Heavenly creatures

Film - Philip Kerr looks back on the long tradition of blue-eyed celluloid Christs

It's that time of year again, when people celebrate the torture and execution of Jesus Christ. But as they genuflect, kneel on their hassocks and contemplate the story of Easter, whose face will they morph on to the body that lies in the tomb? The chances are it will not be the really lifeless face in Hans Holbein's painting Christ in the Tomb (1521). "A man could lose his faith looking at that picture," exclaims Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky's The Idiot. No more is it likely to be the dozy-looking Jesus on his way to crucifixion depicted by Bosch in Christ Carrying the Cross (1490), or the camp Christ painted by Rembrandt in Supper at Emmaus (1640). After 106 years of our Lord in cinema, it seems more probable that the face of Jesus held in the minds of the faithful as they line up for a cream cracker and a sip of Ribena will look like a movie actor's - one of at least 57 that have worn the crown of thorns since 1897, when Frank Russell first played Jesus in The Passion Play of Oberammergau. It will be 58 when Mel Gibson finishes directing The Passion, a brutal and bloody $25m film about the last 12 hours of Christ, in which everyone speaks Latin or Aramaic - a case of putting the Braveheart into Sacre Coeur.

As you might expect, Jesus has always been a white man with, perhaps, one exception - a 1968 Italian film called Black Jesus, starring Woody Strode. Sadly, the film shies away from being a full-on portrayal of our Lord. Instead, it is an allegorical portrait of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Congo, who was assassinated by CIA- and French-backed rebels in 1961; and the film's controversial title now looks like nothing more than a cheap publicity shot.

Less controversial has been the issue of facial hair. Almost all of the celluloid Christs have been bearded hippies. Philip Van Loan's shovel-like beard in the 1928 Jesus of Nazareth is the strangest of these, and makes him look like Abe Lincoln, rather than our Redeemer. Millard Coody's bushy beard in The Lawton Story (1949) is pure Grizzly Adams, while Max von Sydow's beard in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) is more Jason King than King of Kings. Ted Neeley's tash and chin beard in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) imitated only his singing voice: thin and insubstantial.

As far as I can tell, there have been three beardless Christs, although it is fair to say that two of these needed a shave. Victor Garber has been the only truly smooth-faced man to play Jesus, in Godspell (1973); he wore clown make-up instead of whiskers and fully deserved his crucifixion. Dino De Laurentiis cast his brother-in-law Roy Magnano (brother of his wife, Silvana) as Jesus in the much-underrated 1962 epic Barabbas; but Magnano only managed to look like Magwitch in Great Expectations. Best of the beardless Messiahs was certainly Enrique Irazoqui in Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964). Trivia collectors will like to know that Irazoqui is now a big name in the world of computer chess tournaments, which just goes to prove that there is life after Jesus.

Blue eyes have been almost de rigueur for the part. Von Sydow's eyes added an Aryan touch to his portrayal of Jesus Christ. And it cannot be denied that fair hair and blue eyes would have helped Jesus seem just a bit special among the predominantly dark-haired and brown-eyed peoples of ancient Palestine. Would that someone had thought to cast Frank Sinatra in the role.

Not all the celluloid Christs have conducted themselves on screen in a manner pleasing to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (that's what the Holy Inquisition calls itself these days). Unusually, John Drew Barrymore played both Jesus and Judas Iscariot in the 1964 film Pontius Pilate. In Greaser's Palace (1972), Jesus "returned" to the Old West, by parachute, and wearing a zoot suit (watching this movie, directed by Robert Downey, it becomes easier to understand how Robert Downey Jr ended up with a drug problem). And who could blame Willem Dafoe fancying Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene in Scorsese's thoughtful The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)? More contentiously, in Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) fantasises that Jesus (played by Oliver Reed) comes down from the cross and gives her a good seeing-to. (And why not?) But my own personal bad-taste favourite is the moment in Carmelo Bene's Salome (1972) when Jesus nails himself to the cross - a job he is obliged to leave unfinished, for obvious reasons.

Talking of pin-up Christs, these have included Robert Powell in Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings (1961; sometimes known as "I Was a Teenage Jesus"). One movie actor clearly liked the part of Christ so much he played him twice. Not content with being Jesus in D W Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Howard Gaye directed himself as our Lord in Restitution (1918). How's that for a second coming?