Directors who wanted to make Jesus movies

Many filmmakers — and many people who aren’t normally known for making films, such as Johnny Cash — have been fortunate enough to produce their own cinematic interpretations of the life of Christ. But there is a long list of filmmakers who have wanted to film the story of Jesus, but never got the chance to do so.

John McCabe, in his biography of Charlie Chaplin, writes:

Although unhappy with the First National management, Chaplin was intrigued by the company’s widely publicized acquisition in 1924 of Giovanni Papini’s best-selling Life of Christ. First National proposed to film the book in 1925 with an awesome budget. Chaplin invited Colleen and several First National bigwigs to lunch at his studio. He asked Robert Leiber, president of First National, if it was true the company had bought the Papini book. Leiber admitted it, and Chaplin said urgently, “I want to play the role of Jesus.” Everyone was stunned. “I’m a logical choice,” said Chaplin. “I look the part, I’m a Jew, and I’m a comedian.” He amplified that by saying that good comedy and good tragedy were a hairline apart. “And I’m an atheist, so I’d be able to look at the character objectively. Who else could do that?” His auditors were still in mild shock when Chaplin reached his arms up above his head, clenched his fists, and shouted, “There is no God! If there is one, I dare Him to strike me dead!” The visitors sat congealed. These Robert Ingersoll histrionics … were seriously consummated.

Paul Verhoeven has wanted to make a film about Christ for years, and his treatment of the subject may or may not be influenced in any significant way by his affiliation with the Jesus Seminar.

And of course, Carl Theodor Dreyer wrote an extensive script for a never-filmed life-of-Jesus project, which was published in 1972 and is now a prized possession among Dreyer fans, as is another book which collects some of his correspondence on the subject.

Last night, I discovered another such director. I was checking out the extras on the Criterion edition of The Battle of Algiers (1966), and in a 1992 documentary narrated by Edward Said, director Gillo Pontecorvo talks about his “impotence” when it comes to committing to new projects, and along the way he states:

I wanted to do a film on the story of Christ. But the film I’d written with a sociologist — not a screenwriter — was a film about Palestine of those times. It was a very meticulous film, full of stones, dust, problems — a collective drama. The American producers wanted me to use professional actors. I wanted to use unknown people, not because in general I prefer working with non-actors, but because the smell of truth I wanted demanded real faces, Latin faces, Mediterranean faces, desperate faces. And so I refused to make the film. Another mistake I regretted — but one always thinks about it later.

I don’t know if Pontecorvo intended to shoot the film with the same cinéma vérité style that he used on The Battle of Algiers — how would you shoot realistic “newsreel” footage of an event that took place nearly 2,000 years before the invention of newsreels? — but at any rate, I’m sure it would have been interesting.

Anyone know of any other frustrated Jesus movie-makers?

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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