It wasn’t until 1961 that Hollywood created a film where Jesus actually spoke. Cecil B DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), had proved so popular at the end of the silent era, and censorship in the decades that followed was so overbearing, that no one dared to make a talking picture with Jesus in the leading role. Instead, films such as The Robe and Ben Hur placed him in the background of their stories.
All that changed in 1961 with the release of Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings. Filmed in Spain on a big budget and with a massive number of extras, the film was every bit the classic epic movie. In one corner were the Romans; in the other, Barabbas and the Zealots, with Jesus and his small band of followers caught somewhere in between.
Capturing the crowds with his message of peace, love and the brotherhood of man, Jesus was always destined to attract attention and get himself into trouble. Here, Judas is a Zealot who mistakes Jesus for the military leader he has been waiting for. But Judas’s plan – for an uprising during Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – fails, because Jesus is a Messiah of peace, not war. So Judas tries to force Jesus’ hand and betray him to the Romans.
Ray’s film was perhaps the first to take the historical context of first-century Judea seriously. The film starts by showing the capture of Jerusalem in 63BC, while the narrator, Orson Welles, explains the continuing enmity between the Romans and the Jews.
King of Kings proved a failure at the box office after the critics panned it. Chief among the complaints was its supposedly youthful Jesus, even though actor Jeffrey Hunter was 33 at the time it was made. Nevertheless, the failure of King of Kings didn’t prevent the making of another Hollywood Jesus movie just four years later. The Greatest Story Ever Told had an even bigger budget and a cast of A-list stars to boot, but the audience who had flocked to see the epics of the 1950s no longer seemed interested in big-budget Bible films.
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It’s “the greatest story ever told”, according to one famous movie title, and among these films is the alleged most watched film of all time. In these pages we review some of the most significant Jesus movies made over the past 50 years.
Written by Matt Page
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