Jesus of Nazareth: Easter Classic Is Still Better Than Creepy Robots

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     First released in time for Easter back in 1977, Franco Zeffirelli’s epic miniseries Jesus of Nazareth was a staple of American television for years. As soon as Cadbury Creme Eggs hit the store, Jesus of Nazareth commercials, complete with the sounds of Maurice Jarre’s sweeping soundtrack, would be on the air. It was almost as much of an Easter tradition as garish baskets, painted eggs, and my older brother decapitating all the chocolate bunnies and leaving their headless corpses for my younger siblings and me to find and mourn over.  

    While I’m too young to have been aware of the miniseries when it first aired, I remember Jesus of Nazareth as one of several epic miniseries that dominated television in the late 70s and into the 80s: Roots, Shogun, Centennial, Shaka Zulu, The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, North and South, The Blue and the Grey, Masada, and A.D., which was made by the same team who did Jesus of Nazareth. There were even biopics like a strangely admiring look at Mussolini’s life featuring George C. Scott Long before Netflix lost $200 million by running a show on Marco Polo. Ken Marshall appeared as that Italian traveler in an epic miniseries from the early 1980s featuring a whole cavalcade of stars running from Anne Bancroft to Burt Lancaster to Leonard Nimoy. 

     Even in this age of binge-watching, most of these miniseries have been sitting in the dustbin of history for decades, though nostalgia for awful 80s programming is at all-time high. I can still enjoy half-forgotten songs and movies from my childhood, but I can’t say I’ve spent much time pining for Centennial or any of those other miniseries. Some of them I barely remember. 

     But Jesus of Nazareth is different. Whatever its merits and faults, this miniseries has been burnt into my mind for three decades now. I watched the series several times during Sunday school. With too few instructors and too many students, the classes often turned into watching TV, and so I became well acquainted with Jesus of Nazareth.

     Frankly, it could have been worse. My childhood ranked as a dark ages for religious education television. Pat Robertson and the Christian Broadcasting Network had Superbook, a cartoon that hit viewers over the head with its message using the worst features of anime, including a bunch of children with strange hair and a clockwork robot going back through time to experience the Bible. This was followed by The Flying House, a cartoon with yet another group of children with a different robot going back in time to meet Jesus. As a kid, I always wondered why the Romans and Hebrews accepted these robots instead of decrying them as demons. It would have made the shows far more interesting. Hanna-Barbera, which still cast a fairly large shadow in animation at the time, did slightly better with The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible which featured two young archaeologists going back in time to experience scripture firsthand, accompanied by their “nomad friend” Moki, a walking stereotype who tried to offer comic relief but failed miserably. It was essentially a less exciting Jonny Quest with the Bible thrown in. 

     No wonder my Sunday school teachers turned to Jesus of Nazareth. At least there were no blue- haired children or creepy robots in the miniseries. Throughout my sixth through eighth grade years, I could count on watching “Jesus of Nazareth” at least twice a month in Sunday school. Since other classes would also watch the same VCR tapes, the teachers would often make us re-watch parts of it we had already seen. When classes were condensed and new students were added, we would start all over from the beginning. Clocking in at more than six hours, getting through the miniseries was no easy task. It was made near impossible by watching 20 minute fragments one week and then jumping back to the beginning the next as more kids joined the class. 

    With little chance of following the plot, I found ways to entertain myself, including thinking out loud while watching the TV, launching a new bane to the existence of my loved ones. Along with a few friends, I would try to recognize the various actors I knew from other films. Some of them were easy. Even though he was far slimmer than I ever saw him, James Earl Jones was easy to spot as one of the Magi. Donald Pleasance, who we know as Dr. Sam Loomis from the Halloween series and James Bond adversary Blofeld, was another of the Magi. Most of us knew who Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, and Anthony Quinn were. Some of the actors we simply knew from their other work, even if we did not know their names. Mary Magdalene wasn’t Anne Bancroft; she was the woman from the Captain EO attraction featuring Michael Jackson at Epcot. John the Baptist was played by the guy who was in The Three Musketeers instead of by Michael York. I suppose these days, we would have said John the Baptist was played by Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers films. 

     As we continually had to watch and re-watch the miniseries, yet somehow never got up to the Passion, we started memorizing some of the dialogue, especially from the first hour or two, and saying it along with the actors. Apparently, I crafted my pompous public persona as early as junior high since I went out of my way to memorize the always wonderful Peter Ustinov’s lines as Herod the Great. Watching the miniseries for the first time in decades, I laughed my head off as I realized I still knew some of Ustinov’s lines. While Herod is rightfully portrayed as a villain, I can see why the character garnered my attention. Ustinov’s last lines in the miniseries are a boastful threat against God’s plans as Herod prepares his troops for the Massacre of the Innocents. Watching it now, I was struck by how over the top Herod sounded, reminiscent of Ravishing Rick Rude, the Honky Tonk Man, Jesse “The Body” Ventura and the other villains I rooted for when I watched professional wrestling as a kid. 

     After eighth grade, I left Sunday school and spent my weekends bagging groceries at the local Winn-Dixie. Somehow, despite having watched bits and pieces of it over the course of three different years, I never quite reached the end of Jesus of Nazareth. Making up for lost time, I decided to binge-watch it and, for the most part, it holds up well. I was surprised to see Anthony Burgess, probably best known as the writer of A Clockwork Orange, helped write the script and it does have his fingerprints on it, including a few jabs against government and authority. 

     Four decades after it was first released, Jesus of Nazareth holds up well for the most part, thanks in part to Zeffirelli’s fine directing and Robert Powell’s strong performance in the lead role. Drawing on all four gospels, the miniseries only takes a few minor liberties, with Ian Holm playing the most prominent character not taken from the Bible. Sadly, after thirty years, I still remember some of Ustinov’s dialogue, repeating it with him in parts and even capturing the smug tone on his “you may say tribe” line. I can’t remember where I put my car keys, but I can remember a throwaway line from a miniseries I hadn’t seen since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. I’m not sure what that means, but it can’t bode well for me. 

     After thirty years, I finally saw the ending of the miniseries with Zerah, played by Holm, looking into the empty tomb. If children are forced to repeatedly watch Jesus of Nazareth these days, I hope a few of them recognize Holm as Bilbo Baggins from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

     Still, while it was far better than I was expecting it to be, I’m not sure if it did me any good to finally see the end of Jesus of Nazareth. Sometimes the best works of art are left unfinished with plenty of room for the imagination to fill in the blanks. Much like our own lives and religious journeys, the seemingly endless Jesus of Nazareth was better as a constant work in progress. 

     Watching Jesus of Nazareth again, just like in junior high, my mind wandered despite the solid performances and fine directing. Instead of trying to amuse my Sunday school classmates with my poor Peter Ustinov impression, I wondered where they were after all this time. I’ve kept tabs on a few of them, but those are mostly the children of neighbors or family friends. Instead of wondering what other roles I knew Ian McShane or James Mason from, I tried to remember the names of my Sunday school classmates. What was the name of the funny kid whose little brother looked just like him? Was the cute blonde cheerleader a year younger than me or were we in the same grade? I wish I had spent more time focusing on my classmates instead of Peter Ustinov’s dialogue as we spent our Sundays watching Jesus of Nazareth instead of idiotic robots.

By Kevin Derby

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