The Resurrection is the heart of Christianity. Without a risen Savior, our faith is useless (1 Corinthians 15:14). All four Gospel accounts in the New Testament recount the crucifixion, death and burial of Christ, and all contain post-Resurrection accounts of Christ.

Any film adapted from a written work runs the risk of minimizing the impact of the original story, or distorting it beyond recognition. Yet filmmakers have not shied away from visualizing the crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. The five films described here—one each from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, and 2004—have fans and detractors, and each reveals similarities and distinctions in their depictions of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This recap of key sequences is designed to help readers decide which of the films might appeal to them, or whether particular embellishments to the Gospel accounts may be too much of a distraction for viewers.



BEN-HUR (1959)

Also known as Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, this film does not focus on the death of Christ until its final stretch. Judah, a slave, has gained his freedom but still remembers a kindness shown to him by a man who once offered him water in the midst of great physical anguish, but whose name he never learned.

After his release, Judah finds his mother and sister, only to discover that they have become lepers. Hearing that a man named Jesus can perform miracles, Judah brings them to Jerusalem, where he learns of the trial of the young Rabbi.

The film cuts to a scene of Jesus, his back to the camera (Jesus’ face is never clearly shown in the film), and we see Pontius Pilate physically washing his hands of Christ’s death. As he watches Jesus carry his cross, Judah says, “I know this man,” and a woman’s voice speaks the words, “In his pain, this look of peace.”

As Jesus carries his cross and stumbles, Judah returns the earlier favor of Jesus, bringing the Lord a cup of water. As he looks in Jesus’ eyes, we see Judah’s recognition dawn as he makes the connection to the man who once helped him. A subsequent shot shows Jesus laying on the cross, which rests on the ground. He’s filmed from above his head, looking down the length of his body (again, we don’t see Jesus’ face). Nails are driven into his feet, but a soldier’s hands obscure the blow. The cross is raised, filmed from behind, and the film then cuts to a distant shot of Jesus on the cross, showing him from the front but from such a distance that Jesus’ features are difficult to make out.

A conversation between Judah and the older Balthasar lays out the film’s theology, explaining the death of Christ in terms that are historically orthodox. “He has taken the world of our sins onto himself,” says the older man. “To this end he said he was born in that stable. … For this cause he came into the world.”

The day grows dark, as we see one of the leprous women declare, “I’m not afraid anymore.” They realize that Jesus has died. As the wind howls and lightning and thunder crash down, the women discover they have been healed. Later, Judah confides in one woman, “Almost the moment he died, I heard him say, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. And I felt his voice take the sword out of my hand.” A shot of a hill with three crosses is the film’s closing image.


KING OF KINGS (1961)

Nicholas Ray directed this 171-minute retelling of the story of Christ’s life, which features narration from Orson Welles. Unlike the cautious treatment of Ben-Hur, which never shows the face of Jesus in close-up, King of Kings shows Jesus at every turn. Played by the blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter, this Jesus is a matinee idol.