Every year during Lent, just as we do during Advent, the Hadleys spend the last couple of weekends watching seasonal movies. Whereas Christmas movies tend to emphasize the secular nature of the holiday (even though in many of them a spiritual component lurks somewhere under the surface - Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, We're No Angels, Holiday Inn, Going My Way, etc.), with Easter movies there's no avoiding the central theme of the season.
This year's choices were no exception - Ben-Hur, The Robe, King of Kings, and Parsifal. I'll deal with Parsifal in a separate post, but for the first time this year I was struck by a commonality that ran through the other three movies. Perhaps it was because of our double viewing of Passion of the Christ last year, but even though I've seen these other movies several times, this was the first time I'd noticed that there is virtually no discussion as to the underlying cause of the Crucifixion.
In Ben-Hur, this is probably no surprise. After all, the true story is Judah Ben-Hur's (Charlton Heston) struggle to survive slavery, revenge himself against Messala (Stephen Boyd), and find his imprisoned mother and sister. The Passion, although it plays a pivotal role inthe movie, takes place mostly in the background. We're convinced of the cruelity of the Romans (except for Ben-Hur's adopted father Quintus Arrius, played magnificently and movingly by Jack Hawkins) and it goes without saying that they bear the ultimate responsibility for Jesus' death - but we don't see any of the political machinations that accompany it. This was the first year that we'd seen Ben-Hur on DVD, and because we're so familiar with the movie we decided to watch it with the commentary track, provided by Heston. The DVD also features a Making Of documentary, and it is through these extras that we learn how the overt religious elements of the movie were "toned down" in comparison to the numerous stage versions and the silent version that had been made some years before. This was news to me, because I thought the religious message of the Crucifixion was clear. We see Jesus on the Cross (from the back; director William Wyler chose not to show the face of the actor playing Him, Claude Heater), we see the storm raging at the moment of His death, His blood running down the Cross and mixing with the water on the ground, the same water that cleanses and heals Ben-Hur's leperous mother and sister. Doesn't seem to get more clear-cut than that. I suppose what they meant was that the movie dealt with this more subtly than in previous religious epics, which, truth be told, could get a little over-the-top.
However, while Ben-Hur tells the story of this Jewish family's life, King of Kings tells the story of one Jew in particular - Jesus. (There's a wonderful side story that Heston tells in his autobiography about appearing as John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told, which we didn't watch this year. Told by his agent that it was the lead part, he replied that he could guarantee that John would not be the lead role in any movie named The Greatest Story Ever Told.) Jeffrey Hunter does a pretty good job playing Jesus, although he tends to be overshadowed by Miklos Rozsa's dazzling score. There's always been some snickering about Hunter's "blue-eyed Jesus," but for my money he plays the part convincingly. There's also an intriguing secondary story about Barabbas (a scenery-chewing Harry Guardino) and Judas (a reserved Rip Torn), and the idea that Judas' motive for betraying Jesus was to force Him to become the earthly king in order to save Himself - not realizing until it's too late that you don't get very far by forcing the Savior's hand. This story does suggest the political in-fighting and the resentment by radical Jews when they realized Jesus wasn't intending to establish His Kingdom by force. However, the focus is again on the Romans and their suspicions that Jesus is a troublemaker. He worries Pilate (Hurd Hatfield), a man who himself has designs on becoming Caesar. Pilate's spy Lucius (Ron Randell), a Centurian who treats Jesus and John with compassion in sporadic meetings with them, and who comes eventually to believe in Him, reports back on the ferment Jesus is creating with His preaching. Lucius is eventually appointed a kind of "public defender" in Jesus' trial, since Jesus won't speak on His own behalf. Christ's Way of the Cross, needless to say, pales a bit in comparison to the version seen in Passion.
Finally we have The Robe, more of a love story than anything else; the story of the Roman soldier Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) responsible for the Crucifixion of Jesus. He also wins Christ's Robe when they cast lots for it, but winds up going mad when confronted with the Robe. His love Diana (Jean Simmons) convinces Tiberius to give mad Marcellus a break, and Tiberius orders Marcellus back to the Holy Land to find and destroy the Robe, which was taken by Marcellus' runaway slave Demetrius (Victor Mature). The thought is that destroying the Robe will break it's mysterious spell and return Marcellus to health. Well, you probably know the rest of the story: Marcellus is befriended by Christians and finds out they aren't so bad after all, he is reunited with Demetrius (who in the meantime has joined forces with Peter) and is cured by the Robe, and winds up converting to Christianity himself. He then winds up being captured by the evil Caligula (Jay Robinson), who gives Marcellus a choice: deny Christ and live, or worship Him and die. Marcellus chooses Christ, Diana chooses Marcellus and Christ, and both of them walk a path to the firing squad that becomes a stroll to the Pearly Gates. It's easy to make fun of this movie, the first ever made in widescreen, but it is a visually rich film, with music that alternates between overbearing and sensitive, some fine action scenes, and as one critic says, the story of the conversion of Marcellus can be inspiring. What is missing, however, glaring - the role the Jews played in the death of Christ. From the beginning it is the Romans who tracked Christ down, who wanted to rid the kingdom of this troublemaker, and Pilate is assigned the sole responsibility for what happens.
It's kind of hard to know what to make of all this. Some will, no doubt, point out that Jews wielded power in the Hollywood studios of that era; and this may well be true, although one risks the spectre of anti-Semeticism by raising it. Perhaps the movies of the '50s and '60s were already shying away from assigning blame to the Jews for the death of Jesus, which the Catholic Church would formally declare in the '60s. Even today, as we read the story of the Passion in the Masses of Palm Sunday and Good Friday, many Missals remind us that the Church does not hold the Jewish people as a race responsible for the Crucifixion. Pilate, after all, could have done more than wash his hands, couldn't he? (I wonder if Pilate is the patron saint, as it were, of the modern American judiciary?) Ultimately this entire observation of mine is probably more interesting than it is important.
It does, however, illuminate the controversy that engulfed Passion of the Christ last year. If all you know of religion is what you see in the movies, you're probably woefully uneducated as to the entire story of the death of Christ. If you consider yourself primarily a member of a special interest group, you undoubtedly see finger-pointing everywhere you look. I was never a member of the "blame the Jews" movement, if indeed there is a widespread one among reasonable people, but watching Passion and then watching this year's Easter parade of movies did demonstrate one thing to me - that the Golden Age of movies, like so many other golden ages, isn't always all it's cracked up to be. These great old movies of the past, and they were great ones, still didn't give you the entire story. Which, hopefully, is one reason why serious filmmakers still make movies.