‘The Passion’s’ Precedent: The Most-Watched Film Ever?

Last month, Outreach Inc., a Christian marketing company retained by Mel Gibson, sent a DVD trailer of Mr. Gibson’s new film “The Passion of the Christ” to thousands of churches, urging pastors to promote “what may well be the greatest outreach opportunity in the past 2,000 years.”

That may not be a category that gets much recognition at the Oscars. But evangelical groups have good reason to believe that Gibson’s movie could become an important tool for their recruiting efforts. In fact, according to some missionary organizations, for the last couple of decades the most powerful tool they’ve had at their disposal is another film — “Jesus,” a 1979 Warner Brothers release that has shown a remarkable ability to attract people to the Christian faith. The movie is all but forgotten in Hollywood, but it has been screened in so many big cities and tiny villages in so many countries that it is sometimes described as the most watched movie of all time. Campus Crusade for Christ credits it with saving 176 million souls.

For a film with a now-mythic reputation, its beginnings were less than auspicious. Bill Bright, an Oklahoma-born confectioner who would go on to found the Campus Crusade for Christ, spent a good chunk of his early career in Los Angeles trying to convert Hollywood stars. He dreamed of creating a powerful film about the life of Christ, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade Cecil B. DeMille to direct a talkie remake of his 1927 silent film, “The King of Kings.”

In 1976 Bright stumbled upon a new collaborator. The British producer John Heyman wasn’t an obvious choice for a Jesus biopic: a German Jew, he had previously produced “Twinky,” in which Charles Bronson plays a pornographic novelist married to a 16-year old. But Mr. Heyman had also produced a series of 15-minute shorts based on the Bible, and he and Bright became partners. Mr. Heyman’s motivation, as he now describes it, was financial: “I believed the best-selling book in the world would sell a lot of 8-millimeter and 16-millimeter films.”

Both patron and producer committed themselves to historical verisimilitude. The film was shot on location in Israel, and every day, film was sent to a panel of biblical scholars for inspection. “We were required to refilm three days’ work,” Mr. Heyman recalled in a recent e-mail message, “because we had shown eucalyptus trees in a variety of shots. Eucalyptus trees were introduced to Palestine very much later.” The British stage actor Brian Deacon was selected, among other reasons, for his “ethnically correct” olive complexion. The cast is strangely filled with Jewish-sounding names: Rivka Neuman (Mary), Leonid Weinstein (James), Eli Cohen (John the Baptist). For extras, Mr. Heyman cast crowds of Yemenite Jews — because, as Paul Eshleman, the director of the organization that distributes the film, told The Christian Century magazine in 2001, “their facial features have changed the least over 2,000 years.”

Unlike biblical epics such as DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” and George Stevens’s “Greatest Story Ever Told,” which add psychological back story and distracting celebrity cameos, “Jesus” presents itself as a literal adaptation. After an incongruous shot of planet Earth from space, screen text announces that the film is a “documentary taken entirely from the Gospel of Luke.” A narrator reads from that text — and then mysteriously disappears midway through the film. Little effort is taken to render Jesus as a three-dimensional character: his dialogue mostly consists of unabridged passages of scripture, and he’s barely shown doing anything other than performing miracles and delivering speeches. In terms of special effects, the film offers poofs of smoke and gauzy halos to suggest miracles and angels; a hissing snake and a booming voiceover represent the devil. In the scene in which the Romans beat Jesus, their punches obviously don’t connect.

When the film was released, Tom Buckley of The New York Times described it as “painfully monotonous.” It earned an unspectacular $4 million at the box office. But Bright, who died last year, had always imagined the film as an evangelical tool, and in 1981, he organized the Jesus Film Project, which began translating the script into foreign languages. “Our mission was to show the Jesus film to every person in the world in an understandable language and in a setting where they live,” says Mr. Eshleman. As one of its first projects, the group arranged for the broadcast of a Hindi version on Indian television.

But they devoted the greatest part of their efforts to translating the film into indigenous languages in which television shows and films are not ordinarily available. As these translations were completed, they were handed off to missionaries, who hauled projectors, power generators and reels to remote outposts in Africa, Asia and Latin America. They returned with reports of audiences bursting into tears during screenings and converting on the spot.

[The Executive Director] who oversees distribution of the film for the Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical denomination based in Kansas City, Mo., described a screening in a village in Phaphamani, an area of South Africa that had been largely passed over by missionaries. Because the town did not have electricity, the five generator-powered lights that [he] and his fellow missionaries mounted, atop a large screen, attracted a crowd of 350. He ran the projector, and watched the crowd react to what was probably the first film they had ever seen, let alone the first they had seen in their own language. “You could see them physically jump back at the sight of the serpent tempting Jesus,” he recalled. “When soldiers whip Jesus, you could hear grown adults crying.” After Jesus’s death, but before his resurrection, a black South African missionary told the crowd that they had a chance to pray and to accept Christ. “He asked everybody who prayed to walk forward and come into light,” [the director] says. “One hundred forty-five people walked out of the darkness into light.”

Such conversion stories abound. Joel Carpenter, provost of Calvin College, says he met an evangelist in Nigeria who created 30 churches in Muslim enclaves in a single summer of “Jesus” screenings. “In Nigeria, people consume most of their media in English,” Prof. Carpenter says. “When people see Jesus speaking in their tongue, they instantly identify with him. He seems sent to them.” Wendy Murray Zoba, a writer Christianity Today, recounts meeting missionaries in Peru who had been robbed by members of the proto-Marxist Shining Path. Reels of “Jesus” were among the booty. Months later, the thieves tracked down the missionaries to tell them that the pilfered film had caused them to “come to know God.”

Diego Armando Martinez, a 22-year-old cabdriver in Riobamba, Ecuador, experienced the effect of the film first-hand. Speaking recently by phone, he said he grew up in a middle-class Catholic household, but spent his youth “worshiping Satan” (as Latin American evangelicals often describe their lives before conversion). When he was 17, he said, a Christian friend took him to view a Spanish-language “Jesus” in a city park. It was the film’s depiction of Jesus’s unjust fate that he says spurred him to convert. “I couldn’t believe that someone as good as Jesus would suffer for me the way he did,” he says. Mr. Martinez later joined a Jesus Film Project team and claims to recruit between 15 and 20 converts at each showing he attends.

Driven by stories such as these, the translation and distribution of “Jesus” has become an enormous undertaking. Today the Jesus Film Project employs 300 people in an Orlando, Fla., office translating the film into such vernaculars as Kwanyama, spoken in Angola and Namibia, and the seven dialects of Quechua, a tongue of Andean natives. The group has committed to dubbing the film into every language spoken by more than 100,000 people. That’s more than 1,200 dubbed versions. As of last week, they were up to No. 848.

On the distribution end, Mr. Eshleman claims that the Jesus Film Project now oversees a network of 5,000 missionaries who organize screenings in remote areas — and hand out VHS copies at almost every available opportunity (such as at Mediterranean ports where Muslim guest workers are departing, and at the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia, where a special edition of the tape carried endorsements from professional athletes).

Efforts in America are also intense. Over the last 12 years, the Campus Crusade claims to have sent unsolicited tapes to every address in Hawaii and South Carolina, and an additional 4.5 million copies to addresses in Texas and Ohio. Six years ago, an Alabama doctor named Robert Cosby took it upon himself to buy 1.8 million copies of the film and send them to every home, business, college dorm and military barrack in his state.

As a result, a great many people have seen the film. How many? The Jesus Film Project reports that as of last January, the film had been viewed 5,057,743,333 times. At one viewing per person, that would be almost 80 percent of the world’s population. Asked how the number could possibly be that large, Mr.Eshleman explained that it included repeat viewings; for the number of individual audience members, he revised the estimate — all the way down to three billion people, or a mere 46 percent of the global population.

Not all his colleagues are convinced. “These numbers are, to say the least, not gathered in a social-scientific way,” says Vinay Samuel, executive director of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Mission Theologians. “They have no way of knowing this.”

Meanwhile, John Heyman, the producer of “Jesus,” is mystified by the long, potent afterlife of his creation. “It’s like the Reader’s Digest version” of Jesus’s life,” he says. “It’s very truncated. And all these conversions from the film? I find it all very, very strange.” (He recently brought and settled a case against the Jesus Film Project, which created a new children’s version of the film that he considered an unfaithful adaptation of the original.)

Will Mr. Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” have the same impact that “Jesus” did? The factors behind the success of the earlier film may be difficult to replicate. The number of people on the planet who have never seen a film before is shrinking. And the movie’s effectiveness is due in part to the enormous expertise the Campus Crusade has developed in how to screen it. The group has tailored short introductions to the film, showing Christianity‘s compatibility with local religions. For instance, in Muslim areas, the introduction notes Jesus’s presence in the Koran and his importance to Islamic faith.

Besides, even before its release, “The Passion” has developed a somewhat different profile. Rather than trying to minimize the differences between Christianity and local religions, the film has generated concern from critics who say it repeats classic anti-Semitic elements. And rather than telling the story of Jesus’s life from birth to death, drawing lessons from a wide variety of incidents, it focuses on the last 12 hours, giving a greater emphasis to his betrayal and crucifixion.

Asked about Mr. Gibson’s film, with its vastly larger budget and its celebrity gloss, Mr. Eshleman dismissed it with a classic criticism of Hollywood films “There’s a lot of violence in `The Passion,’ ” he said. “You can’t show it to kids.” 

Franklin Foer is an associate editor at The New Republic and author of the forthcoming “How Soccer Explains the World.”

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