Biblical Accuracy in Films About Christ: Analyzing Depictions of the Crucifixion in Film

Nathan D. Wilda

Western Connecticut State University




Abstract

The life of Jesus Christ could be said to have influenced more people's lives than any other thing in history. Consequently, it has been depicted numerous times in film, to portray what is often called The Greatest Story Ever Told. The main source of information pertaining to Christ's life is the Bible, and therefore the Bible is what most of these films scripts are based on. Therefore, since these films are depicting something that is so significant to many people, it is important to assess the degree of correspondence to the main source, the Bible. This study looked at the depictions of the crucifixion of Christ in a sample group of films, to see their degree of correspondence to the description of the crucifixion found in the King James Version of the Bible. The results showed relatively low levels of correspondence, and therefore they are analyzed to understand why.




Biblical Accuracy in Films About Christ: Analyzing Depictions of the Crucifixion in Film

There is a saying that "seeing is believing", this is evident in the powerful impact that the medium of film has on its viewers, and also out into the cultures of the world. Film allows people to see a story unfold with their own eyes, and by seeing, viewers can often find themselves engrossed in the story in a powerful way, which rarely exists in spoken stories. One major advantage of film's power, which filmmakers have often utilized since the early days of the medium, has been to depict Biblical events in order for people to experience the story rather than rely on only words to describe what happened. However, when dealing with the Bible, and in particular depictions of Jesus Christ, variables are involved, which alter the way the material is presented. The major variables in this area are, which event in Christ's life is being depicted, which gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) is it taken from, and the translation of the Bible from which the story is told. Therefore, for the purposes of this study the variables need to be narrowed. This study will attempt to identify changes in films, when depicting the crucifixion of Christ, with a reflection as to accuracy according to all four gospels from the King James translation of the Bible, the earliest English translation.

Much has been discussed on the general topic of Biblical films, and the specific topic of Jesus in film. However, many of these writings tend to go into other areas on Biblical depiction, looking not only at the film medium, but also at television and artistic depictions of Jesus and other Biblical events. While the literature leaves blanks to be filled in, in the areas of this study, it offers many useful thoughts as to different themes used in these depictions, and also material pertaining to the church's and the public's feelings towards these media.

Depictions of Christ go back all the way to the days of Christ. In nearly 2000 years since he died, images of Christ are nearly as common as images of nature. Kisyk (2000) describes an exhibit in Canada, which celebrates selected work from two millennia of artistic depictions of Christ. "[T]he exhibition gives a sense of the enormous impact of Jesus on civilization over the past two millennia, and is of interest to both Christians and non-Christians alike."(22) With the advances of technology, it was obvious that these artistic depictions would carry over into the new arts of photography and film, and in the first century of filmmaking, there has been no shortage of depictions of Christ. This article suggests that countless films depicting Jesus can be expected in the future. Therefore, since many interpretations of Christ can be expected, it is important to be aware of the Biblical accuracy of the portrayals, so that the views of the artist do not begin to modify the foundational principles presented in the original source.

Martin (1997) takes a look at several movies depicting Jesus from the latter half of the twentieth century, in his article "The gospel according to Blockbuster." Martin gives a brief analysis of each movie, in the form of personal opinion combined with some public reaction. He does mention that Jesus of Nazareth (1978) follows the Gospels pretty accurately, which makes a good suggestion for the purpose of this study, for a film to analyze as a possible model for Biblical accuracy. Martin feels, "that television and the movies can sometimes encourage us to see Scripture with new eyes."(20) This opinion also gives good support to the importance of this study, because if these films are in fact helping people to see scripture in these ways, it is important that the scripture is depicted accurately. Although, Martin looks at the films, from more of a view of recommending them for entertainment purposes, his article serves as a good stepping-stone, by providing ideas for possible films to look at in the study.

A film, almost exclusively used for evangelical purposes, simply titled Jesus, is a straightforward telling of the life of Christ, taken from the Gospel of Luke. The most important point that Lee (1998) is trying to express, is 1.5 billion people have seen this movie, making it the most viewed full-length feature in history. This is an extremely important point, in regards to this study, because it has been viewed by so many, it is important that the material be accurate. Furthermore, since the film is used as an evangelical tool, the accuracy to the Bible is vital, because the beliefs of someone who joins the faith, by inspiration of viewing the film, will be greatly influenced by what they have seen.

These authors have shown how these films about Christ have a powerful influence, and thereby show the importance of having accurate portrayals of the stories. Neil Postman also looked at the importance of what is shown on screen, focusing his attention more on television. Postman (1985) looked at Aldous Huxley's fears about technologies, and important to this study the idea that "truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance."(vii) In his chapter about religion on television, Postman expressed concern with religion's increasing connections to television. He makes a very important statement when he says, "the danger is not that religion has become the content of television shows but that television shows may become the content of religion." (124) The idea here is that religions may start changing their content to make it a more viable product on television. This translates over to this study, because it is important to be aware that the depictions, which stray from the Biblical accounts, quite possibly may be the result of trying to make the stories more attractive to the public. Therefore, if the study reveals trends of straying from the Bible, Postman's ideas may prove very helpful in deriving conclusions.

Briner (1993) takes a look at some these ideas, from less of a theoretical view, and also from a Christian point of view. Briner expresses many feelings towards the areas of Christian television and movies not being taken seriously. He goes on to say, "We've left the interpretation of our faith, our church, and our Savior up to non-Christians. Is it our fault if they almost always get it wrong?"(80) Briner's statements are meant primarily as a wake-up call for Christians to be more involved in the world, and specifically Christian media. However, they also show, that from a Christian perspective, Biblical films and shows have been going more towards entertainment value, rather than accurately portraying what the religion is about, the Bible.

Briner's suggestions make it seem very likely, that inaccuracies not only exist in Biblical portrayals, but also may be drastic in many cases. This possibility makes the work in this study step to a very important position, especially from a Christian perspective, because it will hope to find and make note of these inaccurate portrayals.

One movie, which has caught the attention of the Christian community for outright straying from the Biblical writings, causing a whirlwind of controversy, is Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. As Lacayo (1988) writes in his article, "Fundamentalists are upset by scenes in which Christ (Willem Dafoe) is shown as tormented and self- accusatory (''I lied, I am afraid. Lucifer is inside me'') and in which he persuades Judas (Harvey Keitel) to betray him because it is God's plan."(73) The uproar over this film mainly has to deal with these exaggerated concepts of Christ, which stray way off the written descriptions of the Bible. This raises another question for this study. When dealing with movies, which have blatantly strayed from the Bible, should they be considered as even trying to be accurate pieces, for purposes of spreading a Christian message, or should they be looked at as simply entertainment that is trying to put a new spin on the story for ticket sales.

Gilmour (1999) briefly discusses the numerous renditions of Christ in film. Gilmour gives a short rundown of some of the major Jesus films of the century, as well as some suggestions as to why these films are so often done. An important key to this article is that it comes from a Catholic magazine, yet gives a very objective view towards the films. This is another article, which provides good suggestions for films to analyze, because it gives many of the previous films from other articles, and therefore it shows that these films are the majors ones of the times and would be most available.

Although looking at these articles narrows the focus of this study, as well as gives suggestions, no matter how perfect a study is, "(a)ny retelling is interpretation, no matter how literal and faithful one strives to be."(Anker 2000, 58) This is important to remember, because when one gets involved in a study, there is a sense of trying to prove something, when in reality the best one can realistically hope for is to show tendencies in the study subject. Anker makes many excellent points concerning what goes into making these films, and also judging these films critically. This article serves as an excellent guide for how to conduct this study, by combining many of the elements of the other articles into one.

Moving over to a more theoretic analysis of Biblical films is Babington and Evans book Biblical Epics. (1993) This book again looks at the transition of Christ depictions in film, giving more of a balanced view by looking at the films critically. This helps in the study process by keeping an objective and professional view of the films' quality as a medium, rather than only looking for certain content. This book is also good at providing ideas for other areas of study in the field of not only Christ films, but also other Biblical films.

Finally, Kinnard and Davis' book Divine Images (1992), gives a very focused analysis of films specifically of Christ and Christ-like figures throughout the history of film. The book contains, pictures and names of all the major films done in this area, as well as commentaries of many of the films. This book provides a comprehensive group of movies that would be applicable to this study. It also provides images, which could help to draw conclusions for some of the movies that may not be readily accessible. Therefore this book is an excellent place to look to get a base knowledge of what has been done in this area of film, but also leaves plenty of room for the viewers to decide the quality of the movies for themselves.

Procedures

The study consisted of an analysis sheet (fig. 1), with a checklist of the events present in the Biblical description of the crucifixion. A convenient sample of the films most available locally for rent, and on television that contain a depiction of the crucifixion of Christ was then examined. The total of 8 films was analyzed based on the sheets to measure the degree of accuracy, in order to draw conclusions.

(Figure 1)

Thesis Film Analysis Questionnaire

Film Title:

Year of Film:

Director:

Is the Crucifixion depicted?

If so, what is the duration of the scene; percentage of film devoted to the Crucifixion?

Biblical elements from the Gospels present in the film, beginning with conviction to death (checklist)

Results

The checklist consists of 29 events, and the element of accurate dialogue. Also, the two elements of a crown of thorns and flogging of Christ, which occur before he is convicted to death, combine together to equal 32 total components to the Biblical account of the event. If an event is present in the film, but is not clearly defined, point will be counted. For example, if there is a cross bearer present, but it is not clearly defined as a man named Simon, point will be counted towards the total number of events. Therefore, accuracy is based on the percentage of the 32 parts present in each film.

Films listed in chronological order by the year it was made.

Film # 1

Film # 2

Film # 3

Film # 4

Film # 5

Film #6

Film # 7

Film #8

Ratio of occurrence for individual questions:

(Data being formatted fo presentation)

Total for all films 123.5/256= 48%

Notes:

None of the films showed the veil in the temple rip.

None of the films used any effects to show that the Crucifixion took place over 6 hours of elapsed time.

None of the films have 100% accuracy for any one of the four gospels. Two films, King of Kings, and The Greatest Story Ever Told, have nearly all of the events present in the account from the book of Luke.

Discussion

Looking at the results, the first thing that jumps out is that the highest percentage of correspondence is 75%. This means the most accurate depiction of the crucifixion of Christ, in a sample of many of major films about Christ, is missing 25% of the Biblical information about the event. Since, a director's interpretation, and individuality are a part of creating a film, differences will almost always occurs. Adding to it the viewers' interpretation the differences grow even more, and consequently, 100% correspondence would be highly unlikely. Furthermore, some of the films are known to be expressing different points of view of the event, and would therefore leave out some details, and also add some ideas. However, for the films with the goal of trying to portray the life of Christ, the correspondence to any event portrayed should not be below 80%-85%, because at that point it is going beyond minor details, and moving into major parts of the event.

Another interesting point is that the overall percentage of correspondence for the 8 films is 48%. Therefore as a group, most of the major films about Christ throughout nearly a 35-year span are accurate less than half the time. This means that a person could look at any of these movies randomly, and think that every other thing they see is not true. Thus showing that the representation of Christ during this time period contains many elements that are interpretation as well as elements for entertainment value, rather than depicting Christ in the Biblical context of the story.

The importance of these representations is that they come from the time period when the medium of film was beginning to take a very prominent and also influential role in American culture. Furthermore, this time period concludes during the lifetime of people who are now moving into positions, or already in positions of developing the films of today. With this in mind, the idea arises that since the films about Christ had less than 50% correspondence overall when today's filmmakers were growing up, will the films of the future be based on the Bible at all or mainly on interpretation.

These results reflect Briner's concerns about the creators of these depictions almost always getting it wrong. While, the overall percentages tend to be brought down by the films that are from different points of view and for an artistic interpretation, a problem exists with the 4 films, which are supposed to be straightforward retellings of the story of Christ. These films had correspondence levels of 75%, 66%, 66%, and 59%, showing that at the least in every film 1 out of every 4 parts of the Biblical account are missing. Furthermore, even with the two films that had nearly all the elements from the book of Luke, elements were still missing, showing that none of the films were completely accurate to even one of the Biblical accounts of the story.

It is also interesting to note that five components are not depicted in any of the films. Among them are, the elapsed time of six hours, the veil being torn, and the spirits of the saints arising. First, when dealing with time in film all events are condensed, however, in any of these situations, techniques can be used to show that the time has elapsed. Instead, all of the films make the crucifixion seem like a quick event, and thereby detract from the intense suffering involved in this type of death. Next, the veil being torn in the temple is seen by many, both Jews and Christian, as a very important event, because it represented the opportunity for any one to come into the presence of God, and not just the high priest of the Jews. Yet none of the directors chose to include this element in their depictions. Finally, the spirits of the saints arising is also something very important for Christian beliefs, because it represents the moment of Christ's victory for the saints, but none of the director's chose to show this either. These exemptions are important because all the different directors chose not to include these important parts, and others, in their films. Therefore, it is possible that the elements were not included because they were viewed as irrelevant in the eyes of not only the directors, but also the people of the time. Another possible reason could be that these elements, other than the elapsed time, are components that deal with ideas that are important to the Christian faith, and therefore the directors could have been deciding to stay neutral in stand towards certain beliefs. Either way, since they are left out, someone could watch all these films and not know that these events happened, according to the Bible.

Conversely, the elements present most consistently are those of the crown of thorns, the flogging, and the two thieves being crucified, one on each side of Christ. The presence of these elements shows that all the directors agree on the importance they hold. In addition, it shows that not only the directors consider all these elements as factual parts of the event of the crucifixion, but also the public as well since all three are included in nearly all the movies. However, even in the consistency of these three elements, the degrees of interpretation are also shown, because other than these three parts the results vary greatly between the films for any particular event.

The final section of the results is the element of the time devoted to the portrayal of the crucifixion in the films. While this does not directly affect the degree of accuracy, it gives an idea as to how important the director feels the crucifixion is to the story of Christ's life. The highest percentage of the films specifically about Christ is 9%, and in all the films is 10%. This shows that this one event is considered to be of much significance in a few of the films to consist of around 10% of the entire movie. However, this importance does not seem to result in accurate portrayals, because in these films Day of triumph, and Barabbas the correspondence levels were 66% and 25%. Furthermore, in Jesus of Nazareth 18 minutes is devoted to the crucifixion, yet the depiction had only 59% correspondence. This film is 397 minutes long, making the crucifixion 4.5% of the total film, which generates the question of why does a film that devotes that much time to the life of Christ, leaves out 41% of the information about the crucifixion. For shorter films, issues of time could affect whether or not certain elements are going to be included, but for films that tend to be longer in duration, as most of these films are, this would not be a valid reason to leave parts out. Thus, the duration of most these movies eliminates time concerns as a reason for not including certain parts of the event, and therefore presses questions for the lack of accuracy in these films.

Though the results achieve the goal of this study by giving a good account of the degrees of accuracy in the depictions, it still leaves unanswered questions. For example, trying to understand the reasons for the low levels of accuracy in the depictions of the crucifixion. Also, there is a need to look at other events in the life of Christ to study the degree of accuracy in those portrayals. Furthermore, because the levels of accuracy were not very high, it would be important to test if these inaccuracies are known amongst those who study the Bible, and more importantly people who do not study the Bible who might look to these films as a representation of the Bible. Finally, it would be important to study how often these films are rented, purchased, shown in theaters, and shown on television, to understand the role they have in society, and if they of much impact at all.

With the information present it would be wise to continue in these lines of study, because discrepancies exist between the depictions of Christ, and the Biblical descriptions. Therefore, it would be wise to develop a large sample of films to look at the level of accuracy present in other films about the life of Christ. Also, the analysis sheet could be divided up more, so that half points would not be given, and so that every detail must be looked for carefully. Finally, because so many unanswered questions are left, it would be important to study the backgrounds of the directors to try and understand and make conclusions as to why they made their creative decisions.

Hopefully, Postman's idea that entertainment value has replaced the true content of the story is not true in most of these films. However, when films about Christ include John Wayne, it is hard to deny that the directors are trying to sell tickets. Ironically, this film, The Greatest Story Ever Told, is the most accurate of all the films, but it is doubtful that, in a viewers eye, accuracy is noticed over his presence, along with the other movie stars, in the film. This study has shown that there are differences between the portrayals of Christ in film and the text of the Bible. While many answers for these differences did not develop, the study serves as a stepping-stone to see the issue, and then begin to research deeper into it. Therefore, this study is not at its end, but rather at the beginning of looking at these issues in films about Christ, and it is unknown how deep the ideas can go.

References

Anker, R. M. (2000, May 22). Lights, camera, Jesus. Christianity Today, 44 (6), 58.

Babington B. & Evans P. W. (1993). Biblical epics: Sacred narrative in the hollywood cinema. New York, NY: Manchester University Press.

Briner, B. (1993). Roaring Lambs. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Fleischer, R. (1962). Barabbas. Columbia.

Gilmour, P. (1999 September). Jesus of Hollywood. U.S. Catholic, 64 (9), 6.

Jewison, N (1973). Jesus Christ superstar. Universal.

Kinnard, R. & Davis, T. (1992). Divine Images: A history of Jesus on the screen. New York, NY: Carol Publishing Group.

Kisyk, J. (2000, December). Anno Domini: Two millennia of Christian art and impact. Catholic Insight, 8 (10), 22.

Lacayo, R. (1988, July 25). Days of ire and brimstone; a new film about Jesus Christ raises a storm of protest. Time, 132 (4), 73.

Lee, S. (1998, August 10). 'Jesus' draws. Forbes, 162 (3), 58.

Martin, J. (1997, May 13). The gospel according to Blockbuster. America, 176 (15), 20.

Pichel, I. (1954). Day of triumph. Century Films.

Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Ray, N. (1961). King of kings. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Scorsese, M. (1988). The Last Temptation of Christ. Universal.

Stevens, G. (1965). The greatest story ever told. United Artists.

Wyler, W. (1959). Ben-Hur. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Zeffirelli, F. (1977). Jesus of Nazareth. Sir Lew Grade Productions/ ITC/RAI- Television for NBC.

Table of Contents