In the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the last film director John Ford made that really mattered, a young reporter is given advice from his newspaper publisher when after a lengthy interview with a living legend of the Old West, the subject’s reality turns out to be very different. The wise newspaper man tells his young apprentice that “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
That has been the way of every bio-pic ever produced by old and new Hollywood. Unlike historical books where one could fill a football stadium with tomes dedicated only to the life of men like Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill, movies and made for TV movies have to use shorthand and in the process short change historical accuracy. Facts are massaged altered or sometimes completely obliterated to serve the needs of a specific agenda.
In Oliver Stone’s JFK there is a scene where actor Walter Matthau goes on a long tirade about Lee Harvey Oswald’s lack of proficiency with firing a weapon and even states that Oswald failed to qualify. That is not even close to the truth. In fact, the United States Marines have three qualifying standards, Marksman, Sharpshooter and Expert. Oswald hit 48 of 50 then 49 of 50 targets 200 yards away and earned the ranking of Sharpshooter. But if your story hinges on a labyrinth of conspiratorial splendor, that fact must go.
In Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, a fine movie about real life Depression era boxer James Braddock’s unlikely climb to the heavyweight championship of the world, the director and script writer obviously believed it was necessary they give the underdog an even stronger attraction for the audience by creating a villain in the form of real life heavyweight champion Max Baer.
Through a quirk of my other life in the television industry, I just happen to have known Max Baer’s son. I heard many stories from Max Jr. about his father and how, although being a prototype modern media athlete - meaning he was good looking and he knew it – was self-assured to the point of conceit – and had a flair for publicity – Max Baer was still a consummate pro and man of some integrity…but you would never know it from watching Cinderella Man. Instead, you get a dashing yes, but brutal monster. Yes, it was a historical fact that Max Baer killed a man in the ring, but in the film that truth is worn on Max Baer’s chest like a medal. In reality, Baer was rocked to his core when it happened. And on the quiet, Max Baer supported the widow and children of the boxer he killed in the ring all the way up to paying for the college education of these kids. Not the monster portrayed in the movie.
So what do you get from filmmakers when the subject of a bio-pic is Jesus. What you get is a grab bag of variously unsatisfying portrayals. You get the antiquated and so pious you want to scream rendering of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent King of Kings to the 1950s version of pretty boy heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter wearing a Jesus wig and doing his best to appear messianic when in reality it just looks like 1950s heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter in a Jesus wig. And who can forget The Greatest Story Ever Told with John Wayne stupendously miscast as the Roman Centurion at the foot of the cross. Yikes.
It's that time of year again when biblical epics will rise up and populate our television sets – from Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ that dances around outright blasphemy to Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth mini-series which has a lot of merit but is still a little stilted. We’ll always have Ben Hur I guess (the Chuck Heston version not the remake) which remains a wonderful and thought-provoking device of telling the story of Jesus without ever seeing His face...And it’s got a chariot race with real horses and real chariots…not a computer generated image in sight.
So when it comes to biblically based movies of the past and for those to come, I suggest a certain amount of caution…But if you want to get the real story and not be subjected to any film maker’s particular agenda, I suggest you just go read the book.