You can take the boy out of the church… but you can’t take the church out of the boy. On this Easter weekend – which is rapidly slipping away from me now – I’ll examine three very different presentations of the Gospel tale.
Hollywood did not have much luck with the story of Jesus during the 1960s. The possibilities for spectacle and drama were obvious – but in those days anything but a respectful treatment was unthinkable. More recent movies such as Constantine and Prophecy don’t deal directly with Christ, but they present fresh angles on the relationship between God and man. They are at least entertaining. And that was where most of the old Gospel epics failed. In their anxiety not to offend the film makers produced movies that were rather boring.
King of Kings, as I remembered it, was rather stolid; an unadventurous telling of the life of Christ. As it happens, I found on watching it again that Christ is kind of lucky to be in it at all. What with all the background history – the slaughter at the Temple by General Pompey in 63 BC, the Herod family and its numerous intrigues, the rebel demographic among the Jews – it’s as if Jesus was slotted in here and there to give the audience a break from the fight scenes.
The Gospels are reduced to a secondary source. Many of the miracles described by the Evangelists are condensed into a news report, read to dining Romans by the soldier Lucius(played by Sydney-born actor Ron Randell – you can pick up traces of his accent at times). Indeed the most miraculous aspect of the movie could be Lucius’s resistance to the aging process. He is the soldier ordered by Herod to kill all newborn sons; thirty years later he meets Jesus as a man. The only change in his appearance is a little grey in his hair. Frank Thring, another Australian expatriate, portrays Herod as a weak ruler, easily swayed by the beauty of his step-daughter Salome. Robert Ryan seems wooden as John The Baptist. He throws a stinging rebuke at Herod’s wife – formerly the wife of Herod’s brother – but lacks the charisma that I’d expect of a crowd-puller.
King of Kings was nicknamed ‘I Was A Teenage Jesus’ owing to the youthful appearance of Jeffrey Hunter. Jeff has his moments as Jesus but script and direction both restrain him. As he teaches the people how to pray, Hunter seems itching to let rip and get right into the oratory. But it’s left to the music to carry most of the drama… and something is lost.
The changes in attitude toward Christianity in the decade that followed King of Kings can’t be better demonstrated than by Robert Downey Senior’s 1971 film Greaser’s Palace. Downey mixes the Gospel story with the Old Testament, the Old West, and modern times. As Jesse, the singing tap-dancer on his way to Jerusalem, Alan Arbus doesn’t ascend into Heaven – he descends from it, parachuting into a field. The Holy Spirit, a bedsheet with eyeholes cut, presents him with a dead body and snaps ‘You’re on!’
For all its irreverence, the humour in Greaser’s Palace doesn’t feel forced. It’s a fractured fairy tale for grownups. The tragic balance falls upon Downey’s wife Elsie. In a Job-like role as a frontier woman, she suffers the loss of her family and torture. Jesse, moving through the territory dominated by Seaweedhead Greaser, performs miracles and suffers his own indignities. When the Old Man rides in
and says ‘It’s time’, Jesse tries to back out. But the cup will not be taken from his lips.
The film was scorned by critics but has lingered on, being rediscovered several times. This ain’t your father’s Bible story – but it does have something. Alan Arbus, for a start, is closer in appearance to the actual Jesus than probably any other actor who’s taken on the role.
In The Last Temptation of Christ we again have a blonde blue-eyed Jesus. But Christ here, portrayed by Willem Dafoe, is as far from the faces shown by Hunter and Arbus as they are from each other. On the screen as on the page this is a Christ who emerges as alive and truly human.
This was not an experience I had during my very Catholic upbringing. In my family we practised brute Catholicism: get taught by nuns and brothers, go to Mass every Sunday, and never ask any questions. I drifted from the flock because the flock was content and I was not. When I first saw The Last Temptation nearly thirty years ago I was close to tears: here at last was Jesus the man, sensing greatness within himself, exhilarated and also terrified by the prospect. This was the Jesus that the church had lost, burying the human under the divine. The flock confined thier devotions to an hour every week and gave up smoking every Lent.
Church groups were outraged in 1989 that Christ was shown fantasising on the cross about the life he might have led as a husband and a father. The movie was picketed in some places; I went to the Balwyn Cinema not only expecting confrontation but armed for it. I had the price of a ticket in my hand, ready to pay for any Godbotherer with the courage to accept the offer. Sad to report the theatre was picket-free.
It was reported that the movie served to kindle an interest in Christianity among those who were not religiously inclined. This would not have surprised Kazantzakis. As he wrote in the foreword,
Every man partakes of the divine nature in both his spirit and his flesh. That is why the mystery of Christ is not simply a mystery for a particular creed: it is universal. The struggle between God and man breaks out in everyone, together with the longing for reconciliation. Most often this struggle is unconscious and short-lived. A weak soul does not have the endurance to resist the flesh for very long. It grows heavy, becomes flesh itself, and the contest ends. But among responsible men, men who keep their eyes riveted day and night upon the Supreme Duty, the conflict between flesh and spirit breaks out mercilessly and may last until death.
So be it.