Codes, Films, Christmas and John Wayne

There are two particular films that come to mind at Christmas. I’m not talking about films that are typical Christmas films, things like It’s a Wonderful life or Scrooge or even Home Alone but films that tell the true story of Christmas, the story of Jesus himself. The two films I’m thinking of are King of Kings and The Greatest Story ever Told.

King of Kings starred Geoffrey Hunter as Jesus and in the Greatest Story it was Max Von Sydow. Max was in a way an unusual choice to play Jesus, he was pale and blue eyed and had a faint Swedish accent. Even so, he played a good part, so much so that whenever I see another portrayal of Christ, I always mentally compare it to that of Max. As for being pale and blue eyed, I suppose it is inevitable that people everywhere will envisage their religious icons in their own terms.

Geoffrey Hunter you may remember from the Star Trek pilot episode where he played Captain Pike, the original captain of the Enterprise. The producers of Star Trek, not wanting to waste the footage shot in the pilot, remade it into a two part episode where Mr Spock tries to help his former captain and is court marshalled.  In King of Kings Hunter plays a Jesus a little more forceful than that of Max Von Sydow’s but both portrayals are excellent. In King of Kings the director seems to compare the life of Jesus with that of Barrabus the rebel and freedom fighter –or terrorist, depending on your viewpoint. The two lives come together when Pontius Pilate asks the Jerusalem mob who do they wish to be freed. The mob chose Barrabus.

King of Kings was directed by Nick Ray who directed the famous Rebel without a Cause, James Dean’s iconic second film.

The Greatest Story was directed by George Stevens who made such classic films as Shane and James Dean’s last film Giant. Stevens was a director who worked the way I would work if I was a director. He shot a great deal of film then sat back, reviewed everything and put his film together one brushstroke –or film clip-  at a time. He chose Max to star as Jesus as he wanted a performer that was unknown to the general public. He might have been better in choosing unknown actors for the other roles too because the many star appearances seem to stop the viewer in his or her tracks as we spot various top actors and actresses in minor roles.

I do have a personal reason for liking this film. Once, many years ago my school friends and I were taken on a Christmas school trip to watch the film. We walked it as I remember in crocodile fashion from our Junior school Crossacres, down Wiggins hill and into Gatley, a small nearby village that boasted a lovely old cinema. That trip to watch this film did more for me than any teacher or RE lesson had ever done before or since and although I cannot claim to be overtly religious, I am certainly not an atheist and my respect for the person of Jesus has never been greater.

In Dan Brown’s thriller the Da Vinci Code, Brown looks at the ideas presented in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail about the idea that Jesus was married and that his widow, Mary Magdalene went to France where her child began a bloodline that exits to this day. The Holy Grail apparently was not a goblet that caught drops of blood from Jesus but an actual bloodline, a dynasty of Meringovian Kings that can be traced back to Jesus himself.

In the Da Vinci Code, Brown reveals these things as something that could tear the Christian church apart, why, I don’t know. To me, the idea that Jesus married and had children means he is more human and more understanding of the human condition than I have previously thought, so this news, if indeed it is actual news, does not distress me, to me it is joyous news.

While on the subject of the Da Vinci Code, I read it some time ago and although the book has many detractors, I personally found it a gripping read, one that I found hard to put down. Its effect though is perhaps like one of those very bright and loud fireworks that capture the attention for a short while and then fizzle out. In a St Annes charity shop not long ago where I go to peruse the second hand books and DVDs, they had a sign up next to an entire row of Da Vinci Codes. No more Da Vinci Code please: We’ve got plenty!

At the Regent Cinema in Blackpool they recently had a showing of that Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Sadly I was working that day but I hope to catch up with the film soon as they are bound to show it again on TV over Christmas. Director Frank Capra is another of my favourite directors and the film successfully combines fantasy with real life and James Stewart plays such a good part. Pity I missed that shoiwing at the Regent, I really fancied seeing the film on the big screen.

There are a whole lot of film versions of a Christmas Carol, 73 TV and film versions according to a BBC news item I saw a while ago but the definitive version is the one with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

A Christmas Carol was published over a hundred and seventy years ago. It’s a wonderful story by that master storyteller Charles Dickens. Within six days the entire print run of 6,000 copies had sold out. Within six weeks theatre adaptations had hit London’s theatres. In many ways the book is Dickens’ defining vision of a Victorian Christmas.

Going back to the film versions there’s one with Albert Finney, one with George C Scott, a cartoon version and even a version with Bill Murray as a modern-day Scrooge.. Don’t give any the time of day except for the definitive 1951 classic.

I must finish with one final anecdote about The Greatest Story ever Told. As I have mentioned, numerous star actors make guest appearances in the film from Sydney Poiter to Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury to Shelley Winters and many others but there is one I must mention: John Wayne as the Centurion who watches Jesus die on the cross. When Wayne uttered his immortal line, ‘truly this man was the son of God.’ Director George Stevens called ‘cut’ and asked Wayne to do the scene again but this time with more awe.

Wayne duly complied.

‘Action’ called Stevens.

‘Aww, truly this man was the son of God’ said Wayne.


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

2 responses to “Codes, Films, Christmas and John Wayne

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