FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS (Sidney Olcott, 1912, USA, 60m, BW)
Jesus of Nazareth
From the Manger to the Cross
Also Known As (AKA)
De la crèche à la croix France
Del pesebre a la cruz Spain
Directed by Sidney Olcott
Produced by Frank J. Marion
Written by Gene Gauntier
Starring Robert Henderson-Bland
Robert G. Vignola
Cinematography George K. Hollister
Distributed by Kalem
October 3, 1912 (London)
October 14, 1912 (New York City)
Running time 71 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent (English intertitles)
From the Manger to the Cross or Jesus of Nazareth is a 1912 American motion picture that was filmed on location in Palestine. It tells the story of Jesus' life. Directed by Sidney Olcott who also appeared in the film, actress and screenwriter Gene Gauntier wrote the script and portrayed the Virgin Mary. The film received excellent reviews at the time of its original release. After Vitagraph Studios acquired Kalem, the film was re-released in February 1919.
An account of the life of Jesus Christ, based on the books of the New Testament: After Jesus' birth is foretold to his parents, he is born in Bethlehem, and is visited by shepherds and wise men. After a stay in Egypt to avoid King Herod, his family settles in Nazareth. After years of preparation, Jesus gathers together a group of disciples, and then begins to speak publicly and to perform miracles, inspiring hope in many of his listeners, but also arousing some dangerous opposition.
According to Turner Classic Movies, the film cost $35,000 to produce (roughly between $1,600,000 and $3,300,000 adjusted to 2007 dollars); another source says that Olcott spent $100,000 of his own money on the project. Although the film's profits eventually amounted to almost $1 million (roughly $46,000,000 to $95,000,000), the Kalem directors refused to increase Olcott's basic salary and he resigned.
In later years, Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, would say this was the premiere film for his movie theater in Haverhill, Massachusetts and a major boost for him in the movie business. However, most sources place the release date of this film as 1912, long after the opening of Mayer's theater.
At around 5,000 feet it was one of the longer films to be released to date, although the Kinemacolor documentary With Our King and Queen Through India released in February 1912 ran to 16,000 feet; and another religious film The Miracle (the first full-colour feature film) - was released in the UK at 7,000 feet in December 1912.
Robert Henderson-Bland : Jesus, the man
Percy Dyer : the Boy Jesus
Gene Gauntier : the Virgin Mary
Alice Hollister : Mary Magdalene
Sidney Olcott : Blind Man
Samuel Morgan : Pontius Pilate
James D. Ainsley : John the Baptist
Robert G. Vignola : Judas Iscariot
George Kellog : Herod
From the Manger to the Cross is the first full-length feature film about the life of Christ, made in 1912. Simply because of this fact, it is an important landmark in cinematic history. Earlier films focused on certain scenes from Christ's life (such as The Life and Passion of Christ, made in 1905), but this was the first cinematic experience to place it in a narrative structure, telling a complete story instead of merely depicting selected scenes. In addition, it was also the first American feature film, and it utilized lighting techniques and special effects (such as Jesus walking on water) that would be very influential for later filmmakers. Indeed, there is no denying that From the Manger to the Cross is an important film. There is also no denying that it has not aged well.
From the Manger to the Cross was made within a decade of Vatican film list honoree The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902-05), yet the differences between these two very early silent Jesus films are striking. The art of cinema had advanced dramatically in the few years between the two films, and From the Manger to the Cross is far more sophisticated — though I actually find the earlier, more primitive Life and Passion more effective. Even so, both are worthwhile, and they make a good double bill.
The 1905 Life and Passion, from French company Pathé, is largely a filmed stage pageant in the Catholic tradition. From the Manger, an American production with more Protestant sensibilities, shot on location in the Holy Land. Production values and acting are much more naturalistic than the earlier film, and camera and editing techniques are far more developed. Where the Pathé Passion is entirely visual and assumes that the images will be understood or explained, From the Manger relies extensively on title cards for narration and dialogue from the King James Bible. Perhaps too extensively, reflecting a Protestant tendency, rooted in sola scriptura, to want the text to be self-explanatory, over against the Catholic expectation that sacred art exists and has meaning within a social and cultural context.
From the Manger’s strongest images transcend its time period; the minimalistic depictions of the Annunciation, in which Mary is addressed by an invisible angel, and the appearance to Joseph, in which Joseph is transfixed by an offscreen light source, may have directly influenced Zefferelli’s Annunciation scene in “Jesus of Nazareth”. Another image, Joseph and Mary resting on the road to Egypt in front of the actual Sphinx and pyramids (as opposed to the stage mockups used in the Pathé Passion) is so striking it’s hard to see why subsequent Jesus movies didn’t copy this device.
There are also some odd choices. When John the Baptist hails Jesus as "the Lamb of God," Jesus is so far away as to be a barely visible smudge on the horizon — and the baptism itself never takes place. At the wedding at Cana, too, Mary is deprived of her role in bringing the wine shortage to Jesus’ attention (it’s there in the Pathé Passion, though you really have to be paying attention). Oddest of all, while the story doesn’t literally start at the manger, it does end at the cross, cutting from Jesus’ death to a title card bearing John 3:16, omitting the Resurrection entirely.
Though this film was the first American feature to have a chronological narrative that told a complete story, the art of the camera had clearly not yet been perfected. All of the reading cards contain verses from one of the four Gospels, which set the scene that we will see next. In those scenes, the camera never moves, but simply watches the proceedings from the distance of full-shots, from which we can see the entire bodies of all of the included characters. We never follow anyone; people merely walk on and off of camera. We are never given any close-ups or reaction shots. These scenes exist in single takes, and they are only broken by the reading cards, which shuffle us along to the next scene. For most of the movie, the screen is crowded, and we never get a close-up of anyone's face, and there is absolutely no character development given. Characters simply exist to look divine or threatening, depending on their role. Christ himself seems based on the stereotypical characterization of him in most traditional churches--divine and stale. It is therefore difficult to discuss the acting--everyone is so far away and out of focus, we can't tell how effective the performances are. Because of the simplicity of its technique and its limited storytelling abilities, the film never comes to life, and it lacks the excitement and power of the Gospels from which it is based.
From the Manger to the Cross is a chronological overview of significant events in the life of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels. A great popular success in its day, the film holds little dramatic or visual interest for today’s audiences, even among silent film enthusiasts. Its significance is in its place in film history. It is an important work of the transition period between the era of one and two reel pre-features, the years around 1910, and the feature era that had become established by the mid-1910s. The film is six reels (about 70 minutes). The length alone makes it a very ambitious production by contemporary standards and the production company raised the stakes even more with extensive on-location shooting in Palestine. There is even a scene filmed in Egypt; to show the flight into Egypt, the holy family is pictured in the foreground of one shot with the pyramids in the background- and in a second shot in the shadow of the sphinx!
Such a grand production must have been a big financial gamble, although in the event it proved a sure commercial bet. There was a large market for a film with this subject waiting to be tapped and the filmmakers were attentive to their audience’s expectations; the film is pious and respectful. The filmmakers likely had artistic ambitions as well as commercial hopes, perhaps spurred by the impressive classical epics coming out of Italy or the nascent movement towards longer productions by rival American studios. It is tempting to read the film as a broadside fired against the critics, social activists, and local officials who continually assailed the respectability of the new entertainment medium. After all, what could be more respectable than a dramatized life of Jesus?
The film is divided into sections: childhood, miracles, ministry, Last Supper, and so on. Each section has a prefatory title card, with the text written in all capitals against the background of an appropriate drawing. Sections are further divided into scenes showing topical incidents; for example, the section on ministry includes a scene showing Jesus expelling the moneylenders from the Temple. Like the sections, each scene is introduced by a prefatory title card. The text of the scene titles is written in upper and lower case against a black background. All of the scene titles are brief excerpts from the Gospels and are footnoted with the Gospel name and chapter and verse numbers of the source text. There are also some intra-scene descriptive and dialogue titles; these differ from the prefatory scene titles only in placement.
The overall effect resembles a picture book with animated drawings. As a genus, title cards that describe the action of the succeeding scene are not unique to this film; for example, they occur with some frequency in Griffith’s pre-features. Such cards are highly irksome in Griffith’s dramas, as they are in every film that undercuts the buildup of narrative suspense by telling the audience what it is about to see in the next scene. However, in From the Manger, the purpose and effect of the prefatory scene cards is quite different. While the film does tell a story in the sense that it is a chronological recitation of related events, it is misleading to describe it as a narrative drama. It is more accurate to describe From the Manger as a catechetical text. Each scene is freestanding and complete in itself; scenes within a section thematically connected as incidents illustrating a common topic. The film is closer in form and spirit to an illustrated children’s New Testament than it is to later dramatizations of the life of Jesus.
The similarity to a picture book is heightened by both scene composition and the direction of action within the scene. A typical scene opens with a shot of a dramatic tableau. The actors and props are carefully staged within the frame of the shot; Jesus is given a position of prominence in the arrangement. One character moves within the frame while the other characters remain stationary. The stationary characters may incline their heads or torsos or move their arms and hands, but occupy the same position in the arrangement throughout the scene. Movements and gestures are orchestrated to develop the illustrative meaning of the scene. Performance is not used to develop characterization or move the story along; those concepts are alien to the film’s structure and purpose.
The film’s visual qualities are not unique or indeed, in aspects like the proscenium arch framing of the shots, unusual for the period. However, the formal qualities work in concert with the film’s structure to make a distinctive end product. The depiction of Jesus emphasizes his divinity. The actor, Robert Henderson-Bland, is an unusually tall man who practically towers over most of the cast. In addition, Jesus is consistently isolated within the figural arrangement of a scene; for instance, he is often placed to the side or at the forefront of a group and spaced apart from the group. His manner is generally aloof and restrained and often admonitory. The costuming further emphasizes the sense of distance from other people. Jesus is costumed in beautiful white robes with crisply pleated drapery.
Director Sidney Olcott did not have a stunning career. If anything it was mediocre at best. But on this effort he played above his head, perhaps not even realizing it. "From the Manger to the Cross" is a beautiful film, rich in substance and well acted as well. The story is well known and Olcott details all of Christ's shining biblical moments in a series of scenes that overcomes many setbacks of the early 1910's. Of particular note is the way he uses a large cast to still convey the emotions present during a particular scene. Christ's admittance to his disciples that his days on earth are numbered come to mind here. On location shooting, no easy task for its day considering the entire thing was done in Egypt and Palestine, would definitely be another.
Still, there are moments of power here that cannot be denied. The scene in which the woman washes Christ's feet at the home of the Pharisees packs some power, as it shows the tender nature of Christ towards sinners. Miracles, such as the raising of Lazarus and the healing of the blind man, are also charming in their simplicity. The film's use of special effects are also worthy of mention: The moment in which Jesus walks across the scene has no payoff and looks silly today, but we cannot deny that it must have seemed spectacular to audience members of 1912. Also note the lighting of the film, and the sharp lighting contrast between the villains (who have darker lighting) and Christ (who is shown in brighter lights). Here, for the first time in cinematic history, actors aren't simply placed in front of the camera, but filmmaking techniques are being employed behind the camera in order to tell the story. Such techniques would go on to influence early directors such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, who would later make their own superior film versions of Christ's life.
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