The most strident denunciation of Jesus’ divinity in cinema history came with the 1976 drama The Passover Plot. The film was based on a controversial 1965 book by British Biblical scholar Hugh J. Schonfield that argued Jesus was a man who schemed to take advantage of ancient prophecies by creating a following that would recognize Him as the long-awaited Messiah, at which point He would lead a rebellion by the Jewish people against the Roman occupation force in the Holy Land.
Schonfield’s theory was capped by an astonishing consideration: Jesus arranged to be arrested and crucified, and that He planned to survive the Crucifixion through the use of analgesic drugs given to Him in wine while He was on the cross. In this scam, Jesus would fake His resurrection, thus giving the false impression of the ancient prophecies being fulfilled. However, this plan was ruined when a Roman centurion pierced the side of the crucified Jesus with a spear, thus ensuring death. Schonfield concluded the story of the Resurrection was a hoax perpetrated by the Gospels authors who created their works decades after Jesus’ death.
While Schonfield’s notions had no problems attracting readers, the idea of a film that rewrote the Gospels in such an unusual manner did not appeal to Hollywood. Eleven years passed after the publication of The Passover Plot before a low-budget film produced by the low-rent Israeli team of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus sought to dramatize Schonfield’s theories.
Needless to say, The Passover Plot was the most curious Jesus film imaginable. As played by Zalman King, Jesus – called Yeshua of Nazareth – is a cynical zealot who orchestrates His campaign with the bland cunning of a political operative. The film also gives complete absolution to the Sanhedrin, insisting that Pontius Pilate (played by Donald Pleasance) was aware of Yeshua’s activities from the start and coerced the feeble elderly Caiaphas (Hugh Griffith) to hold the trial that would seal Yeshua’s faith. Even Judas – called Judah here and played by Scott Wilson of In Cold Blood fame – received his 30 pieces of silver directly from a Roman general and not the Sanhedrin leadership.
The Passover Plot could have been an offensive assault on Christian beliefs, but the film was too incompetent to make any serious intellectual damage. Director Michael Campus, who was best known for his B-level Blaxploitation flicks The Mack (1973) and The Education of Sonny Campus (1974), failed to inject any degree of emotional involvement into the production; Adam Greenberg’s dull cinematography only reaffirmed the sense of monotony. Except when a few of the actors were eager to overplay their roles – particularly Harry Andrews as the wild and rather woolly “Yohanan the Baptist” – or when the film inexplicably gets detoured with anachronistic solarization effects, the proceedings had a dingy, dreary, enervated personality.
The Passover Plot made almost no impact upon its release – critics were dismissive and no studio would touch it, thus forcing its producers to self-distribute the work on a limited theatrical platform. The film did earn a mild hiccup of immortality when it received a surprise Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design – but that was more of a tribute to designer Mary Willis’ standing within her profession than to the uninteresting Biblical garb she sewed together for this production.