch the use of parallel editing in the healing of the paralytic, where we see Jesus teaching inside the house as the man’s friends haul him up onto the roof and break through the roof to lower him down to Jesus.
Perhaps the oddest thing about From the Manger to the Cross is that, while it doesn’t begin at the manger, it literally ends at the cross; there is no resurrection. (When I’ve watched it with my kids, we usually go back to the last two scenes from The Life and Passion for the Resurrection and Ascension.)
Omitting the Resurrection isn’t a mistake one can imagine DeMille making, and indeed he doesn’t make many in The King of Kings — after, that is, the awesomely bad opening scene. No one familiar with DeMille’s habit of tarting up pious subjects like The Ten Commandments and The Sign of the Cross with opulent spectacle and sexed-up costume drama will be surprised that his Jesus film opens with a decadent revel presided over by an insolently sensual, half-naked Mary Magdalene, here presented as a courtesan and lover of Judas Iscariot.
Yet with this scene out of the way, DeMille quickly reveals a more genuinely reverent sensibility than I’ve encountered in any other film of his. The way he introduces the first shot of H.B. Warner’s Jesus, seen through the eyes of a blind boy for whom the face of Jesus is the first thing he ever sees, is both spiritually and cinematically powerful. This revelation is followed by an even more striking sequence, involving a sophisticated use of double exposure, in which Jesus expels seven demons from Mary Magdalene, here identified with the seven deadly sins.
Few Jesus films manage to make the Resurrection and Ascension quite so transcendent as DeMille’s film. Partly this is because DeMille highlights the first appearances of the resurrected Christ with a rare two-strip Technicolor process that is quite lovely, but it’s also because DeMille takes his time with this sequence, first depicting Jesus greeting his mother amid a flight of doves before appearing to Mary Magdalene.
Few life-of-Christ films made in the talkie era can hold a candle to The King of Kings; it’s easily one of my top five Jesus movies of all time.
Each of these three films is valuable in itself, both as a spiritual document and a cinematic artifact. Watched together, they offer a fascinating composite picture of art and imagination wrestling with how best to relate the greatest story ever told using the rapidly developing tools and techniques of the time.