Jesus on Screen
Some famous actors have played our Lord on film, as well as some you’ve probably never heard of. It’s unclear how many portrayals of Christ there have been – hundreds probably. I’m aware of several dozen: from Robert Henderson-Bland in the Silent Era epic, From the Manger to the Cross (1912), to Joaquin Phoenix in Mary Magdalene, a 2018 film that has been shown overseas but not yet in the U.S., in part because it was a Harvey Weinstein project and also, perhaps, because it reflects a sensibility about Jesus similar to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
I mention Messrs. Henderson-Bland and Phoenix because every film about the life of Jesus – or, as in The Passion of the Christ (2004), an aspect of His life – succeeds or fails largely because of the performance of the actor portraying Him.
In George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Jesus is played by Max von Sydow, a now eminent actor and familiar face in movies, who was then mostly unknown to American audiences – except to arthouse film buffs enamored of the work of Ingmar Bergman. It was von Sydow’s first English-language film, and Stevens hired him because he wanted an actor whose image (in the senses both of visage and reputation) was unfamiliar and unsullied. He probably also admired von Sydow’s Scandinavian placidity and icy blue eyes.