Reviewing Jesus, the 1979 video, is certain to offend someone, so my focus is primarily on the video's artistic merits and on how well it works. The purpose of the video is to introduce non Christians and non-committed Christians to the life of Jesus Christ. Some friends gave me the video several months ago. All they know is that I'm not a Christian.
Without going into detail, I am very familiar with Christianity, growing up as a Presbyterian and reading the gospels a few times, and am now a Baha'i. Also familiar with many other religions and their founding prophets, I created a World Religions web site and have been to the Holy Land, visiting the various sites of the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Although focussing on the video's artistic choices and merits, my religious perspective inevitably influences the way I see the film.
From the video's official web site we can see that the Jesus video is an evangelical tool for bringing new people to Christ. They keep survey statistics on such things as the percentage of people who join in with the prayer at the end of the video, and they also claim that over 4 billion people have seen this film so far in 233 countries. The video is translated into some 600 languages. Warner Brothers must be very pleased at the way the word of mouth is spreading more copies throughout the world.
Obviously, many people are watching the video, so it works at some level. It's certainly much better than the cheaply constructed filmstrips they used to show when I attended Sunday school. Mostly we read Bible stories or from the Bible itself. With more people tuned in to video and musical presentations, it's quite natural for churches to tap into that media to communicate the message.
After opening with the expected quotation from John 3:16, the video Jesus bases its plot solely on the gospel of Luke, remaining rigidly faithful to the gospel and rarely adding conversations that you can't find in Luke. That makes for a far less controversial route than would occur if incorporating variations from the other three gospels that differ slightly from each other. What would you expect? They were written some 50 to 80 years A.D., so naturally the versions will diverge occasionally.
In a sense the choice of filming only the gospel of Luke has its strengths, as it appeals to a larger audience and presents Jesus Christ in the best light (literally). The richest parables are told here, with a larger overview of Christ's life, but the film focuses mainly of Christ's public ministry and glosses over His birth and His questioning of the priests in the temple at the age of 12. It also portrays Christ in the most positive way on the cross, as his final words in the Luke version are "Father! Into your hands I commend my spirit."
Besides using the scripture from Luke straightforwardly, the filming locations add authenticity to the production. Although there are no specific references on the credits or at the Internet Movie Database, another web site does indicate that the film was shot entirely in Israel. The scene leading to the Crucifixion does appear to take place on the actual Via Delorosa, so in a sense this 83 minute edited version off the original 117 minute film has to be the most faithful straight rendition of the gospel of Luke.
If textual accuracy without a great deal of artistic interference is what you want in a film about Christ, then this is your vehicle, qualifying as the Jack Webb version: "Just the facts, Ma'am."
On the other hand, others expect more interesting fare in film. And in this respect, this banal Jesus lacks emotional content and fails to spark intellectual curiosity and involvement. The first warning sign is the immediate appearance of the bland narrator, who has a good quality radio voice, but doesn't even put the emotional tenor of a Vin Skully into his work. Many scenes fall flat because the Biblical characters silently trudge through their scenes as the dubbed narration drones on. And if we've already read the book, there's not much to spark interest in those scenes.
Presenting a plain, �factual� version of the Christ story is designed to appeal to the masses. Brian Deacon portrays Christ as well as you can expect with the paper-thin script he's given, and the pressure to carry such an evangelical burden. If he gets too emotional or does something that can be a little quirky, many viewers would become outraged; thus, the filmmakers deliver a safe, banal Christ along with the monotonous narrator.
By limiting the story to the gospel of Luke, more interesting and challenging issues concerning the Crucifixion are avoided, but it avoids theological controversy. Although Jesus Christ Superstar isn't the definitive film version, it creates interesting discussion material by quoting the gospels of Mathew and Mark that claim Christ's final words are " Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken Me?) After all, why would Christ say that if there weren't also a "human" side to Him? Of course, that opens up a whole aspect for discussion beyond the scope of this video.
The one brief inclusion of a "human" moment is the scene where Christ is praying in the Garden of Gesthemane, asking God to give him another non sacrificial option but immediately vowing to do His will. However, this moment comes so quickly and is done so quietly that it makes little impact. Conversely, Jesus Christ Superstar highlights this moment emotionally with a song that clearly illustrates the metaphorical "tears of blood" that Christ sheds.
Even though it's not fair to criticize this edited down Jesus version for not including the temptation scenes from the gospel of Luke, why is this particular scene is edited out of the 83 minute video? This just further establishes the idea that references to Christ's human side must be overlooked, only making the video seem more fantasy-based than reality-based. After all, some of us have actually read the Bible and others have either read Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ or have seen Martin Scorcese's brilliant film adaptation that centers on the spiritual struggles of Christ.
Of course many Christians consider that work blasphemous, and many people who had never read Kazantzakis' book or seen the movie protested so vehemently that the film only saw limited release. Why are so many threatened by challenging questions that grapple with the spiritual? Theology students do this, so why are educated lay people regarded with suspicion for doing so?
Naturally, Jesus is striving to reach vast numbers of people, who may not be familiar with the Bible and can be reached with the "facts." If so, then why are all the main characters in this film so white? Why doesn't the film go for historical accuracy? With travelling being restricted to foot and donkey travel, why was there such a large influx of Anglo tourists in the Holy Land two-thousand years ago?
Again, the true purpose of the video is to appeal to the masses. But the film's subliminal message communicates that white people dominate the spiritual world once again. Historically, this has been a common practice ever since the European painters began depicting Christ in their own image and has continued into modern film. This video is hardly different than The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar, or Godspell for depicting Christ as an Anglo, but these more recent films have added racial diversity with the disciples and other main figures.
The other purpose of the video is to bring people to Christ. It's hard to imagine that the non-descript milk toast treatment of the familiar story overdubbed with the sonorous monotone narrated drone will inspire many people in and of itself, and it's difficult to understand how the blatant invitation to join Jesus after the film would be effective. But the official web site cites their statistics, claiming that many thousand have been brought to Christ through this project.
Personally, I prefer films that make me think. While competently filmed and constructed, the Jesus video doesn't work for me. It hardly rises above the elementary level of a colorless passion play that depicts the bare bones structure of Luke's gospel while leaving out the implied juicier conflicts that can be mined from the gospels. At least the original text doesn't indicate a reader must be brainless to grapple with spiritual matters.
Of course the video did force me to focus on the Bible again for a few minutes, but Jesus lacks enough substance to make a lasting impression, nor does it attempt the challenge that The Gospel of John takes on by being totally true to the text. If I'm going to watch a movie concerning Jesus, I'll pop in something that stimulates thinking and spirituality like The Last Temptation of Christ or The Life of Brian. The evangelical video has an intended widespread audience, but its paint-by-the-numbers presentation falls flat and flops with people outside the mainstream.