Easter movies and Zeffirelli’s afterthought

Easter movies and Zeffirelli’s afterthought March 26, 2005

Happy Easter to those of you on the western liturgical calendar!

I’ve been on the eastern calendar since meeting my wife just over two years ago, and while the two calendars do occasionally sync up — as they did last year — it is more common for Holy Week to come a wee bit later for the Orthodox than it does for Catholics and Protestants. (This year, Pascha takes place way off on May 1!) So, with all this Easter buzz in the air outside my church but no celebration of it inside my church just yet, I naturally think of movies — specifically, of watching life-of-Jesus movies.

Two years ago, I watched Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961) — the first major studio film about the life of Christ produced since the silent era — and was so distracted by how much of the movie Jesus was not in that I began timing the length of his appearances; and yes, it turns out he is in less than half of that film’s running time. Less than half! Apparently the filmmakers were so unsure how to depict Christ that they did so as little as possible.

Last year, of course, was the year of The Passion, and I ended up watching or re-watching lots of other Jesus movies as well, as research for the various Passion-themed articles I was working on. I specifically remember sitting through all six-and-a-half hours of Franco Zeffirelli’s mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977) just so I could add a paragraph on that film to my essay on subjective and objective perspectives in Jesus films — and take it from me, that mini-series was not meant to be seen all in one sitting!

Zeffirelli’s film has its fair share of detractors — such as Lloyd Baugh, who says Zeffirelli “thoroughly banalized” the Jesus story — but even its fans are generally agreed on one thing: the film’s treatment of the Resurrection is pretty darn lame. I was reminded of this several days ago, and so I dug up some quotes that I had typed up a couple years ago which indicate that, yes, the resurrected Christ was pretty much an afterthought in Zeffirelli’s film.

Zeffirelli himself, on pages 95-97 of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus: A spiritual diary, says he prepared and shot a resurrection scene, “But on film it lacked all credibility and veered our project toward the perilous shores of a Hollywood epic.” Somewhere along the way, a windstorm ruined his plans, too, I think. Then, on page 115 (and my notes may be a tad garbled here), there is this bit:

A few days before the finished print of the film, right there on the deadline, Zeffirelli started to rummage through the hundred and thirty hours of footage in a desperate search for a solution. . . . he found a photographic test of Jesus’ leave taking of the disciples after the Resurrection, a test shot a Meknes in the apostles’ hideaway, forgotten in that enormous heap of material. Suddenly, everything turned around: those few feet of film offered the simplest solution, honest and clear. It is the consoling farewell of Jesus to his disciples and to us all, and his exhortation not to fear, since he is with us for all days until the end of time.

So he definitely ran out of time, and possibly out of money as well. Interestingly, this description of the resurrection scene as a very-last-minute replacement is corroborated by an article from the October 1994 issue of Harper’s that I also added to my notes way back when — but it wasn’t until this past week that it dawned on me that, since the article in question was based on a book, I should probably check and see if the library had a copy, and see if the book had any more details.

And so, this week, I picked up Earl Shorris’s A Nation of Salesmen: The Tyranny of the Market & the Subversion of Culture. And the first thing I noticed was that this book was badly, badly edited. I had only looked at a couple of pages before I spotted some awkward grammatical errors, and then I discovered the reason I couldn’t find Jesus of Nazareth in the index was that Shorris had erroneously called the film The Life of Jesus — an error that Harper’s had corrected in their version of this story.

So, anyway, the book didn’t really have anything that the article didn’t have, but for those of you who have not yet come across this info, here are the relevant excerpts, taken from pages 207-211 of the book:

If the chairman of the board of General Motors hadn’t been a religious man, it might never have happened, and the effect on a television production of its many markets might not have been so clear. The time was the 1970s. As his reign neared its end, the chairman must have realized something about rich men and the eye of a needle, for he agreed to pay, out of the pockets of the stockholders, the entire production and broadcast costs for a television production of The Life of Jesus. . . .

When Protestant fundamentalists in the United States got wind of the Vatican’s veto power over the script, they began a national campaign against the mini-series. Thousands of letters were sent to General Motors promising never again to buy their products, if the corporation went ahead with the “papist” project. It fell to Waldo E. McNaught to deal with the Protestant protest. After one particularly difficult day, he telephoned me to complain. “The things I do for this goddamned corporation,” he began. “Today, I was down on my knees praying.”

Ever the vendor, taking the role of straight man, I asked, “What’s wrong with that?”

And he said, in a voice made tremulous by outrage, “With a Protestant!”

Propelled by fears for the future of American industry, McNaught, the chairman’s assistant John McNulty, and I went to London to have a look at the film, which was by then in the form of a rough cut, still lacking some opticals, music, and so on, but with all the voice tracks laid in. . . .

Within moments, the telephone rang. McNaught picked it up in his bedroom. “Shorris,” he shouted, “it’s for you. It’s that dame from NBC.”

I answered the phone in the other room. The woman from NBC asked, “How did you like the film?”

“Well…,” I said, dragging out the word, not wanting to offer a comment until McNaught, McNulty, and I had been able to compare notes, “…I just got here. We were going to talk.”

“It’s a piece of shit,” the woman from NBC said.

“You think so?”

“Sure, it’s a piece of shit, but it’ll get great reviews. No critic is going to attack The Life of Jesus.”

“You know more about that than I do.”

“Well, I just wanted you to know. We’re going back to New York tonight. I’ll see you there.”


McNaught had been listening on the other phone. He came into the parlor wearing his Alice-in-Wonderland smile. “It’s so good to hear from our benefactors at NBC. And what is your opinion, Mr. Shorris?”

I had made notes about more than a few scenes; the most memorable of them had to do with the scourging of Jesus. Rod Steiger in the role of Pontius Pilate looks at the actor (since forgotten) who plays Jesus, and says of this bedraggled blue-eyed blond young Englishman, “Ecce homo!” then turns to the camera and explains, “Behold the man.” The woman from NBC had been correct about the quality of the film. But that had been clear from the beginning. What I had noted during the screening was a series of anti-Semitic statements, all of them gratuitous.

I made my case to the men from General Motors, saying as I recall, in a good-humored way, that if the film were to be presented without deleting or modifying those scenes, I would never again work for General Motors, nor would I even speak to anyone, meaning them, who worked for the corporation. McNaught raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips, mocking my earnestness. McNulty merely nodded. He is a tall man, fair, and with a rather large nose for a leprechaun. “Did cha see anything else wrong?” he asked, Saint Thomas Aquinas speaking in the accents of Ireland and the farthest reaches of the borough of Brooklyn.

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Did cha see anything wrong with the ending?”

“No. Was there something wrong?”

“Yeah,” he said in several syllables, “they didn’t resurrect ‘im.”

“Oh, my God!”

He paused for a moment, and then said for the only time in the twenty years that I’ve known him, “Ahem.”

The error, which had gone unnoticed by Anthony Burgess, Franco Zeffirelli, the Vatican, NBC, and even the egg-shaped lord himself, had been spotted by Jack McNulty. At his insistence, the producers reassembled the necessary members of the cast on location in North Africa and filmed a new ending, leaving no doubt that Jesus had been resurrected.

The egg-shaped lord and the operatic director had demonstrated once again that unlike other salesmen, those who run the film and television industries are not only willing but able to move heaven and earth to satisfy the desires of their customers.

Nothing satisfied the Fundamentalists, however. They mounted a great campaign of letters and postal cards. Along with the opinions of the woman from NBC and other crtiics, the Fundamentalists finally won out. A few days before the program was to be broadcast, Roger B. Smith, heir apparent to the chairman’s job, totaled up the amount of money GM spent on NBC. Then he called the network. The ironclad contract evaporated, NBC sold the show to Procter & Gamble at distress sale prices, and The Life of Jesus went on the air as scheduled, with some emendations and a new, happier ending.

I am not sure that these two accounts can be reconciled in every single detail — the Zeffirelli book does not appear to indicate whether the failed Resurrection sequence was attempted during principal photography or in re-shoots — but if anyone has ever wondered why the Resurrection sequence in this mini-series is so much less than what it could have been, well, now you know.

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