Sunday, November 08, 2015


In 30 A.D. Judea, the Jewish populace is oppressed by the Romans who keep raising taxes and imprisoning or enslaving those who cannot pay, and a small underground band of rebels called the Zealots are trying to gain support to fight back. Joel (John Beal) is the head of the Zealots, counseling patience and restraint, but his headstrong brother Zadok (Warren McCollum) is more restless. News of the itinerant preacher Jesus sparks hopes that he might be the prophesied king who will lead his people to freedom.  On the home front, Joel is in love with Tamar (Marjorie Cooley), but Joel's father Lamach makes a deal with Tamar's father to give her to Zadok in marriage instead of Joel. This causes tension between father and son, which is stretched to the breaking point when Joel sets out to look for Jesus. He takes a ceremonial sword and along the way, stops in villages and has rebels pledge their allegiance so Jesus will be able to call on a small army when he agrees to lead the rebellion. But when Joel encounters Jesus, he is disappointed that Jesus refuses his army because of his philosophy of "love thy neighbor." Judas, a disaffected apostle, buddies up with Joel for a time, and Joel hatches a plan to trap Jesus and "force him to become a man of action."  But before that can happen, the Romans, led by the centurion Longinus (Albert Dekker), attack the Zealots and kill Zadok. Longinus himself is wounded and just as Joel is about to deliver a death blow, the words of Jesus about love and mercy come to him.

I'd have to do more research to say this definitely, but this would seem to be the first mainstream Hollywood movie to tell a Biblical story in a non-epic fashion (there were silent epics like KING OF KINGS and QUO VADIS). In the sense that it tells a story of Jesus in which Jesus is only a peripheral character, it feels modern. We hear the voice of Jesus, but his face is seen only briefly, in a reflection in a pond when Joel first finds him. What might cause problems today among some Christians is the emphasis on non-violence and loving all "neighbors," even enemies. I've read conflicting reports about this film's production history, but it seems to have been made independently in 1939 and distributed in 1941 by 20th Century Fox. The director, Irving Pichel, worked primarily at Fox but also did films for smaller studios like Republic. The leads, John Beal (pictured) and Albert Dekker, had long Hollywood careers, mostly in B-movie or in character roles. Maurice Moscovitch, a well-known actor in Yiddish theatre, is just right as Joel's father. The production, mostly shot on outdoor sets, is solid. I went into this film thinking it would be a shoddy, preachy Sunday school flick, and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. The way the film treats the political aspect of rebellion—and the participation of Judas—reminded me of the 1961 KING OF KINGS. Overall, a pleasant surprise; even the way the low-budget film treats the crucifixion at the end works well. [YouTube]

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