Jesus Cripes!

I was going to run this at Easter but I totally forgot. Maybe it’s less inflammatory to do it now. Christ has been dead and resurrected for about a month — we can laugh about it now.

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Film history is littered with dream projects that never saw the light of day. Since the story of Jesus is so well-known, it’s not surprising that a number of the most intriguing unmade movies were attempts at rendering his life in cinematic form.

A few examples of unusual Jesus movies:

1) Before embarking on THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, George Stevens briefly contemplated a project tentatively titled THE GREATEST STORY EVER SMELLED. To be filmed in the wonder of Odorama, giving audiences an authentic aroma of biblical times, the costly production was eventually scrapped when research failed to come up with sufficiently alluring scents. “We had the smell of camels, the smell of blood, the smell of Victor Buono. The whole thing was downhill after the myhrr!” complained Stevens, whose Scratch ‘n’ Sniff Messiah was shelved in favour of an unperfumed version.

2) Jim Henson’s  A VERY MUPPET EASTER sought to capture the passion of the Christ in glove-puppet form, making for a family-friendly version of a story that is often too violent for youngsters. As envisaged by Henson, the film would begin with Kermit the frog narrating the story of the New Testament to his little relative, Robin. The tale would then take shape in Robin’s mind, visualised with his friends from The Muppet Show playing the various biblical personae: Miss Piggy as Salome, the Swedish Chef as John the Baptist, the Great Gonzo as Judas. Fozzie Bear would have been stretched to the limit as Jesus of Nazareth. Henson apparently abandoned his plan when he heard of a rival production starring the Smurfs.

“In any case, the problem of how to show Fozzie on the cross without revealing the puppeteer’s hand going inside him might have defeated us. One technical mistake and the plausibility would have gone out the window.”

3) The Marx Brothers’ A NIGHT AT GOLGOTHA is perhaps the most tantalising of these unseen Passions. While it is easy to picture Groucho as the wily politician Pontius Pilate (he would have looked magnificent in a toga), and Chico’s casting as an Italian-accented Judas seems less implausible if we consider Harvey Keitel’s performance in Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (“Ey, Jesus, whaddayadoin’ makin’ crosses faw da Romans?”), it’s much harder to picture Harpo as the Messiah, and especially to imagine him conveying the significance, as well as the poetry, of the Sermon on the Mount simply by honking a series of car horns concealed within his robe. Alas, we shall never know if this bold experiment would have succeeded, since ultimately MGM exec Irving Thalberg ruled that Jesus could not be played by a Jew. All that survives of this project is a few minute’s footage of Margaret Dumont’s costume test for the role of the Magdalene.

4) Steven Spielberg’s J.C.: THE SON OF GOD AND HIS ADVENTURE ON EARTH was a sincere, if misguided, attempt to solve the problem faced by so many cinematic Christ films: no actor could adequately portray the splendor of a God in human form. Spielberg’s answer — special effects — was one that has served him well throughout his career. In 1981, fresh from the success of the bible-themed RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg hired animatronics genius Carlo Rambaldi to construct a metal messiah. Rambaldi had built a fifty-foot high robot gorilla for Dino deLaurentiis’s KING KONG, and deLaurentiis had once produced a film called THE BIBLE (“The film of the book”), so it all seemed to make sense.

“But no matter what instructions I gave Carlo,” recalls Spielberg today, “no matter what photographic references I gave him — Max Von Sydow, Jeffrey Hunter — he kept coming up with this shriveled little grey guy. I loved the design, but I just couldn’t take seriously the idea of this little homunculus curing people’s leprosy. He looked like he had leprosy.” In the end, Spielberg abandoned his plan for a religious film, but he was able to use the grey shrunken, wrinkled figurine as the lead character in another movie — 2008’s INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL.

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14 Responses to “Jesus Cripes!”

  1. Colin M Says:

    I believe the upcoming MUPPET SHOAH is also proving problematic.

  2. Aaaargh! Genius.

  3. Not to mention SHOAH ‘NUFF, I think the title says it all.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    Carl Dreyer actually wanted to shoot his film about Jesus in the Middle East, to get to the source.

    Then at one point, Ingmar Bergman considered doing a film about Jesus with his Faro Islands as the setting. Apparently the small fishing community of that place seemed to suggest the right flavour.

    Orson Welles by the way also considered(perhaps jokingly) a telling of Jesus in the Wild West and hinted that it might be a black Jesus for a change.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    As wondrously bizarre as all these versions sound, there is one that actually got made that sounds even weirder. It’s called the THE THORN – and it’s a camp gay parody of the life of Christ starring Bette Midler (fresh from her stint at the Continental Baths) as a not-so-Virgin Mary.

    No, I’ve never seen it but it’s considered sufficiently shocking (in the God-fearing USA, at any rate) that the Divine Miss M and her publicists now pretend the film was never made. A trash movie Apocrypha, if you will.

  6. THere was also a gay porn Jesus movie called Him.

  7. Wow. Makes my idea — Jesus as cult leader / con artist — seem pretty tame.

    Have never seen Zurlini’s Black Messiah — how do the panel feel about that one?

    A wild west Jesus sounds like a grand idea. Various westerns have flirted with the concept, but without really diving in. Philip Jose Farmer’s short story JC on the Dude Ranch essayed a Texan version in contemporary times.

  8. In Toby Dammit Terence Stamp comes to Rome to make “The first Catholic western.”

  9. And don’t forget Robert Downey Sr’s Greaser’s Palace

  10. Ah, haven’t seen that one. My Robert Downey edcation begins and ends with Putney Swope.

    The Good the Bad and the Ugly ends with a hilarious mock crucifixion of Eli Wallach, and there must be Django films with nailings-up in them.

  11. I saw “Greaser’s Palace” in a college town — where else? –when it was new-ish and remember virtually nothing except for the Saviour in his zoot suit at the piano singing “He’s got the boogie in his fingers, and the hubba-hubba in his soul!”

  12. Christopher Says:

    for your 70’s Jesus’s..Johnny Got His Gun has just made it reg. 1 dvd
    Strange Cargo is another strange Jesus type

  13. Has anyone seen Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In? I haven’t seen it, but a friend in the US recommended it to me.

  14. Ah, Johnny! Jesus to Johnny: “You’re a very unlucky young man and I’m worried it might rub off.”

    Then there’s John Hurt in History of the World Part I: “Jesus Christ!” “Yes?”

    Let the Right One In is beautifully shot, nicely told, an elegant mix of sweetness and nastiness — see it knowing as little as possible.

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