Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The NFR Project #28: 'From the Manger to the Cross'

Jesus turning water to wine at the Marriage in Cana -- 'From the Manger to the Cross.'
From the Manger to the Cross
Dir: Sidney Olcott
Prod: Frank Marion
Scr: Gene Gauntier
Phot: George K. Hollister
Jesus is big box office. Ask Mel Gibson.

Unlike religions such as Islam and Judaism, Christianity has no law against representing God, holy beings, or its prophets visually. There is no ban on instrumental sacred music, either. As a result, a staggeringly grand amount of religious-themed art, permeating Western culture, has grown around the faith, promulgating it with direct appeals to the senses. So, it’s a no-brainer. A film about Christ is an evangelical act (as long as it adheres to doctrine – see Martin Scorsese, Monty Python).

“From the Manger to the Cross” can’t even be termed the first religious epic, as it has no epic pretensions. It’s in no way innovative technically or aesthetically – and there was probably little incentive for it to be. (OK, one detail stands out -- angels are, smartly, depicted as beams of light here.) The stage pictures that are created for the camera derive from the high-contrast dramatic religious paintings of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Rubens.

The heavy use of quotation and title cards adds to the Bible-lesson/”greatest hits” vibe of this version of the life of the Messiah. The acting is appropriately wooden and earnest. Mary is covered from head to foot, with even hair wimpled, an oddly puritanical touch. Jesus is played with the wistful passivity that seems to be the hallmark of most life-of-Christ film characterizations. Herold is a moody bastard, and Judas wrings his hands like the stereotype of the greedy Jew. When Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt, we get a picture-postcard shot of them admiring the Pyramids. No sense in wasting the trip, for either the characters or the crew filming them. A staid and conservative interpretation of the Gospels’ highlights is called for here, and met.

The one distinction that sets it apart it that is was filmed on location in “the Holy Land,” a decision that upped its costs considerably but paid off handsomely on the other end. (Some obvious sets find their way into the narrative as well.) This results in the odd aesthetic train wreck of “genuine” locations and native extras tied together with a handful of Caucasian actors, standing in front of them and enacting a story that none of the natives would find comprehensible. When this Christ expires, he doesn't give up the ghost so much as he shrugs it off. More effective, gaudier religious-film spectacles were to come.

Just as travelers flocked to Jerusalem and Mecca, so now they could get a little it of sanctimony by gazing on the holy city’ walls. The idea of pilgrimage to sacred sites is universal; cinema made the journey convenient for the cost of a nickel.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Land Beyond the Sunset.’

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