The Plain Truth | Spring 2011
By Alan Dowd

What do Sir Laurence Olivier, David Bowie and Charlton Heston all have in common? Believe it or not, they all had prominent roles in films depicting the end of Christ’s life—and the beginning of ours.

No film is a perfect reflection of the Gospels, of course. But these five—from different eras and genres—have helped me grasp “how wide and long and high and deep is the love” Jesus showed for me at Golgotha.

Despite their flaws, films can point us toward the Good News. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, if God can use a donkey to get His point across,  He surely can use a movie.

Ben Hur
With its gleaming colors and sometimes-stilted language, Ben Hur lacks the realism of some other films about Jesus. What Ben Hur offers is a stirring depiction of God’s role in our lives and damning depiction of Roman power.

Rome is portrayed as ruthless, unchecked and amoral. As Heston’s Judah Ben Hur puts it, “Rome is an affront to God.” The words and actions of a Roman military leader underscore this. “Hate keeps a man alive,” he barks, conveying the very opposite of the gospel message.

In Ben Hur, as in the Book of Esther, God plays His part just beyond our field of vision. He is in Judah Ben Hur’s survival amid the privations of slavery, in his encounter with the general who adopts him, in the stranger who gives him water, in the healing of his mother and sister.

The stranger, who is Jesus, is always just out of view but always central to the story. Sometimes art does imitate life: God is with us, if only we have eyes to see.

Jesus of Nazareth
Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth does the very opposite of Ben Hur. In fact, Robert Powell’s Jesus often gazes directly into the camera.

When Jesus says, “This is my body,” he looks straight at us, imploring us to believe. When he’s asked, “Are you the Son of God?” the camera locks on his eyes as he proclaims, “I am.”

One of the films many high points is its depiction of the Sanhedrin as a deliberative, divided body. Some members want justice. Some want calm. Some fear Rome. Some fear Jesus.

“Jesus of Nazareth may be the Messiah awaited by our people,” Olivier’s Nicodemus declares.

When the High Priest punches back, asking Nicodemus if he believes Jesus to be the Son of God, Nicodemus is silent. But the moment marks a turning point. Earlier in the epic, Nicodemus is confused by Jesus’ words about being born again. But within eyeshot of the cross, he is overwhelmed by what he sees and whispers a passage from Isaiah.

“He was despised and rejected of men.” The tears begin to well. “Brought as a lamb to slaughter…surely he hath borne our grief…through his wounds we are healed”—the camera moves in as Olivier’s eyes open wide to grasp the truth—“and born again.”

Finally, it all makes sense to Israel’s teacher.

Overworked, impatient and demanding, Rod Steiger’s Pilate is far more believable than the conflicted Pilate in The Passion of the Christ.

Steiger’s Pilate wants to set Jesus free, but he also wants to keep the mob happy. He can’t do both. So the calculating and, ultimately, cowardly Pilate does what’s easy and defers to the crowd.

The film’s depiction of Peter’s fall and rise is deeply moving.

Painting a powerful picture of what Matthew wrote of Peter after the rooster crowed, this broken disciple cowers in the rain and screams, “My Lord! Please help me!”

But the tears give way to transformation. Upon hearing Mary Magdalene’s report about the empty tomb, the disciples turn to Peter for direction.

“Do you believe her story?” Thomas sneers. “Do you, Peter?”

Peter answers, “Yes.”

Again, the camera works its magic, closing in on Peter as he pierces the apostles—and us. “We accuse Judas of betraying him, but we all betrayed him.”

As Peter’s voice crescendos, he seemingly pulls the camera toward himself. “I know in my heart he has forgiven me”—he embraces Thomas, looks at John and turns his face squarely at the camera—“forgiven all of us.”

In an instant, the film becomes an altar call.

Jesus Christ Superstar
Superstar has always seemed a bit off-kilter to me. The title says a lot. Jesus is portrayed not as God, but as a pop-culture phenomenon. He is handsome, thronged by followers and conflicted. “There may be a kingdom for me somewhere,” the angst-ridden superstar sighs, “if I only knew.”

Plus, it’s a jumble of anachronisms and nonlinearity. Like the era in which it was made, everything in the musical seems relativistic, sexualized, unshaven and un-showered. Of course, the same could be said of the Roman Empire in Christ’s day.

But the music is the focus here, and the music often soars. Everyone knows the cymbal-crashing intro to the title song. Then there’s the Magdalene character’s solo. Many of us can relate to the sweet, searching refrain she shares after encountering Jesus: “I don’t know how to love him, what to do, how to move him. I’ve been changed, yes really changed…I seem like someone else.”

There is truth in those words. And there is something about those words that, I suspect, has driven many closer to the Truth.

The Passion of the Christ
The Passion gets high marks for the setting, scenery and feel. The use of Aramaic and Latin transports us to first-century Judea. And The Passion uses clever imagery to depict hell’s high-water mark:

• Satan is presented as a shadowy, androgynous figure smirking and lurking throughout. “No man can carry this burden,” he hisses at Jesus. “It’s too heavy…too costly.”
• Demons taunt and torment Judas all the way to his death.
• A demon paralyzes one of the disciples in fear.
• A snake tries to distract Jesus during his prayer in the garden. Jim Caviezel’s Jesus stomps on it, an unmistakable allusion to Genesis 3. “He will crush your head,” the Father tells the serpent, “and you will strike his heel.”

The film’s critics are wrong to say that The Passion makes Jews out to be the villains. In fact, it takes care to portray members of the Sanhedrin objecting to the treatment of Jesus. “This entire preceding is an outrage!” yells one teacher. Another calls the trial “a beastly travesty.”

In addition, the film embellishes the role of Simon the Cyrene. After trying in vain to go about his business, Simon takes up the cross and begins the long walk to Golgotha. Along the way, he sometimes carries Jesus. At one point, the Christ and the Cyrene are literally arm-in-arm, supporting each other in the journey. The symbolism is poetic: Jesus is guiding the children of Abraham to a new covenant. And as the Jewish pilgrim walks with Jesus, he is transformed. By the time they reach Golgotha, Simon is covered with the blood of Jesus, the sacrificial lamb.

Perhaps the film’s finest moment comes when Mary sees Jesus fall under the weight of the cross, races to help him and then remembers picking him up when he was a child. “I am here,” she whispers in her memory. “I am here,” she cries in that helpless moment halfway to Golgotha.

The moment is staggering and beautiful, reminding us that Jesus was somehow more than Mary’s savior. He was her little boy. And she watched them murder him.

The Passion is the only of these films in which God the Father makes something of an appearance. As Jesus gives up his spirit, the camera pulls away from the cross, skyward, heavenward, until we are high above Golgotha and literally given a God’s eye view of the scene. We don’t realize this until that dramatic moment when the screen unexpectedly blurs and a tear falls from heaven, opening the floodgates for a storm.

The Gospel of Matthew
Bruce Marchiano’s Jesus is what I imagine our savior to be—full of life, personable, fun and loving. He carries kids around and stoops down to play. He sounds unrehearsed but thoughtful. He is smart but not Spock-like, human but not carnal, divine but approachable.

Unlike Powell, Marchiano’s Jesus treats the apostles as friends, not as students. This Jesus is certain and serious about his mission. This Jesus captures the passion of being human without sullying his divinity: He resolutely faces down the teachers of law. His voice often grows hoarse thundering at the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and empty ritual. He beams with joy as he breaks the bread and pours out the wine to reveal a new covenant. He weeps over Jerusalem and Judas’ betrayal. And he carries his cross willingly.

The film closes, powerfully, with Jesus walking off into the distance, turning around to beckon us, and then raising his hand to underscore his victory over death.

Read an expanded version of this article here.