From the Manger to the Cross: The Beginning of the Religious Epic
Note: This is the sixty-ninth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1912 film, FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS, directed by Sidney Olcott.
Last week, I wrote about CLEOPATRA (1912), one of the first American feature films. But a few preceded it, like FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS (1912), which premiered just a month before CLEOPATRA. And while Jesus and other religious stories had been rampant in film since the beginning, Sidney Olcott’s movie was a significant release, a landmark to which films of the same ilk by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille owe a lot. Really, the feature length enabled that.
I’ve written before about the ability of directors like Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter to make some films “feel” epic while still working within short film lengths. But even at a run time below the now-traditional 90-minute feature (at about 70 minutes), FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS truly felt massive for 1912. It was essentially at the largest scale film could have been at the time. And befitting that form, it follows the story of the most important person in human history: Jesus Christ.
Olcott was the principal director of Kalem, a studio formed in 1907; he was lured away from Biograph in that year. By 1912, he had made a name for himself making the unauthorized BEN HUR (1907) and pioneering on-location shoots when he traveled to Ireland in 1910 to shoot a handful of films like THE LAD FROM OLD IRELAND (1910). In fact, Kalem was the first movie studio to travel outside of the United States to make a film, and it also pioneered Hollywood relocation the same year Olcott went over to Ireland.
Olcott was supported throughout his time at Kalem by Gene Gauntier, an actress and screenwriter publicized by the studio as “the Kalem Girl.” She adapted BEN HUR, and traveled abroad with Olcott. For a time, she was Kalem’s principal actress, but her impact was truly made as perhaps the studio’s principal screenwriter, with over 300 films to her name. But she contributed in both ways to FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS, writing the script and acting as the Virgin Mary.
In fact, Gauntier may have had more impact than Olcott and dubious accounts of his life would have led you to believe. She claims to have co-directed a number of films, including the Irish films and FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS. Of course, it’s unsubstantiated, but quite likely as we understand directorial duties today. Regardless, Gauntier’s significance in an important early film studio is undebatable.
The Kalem crew traveled to Palestine to shoot the movie, and it shows. FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS features some of the most convincing scenery film had yet seen, interspersed amid impressive studio setups. That impact cannot be understated, as the artifice of film was not unlike that of the stage. There had to be a considerable amount of disbelief to embrace. This isn’t a commentary on the quality of much of the output of the film industry at the time. I actually generally prefer stylized and clearly crafted works over “realistic” films. That doesn’t mean I can’t be impressed by reality, however, and the gamble of FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS paid off in its convincing world of the ancient Palestine.
The film was made for a massive, perhaps unprecedented $35,000 (somewhere around $2 million in 2007 dollars) for an even more massive, unprecedented payoff of almost $1 million (maybe $75 million). FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS was a commercial and critical success, and its length and subject matter solidified the concept of the feature, in its very nature, being a prestige picture.
For all its structural and historical value, however, FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS suffers from the same problem that most all other features of the early 1910s did, besides those of the Italian masterpieces: incredibly slow pacing.
Film had not yet escaped its stage traditions, and MANGER’S acting and cinematography evoked this. The actors’ performances are floaty, and the camera never budges from its medium shot placement for maximum stage similarity. I mean, Jesus himself is played by Robert Henderson-Bland. The jokes write themselves. And they have.
But the scope of the film, which truly chronicles the entire life of the son of God, is its most impressive aspect. Interestingly, it omits the resurrection and ends with the crucifixion; a beautiful shot of the hilltop crosses, silhouetted against a dying night, is perhaps the best moment of FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS. In portraying Jesus, it faced some minor controversy, but it is very much a traditional, straightforward telling of the most famous story of all time. This is no JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973) or THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988). But FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS is an important throughline to those films, as it set a precedent, illuminated in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) and BEN-HUR (1959), for those “radical” films to overturn. The religious epic essentially begins with FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS, and it’s still an impressive cinematic achievement today.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.