3 Betrayals of Christ Onscreen

Doubt, unbelief and mockery are on display in three depictions of Our Lord that are often Holy Week viewing fare.

Clockwise from left: Jesus is portrayed in ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told ,’ ‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’
Clockwise from left: Jesus is portrayed in ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told ,’ ‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ (photo: United Artists; Titanus Distribuzione; Universal Pictures)

The task of showing divinity on screen is beyond human talent. 

However, from the Silent Era onwards, that has not stopped each succeeding era of filmmakers trying to present Christ to cinema audiences. The curious thing is that each generation’s depiction tells us more about the creators than the Creator. 

This is especially the case of films made in the period known to us as “The Sixties” — a time period from the early 1960s through the early 1970s. During that period, there were three cinematic representations of Christ: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964); The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965); and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Each of these films tells us more about the times in which they were made than the Gospels. And, in its own way, each film betrays Our Lord.

The biblical epic was a genre that had been popular at the box office since the end of the Second World War, notably in films such as The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben Hur (1959). 

The filming of The Greatest Story began in 1962 and continued into the summer of the following year. By then, director George Stevens had amassed six million feet of film; and the film’s budget ran to $20 million (equivalent to $169 million in 2020), making it the most expensive film yet shot in the United States. 

Unlike many of the biblical epics of the previous decade, The Greatest Story was a box-office flop when it was released in 1965. Critically, it was mocked, judged to have the bloated hallmarks of too many Hollywood epics of that era — whether biblical or not — namely, overlong, overwrought, high in spectacle, low in storytelling, and, therefore, ultimately trying the patience of both critics and audiences alike. Shana Alexander in Life summed up the film for many when she wrote, “The pace was so stupefying that I felt not uplifted — but sandbagged!”

Max Von Sydow’s Christ is played as the Man of Sorrows. It is a depiction that dwells too much on the sorrows, too little on the joys: The ultimate joy of the Gospel is wholly missing. 

Von Sydow’s performance is much like that in his previous roles in films in collaboration with the acclaimed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. These films had made von Sydow an international film star, yet Bergman’s cinematic universe is one filled with doubt and despair. His somber movies are introspective affairs, with characters often engaging with complex issues revolving around the loss of faith, so it is not surprising that it seems as if von Sydow’s portrayal of Christ in The Greatest Story suggests a Lutheran pastor who has, or who is, losing his faith. 

One could argue that the portrayal of a “historic Jesus” as opposed to the Lord Christ was in keeping with centuries of what has come to be known as the “Higher Criticism of the Bible.” Also known as “the historical-critical method,” this was a way of examining the Scriptures in order to uncover what was “originally meant” through judging them against the time and culture from which they had emerged. This approach exalts a secular perspective while denying any supernatural inspiration for Scripture. 

For many in mainstream Protestant churches, this form of scholarship chipped away at belief, especially in the divine origin of the Scriptures. There are shades of this approach in The Greatest Story, a film good on historical detail but, ultimately, uninspiring in confirming Christian faith. 

While The Greatest Story was being assembled in the editing room, another, and altogether different, version of the life of Christ was being shot in Italy. The Gospel According to St. Matthew was filmed in a matter of months in 1964. Unlike The Greatest Story’s big budget and gleaming Technicolor, this Italian film was shot cheaply on monochrome film. 

The film’s director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was a self-confessed Marxist, atheist and homosexual, so his view of the Gospel narrative was never going to be straightforward. In the end, his presentation of Christ is an odd mix of the miraculous — or is it simply the bizarre? — with an even odder mixture of belief and unbelief coalescing. 

The director would later have this to say of what he created, “I did not reconstruct Christ such as he actually was. If I had reconstructed Christ's history as it actually was, I would not have made a religious film, since I am not a believer. I do not think Christ was God’s Son. … I want to re-mythologize. … My film is the life of Christ after 2,000 years of stories on the life of Christ. That is what I had in mind.” 

Not surprisingly, the Gospel account is drained of any power, any mystery and any transcendence. The audience is left with a European arthouse film that, with panache and flair, provokes and challenges artistically but that, in terms of faith, is empty. Onscreen, Pasolini manages to turn the greatest story ever known into seemingly a fable ceaselessly reiterated. 

To that end, the film chimed nicely with the prevailing taste then for demythologizing common in biblical studies and expressed in such popular publications as Hugh Schonfield’s best-selling The Passover Plot (1965). The thrust of this book suggests that while something happened 2,000 years ago, it was not what the Catholic Church had hitherto told you. Instead, the book posits the idea of cognoscenti who know better. Furthermore, if you read this latest book, the author suggests, debunking what Christians have believed for two millennia, then you, too, can become initiated. A new strain of Gnosticism was at large. 

The final film that closes the era is Jesus Christ Superstar. A musical hit on Broadway, by 1973, it was released as a film. In that movie, Christ is now no longer divine, but “a song-and-dance man.” His message, as it is portrayed, is that of a well-intentioned if muddled individual; his followers are more a hippie commune than apostles; Christ’s death, sad though it is, is without obvious meaning. There is no Resurrection in this film. Why would there be? This “Jesus” claims nothing, proclaims nothing and, in the end, signifies nothing. 

One of the cast members was later to say, “We were all hippies; we were all kids. … We were all reading the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ.” That 1908 work by Levi Dowling had found a new readership in The Sixties. The book claims Gnostic “revelations” into the life of Christ, telling of “the missing years” spent by Our Lord in India and elsewhere. The book is a strange brew of astrology and theosophy, interspersed with questionable historical reference — and served up as truths until then obscured. 

At best, a fringe curiosity, at worst a devilish distraction, Aquarian Gospel had found a new audience as the bogus “Age of Aquarius,” the spurious idea that by the end of the 1960s some “new age” was dawning, was welcomed. It is not surprising that Dowling’s book was so popular among the cast of Superstar, as what Our Lord was being reduced to onscreen was little more than a New Age hippie. 

The Sixties began with the cinematic doubts expressed in The Greatest Story, before giving way to the outright atheism of The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which, in turn, were surpassed by the New Age usurpation of Christ and his teaching in Superstar

Anti-Christ one and all: The betrayal and rejection of Judas was the cornerstone of The Gospel According to St. Matthew; the doubts and self-serving judgment of Pilate was found throughout The Greatest Story Ever Told; and the mockery of Herod threaded through every line of Jesus Christ Superstar. All had found an echo and, indeed, a place upon the silver screen of what has become known as The Sixties.