Wednesday, February 9, 2011

From the Manger to the Cross (1912, Sidney Olcott)

Perhaps the first on-screen appearance of Prozac Jesus, Sidney Olcott's From the Manger to the Cross precedes even Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings in presenting the world with a stoic, detached Christ, no matter how well-meaning or ingenuous. It's a trap fallen into time and time again--in an effort to avoid any sacrilege, Jesus is given no personality whatsoever. The film touches on the greatest hits of the life of Christ just as the title suggests, at the sacrifice of concise narrative structure. Ultimately we are left with the greatest story ever told in a way that could be told much greater.

To be fair, this movie was made before the contiguous state I live in was even admitted to the union, and few aside D.W. Griffith were employing editing and narrative structure with any success in this new field. The efforts for which From the Manger to the Cross can be praised are also part of the problem. The film was selected by the Library of Congress in 1998 to join the National Film Registry deeming it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Though it did gross a million dollars (in 1912!) and is considered by Turner Classic Movies to be the most important silent Jesus film, there is no question in my mind why it was selected. Not for its aesthetics (though it does flirt with double-exposure as a very placid Jesus walks very placidly, from left to right, across the water), but because of its production.

Shot on location in Palestine, Israel, Syria and Egypt, From the Manger to the Cross is in some ways the cinematic equivalent of the Via Dolorosa: It exists for the already initiated and any profundity comes from the connection to the source material, not the event de jour. Some of the images are striking, but one questions the necessity of filming Mary and Joseph in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza. The screenplay is patched from all four gospels and reads as such: Herod was jealous, they had to spend some time in Egypt, then they came back to Jerusalem. Therefore for three minutes of the movie we see some pyramids, then they're back in the Holy Land. The film is told chronologically with scripture references, so we're almost counting down the chapters from the get go. Furthermore, the entire picture is shot with a tableau aesthetic, unaware of cross-cutting, close-up, or any modern narrative device. Such a telling does nothing to develop Robert Henderson-Bland's (cough) performance.

From the Manger to the Cross is considered by many to be America's first feature-length film and errs as many features from the decade did. Similar in subject matter and length, D.W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia from 1914 trumps it artistically in nearly every way, but still waxes Victorian and loses dramatic footing. The same is true here. The scope and grasp are to be admired, but everything else is very static. There is a reason why many filmmakers and historians felt something in the poetry and artistry of cinema was lost when silent pictures faded out. This is not one of them. -- *½ / four stars

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