I went to school with Jesus a blue-eyed hunk. Through my classroom window I’d watch Him practice fast drawing his Colt six-guns and and pretend to crumple under an imaginary hail of bullets. The Christ was Jeffrey Hunter a theatre arts major at UCLA.
He played Our Lord in Nicholas Ray’s 1961 woebegone King of Kings a.k.a. I Was A Teenage Jesus. Young actors have to grab the gigs offered so I can’t blame handsome Jeff, by all accounts a decent fella, for committing the same theological error as scores of previous Jesus impersonators who played the Lamb of God as a simp, a dweeb, a nerd. You know the drill, eyes rolling heavenwards, forgiving our sins, and strolling about the streets of Jerusalem on his way to Golgotha in s.l.o. m.o.t.i.o.n. (Realist note: well who wouldn’t stumble and crawl carrying that heavy wooden Cross?)
March 5 is Ash Wednesday the start of Lent the 40-day period when good Christians fast, pray and prepare for Easter.
The religious season always catches me by surprise. I never quite register it’s Easter or Passover until Ben Hur shows up on my TV screen.
Hunker down, because 2014 is the year of the Bible. The trendsetter for 21st century faith-based movies was Mel Gibson’s blood-drenched, the-Jews-did-it surprise hit The Passion of the Christ grossing $600 million worldwide. Oh, wow, who knew religious movies could break out to a mass audience?
Cecil B. DeMille knew, but even he might wonder at the planned huge budgets and spectacular computer FX of, say, Ridley Scott’s upcoming Exodus with Christian Bale as Moses, Russell Crowe as Noah, and the soon-to-be-released Mary, Mother of Christ with Peter O’Toole (r.i.p.) as a prophet. The heavily promoted The Son of God, hacked from a 10-hour History Channel series, is doing fabulous business.
Also “under consideration”, which is Hollywood-speak for if we get the upfront money, is Will Smith on Cain and Abel; Brad Pitt as the evil Pontius Pilate; the hardy perennial David and Goliath, and more Moses movies. And all sorts of Christian-indie moves aimed at the niche faithful.
It’s a throwback to the nervous 1950s when, under an atomic cloud, producers made and audiences flocked to ever-reliable Charlton Heston as Moses in the The Ten Commandments, and our closeted gay hero in the whipcracking chariot race in Ben-Hur. Back then frightened people found consolation in Wide Screen certainties.
I grew up on Cecil B. DeMille’s passionately emotional, sexually provocative “awe inspiring” Christian extravaganzas like The Sign of the Cross, The Crusades, and Samson and Delilah. In George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, John Wayne plays a centurion. His one line in the picture is: “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” Wayne kept stumbling so Stevens told him, “Duke, what we need in this line is something more. Look up at (Jesus) and give us some awe.” When the cameras rolled Wayne said, “Awww, truly this man was the Son of God.” Duke liked telling this story on himself.
Even though I’m Jewish I was a bit of Jesus freak as a kid and then once again when the religious flu was pandemic in the Sacred Sixties. I even tried living in a monastery but it was so hygienic I fled as from the Devil. My personal vision of Jesus always has been radical, argumentative and neurotic – probably how Herod and Pontius Pilate saw the weird 30 year old rabbi at the time. In other words, He was a lively and accessible person.
(Moses is another story, as are those hyper-gloomy nun movies like Black Narcissus and The Magdalene Sisters always excepting Whoopi as a rockin’ Mother Inferior.)
I’m not sure exactly what turned me away from God but very likely an indecently early exposure to God-fearing movies helped. This includes even attempts by serious film makers like Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ with a sanctimonious Willem Dafoe and the gay Communist Pasolini’s The Passion of St. Matthew where Jesus really does walk on the water.
There comes this moment when you’re sitting in the theatre or watching on Netflix, and the market is about to flooded with piety, and you’re suddenly banged on the head, as by a Zen master, by the irreverent ghosts of American freethinkers like Robert Ingersoll, Lenny Bruce and the Tom Paine who said “I do not believe in … any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church.”
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.