From the Manger to the Cross (1912)
Despite being made ten years later, it seems fitting to compare this movie with The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902-05). Both early silent Jesus movies, they are also both offered to current viewers on the same DVD and likely to be seen by the same audience.
From the Manger to the Cross is an important movie, apart from its subject matter. It was was made on a large budget, was a huge commercial success and was selected in 1998 by the Library of Congress for preservation in its National Film Registry. Director Sidney Olcott was praised as the greatest film director working.
Watching Manger shows how fast the art and craft of cinema was developing in its early days. In most respects this careful American production, shot on location in Palestine, is superior to its French predecessor. The acting is much improved, and in place of theatrical sets and costumes, locations, costumes and extras lend more authenticity to the experience. It has more of a narrative flow to it, using intertitles that include dialogue and quotes form the King James Version setting up each scene.
It is a more sober telling of the story. The pace is relaxed. The special effects take a back seat to the realism of the setting and performances. Though the camera does not move, the actors freely within the space, and different angles are sometimes used. The composition and blocking are much more sophisticated.
Two of the performances should be noted. Mary the mother of Jesus is an older, down to earth woman, far from overwhelmed by the burden she has received. There is a fascinating scene that I think I have figured out. In Nazareth, Mary and Jesus, age 12, are sitting together just outside Joseph’s shop. While Joseph seems to be fumbling with his work, Mary is holding up a scroll, presumably of the Scriptures, and they are reading and discussing it together. It is not clear who is learning from whom; perhaps they are learning together. Is this a suffragette Mary? Given the era, this seems a remarkable insertion into a fairly spare retelling.
I wondered about this until I recalled that Mary is played by the remarkable film pioneer Gene Gauntier – actress, director and screenwriter – who also wrote the script for this film. I believe that, like the renaissance masters, she has painted herself into the picture: a student of Scripture, sitting with Jesus.
Then there is Jesus. Robert Henderson-Bland has given us a better performance , with greater emotional range, including smiling here and grieving there. But other choices make Jesus out to be a pretty cool customer at times. He puts on a nonchalance, turning away from amazed onlookers after a miracle as if t’were no big deal. After turning the water into wine, he saunters back to his seat. “Yeah, that’s how I party, folks.”
There are little flourishes and details that are interesting and unexpected. The last supper shows everyone actually reclining rather than sitting, and Jesus is shown carrying a tau cross – both indications Gauntier did her research. Mary of Bethany has the most delightful look of pleasure when Jesus admonishes her sister. The priests are particularly wicked, laughing out loud at Judas when he throws the money down and runs away in remorse. The passion is very violent, bloody even. It must have been genuinely intense viewing for a 1912 audience. The mockery and other abuse is ugly, as it should be. The crucifixion is realistic and beautifully shot.
The most stunning surprise of this movie shouldn’t have surprised me at all, because it’s in the title. When Jesus dies on the cross, the story ends. Intertitle with John 3:16. Roll credits. Movie over.
Wow. When they said from the manger to the cross, that’s just what they meant. No burial, no garden tomb, no resurrection. Yes, I was – and am – very surprised that a movie made for American audiences in 1912 ends with a dead Jesus.
If you were planning your Easter to include a Jesus movie, you should skip this one.