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The Bootleg Files: The Great Commandment

BOOTLEG FILES 658: “The Great Commandment” (1939 feature film inspired by the ministry of Jesus).

LAST SEEN: On several online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright opens it up to endless duping.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is stuck in public domain hell.

In 1939, an Episcopal priest from Red Wing, Minnesota, named James K. Friedrich brought forth “The Great Commandment,” a $130,000 feature-length production as the first offering of his start-up company Cathedral Films. The film created a bidding war among the major Hollywood studios, with 20th Century Fox paying $200,000 for the rights to this production. However, the studio was not interested in releasing “The Great Commandment.” Instead, it planned to shoot a big-budget remake that would star Tyrone Power, its top box office attraction.

After two years, 20th Century Fox had yet to start work on the Tyrone Power version. With nothing to show for its investment, the studio dumped “The Great Commandment” with relatively little fanfare in theaters. Years later, the studio failed to renew the copyright on the film, thus dooming it into the public domain where anyone could dupe the prints. For years, crummy second- and third-generation prints of this film have circulated.

“The Great Commandment” is important from a historical perspective because it was the first American film of the sound era where Jesus Christ plays a significant role in the story. Unfortunately, Jesus wound up being shoehorned into film that pinballed between mediocrity and unintentional humor.

The film is set in 30 A.D. in an unnamed Judean town “between Jericho and Jerusalem” (according to the opening intertitles). The Roman occupation force is not creating much pleasure for the local population, who balk at the excessive taxation and brutal military power structure. The arrival in the town of a centurion leader named Longinus brings about new resentment against the Romans. A band of rebels who call themselves zealots are plotting an uprising, and this particular town is home to a pair of zealot leaders: Joel and his younger brother Zadok, who are the sons of the rabbi Lamech. This family is a bit on the strange side: Lamech speaks with a heavy Eastern European accent and wears an extraordinarily bushy beard, while his sons are curiously (for the culture) clean shaven and give the impression of being All-American goyishe guys – which is no surprise when one considers Yiddish theater star Maurice Moscovich plays the rabbi and the decidedly non-Yiddish John Beal and Warren McCullum are his offspring.

For the first hour of the film, Joel and Zadok bicker about when to lead a rebellion against the Romans, pausing only to allow Joel to moon over the fair Tamar, who is in love with him. But the rabbi wants to send Joel to Jerusalem for his studies, so he arranges with Tamar’s father for Zadok to marry the young woman. With his heart broken by this turn of events, Joel then launches a new scheme: reject his father’s plans for an education and go out to recruit a new leader for the zealots. His choice is a carpenter from Nazareth who is reportedly getting a lot of attention from the Judean people.

Up until this point, “The Great Commandment” has absolutely nothing going for it. The acting is weak bordering on amateurish, the script is silly, the direction by Irving Pichel is enervated and the production (shot at the Selznick International studios the same time “Gone with the Wind” was being made) looks cheap. And then, with the arrival of Jesus, a celluloid miracle happens and the film suddenly becomes a little more interesting.

Jesus is first seen very briefly as a reflection in a pond. (The actor in the shot is not identified in the credits.) From there, the camera takes a POV shot from Jesus’ perspective as He offers wise insight to the disciples and travelers gathered around. (Director Pichel, who was a character actor before becoming a director, took on the voice performance of Jesus and offered eloquent line readings.) Joel presents Jesus with his sword, but Jesus responds with the Matthew 26:52 message regarding what becomes of those who live by the sword. Joel is perplexed and initially disappointed when the disciple Andrew explains Jesus’ nonviolence. But the disciple Judas then tells Joel that he can get Jesus to see the value of the zealot movement.

Joel returns to his town to witness the marriage of Tamar and Zadok. The rabbi is glad that Joel has returned, but is appalled that he has been influenced by Jesus. And who should turn up in town but Jesus, with the rabbi trying to quiz him on religious piety. Jesus (presented again in a POV shot and in a brief glimpse as a shadow on a wall) offers the parable of the Good Samaritan, which leaves the rabbi and other doubters of Jesus’ wisdom perplexed.

From here, the story really goes off the rails. Zadok decides to forego his wedding night celebration to murder the centurion Longinus. In the scuffle that ensues, Zadok is killed and Longinus is knocked unconscious and is badly injured. Joel, who is moved by the Good Samaritan parable, tends to the suffering Longinus, to the horror of his father and the townspeople. The centurion forces arrive just as Longinus awakes to discover Joel has been tending to his injuries despite the furious objections of the townspeople. Longinus orders the centurions to arrest and imprison Joel.

The film then switches to a Jerusalem prison cell where Joel is berated by a guard who complains about missing a crucifixion that took place earlier. Longinus shows up in Joel’s cell carrying a spear – the centurion explains that he had Joel imprisoned to save him from the fury of his townspeople. (Though it is not explained why Joel was stuck behind bars for so long after the incident had passed.) Longinus asks why Joel would treat a perceived enemy with such kindness, and Joel cites Jesus’ teaching. Can you guess whose crucifixion took place that day and which centurion stuck his spear into the side of the dying man on the cross? If that’s not enough, Tamar shows up, clearly not mourning Zadok’s death. Joel, Tamar and Longinus decide to go back to Joel’s town and preach the message that Jesus sought to spread.

It might be too flippant to walk away from “The Great Commandment” muttering “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” In fairness, the film had the courage to break an unofficial taboo relating to Biblical films. With the introduction of the 1934 Production Code, Hollywood films had to adhere to very strict guidelines on the presentation of religious material. But there was no specific guideline in the code on how Jesus could be presented on the screen. Rev. Friedrich negotiated with the Breen Office (the purveyor of the Production Code) on the compromise presented here; the reverend would later push further against the Production Code and present a fully visible and highly vocal on-screen Jesus in his films “I Beheld His Glory” (1953) and “Day of Triumph” (1954), the latter also directed by Irving Pichel (who was blacklisted by the studios in the McCarthy era and could only get work in Christian filmmaking).

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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