King of Kings and
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Another undoubted shortcoming of the Gospel according to Hollywood is the habit of watering down the Bible in our pluralistic society so that it gives the least possible offense to the religious sensibilities of all shades of believers and unbelievers in the audience. 1
In the early 1960s, after decades of representing Jesus as a secondary character, Hollywood produced two major biblical films in which Jesus was once again the principal character, King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Both films were made in grand Hollywood epic-spectacular style and boasted important stars supported by hundreds of secondary actors, massive sets, elaborate costumes, and no apparent limits on costs. Both films took full advantage of all that the new film technology could offer: wide-screen images, ever more vivid colors, elaborate music scores and sound tracks and special effects. It was precisely because of these high production values that both films -- "disedifying and even antireligious" 2 -- were failures both in transmitting faithfully the content and meaning of the Gospel narrative and in representing adequately the person and significance of Jesus the Christ.
The first of these "Jesus as Superstar" films is the 1961 MGM-Sam Bronston production, King of Kings, directed by Nicholas Ray, who, six years earlier had directed the award-winning Rebel without a Cause, for which the Jesus of the new film is sometimes referred to facetiously as "a rebel with a cause." 3 Over three hours in length, and costing eight million dollars, King of Kings - a title that blatantly "exploited the title of Cecil B. DeMille silent film, The King of Kings" 4 -- starred Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus and many other well-known Hollywood actors. It featured the voice-over narration of Orson Welles -- a performance which went uncredited 5 -- and included an omnipresent and dramatic music score, almost four hundred elaborate sets, hundreds of minor actors and two huge battle scenes. Once the production team 6 had decided to make the film in this epic-spectacular style, then in order to attract the largest possible viewing public, they had to effect two major transformations on their basic source-text, the gospels. On the one hand, they had to transform the spare, elliptical, linear, non-dramatic text of the gospels into a full, organic