Jesus' Death and Resurrection as Portrayed on Film
- Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2008 3 Mar
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.
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.
In the film’s garden of Gethsemane sequence, Jesus prays the words “My father” before collapsing to the group, then starting again. “Not as I will, but as you will,” he says, just as the crowd arrives with Judas, who kisses the Lord. There is no comment about the kiss. Peter subsequently denies Christ, and a rooster crows. He denies Christ again, and then denies Jesus face to face. While looking into Jesus’ eyes, Peter hears a rooster crow.
For the trial, Pilate peppers Jesus with aggressive questions. “Are you a king?” he asks. Jesus replies, “It is your own lips that have called me king.”
“Then you are a king,” Pilate says.
“I was born and came into this world to give testimony to the truth,” Jesus says.
“What is truth? … Can there not be more than one truth?” Pilate counters.
“There is only one truth, and it is written in the commandments: Be true to God,” Jesus says.
In a later scene, Pilate’s wife expresses skepticism of the case against Jesus. We then watch as Jesus is whipped, his face contorted. Workers assemble a cross, and a soldier makes a crown of thorns, which he places on Jesus’ head.
We hear Christ being nailed to the cross (this occurs offscreen). Someone says of Jesus, “The man is dying in my place. Why should he do that?” As Jesus is lifted up, he prays, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”
Two thieves also being crucified exchange words with Jesus. The Lord promises the repentant one that he will be with Jesus in Paradise, then looks down to Mary and says, “Woman, behold your son.”
With two rivulets of blood on his face, Jesus says, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” but the recitation is dispassionate. “It is finished,” Jesus says. “Father, into your hands I commend my soul.” As the sky darkens and thunder is heard, a centurion says, “He is truly the Christ.”
Welles’ narration then explains Jesus’ placement in a tomb. We see the tomb, as several people exit it and a stone rolls over the opening. We don’t see who, or how many people, push the stone over the opening.
Cut to a shot of Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb. Seeing it empty, she runs out. A man with his back to her turns and calls her by name. She recognizes Jesus, who tells her not to touch him but to tell the disciples than he will ascend to the Father. They will see him in Galilee.
Welles, in narration, says Christ was seen by those who “knew he was the Lord God.” The disciples are shown on a shore, looking at the risen Jesus, who we hear—but don’t see—as he commands them to go and preach the gospel. “I am with you always, even to the end of the world,” we hear Jesus say, and as the disciples walk offscreen, the shadow Christ falls across a line in the sand, forming a cross image.
JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)
This popular mini-series is cast with British actors, including Robert Powell as Jesus. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, the film is dull but reverent, and it has been considered one of the finer treatments of the life of Christ on film.
The Gethsemane sequence shows Peter asleep, while Jesus prays that the cup pass from him “if it is possible.” When Judas shows up, Jesus says, “This is your hour, Judas. The hour of shadows.” Judas is shown interacting with Jesus’ captors, clearly torn by his decision.
Before Caiaphas, Jesus answers questions with full, eloquent sentences. Everyone in the Sanhedrin has a British accent. Asked if he is the Messiah, Jesus says, “I am, and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the power of God.” Caiaphas, hearing the response, tears his clothes and proclaims, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one!”
Peter denies Christ three times in quick succession. Judas is shown hanging from a tree, with his silver pieces scattered on the ground beneath him.
As Jesus is whipped, soldiers taunt him. “King of the Jews,” they say mockingly, as they laugh. A soldier makes a thorn of crowns and places it on Jesus, who approaches Pilate, body bleeding, but able to walk with little problem on his own.
A crowd strategizes to have Barabbas released instead of Christ. Jesus’ mother, in the crowd, screams his name when Pilate asks whom he should release, but she is slapped and called a “slut.” Pilate is clearly reluctant to carry out the death sentence against Jesus.
Jesus carries a beam on his back. Nails are shown going into his palms, and the beam is then raised and attached to an already erected post. Jesus hangs from the cross, his body nearly blood-free, and says, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” The two thieves being crucified with Jesus converse with him, and Christ promises the one who asks to be remembered that “today you will be with me in Paradise.” He says to John, “Behold your mother,” and to Mary, “Behold your son.” Then, although he has spoken English throughout the film, he cries out, in Hebrew, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani!” (English translation: “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”) Onlookers quote Isaiah 53. Jesus, looking directly into the camera, says “Into thy hands, I commit my spirit. It is accomplished.”
Mary is shown with the body of her son—a pieta pose. Those responsible for Jesus’ death discuss rumors that Jesus might rise from the dead, and a case is made for guarding Jesus’ tomb.
Three women on their way to Jesus’ tomb encounter an angel who asks them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Mary Magdalene arrives where the disciples have gathered and tells them “I have seen him! He is risen.” She is greeted with skepticism. “Women’s fantasies,” says one disciple, but Peter embraces her story and accuses the other disciples of betraying Jesus.
Jesus is shown explaining that it is written that he must suffer and die. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says to the disciples. “Go like lambs among wolves. Make disciples of all the nations. … Now I am leaving the world again. I am going to the Father.”
Looking into the camera, Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. I am with you every day, until the end of time.” The film cuts to its final shot—and empty tomb.
More than 20 years after Zeffirelli’s mini-series, CBS aired director Roger Young’s story of Christ’s life, starring Jeremy Sisto in the title role. Hailed by some critics as a breakthrough that emphasized Jesus’ humanity, the two-part TV movie includes some unusual interpretations of Christ’s life.
In the garden, Jesus prays, saying he’s “so afraid,” at which point Satan appears and tempts Jesus with images of the future. “You’ve seen crucifixion, but you’ve never felt it,” he says, telling Jesus his death would be “all in vain.”
Satan shows Jesus the Crusades, with men shouting “In the name of Jesus Christ!” as they attack and kill their enemies. He also shows Jesus images of modern warfare. “You can stop it tonight. End poverty. End war,” Satan says.
Jesus informs Satan that God gives man freedom of choice, then he says, “I forgive you,” to Satan.
“I don’t want your forgiveness,” Satan replies.
Judas shows up and betrays Jesus with a kiss. Peter denies Christ. On trial, Jesus is asked, “Do you claim to be the Son of God?”
“It is you who says it,” Jesus responds.
“Blasphemy!” the interrogators reply.
Peter denies Christ, then sees Jesus and hears a rooster crow.
Pilate tries to release Jesus, but the crowd favors Barabbas. Pilate orders Jesus flogged. We see Jesus filmed from above as he’s whipped, his face in agony. Cut to a scene of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, blood on his face and chest. Pilate washes his hands, says he’s innocent of Jesus’ blood, and orders, “Crucify him.”
Jesus wrists are nailed to the cross, but in this television film, the camera cuts away from the blows. A platform is provided for his feet, “so that he will die slower” an onlooker explains. Jesus is shown between two other people being crucified, but no comment is made about those men.
“My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus says. “Father, into your hands I commend your spirit.” As Jesus dies, a huge stone structure is shaken and begins to disintegrate. Rain falls, and thunder is heard. A pieta image is followed by a scene of four men carrying Jesus’ body, wrapped in cloth. A stone is rolled over Jesus’ grave by three people. In the next scene, a woman arrives at the grave, sees the stone moved away, and informs the disciples that Jesus’ body has been taken. Two disciples arrive. “He is risen!” one proclaims. The other doubts, but then believes. They run to tell others.
Jesus appears to Mary from the bushes and says her name. She recognizes and embraces him. “You must let me go now, for I have not ascended to my Father,” Jesus tells her.
Thomas, hearing that Jesus has risen, expresses doubt. “Did you see the wounds in his wrists?” he asks. Jesus appears, saying to him, “Put your finger here.” Without doing so, Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus gives the Great Commission, turns and vanishes, and the film ends.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ emphasizes Jesus’ physical suffering. Based in part on the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich and her interpretation of the passion of Jesus Christ, the film features an androgynous Satan figure who appears several times.
Beginning with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, The Passion of the Christ shows Jesus confronting Satan in the garden, being betrayed by Judas with a slow-motion kiss and restoring a soldier’s severed ear.
Played by Jim Caviezel, this Jesus wears suffering and anguish on his face as he undergoes intense spiritual and physical torment. The scourging of Jesus is extremely bloody and sadistic, but he endures it and embraces the cross, praying for strength from his Father to fulfill his mission. He receives help in carrying his cross, and is offered water and a towel by a young girl. The film intercuts other flashbacks of Jesus preaching, and of the last supper, as well as his mother remembering how she ran to him when he stumbled as a young boy.
A nail enters his palm. Blood drips from the nails as they exit the other side of the wood. His ankles are hammered to the cross, which has not yet been raised. The cross is turned on its side, as the nails are hammered down on the back side of the wood.
Hanging near Jesus, a thief confesses and asks to be remembered in the kingdom. Mary says, “My son, let me die with you.”
“It is accomplished,” Jesus says. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
A teardrop falls, the earth quakes, and the Temple splits in two. Soldiers break the ankles of the thieves, but seeing that Jesus already appears to have died, they pierce his side, causing blood and water to pour out.
Satan is shown screaming in agony. A pieta is followed by a shot of a stone rolling away, and an empty sheet. Jesus, in profile and bathed in light, stands, a hole in his palm clearly visible.
Each of these films takes liberties with the Gospels, and each has been both admired and condemned by Christians. Yet the story of Christ continues to be filmed. From the reverent, biblical epics of the 1950s to The Passion of the Christ, the power of Christ’s suffering and the joy of his triumph over death continue to be the greatest story ever told.
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