Sunday, February 01, 2015

Life of Brian's Parody of the Sermon on the Mount in Jesus Films

The most iconic scene in Life of Brian is, of course, the opening post-credit scene in which Jesus is delivering the Sermon on the Mount to assembled thousands (In Judea. AD 33. Saturday afternoon. At around tea time).  Such is the success of Life of Brian that most of us are now more familiar with the parody than what is being parodied.  Everyone knows Life of Brian but relatively few are familiar with its source material.  As it happens, the scene is even funnier when viewed against the background of the Jesus films of the 1960s and 1970s.

Geoffrey Burgon's score is a superb pastiche of just what one hears at this point in both King of Kings and Greatest Story Ever Told. After shots of the crowds gathering, we have a clear shot of Jesus (Kenneth Colley) silhouetted against a blue sky.  As the camera pans back from Jesus, and as we get further and further away, we hear Jesus less and less distinctly until we arrive at Brian his mother Mandy. Mandy cannot hear a word and shouts, "Speak up!"  And I'm sure you know the rest.

The point of the parody is the depiction of the Sermon on the Mount in the epic Jesus films like King of Kings.  Jesus is speaking to a cast of thousands and it is hardly surprising that people cannot hear:

But if you think it would take a lot of projection to speak to that crowd, compare Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) about to give the Sermon on the Mount in King of Kings:

Jesus is so far in the distance in that shot that you can hardly see him.  Here is a little help:

It is not very different in the Greatest Story Ever Told in which Jesus (Max Von Sydow) gives his sermon to a group of disciples arranged around him in a circle, with a crowd listening at greater distance (imitating Matt. 5.1-2 and 7.28-29), and the vast landscape of Utah visible in the background:

It's not easy imagining being able to hear a word Jesus said from that kind of distance.  But take a look also at the way that Kenneth Colley is presented in close up against the blue sky in Life of Brian:

The similarity with the close-up of Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, who is similarly preaching against the backdrop of blue sky, is clear:

The colour in King of Kings is exquisite.  Jesus wears this unusual but rather striking red outer garment only during the Sermon on the Mount sequence in the film, and Ray makes sure to accentuate the contrast with the luscious, cloudless blue sky. 

But this draws to our attention the fact that while there are real similarities between the King of Kings sermon and the Life of Brian sermon that parodies it, there is one quite noticeable difference.  Kenneth Colley in Life of Brian looks nothing like Jeffrey Hunter or Max Von Sydow.  Why is that?  Colley in fact looks similar to Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth. And in 1979, when Life of Brian was released, Jesus of Nazareth was a very recent memory.  In fact, as Matt Page reminds us, Life of Brian even used some of the same sets that were used by Jesus of Nazareth out in Tunisia.  

Jesus of Nazareth does not feature a classic Sermon on the Mount scene, though it does repeatedly feature the teaching from the Sermon, and it has one scene in which Jesus gives both the beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer to a gathered multitude relatively late in the production:

The composition here, with its gorgeous oranges and browns, is quite unlike the Life of Brian and King of Kings sermons with their blue sky mountain shots, but Robert Powell's Jesus provides a close analogue to the few seconds we see of Kenneth Colley's Jesus.  Here is Colley:

His long dark hair and beard, and the arrangement of his garments is just like Powell's:

The sermon in Life of Brian thus parodies not only the scope and grandeur of King of Kings and Greatest Story, but also the very look of the Jesus most familiar to viewers in the late 1970s, Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Life of Brian on Celluloid Jesus

I've been gradually adding pages to my Celluloid Jesus web pages and the latest additions are Jesus of Nazareth (yesterday) and now also Life of Brian:

Celluloid Jesus: Life of Brian

Among other things, I've linked to James Crossley's excellent "Life of Brian or Life of Jesus?" and all the footage of the Jesus and Brian Conference at King's College, London in June -- one of the academic highlights of last summer:

There are hours of entertainment there, with Richard Burridge interviewing Terry Jones and John Cleese, and papers by, among others, Paula Fredriksen, Helen Bond, Bart Ehrman, A. J. Levine, James Crossley, Philip Davies, Steve Mason.

I've also added a link to Sarah Prime's article in Marginalia that reflects on the conference.

As usual on this site, I end with my video guide, answering the question, "Where can I get hold of . . . .?"

I have certainly missed things, so please comment either here or there on things you'd like to see added.

Meanwhile, I have another blog post on the way soon about Life of Brian.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Zeffirelli's use of Light and Windows in Jesus of Nazareth

I have fallen in love anew with Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth over the last week or so as I have watched and re-watched it.  There are so many things to love about the film.  One of them is Olivia Hussey's portrayal of Mary, which is so moving that it is enough to make one want to convert to Catholicism.  Hussey herself was 26 years old when she played Mary and unlike other several other Jesus films, she plays Mary both as the teenage bride and the older, agonized mother grieving at the cross.

The Annunciation is one of the most visually arresting scenes in the film, not only because of Hussey's portrayal of an initially confused but ultimately devoted young woman, but also because of the striking choice not to have an actor playing the angel Gabriel.  Indeed the name "Gabriel" is not even mentioned and the viewer sees Mary as her mother Anna sees her -- it is one half of a conversation in front of light that is pouring in through the window.

Mary awakes at the sound of the window opening, and the light pouring in, and in a point-of-view shot, Mary looks up to see the window:

As she stands before the window, she converses with the angel, but the viewer, like Anna, sees only one half of the conversation:

And ultimately, Mary kneels in obedience to the angel's message in front of the window:

Here is a clip of the scene:


This motif, of light pouring through windows of a building in which a divine encounter takes place, occurs on several occasions in the film, including the raising of Jairus's daughter.  Jesus goes into the young girl's room alone (and not with Peter, James and John and the girls' parents as in Mark 5.40), and light is streaming in the window as Jesus crouches to heal the young girl.

Jesus speaks the words Talitha Cumi (Mark 5.41) and the girl rises.  The picture is beautifully composed with light coming in all three windows, and Jesus and Jairus's daughter either side of the middle window:

Incidentally, when the girl is hugged by Jesus, we have a rare shot of Robert Powell smiling with his eyes closed:

The same three-window motif occurs again when Jesus is teaching in the temple (in a scene that is only in the full, over six hour version, and not the abridged version currently found on Netflix):

Jesus is teaching in the temple while a large crowds sits, gazing in wonder, and Zerah (Ian Holm) watches from the sidelines.  The dialogue itself is taken from the Sermon on the Mount.  Here, Jesus of Nazareth, like most Jesus films breaks up the sermon, relocates it and redistributes a lot of its material.  In a tracking shot, the camera shows Jesus teaching with light streaming in three high windows.

Here is a clip of the piece:


One might also include here one of the films most iconic moments, when Pontius Pilate (Rod Steiger) sees Jesus emerging from the light in his doorway -- Ecce Homo:

Pilate is arrested by the sight of the man in the crown of thorns who has now approached him:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What have the Romans done for us? - Life of Brian and Jesus of Nazareth

One of the legendary scenes in Life of Brian features Judean rebels, led by Reg (John Cleese), asking, "What have the Romans done for us?"  I have been re-watching Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Franco Zeffirelli, 1977) this week and I have been struck by several Brian - Jesus of Nazareth parallels. One of these occurs at about thirty minutes into the film.

The location is Nazareth in about 4 BCE, and the Galileans Jews are discussing oppression by Rome before they are interrupted by Joseph.

"What does Rome give us?" they ask.  Here's the clip:


And in case you need a reminder, here's the famous clip from Life of Brian:


Update (Saturday 31 January): Many thanks to Matt Page who has commented over on Bible Films Blog. Among other things, he corrects my reading of the line.  It is "What does Rome give us?" and not "What do the Romans give us?"  It's interesting that I had harmonized a little to Life of Brian in my transcription, just as scribes of Mark often harmonize to the more familiar Matthean versions of Jesus' sayings!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Godspell and the Construction of the Twin Towers

In my Jesus in Film class today we focused on Godspell (dir. David Greene, 1973).  It's not my favourite Jesus film at all and so in re-viewing it, I was looking for things that might help to improve my impression of it.  And I found one major one.  The photographing of New York City in this film is really exquisite.

There are many views of New York that are breathtaking, but one scene is especially memorable -- David Greene captures the World Trade Center as construction on it is still in progress.  The number is "All for the best".  The song features the actors dancing in different areas of New York, including Time Square, where Victor Garber and David Haskell dance in front of their own silhouettes on screen, but the scene ends with the crew dancing on the top of the North Tower:

The panoramic view of New York in the background is remarkable.  And just how close to the edge of they?!  I would be absolutely terrified. I am guessing that the camera here is itself on the North Tower.  When the camera pans back further, the actors are still at the edge of the tower, but now facing in the opposite direction.  And here, the viewer can clearly see that construction is ongoing:

Presumably the camera is on a helicopter here?  I had wondered if it was on the South Tower, but is that the South Tower in the upper left of the shot?  As the camera pans back further, we see several shots of the twin towers.  Again, I am assuming this is done on a helicopter:

As the camera pans back further, we see both towers:

And the final shot in the sequence is the long shot of the twin towers against the New York skyline:

Here's that minute or so of remarkable footage:

An article in the Washington Post from 2006 features a brief comment from Victor Garber (Jesus) on this:
"It was really a magical day," he says of filming at the twin towers, and "surreal," too, taking an elevator "as high up as it was done" before having to climb through scaffolding to reach the roof. "It was overwhelming to walk out there."
Nearly three decades later, working in Los Angeles on 9/11, Garber says it took a day or two for the reality of the twin towers' loss and his connection to sink in: "It suddenly dawned on me that we were up there. I can't quite believe it. But you have the soundtrack cover, and there it is -- we're there."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Celluloid Jesus: The Christ Film Web Pages are back!

For many years, I had a series of web pages which I called "Celluloid Jesus: The Christ Film Web Pages".  When we revamped the NT Gateway, back in 2008, these pages did not quite fit the new look and I decided to drop them.  I always intended to bring them back as soon as time allowed. This semester I am teaching a course on Jesus in Film at Duke and it seemed to be the perfect excuse to bring them back.  Here is the link:

Celluloid Jesus: The Christ Film Web Pages

I have ported over a lot of the older material and I have begun the process of revising and adding materials.  Currently, there are sections on Websites, Online Articles, Podcasts, Biblography and List of Films.

I have begun the process of setting up pages on each film.  I am doing this as I work through them with my Jesus in Film class.  So far, I have pages on King of Kings (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Gospel According to St Matthew.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

King of Kings (1961): Philip Yordan's Script and George Kilpatrick

I'm continuing to rewatch and research King of Kings (1961) ahead of teaching a class on it on Tuesday.  TCM has this lovely, short clip of scriptwriter Philip Yordan talking about the film.  He tells about how disastrous the script was when he first saw it -- it was just a series of biblical excerpts.  Director Nicholas Ray told Yordan that he had no money for the script but that he had his kids' college fund, and that was what he gave to Yordan to write it:

I have been wondering, though, whether there were any academic consultants involved with the film.  Like many films of the day, the credits all appear at the beginning and they are not detailed.  You're lucky if all the major actors are credited, let alone members of the crew.  There are no dolly grips or caterers here!  Nor does IMDb's entry help here.

Happily, my friend Peter Groves has been in touch with me this week to let me know that in fact Professor George Kilpatrick was employed as an academic consultant on the picture and even visited the set in Spain.  Armed with this knowledge, I noodled around on the net a little and found one or two mentions of this fact, including a Variety Review from December 1960 and a recent article by Tony Williams ("Nicholas Ray's King of Kings", CineAction 76 (Spring 2009)).  Williams writes:
Ray and Yordan worked on the screenplay with Catholic Oxford Don the Reverend George Kilpatrick who remained on the set during filming. Ray expressed his indebtedness to this scholar in a letter to Samuel Bronston. 
Williams does not give his source for this item, but I'd love to see it, or anything else that details Kilpatrick's involvement.

Update (Sunday, 3.42pm): I am grateful to Matt Page on Twitter and Stephen Goranson in comments for their help in pointing to Williams's source for the above information.  It is Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey (translated by Tom Milne; London: Faber and Faber, 1993): 363:
Meanwhile he [Ray] continued working on the script with Jordan and a Catholic priest, the Rev. George Kilpatrick, an Oxford don, who remained on hand throughout filming.  In February, he wrote to Bronston to say that, thanks to Kilpatrick, he had solved the dramatic problem of how to treat the trial of Jesus. ‘For the first time since I completed the script of Savage Innocents, I feel like writing again.’
Williams does refer to this book in his footnotes, but not in the precise location where one sees the above quotation.  I wonder if Williams' paraphrase of Eisenschitz slightly over-interprets it when he says Kilpatrick "remained on the set" during filming.  We know that Kilpatrick visited the set but to "remain on hand" during filming may mean that he was available and in contact throughout, e.g. at the end of a phoneline, but I would be interested to hear more.

Carl Holladay to give the Clark Lectures

This year's Kenneth W. Clark lectures at Duke Divinity School are to be given by Carl Holladay.  Details are here:

Clark Lectures 2015: Carl Holladay

The schedule is:

Lecture 1
Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015
4:00 – 5:15 p.m.
0016 Westbrook, Duke Divinity School

Lecture 2
Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015
8:30 – 9:45 a.m.
0016 Westbrook, Duke Divinity School