Sunday, March 22, 2020

Movie Review: "From the Manger to the Cross"; a.k.a. "Jesus of Nazareth" (1912)

From the Manger to the Cross

A.K.A.: Jesus of Nazareth

Director: Sidney Olcott

Producer: Frank J. Marion

Writer: Gene Gauntier

Cinematography: George K. Hollister

Starring: Robert Henderson-Bland as Jesus

Year: 1912

Duration: 71'

From the Manger to the Cross was a marvel of its day. First, it was filmed on location in Egypt and Palestine; second, the production cost $100,000; and third, because of its length of five reels, when two reels were still common, making this the first feature film about Jesus. The title of the film captures the story from beginning to end. It begins with the Birth of Christ and ends with the Crucifixion. When on the cross, Jesus drops his head, the words from John 3:16 appear on the screen with three crosses on the horizon, and the film ends. There is no Resurrection or Ascension scene.

The prominent English stage actor, Robert Henderson-Bland, who later wrote two memoirs about his role as Jesus, claimed that his intention was to "present Jesus as the Lion of Judah rather than the Gentle Shepherd." This reflects the then current view in British circles of what was called "muscular" Christianity, an emphasis on Jesus as a man among men, far removed from his portrayals as soft and effeminate. The film indeed shows Jesus as a man of action who performs good deeds, bringing together scenes of miracles from the four Gospels, though you never see him preaching or teaching a parable. He is a man of deeds and not words.

Yet the film at the same time is remarkably feminist for the time. This can be attributed to the writer, Gene Gauntier, who plays the Virgin Mary in the movie. She later claimed that it was while recovering from a sunstroke that she had the inspiration and the time to write the script for the film. Throughout the movie women are highlighted. The Virgin Mary appears at the beginning with the birth of Jesus, and we see her again at the end weeping for her son at his Passion. Mary and Martha are highlighted twice in the film, and Jesus is anointed by a fallen woman twice as well. Gauntier seems to have intentionally avoided casting any women in a negative role, omitting anything about Herodias and her dancing daughter Salome. As an interesting side note, Gauntier during the shooting of the film married Jack Clark who played John the Evangelist.

The film was also highly controversial. Robert Henderson-Bland, the actor playing Jesus, or Christus as he preferred to call it, claimed that "No film that was ever made called forth such a storm of protest." For some, the offense was based solely on an objection to any cinematic depiction of Christ at all. The medium was increasingly being viewed as depraved, and rotten to the core in some church circles. Perhaps some of the objections however related to the way the film attempted to wrestle its imagery away from the confines of church tradition. For example, the use of a T-shaped cross, or the composition of the Last Supper which emphasized how some at the meal ate whilst reclining (Luke 22:14). Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the film was it's omission of the Resurrection.

The omission of the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ can be somewhat justified. This is primarily a stage production in the silent film era, even though it takes place in exotic locations. All scenes and miracles that required something supernatural to behold are omitted in this film. The Baptism of Christ is not shown, probably because it required a dove and heavenly voice, and the Temptation of Christ in the wilderness is not addressed, since it would require an appearance of the devil. Even at the depiction of the Annunciation, which in an earlier film from 1907 titled Life of Christ shows the appearance of the angel Gabriel, wings and all, in this film Mary suggests by her movements that a heavenly communication is going on. At the same time, however, there is really no outright reference to Christ as Divine in the film. Yet because of the film's popularity, it was re-released a number of times, most notably in 1916 (or 1919) under the title Jesus of Nazareth, where a Resurrection and Ascension scene were tagged onto the ending, with a different actor playing the role of Jesus. What is interesting and rare about these two added scenes is that, first, it shows the actual moment of the Resurrection, and second, it depicts one of the longest Ascension scenes I have ever seen.

On its release, however, the film seemed to be very well received, with some Christian groups rejoicing in such an evangelistic opportunity. Henderson-Bland's portrayal would be one of the best for many years to come, capturing both Jesus' humanity and his divinity well. He was able to be compassionate and caring for most of the film, and yet his cleansing of the temple is one of the most passionate and fearful of them all.

The film also seemed to avoid the charges of anti-Semitism that were leveled at the slightly later Palestinian scenes from D.W. Griffiths' Intolerance (1916), and DeMille's The King of Kings (1927). This was in no small part due to the omission of any sort of trial scene in front of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. It is also noticeable that the "crowd" who beg Pilate for Jesus's blood is probably the smallest crowd of any other Jesus film, with the possible exceptions of Il Messia, and Last Temptation of Christ (where Pilate sentences Jesus in private).

It should also be noted that the director of the film, Sidney Olcott, had previously directed Ben-Hur (1907), and he used James Tissot's illustrations for his devotional book The Life of our Saviour Jesus Christ (1896-1897) as the basis for numerous shots in the film. The head of Kalem, the distributor of the film, Frank J. Marion, presented a copy to the troupe as they departed for the Middle East. In fact, one could say that Olcott improved upon Tissot's illustrations.

The film is a pageant about the life of Jesus, with no dramatic development. The first 20 minutes is slow and a bit boring, the depictions of the ministry and miracles of Jesus are quick, and probably the most dramatic scene before the Passion itself is when Jesus weeps for the death of Lazarus, which appears a bit over-dramatic for the film. The music that accompanies the film often does not fit what is being portrayed. The movie assumes you know the stories already. The highlight of the film is the Passion itself, where Robert Henderson-Bland truly shines, though in most of the film he is merely displaying a series of dignified poses.

Eventually, the film was overshadowed by DeMille's popular The King of Kings, which outguns Olcott's film for spectacle, but fails to capture From the Manger to the Cross's authenticity and calm sense of spirituality. Whereas DeMille's Jesus is heralded by overbearing fanfare, the Jesus of this film "speaks" for himself.

In rating this film from 1 out of 10, I would give it an 8.5, as long as you include the added scenes from 1916 which show the Burial, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ.