Easter and the Movies by Dick Rolfe, chairman, The Dove Foundation
The two most prolific seasons for retailing are Christmas and Easter. These two religious holidays have been co-opted by Capitalism into national “shopping” seasons, and are no longer as closely connected to the object of these events–the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth–as they once were.
The same is true for the movies. During 2005, box office revenues during Christmas and Easter accounted for much of the total annual income from the theaters. And yet, none of the movies released during those periods had anything to do with their respective religious themes.
In the early days of film, great movies were made that reflected religious and secular Easter traditions.
The most famous secular movie of the season is Irving Berlin’s musical spectacular “Easter Parade,” starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire which was a box office smash in 1948.
Over the decades, scores of movies, videos and TV programs have celebrated the Easter Bunny, the Easter Egg, the Easter Pigeon, and Yogi, the Easter Bear. Even Charlie Brown paid homage to—who else?—the Easter Beagle!
While Hollywood has produced many biblical-themed movies, only a handful faithfully convey the story of the first Easter. Movies about Moses have always been popular around Easter time, even though it’s an Old Testament story. “The Ten Commandments” have been done in several different styles, including many animated kids’ versions. Consummate epic filmmaker, Cecil B. DeMille, produced both the 1926 and 1956 live action versions.
ABC/Disney made the 1956 Charlton Heston version of “The Ten Commandments” a perennial Easter holiday favorite. This year, the alphabet network will air a re-tooled version of the popular Exodus story as a miniseries on Monday and Tuesday nights, April 10 and 11.
In 1996 and 1997, ABC ran a fresh, new version of the Easter story, called “Jesus, The Miracle Maker,” a beautifully made, Claymation story produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Entertainment. This family-friendly story of Jesus unfolds through the eyes of a young girl who later becomes the subject of one of His most profound miracles.
Many movies, though not directly depicting the story of Jesus, base their storylines on some part of his life. “The Robe,” starring Richard Burton tells the story of the Roman centurion who won Jesus’ robe during the casting of lots. “Ben Hur” and “Quo Vadis” are two fiction stories also about Roman soldiers who were impacted by followers of Jesus.
There have been a few notable times throughout moviemaking history where film-makers depicted the story of Jesus with varying degrees of accuracy and respect.
The most memorable to me is the 1961 release, “King of Kings” starring Jeffery Hunter. I was fortunate to see the New York City premiere at Radio City Music Hall.
“The Greatest Story Ever Told,” starring Max von Sydow and Charlton Heston as John the Baptist is another timeless story of Jesus, as is “The Jesus Film” purchased by a Christian philanthropist, that has been given away as a worldwide evangelism tool. So far, an estimated 5.4 billion people have seen the video since its release in 1979.
All attempts to portray the Easter story in the past pale in comparison to the impact of the 2005 Mel Gibson release, “The Passion of The Christ,” which is now the 10th highest grossing movie in the US of all time.
Sometimes a movie comes along which attempts to defame or mock the character of a popular historic figure. Examples of this approach are musicals, “Jesus Christ, Superstar” and “Godspel,” and the parody produced by an irreverent British comedy troupe, “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.”
“The Last Temptation of Christ,” one of the more offensive movies produced by Martin Scorsese, tried to advance the theory that Jesus succumbed to human temptations and had sexual relations with Mary Magdalene. The same theory is the basis for the upcoming mythological film, “The da Vinci Code.”
Movies are great entertainment and with a few rare exceptions, should be taken as such. The definition of entertainment is “to amuse.” We should not count on movies to accurately depict historical fact or figures. You’ve no doubt played the popular parlor game “telephone,” where facts deteriorate into rumor by the time they get around the room.
Story tellers have too strong a bias to tell their stories with historical accuracy. There’s a temptation to improve the story because of limited entertainment value. Most filmmakers resort to “poetic license” to help move the story along so that it fits within the usual 110 minute time limit.
If you want to get to the heart of the real story of Easter, I recommend reading the Book.
The Dove Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Our mission is to encourage and promote the creation, production, distribution and consumption of wholesome family entertainment. We are supported primarily by donations from families such as yours who want to move Hollywood in a more family-friendly direction. All donations are tax deductible.