Jesus and His Movies
by Phil Boatwright

Jesus, retitled The Jesus Film, has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “Most Translated Film” in history (more than 1,200 languages). Celebrating its 35th anniversary, Cinedigm and Mission Home Video have added a new musical score, plus digitally re-mastered the production frame by frame for both DVD and Blu-ray.

I don’t know how this one from 1979 got past me, but I had never seen this particular screen adaptation of Jesus’ life. Finally viewing it recently, I discovered that while other versions have been bolder in their Hollywood sensationalism, still The Jesus Film engaged me and warmed my spirit throughout the night.

Admittedly, “Jesus” movies aren’t my favorite. It’s indeed a case of the book being better than the movie. I guess my main problem with these productions is that it is so difficult to cast a man, no matter how talented the actor, to play the Son of God. How does one capture the magnetism, the compassion, the wisdom, and the God-like qualities that attracted a following who would help change the world? I have always preferred films that revealed the effect Christ had on individuals, rather than focusing on an actor playing a man who was also God. Ben Hur and The Robe come to mind. In those films we see the spiritual change Jesus brought to the world.

In Ben Hur, for example, the story of Christ serves as the backdrop for this epic adventure of a Jew sold into slavery only to find freedom after becoming a gladiator. The ending uplifts as we see Christ's impact on the lives of the house of Hur. That film contains one of the most penetrating lines I’ve ever heard spoken in movies, as the newly converted gladiator states: “And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.”

Each screen recounting of the greatest story ever told has its spiritual strengths and cinematic weaknesses. I’ve listed several of these movies below, with my take on them.

The Jesus Film failed to move me on a thematic level as much as some other screen attempts, many scenes failing to do more than present an elementary representation of each parable. But the ending contains a powerful evangelical message that made viewing this production a worthwhile experience. I kept thinking of those unfamiliar with Jesus as Messiah. For them this may be the best of the Jesus films, for it maps out his ministry and makes it clear that he knew who he was and what he was meant to do.

From the Publicity Notes: “The Jesus Film is a faithful depiction of Christ's birth, ministry, death and resurrection as told in the biblical account from the Gospel of Luke. Virtually every word Jesus speaks in The Jesus Film is quoted from Scripture, with 450 leaders and scholars having reviewed the script for biblical accuracy. Further historical accuracy was ensured using clothing, pottery and other props made with first-century methods to portray a 2,000-year-old Palestinian culture.”

Although some may find fault with the interpretations of a few depicted incidents, I think most Christians will argue that it does well in telling the unsaved about our Savior, and brightens the Believer’s path with a reminder of God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice. (G)


Jesus of Nazareth (1977 TV-miniseries). Franco Zeffirelli's epic production of the life of Christ is considered by many as the best film about the Son of Man. It is acclaimed for its thorough biblical and historical research and contains many memorable performances, including those of Robert Powell, Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, and Laurence Olivier. Its length (371 min.) will take a couple evenings to view, but I recommend the effort.

King of Kings (1961). Jeffrey Hunter stars as Jesus, with an all-star cast and narration by Orson Welles. Though big on pageantry, it lacks the artistry of Zeffirelli’s version. Still, it has its moving moments and a musical score that stirs our emotions. (PG-13)

The Passion of the Christ (2004). Mel Gibson’s brutal, yet undeniably artistic rendering of the final hours of Christ’s life blew away skeptics when it earned over $350 million at the box office. Aided by superb cinematography, lighting, music, some dynamic special effects and Jim Caviezel’s sincere and muted performance, director Gibson brought a mood and sensitivity never before captured when telling the story of the Christ. Justly rated R for its graphic depiction of scourging, piercing, beating, and crucifixion, The Passion of the Christ is meant to shock, unnerve, and clarify the ordeal of Christ’s sacrifice. But Mr. Gibson’s film, while showing the physical horrors Christ endured, is not really about what mankind did to Him, but about what He did for us. (R)

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Max von Sydow (of Swedish descent) heads an all-star cast in this grandiose, if overly long (199 min) version directed by George Stevens. Although the story of Christ can’t be topped, this film version can. Cameos by stars just get in the way. Love the Duke, but John Wayne as a Roman centurion?! (G)

The Miracle Maker (2000). With the use of claymation and graphically striking two-dimensional animation, ABC brought the story of Jesus to television Easter Sunday, 2000. Now on DVD, it concerns a sick little girl who encounters Jesus through different stages of His life, giving us a remarkably accurate retelling of Christ’s ministry. We are finding that often animation’s most important strength is in its ability to avoid the familiarity of the actors playing pivotal historical roles and focus the attention on the importance of what is being said by their characters. That attempt works effectively in this production. (G)

Son of God (2014). Taken from the made-for-TV miniseries The Bible, which aired in 2013 on the History Channel, it attempts a comprehensive representation of Jesus’ ministry. Alas, it’s long (138 min.), and it doesn’t always flow. Quite honestly, the first half of the film did little to inspire me. But despite the cinematic weaknesses, about halfway through, I started to get involved and found several sequences that completely engaged me. (PG-13)

And what of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, you may well ask? Amid its many scriptural lapses, the filmmakers had Jesus questioning His objective. By studying the Scriptures, it is impossible to come to the conclusion that Jesus was unaware of who He was or His mission. So to portray Him otherwise is misguided. Christ said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NIV). With everything He said and did, that assertion rang loudly, and with authority. (R)