From rubber spears to Jesus being banned from the canteen…

Daily Mail, 22 April 2010 (Good Friday)

Over 40 things you never needed to know about those Jesus-related blockbusters that TV rolls out every Easter

* Islam and Judaism both consider pictorial representations as idolatrous. Strictly speaking, therefore, all Hollywood portrayals of God/Jesus – from ‘The King of Kings’ to ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ – are blaspehmous.

* Our Lord first ‘appeared’ on celluloid in ‘The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ’ (1902). It was made by the Pathe company and concludes with a (very wobbly) ascension to Heaven.

* 1912’s ‘From the Manger to the Cross’ was the first religious epic to be shot on location in the Holy Land. It was a huge success and made profits of $95m in today’s money.

* In Cecil B de Mille’s 1927 version of ‘The King of Kings’, the actor playing Jesus is over 20 years older than the actress playing his mother. (It’s a miracle!)

* With the exception of Morgan Freeman in ‘Bruce Almighty’, God has generally been cast  as a white man. ‘The Green Pastures’ (1936) bucked this trend when it featured an all-black cast, with Rex Ingram playing “De Lawd”. The film began with a ‘disclaimer’ to make it palatable to white audiences: “Thousands of Negroes visualise God and Heaven in terms of people and things they know in their everyday life…”

* Pub trivia question: what did the ‘B’ in ‘Cecil B de Mille’ stand for? Answer ‘Blount’. So now you know.

* Cecil B de Mille liked the story of ‘The 10 Commandments’ so much that he filmed it …twice. The first version in 1923 and the second in 1956. (The second should really have been called ‘The 20 Commandments’.)

* Charlton Heston was chosen for the role of Moses in de Mille’s 1956 version because he bore a resemblance to Michelangelo’s statue in Rome. Some say his acting bore a resemblance to the statue too – only less animated.

*  Heston was not de Mille’s first choice for the role of Moses. He asked William ‘Hopalong Cassidy’ Boyd to play the part. Boyd turned him down, fearing his cowboy image would damage the film. Imagine the script: “Mosey along there, Moses…”

* Yul Brynner (Ramses), hit the gym hard during the filming of ‘10 Commandments’. He was worried that his figure would be outshone by Heston’s famous physique. (The latter’s nickname should have been ‘Charlton Athletic’.)

* It took a gruelling three weeks to film ‘The 10 Commandments’ orgy scene. Charlton Heston, who played Moses, later wrote that he overheard one female extra cry: “Who do I have to sleep with to get OUT of this movie?”

* For years, God’s voice in 1956 Commandments was believed to be that of Donald Haynes. Charlton Heston later claimed he was the voice of God. (He was head of the NRA at any rate.)

* In 1953’s ‘The Robe’, the Messiah is played by film’s (anonymous) second unit director. This meant the unfortunate man had to perform his normal duties in full costume. Worse still, he wasn’t allowed eat in the canteen. Studio chiefs felt it was inappropriate for Jesus to be seen munching a sandwich in public.

* Comedy legend, George Burns, gave us one of the most likeable portrayals of a cigar-chomping Deity in ‘Oh God’. He’s not the only Hollywood legend to have puffed on a heavenly cheroot. Robert Mitchum also played God as a cigar-smoker in 1992 Benelux comedy, ‘Les Sept Péchés Capitaux’.

* ‘The 10 Commandments’ was the highest-grossing religious flick of all time ($500m) until ‘The Passion of The Christ’ passed it by in 2004. Mel Gibson’s ultra-violent film earned $611,899,420 worldwide, making it the top-grossing indie movie ever.

* TV cartoon series, ‘God, the Devil and Bob’ – starring James Garner and Alan Cummings –  portrayed the Almighty as a beer-swilling, ex-hippie, not unlike Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. The uproar from fundamentalist Christian groups in the States caused the plug to be pulled after just three episodes.

* Given this country’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin, the role of Jesus’ mum had to go to an Irishwoman at some stage. Belfast-born Siobhan McKenna landed the part in 1961’s ‘King of Kings’. The film has a few noticeable gaffes. In one scene, as the Romans enter Jerusalem, the tops of their spears flap about because they were made of … rubber.

* Despite being Jewish, Jesus is often played by actors with blue eyes. The most striking examples are Robert Powell (Jesus of Nazareth),  Jeffrey Hunter (King of Kings) and the exceptionally Scandinavian Max von Sydow (The Greatest Story Ever Told).

* American TV network ABC has aired The 10 Commandments every Easter since 1973. The one year they chose not to – 1999 – they logged more angry calls than for the entire previous season.

* Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ caused a furore when it was released in 1979. Thirty-nine local authorities in the UK either imposed an outright ban or an X certificate. It was banned in Ireland until 1987. Aberystwyth council held out the longest. It finally allowed the film to be screened in 2009 – only after cast member, Sue Jones-Davies, was elected mayor of the town.

* ‘The Life of Brian’ is the only ‘religious’ film ever to feature a stoning scene with men dressed as women dressed as men. In February 2007, the Church of St Thomas the Martyr in Newcastle held a public screening of the controversial movie. Along with the song sheets, church staff also gave out false beards for female members of the audience.

* In ‘The Life of Brian’, six cast members play 40 various characters.

* Singer Alanis Morrissette played God in action-comedy ‘Dogma’ (1999) after Holly Hunter and Emma Thompson passed. Morrissette/God features prominently but doesn’t get to speak. Considering she’s made her living from her voice, that was – in her own words – a touch ‘ironic’.

* James Caviezel’s role as Jesus in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004) was an easy gig. He was accidentally whipped twice (he now has a 14-inch scar) and dislocated his shoulder when the 150lb cross dropped on him. He also suffered hypothermia during the crucifixion scene.

If that wasn’t bad enough, he was struck by lightning during the Sermon on the Mount. Most people would have taken the celestial ‘hint’ at that stage.)

* The crucifixion scene in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is so brutal that it has been blamed for the death of at least one person. Peggy Scott, a 56-year-old advertising sales manager, had a heart attack while watching it in Kansas on its first day of release.

* Zombie Jesus! (2007) is one of the sickest comedy twists on the Jesus story. It has Christ returning from the dead to feast on human brains. Tagline: ‘Prepare to be converted.’ This should have converted … over the bar and out of the field.

* The promo poster for ‘Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter’ shows Our Lord posing with groovy go-go dancers. Hard to define this one: it’s been described as a splatter movie and a martial-arts-cum-Mexican-wrestling musical. It’s also been described as “utter cack”.

* ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ (1964) is still critically acclaimed as a groundbreaking, left-wing description of Jesus’ life. It was directed by the homosexual, atheist, Marxist, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Given his unorthodox credentials, the movie’s dedication is surprising. It’s to the man who inspired the film: Pope John XXIII.

Pasolini was murdered in mysterious circumstances in 1975.

* ‘I don’t care if it rains or freezes, as long as I have my plasticene Jesus’, should have been the tagline for ‘The Miracle Maker’ (2000). Ralph Fiennes voices Our Lord in this Wallace and Gromit-style film. His plummy voice prompted once critic to ask why Jesus would speak with a posh British accent. Fair point, considering Jesus was born in a stable.

* The always-offensive South Park surpassed itself with ‘The Passion of The Jew’ – a send-up of the reaction to Mel Gibson’s film. In short: anti-hero Cartman cons Jewish kid Kyle into seeing Mel’s movie. This leads to Kyle wanting all Jews to apologise for killing Jesus.

Despite its provocative content, the episode was praised by the Jewish newspaper ‘The Forward’, which called it “perhaps the most biting critique of ‘The Passion’ to date”.

* Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s UltraChrist! Made on a budget even lower than the director’s IQ, ‘UltraChrist!’ reinvents Jesus as a superhero. Our Lord legs it around New York in his sandals, fighting crime with a utility belt. Guaranteed to make your brain melt faster than an Easter egg on a radiator.

* ‘Toxic Avenger IV’ (2001) features one of Hollywood’s more shocking portrayals of God. The Almighty is played by frequent Howard Stern guest, Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf.

Hank/God is bitter, lecherous, rude and rails against the Pope for “not really knowing Him at all”. He has only allowed 16 people into heaven. Hank is now deceased. We’ll never know if he was number 17…

* It’s God Jim, but not as we know Him. In 1989’s ‘Star Trek V: The Final Frontier’ Kirk and crew “boldly go” to the planet Shakari in search of (cue drumroll) God.

The Creator is in a foul mood and demands that the Enterprise takes him off Shakari. This leads to, possibly, the best ever God/man exchange in a film: “Excuse me, but what does God need with a starship?”

* When Will Ferrell’s ‘God’ gets excited in ‘Superstar’ (1999), he exclaims: “Oh. My. Me!” He also likes to point out that Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’ is “about Me”.

* Our Lord has made an ‘appearance’ in every Monty Python film. ‘He’ started out in the BBC series as an animated photo of Victorian cricketer, WG Grace. (An appropriate name for a Deity, we think you’ll agree.)

* 1973 musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ featured Ted Neely as an all-singing hippy Christ. Christian fundamentalists were even less amused by King Herod parading about the place in white swimming togs.

The latter got to deliver the show’s killer line: “Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.”

* ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ was first performed in Europe on Christmas Day, 1971. It was staged in Vilnius, Lithuania which was then part of the Soviet Union. The musical was subsequently banned and the KGB persecuted the performers.

* In 1969 musical, ‘Godspell’, Jesus’ followers are a right bunch of fools. Literally. In the original production the company are a troupe of clowns who follow Jesus in an abandoned playground. Later productions have been set in an apocalyptic world and even a McDonald’s restaurant. (Ronald McDonald/clown etc.)

* Godspell’s biggest hit song was 1972’s ‘Day by Day’. The number rescued Ben Stiller’s character during an awkward moment in ‘Meet the Parents’. He recites the lyrics when asked to say grace before his first dinner with the family.

* Director George Stevens hired 550 Navajo Indians to play Roman legionnaires in ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’.

* Martin Scorsese filmed ‘The Last Temptation of  Christ’ between ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Goodfellas’. True to form, he used tough guy actors in the lead roles: Willem Dafoe as JC and Harvey Keitel as Judas. There’s no truth in the rumour he’s planning to film ‘Raging Papal Bull’ or ‘Godfellas’ any day soon.

* Telly Savalas shaved his head for his role as Pontius Pilate in ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ – and never looked back. His billiard-ball head ultimately landed him the role of TV’s most famous cop – Kojak.

* Simon The Zealot in ‘The Greatest Story etc’ was played by Robert Blake of  TV cop show, ‘Baretta’. Blake’s career went off the rails, but he found fame again in 2005 – when he was accused of murdering his wife.

* Film nerds love to point out the mistakes in ‘Ben Hur’ (1959). Two favourites are the camera’s shadow on Jesus’ back and the sight of a galvanised steel stand during the chariot race. The most quoted gaffe is the one about the chariot herald wearing a Rolex. Sorry, but it’s not true. Look closer, it’s actually an unfortunately-placed shadow.

* No round-up of Easter film trivia would be complete with mentioning The Duke. John Wayne’s role in ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ lasted under 60 seconds, but gave Hollywood its most quoted religious movie line of all time. Centurion Wayne looks up at the cross and says: “Truly this man is the Son of God.”

Legend has it that the director said, “That’s fine Mr Wayne, but could you give it more ‘awe’?’

Wayne replied: “Awwww, surely this man was the Son of God…”

Amen.

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