What makes for a good Jesus film?
Or, rather, what makes a Jesus film any good?
That question is one that most every Christian viewer is confronted with occasionally, and it seems especially pertinent now as Son of God finishes its theatrical run and audiences get ready for Noah. Are Jesus films simply a genre of film, to be evaluated much the same was as any others: acting, direction, cinematography? Is faithfulness to the Biblical text the only thing that really matters? (And if so, faithful to whose understanding of the Biblical text?) Should a Bible film be made by believers for believers, or is the whole point of telling a Jesus story to be evangelical?
Answers to such questions are varied, which is no doubt part of the reason that films about Jesus proliferate. Type the name “Jesus” into a Roku 2 search engine and choices abound: two versions of Jesus Christ Superstar (1973 and 2013) as well as a “Live Arena Tour” of the same, Jesus: Who Do Men Say That I Am?, At Jesus’ Side, Jesus Freak, Who Was Jesus, What Would Jesus Do?, Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, The Life and Times of Jesus Christ, Images of Jesus. That only scratches the surface, not including films such as The Miracle Maker or The Gospel According to Matthew, that don’t have the name of Jesus in the title.
The place of The Jesus Film in such a catalog is idiosyncratic. Made as an evangelism tool rather than a commercial film, its reach has exceeded that of many Hollywood blockbusters. The Jesus Film has been translated into more than 1,200 languages, earning it a spot in The Guinness Book of World Records. The Jesus Film Project claims that it is “the most watched film in history.” In a press release celebrating the film’s 35th anniversary, it is claimed that “more than 200 million people have indicated decisions to become followers of Christ” after viewing the film.
The Jesus Film is perhaps best known for its scrupulous commitment to Biblical accuracy. Several scenes were allegedly reshot after it was noted that they included a eucalyptus tree, as these were not part of the landscape during Jesus’s life. Normally the emphasis on such things is a way of distracting viewers from the low budget aspects of the production. But here’s the thing…the production elements aren’t terrible.
The film is listed as having a six million dollar budget, which by way of comparison, is just a little more than the reported 5.7 million dollar budget for Veronica Mars. If films from the 70s are a better comparison, The Deer Hunter, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1979, had a reported budget of 15 million, Coming Home, a smaller film that helped Jon Voight and Jane Fonda win acting Oscars reportedly had a budget of only three million.
In retrospect, perhaps the wisest decision that Campus Crusade made in pursuing the film was hiring professionals. The film was made a half a decade before Martin Scorsese released The Last Temptation of Christ and Michael Medved wrote Hollywood vs. America. It was good to be reminded in researching and reviewing this film for its anniversary DVD that the notion of film making as being a peculiarly unchristian industry is a somewhat new and somewhat suspect one. John Krish had over thirty directing credits to his name before making The Jesus Film, including episodes of the television series The Avengers and The Saint. His directing partner, Peter Sykes, helmed several horror films, including Demons of the Mind, The House in Nightmare Park, and To the Devil a Daughter. Brian Deacon had several television series under his belt before taking on the role of Jesus, and he went on to appear in other works, including Masterpiece Theater’s Bleak House.
Is there an historical lesson for Christians interested in the arts? Perhaps not every project, whether professional, educational, or personal needs to be overtly Christian. Perhaps it is okay to participate in a discipline for the purpose of learning one’s craft so that when one has the opportunity to make a “Christian” project, one also has the skills and experience to make it competently.
The Jesus Film has been re-mastered and re-titled. It will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on April 1.