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.
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.