From the Manger to the Cross.

Here we have an epic photoplay released three years before D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (a film whose mixture of outstanding virtues and horrible vices always gives Dr. Boli a queasy feeling). This film was eagerly anticipated, and news of each step in its progress was carried back from the Middle East by an efficient publicity machine. When it was released in 1912 (apparently under the title The Life of Christ), it was a huge success; and it was a huge success when it was brought out again in 1919 (as From the Manger to the Cross).

It was an extraordinarily expensive production for the time. Much of the expense of the production came from insisting on using authentic locations all over Palestine. And not just Palestine: when the Holy Family flee to Egypt, they are really in Egypt, with the Sphinx in the background to prove it.

The acting is excellent by early-film standards, and the settings make each scene believable. The domestic scenes of Jesus’ youth are probably the most convincing ever put on film. John the Baptist crying in the wilderness is memorable precisely because the wilderness itself is a character. The adult Jesus is perhaps a little too inhumanly holy, with a bit too much turning of the eyes heavenward; but Robert Henderson-Bland seems to grow into the role, and finds an appropriate wry amusement in the increasingly sputtering Pharisees. His anger in the cleansing of the Temple is palpable; the actor is clearly breathing heavily from the physical exertion of driving out the capitalists. Judas is a bit hammy but appropriately tortured. Pilate is quite believably exasperated, all the more so because the film conveys very well, through images, how annoying it is to have the constant racket of a near-riot outside one’s window. The crowd scenes are extraordinarily well-managed; they always seem to be simply happening, not being coordinated for the camera.

The makers of the film made wise choices in the presentation of it. For example, even though no expense was spared, and even though the technique of producing “spirits” on film by double exposure was well known and commonly used, the film does not show us the angel appearing to Mary or Joseph, but only the effects of the appearance on the human subject. The only trick special effect is Jesus’ walking on the water, and that is brief and well done (by double exposure, of course).

The version of the film above has a good organ score, and is presented with the original tinting, which is tastefully chosen to fit each scene. It ends with the Crucifixion—a fitting choice for Good Friday.

Another version, longer and with an electronic-organ score, is at under the title Jesus of Nazareth; but the picture is poorer, there is no tinting, and an “unregistered” blob from the program used to download it from some streaming site hovers in the corner. This one, however, adds the burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, including appropriate trick effects. It is hard to tell with the poor picture in this print, but the scenes after the Crucifixion may have been filmed later for a different release. (This article from a 1912 movie magazine tells us that the film as released then ends with the Cruciixion.)


  1. Sigivald says:

    His anger in the cleansing of the Temple is palpable; the actor is clearly breathing heavily from the physical exertion of driving out the capitalists.

    I feel I should point out that Jesus did not drive out “capitalists” from the Temple.

    He drove out money changers. They were not using capital investment to increase the productivity of future labor; they were not capitalists.

    The moneychangers were parasites on a requirement of Temple Law, and Jesus was against that, and turning the House of God into a place of commerce.

    (One assumes He would have not approved much of people doing capital-improved labor* in the Temple either, but as there isn’t any that related to the requirements of the Law, and thus was an abuse of the poor, one may think his response would be less angry and more puzzled and “why don’t you just do that someplace else instead?”

    * Well, except for construction and repair and the like. Hopefully.)

    • Dr. Boli says:

      The use of the word “capitalists” did, however, have its desired effect of provoking discussion. No one has yet remarked on the little Communist slogans above the sharing buttons, so Dr. Boli is happy to see that at least one of his attempts at provocation had some effect.

  1. […] Barefaced lies? Yes; you, dear readers, know that the whole story was a lie, because you have seen The Life of Christ, a film that was a great success in 1912, making a profit at least twenty-five times its budget, […]

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