Jesus Christ Movie Star: The book and interview with author Phil Hall

A few months back, we interviewed Phil Hall, the author of The Weirdest Movie Ever Made: The Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot Film.

Now, BearManor Media has released Jesus Christ Movie Star, a new book by the author of The History of Independent Cinema and In Search of Lost Films and host of the award-winning podcast The Online Movie Show. This 176-page illustrated book is now available in a $22 paperback edition and a $32 hardcover edition.

It’s a great idea for a book, as Jesus Christ has challenged and inspired filmmakers from the very start of film and has seen so many different interpretations. I really enjoyed it as it unites everything from the silent film era through Old and New Hollywood, from blockbuster films to the world of the exploitation filmmaker, from movies by Hollywood royalty to movies made in the gutter.

From largely unseen oddities like Assassin 33 A.D and The Passover Plot to famous films such as The Last Temptation of ChristThe Greatest Story Ever Told and even Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the book gives a balanced overview of the many interpretations of the Son of God on screen. Even if you’re not religious, I recommend this book.

I had the opportunity to ask Hall some questions about the book and discover what went into making it, why Jesus appears in so many movies and what films do the best job of portraying Christ.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: What inspired you to write this book?

Phil Hall: During my youth, I considered the ministry for a career – my minor in college was religious studies – and my academic interest in the Christian faith never waned over the years. In the early 2010s, I had hoped at one point to do a book on Pilate’s wife, who is not identified by name in the Bible but is popularly known as Claudia Procula, but that project never moved forward. This new book comes from some of the research in the Claudia book’s section of cultural depictions of her place in the story of Jesus.

B&S: What makes Jesus such a uniquely filmable figure?

Hall: Jesus defies pigeonholing. His life story and message resonates differently with anyone who comes to the Gospels. This obviously includes filmmakers, which explains why there are so many different cinematic considerations of Jesus’ philosophy, actions and behavior. Griffth’s Jesus in Intolerance is worlds removed from Pasolini’s in The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Stuart Hazeltine’s in The Shack. There is no other historic figure who has been open to so many different interpretations, nor is there any that has been on the big screen from the dawn of silent film in the 1890s to today’s digital cinema.

What really struck me about your book is how the films of Jesus unite everything from highbrow features to the exploitation films of Sunn Classics and Larry Buchanan. Why do you think Jesus is so fascinating to filmmakers?

Hall: A crass answer would be the commercial viability of the subject – with relatively few exceptions, films about Jesus have consistently been profitable. It is also a story that can be molded to fit the times – consider the pacifist Jesus in Thomas Ince’s 1916 antiwar epic Civilization, the surly anti-authority Jesus of Pasolini’s 1964 film, and the hippie Jesus in the 1973 Godspell and the “bro” Jesus that we’ve seen in more recent films like Risen and The Shack.

B&S: It may be difficult, but what’s your favorite film in the book? Which do you think gets closest to translating Jesus (in your opinion)?

Hall: I believe Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and the 2003 The Gospel of John come closest in terms of staying on topic, as both were adapted exclusively from their respective Gospels. Most Jesus-centric films take a buffet approach in borrowing some aspects from the four Gospels while omitting others.

For personal favorites, George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) is wildly imperfect, but among the epics I think it comes closest to being an act of cinematic reverence. The Johnny Cash-produced 1973 The Gospel Road is wonderfully idiosyncratic and represents a true work of sincerity – plus, it has a great country-gospel score that never shows up in this cinematic genre.

B&S: What actor did the best job? Which one surprised you?

Hall: Max Von Sydow’s presence in The Greatest Story Ever Told is my favorite – he resembles an Eastern Orthodox icon come to life and he possesses the right degree of otherworldliness that sets him apart from the rest of the cast.  As a surprise, Donald Sutherland took what could have been a one-dimensional caricature in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and gave the role a degree of charisma and humor that helped to sell an interpretation of Jesus that some might have found offensive.

B&S: Are there any angles that have not been explored in Jesus films?

Hall: No. And if you ever see the 2000 short Jesus and Hutch with the Nazarene (played by Eric Stoltz) as a 70s’-style detective whose right hook gives criminals a new meaning of turning the other cheek, then you will realize the possibilities are infinite – if, perhaps, for the wrong reasons.

B&S: You’ve written about the movies that include Bigfoot and Jesus now. What historical figure, if any, is next?

Hall” I have no plans for new books at the moment, although outside of cinema studies I am writing a weekly series for the financial news site Benzinga called “Wall Street Crime and Punishment” about historic and contemporary figures who faced criminal charges for running amok with other people’s money. My next column is about Howard Hughes’ controversial acquisition of AirWest in the early 1970s, which I am writing after concluding this interview.

You can get your copy of Jesus Christ Movie Star at BearManor Media. They have the paperback, hardback and ebook versions available for sale. Thanks to Phil Hall for his time and great interview.

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