Jesus films have not always been so serious, and they have not always been directed toward particular segments of the Christian community. In the 1970s, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar used whimsy, even silliness, to tell the old, old story, and both sought mass appeal. Neither film grabbed the market share Passion of the Christ did, but they were popular for their day. Why did so many Americans of the 1970s gravitate to inventive, artistic, and playful accounts of Jesus, while today Christ films are brutal and interested giving in a literal-seeming interpretation of the Bible?
Jesus Christ has played a prominent role in the American cinema since its modern genesis. In the beginning of the 20th century, directors D. W. Griffith and Cecil DeMille not only made the son of God a star on the silver screen, but also consciously set him in conversation with the nation’s most visible problems. After Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-glorifying film Birth of a Nation (1915) had Jesus appear to bless white supremacy, Griffith tried to prove his love for liberty with Intolerance (1916). In it, nasty Jews crucify the peaceful Jesus. Understandably, this had American Jews crying racism, much as blacks had done with the first film.
Ten years later, DeMille produced the relatively benign biopic The King of Kings (1927), which offered Americans a way to contain diversity within unanimity.* From the 1880s to the 1920s, the nation changed dramatically in its demographics. Massive immigration had brought to the shores millions of non-Protestants and peoples deemed non-white. They had their “kings,” spiritual and political, but DeMille’s film was there to remind everyone that Jesus was the “king of kings.”
In the early Cold War, the star of Moses rose above the cross of Christ with The Ten Commandments (1956). Another DeMille feature, it was both a box-office and critical success. Filled with sexual innuendo, light and dark flesh wrapped in eye-catching dress, and cutting-edge special effects, The Ten Commandments made its political point clear. Before the opening credits, DeMille is on screen before the audience. He explains, “The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.” Take that, Soviet Union!
But in the 1970s, for the first time, popular Jesus films emphasized playfulness, new sonic and visual aesthetics, and even “camp” to present the gospel tale. People had just experienced the ‘60s, with its passions and social strains (including several assassinations of public figures). Hippies and their religious analogue, the Jesus People, defined themselves by experimentation. For the former, it meant drugs. For the latter, it meant relating to Jesus in new ways. Their “buddy” Jesus “took a bad rap.” The new vernacular even had a new Bible, The Way, which translated biblical texts into what seemed then a “cool” idiom.