Seldom Seen on The Silver Screen


Even secular scholars agree that the birth of Jesus Christ is one of the defining moments of history. Yet cinematic recreations of the incident are strikingly few and far between.

Even secular scholars agree that the birth of Jesus Christ is one of the defining moments of history. Yet cinematic recreations of the incident are strikingly few and far between.

The paucity does not owe to film-makers avoiding religious subject matter — almost from the beginning they've made big bucks off of biblical epics. Rather, it seems to have more to do with various cultural, historical and, yes, marketing factors.

Initially, many Church leaders considered movies a low-brow art form, too crude and exploitative to deal with sacred subject matter. Several silent versions of Jesus' life were produced. But in 1912, papal decree forbade the showing of all movies about Christ in Catholic institutions.

Protestants took a different tack, seeing cinema as a tool of evangelization. But even back then, silent classics like D.W Griffith's Intolerance (1916) almost always dramatized Christ's crucifixion rather than his nativity. No reasons were ever given for these choices. However, it was the era of the modernist controversies involving issues of Jesus' divinity and humanity, and some film historians feared that a realistic, cinematic presentation of the divine birth might have stirred up the debate in a way that would have alienated even non-Catholic ticket-buyers at the time.

Catholic leaders eventually accepted movies as a legitimate art form. In 1927, believers of all denominations hailed Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings. Yet even this landmark silent film avoided the nativity, beginning its story with Mary Magdalene seeking out Jesus.

The coming of sound and the 1930 Hayes Production Code ushered in Hollywood's golden era of family films which ended with the code's demise in 1967. Yet during this time, when biblical epics flourished, fewer than a handful portrayed the nativity.


Most religiously themed movies of the period backed away almost completely from showing Christ's full humanity. Throughout an entire story in which he" was an important character, only his hand or foot would be revealed to the camera. Hits like The Last Days of Pompei (1935), Quo Vadis? (1951), The Robe (1953) and Ben-Hur (1959) revealed only a small part of his body at any one moment. His face was always concealed.

In 1961, director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) broke precedent in a remake of The King of Kings, dramatizing the nativity and showing the adult Jesus in full figure. The movie focuses on the political expectations raised by Christ's ministry and on the way in which he redefined the idea of the Messiah.

Words from the Gospel (Matthew 2:1) are used to introduce the three wise men who bring gifts to the stable. We get a brief look at the baby Jesus and the shepherds kneeling in adoration before the wise men's departure.

The nativity is one of the more perfunctory scenes in an otherwise imaginative, if uneven, movie. Christ's powers of healing are movingly displayed, but there's no mention of Jesus' divinity. We don't see Jesus' body after the resurrection, only his shadow when he encounters the disciples by the sea.


The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) presents a slightly longer version of the infancy narrative, but once again Jesus' birth isn't shown. The movie's narration begins with the opening words of the fourth Gospel (John 1:1-5) over classic paintings of incidents in Christ's life. The movie cuts to a bright star in an evening sky, and we hear a baby's cry. The star dissolves into the flame of a candle carried by a hooded figure in a dark stable. The camera pans to a close-up of a baby's arm. No one is identified.

Director George Stevens (Giant) cuts to a scene of the three wise men's meeting with Herod (Matthew 2:7-9). The king is depicted as a sick, angry man who walks with a cane. He orders his spies to follow them.

Shepherds are gathered outside the stable when the wise men arrive. Once again there's the sound of a baby crying. Over a shot of Mary looking silently out a window, words from the Gospel (Luke 1:35) describe the annunciation. We briefly glimpse the baby Jesus as the visitors present their gifts. The sight of Herod's spies on a nearby ridge frightens everyone.

The Greatest Story Ever Told is more traditional than The King of Kings in its chronicling of Christ's life. But despite many visually spectacular moments, its story is marred by wooden acting and a choppy narrative.

Jesus of Nazareth, a 1977 television miniseries now available on video, successfully dramatizes the idea of Christ as both man and God. Italian director Franco Zeffirelli (Tea With Mussolini) uses semi-documentary techniques to re-create the look and feel of the Holy Land during our Lord's lifetime.

The movie opens with a synagogue worship service attended by Joseph. The filmmaker allows us to get to know him, Mary and even Herod before he begins his version of the infancy narrative (Luke 1:26-56, 2:1-20; Matthew 1:18-25, 2:1-12). In tableaux reminiscent of Italian quattrocento paintings. we witness the Annunciation, Mary's visit to Elizabeth, the birth of John the Baptist and Joseph's decision not to abandon his wife.

During the journey to Bethlehem, Mary is shown to be very pregnant, suffering from labor pains. Zeffirelli intercuts between their trip and each of the three kings making their separate ways to Judea. They meet on the way and compare notes, informing us that in Bethlehem "a king will be born."

When Joseph is turned away from the inn, he remains calm, exhibiting simple faith. "God will help us," he reassures Mary, who's clearly in great physical discomfort. The movie invents the character of Abigail, a kind local woman who directs them to the caves used as stables on the outskirts of town.

Unlike the other filmmakers under discussion, Zeffirelli has the courage to show us the actual moment of Jesus' birth. In a memorable, realistic scene, we see Mary yelling in pain as she clutches the blanket on which she lies. She stops moving, We hear a baby's cry off-camera. Joseph smiles as Mary closes her eyes in exhaustion. He picks up the baby whom we see for the first time when he gently hands him to Mary.

"A beautiful child," exclaims Abigail who arrives to help. The shepherds enter the stable and tell how an angel appeared to them, proclaiming "a savior has been born."

Unlike the other films that tackle the subject, Jesus of Nazareth captures the beauty and wonder of Christmas in a way that has meaning for believers today. It's both reverent and dramatically satisfying.


John Prizer. "Seldom Seen on The Silver Screen." National Catholic Register. (May, 1999).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.

Copyright © 1999 National Catholic Register

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.