BOOTLEG FILES 660: “The Westminster Passion Play – Behold the Man” (1951 British feature film).
LAST SEEN: It is on Amazon Prime, albeit for the wrong reason.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Yes, but for the wrong reason.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is complicated.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely at this time.
In 2011, a DVD label called Synergy Entertainment made one of the most spectacular blunders in the history of the home entertainment industry. This label, which specializes in public domain titles, brought forth a release of the rarely-seen 1921 French silent film “Behold the Man,” which told the story of Jesus’ last days. But there was a problem: the print used for the Synergy Entertainment was not from the French silent film, but instead belonged to a 1951 British production originally titled “The Westminster Passion Play – Behold the Man.”
How could such an error occur? For starters, the British film had a U.S. release under the title “Behold the Man,” which may explain some of the confusion. Also, the British film had no spoken dialogue, but instead offered a wall-to-wall narration – perhaps the folks at the DVD label thought this was a sound-era release of a silent movie?
But that opens up another puzzle: why would a film made in 1951 be produced with a soundtrack narrator but no spoken dialogue? Well, that’s where the fun really begins.
When sound came to filmmaking, censors in Great Britain decided that it would be inappropriate for films to offer a walking, talking, on-screen depiction of Jesus. Initially, that was not a problem – if only because no British filmmaker was interested in doing a feature film based on the New Testament. In the early 1950s, an effort was started to create a film version of the play “Ecce Homo,” also known as the “Westminster Passion Play,” that was staged annually in London by the Roman Catholic organization Companions of the Cross. The censorship restriction on how Jesus could be depicted created a dilemma, but a compromise was reached by allowing the play to be adapted without the actors speaking lines. Instead, they would emote in pantomime while all dialogue would be recited on the soundtrack by Walter Meyjes, the co-author of the play.
As you might imagine, having a silent film with a constant narration creates more problems than solutions – think of Charlie Chaplin’s misguided 1942 re-release of “The Gold Rush,” with the funnyman giving a constant play-by-play on what was taking place in his silent classic. Mercifully, Meyjes’ narration is less obnoxious than Chaplin’s talkathon on “The Gold Rush” soundtrack. But even the most gifted orator would be hard pressed to breathe passion into the inert Passion Play put on the screen.
“The Westminster Passion Play – Behold the Man” appears to have been made on a tiny budget. This is obvious when the same barren and rocky hill top is used to stage Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, the Garden of Gethsemane sequence and the crucifixion at Golgotha. Another set, which looks like a theater stage with a curtain at its rear, doubles for the room where Mary Magdalene rubbed ointment on Jesus’ feet and the Last Supper.
The film also keeps much of the unpleasant violence of Jesus’ arrest and execution off-screen. Thus, the narration tells us of how the Roman soldier beat and mocked Jesus while the on-screen action focuses on Pontius Pilate struggling with angst. And the crucifixion only shows the base of the cross – there is no image of Jesus dying from the torture of the crucifixion. The narrator also informs the viewer that Jesus was crucified between two criminals, but the on-screen image only shows one cross rather than three.
And then there is the problem of the film’s pacing. This is, arguably, among the slowest moving films in cinema history. Director Walter Rilla, a German actor making his debut behind the camera, created a motion picture with minimal motion and this becomes acutely annoying when the characters are forced to react to the drama surrounding Jesus’ final days – there is a surplus of widening eyes, clenched jaws, extended hands, upturned chins and stiffened shoulders, all executed in weirdly lethargic movements.
If there is one redeeming feature, it involves mini-eruptions of genius by Charles P. Carr as Jesus in two key segments: while praying in anguish at Gethsemane and struggling under the weight of the cross, the actor effectively captures the physical and emotional suffering of Jesus with a depth that is startling. But in the rest of the film, Carr moves and behaves in a robotic manner that makes him as detached from reality as the rest of his castmates.
“The Westminster Passion Play – Behold the Man” opened theatrically in London and received scathing reviews that called into question the deadly slow pace and the production’s inability to transcend good intentions with good filmmaking. In 1954, the film turned up on the BBC as part of the network’s Easter programming, and it became a staple of British television’s Easter offerings during much of the 1950s. It did not play theatrically in the U.S., but a 65-minute version of the original 75-minute work was circulated in the nontheatrical market. The Synergy Entertainment DVD used a well-worn 16mm print from this version.
While Synergy Entertainment’s DVD is no longer in print, its mistaken presentation of the British film as the 1921 French film can be seen on Amazon Prime. While several Amazon customers have pointed out the error, the film is still being misidentified. The original 75-minute version was never shown in the U.S., and in view of its problematic presentation it seems unlikely that a digital restoration and proper commercial release will be happening anytime soon.
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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