The Bootleg Files: In Search of Historic Jesus

BOOTLEG FILES 652: “In Search of Historic Jesus” (1979 feature from Sunn Classic Pictures).



REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It was never released on DVD or Blu-ray.


During the 1970s, movie audiences were bombarded with a parade of weird documentaries and docudramas from a Utah-based company that went by the names Sun International Pictures, Schick Sunn Classic Pictures and Sunn Classic Pictures. This company tapped into the growing public interest in the paranormal and historical revisionism by offering films aimed at challenging scientific and scholarly traditions.

The Sunn Classic titles included “Chariots of the Gods” (a 1974 English-dubbed version of a 1970 German film that, incredibly, received an Oscar nomination), “The Outer Space Connection” (1975), “The Mysterious Monsters” (1976), “In Search of Noah’s Ark” (1976), “The Lincoln Conspiracy” (1977) and “The Bermuda Triangle” (1979) were paraded through distribution in a four-walling strategy were Sunn Classic rented cinemas for a limited run and saturated the local market with excessive advertising on their presentations. And while the company occasionally offered benign narrative films for the family market, most notably the 1974 “The Adventures of Grizzly Adams,” it earned its reputation for pushing the concept of nonfiction filmmaking to the most outrageous extremes.

There was one problem with the Sunn Classic canon: despite their eagerness to upend long-held beliefs and traditions with speculation on ancient aliens, contemporary aliens and cryptozoology superstars like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, the films were disappointing. For all of the oohs and ahhs promised in their marketing, Sunn Classic films were strictly adequate in style and often shoddy in substance. Even the best of the bunch, “Chariots of the Gods,” is fairly hesitant in fully pushing forward its thesis that the ancient Egyptians and Mayans got some help from E.T. and his pals.

By 1979, Sunn Classic seemed to be running out of ideas, so it decided to go for the ultimate shock value: a documentary questioning the mysteries of Jesus Christ while trying to figure out what occurred during His young adult years that are not mentioned in the Gospels. Unfortunately, “In Search of Historic Jesus” was indolent work that showed only occasional proof that its creators were vaguely familiar with its sacred subject.

Actually, the center of attention here is not Jesus, but Brad Crandall, a disk jockey who served as on-screen narrator for the production. Crandall held the same role in several Sunn Classic films, and his authoritative voice and professorial demeanor – complete with oversized dark-rimmed eyeglasses and a 1970s version of an intellectual’s beard – gave the impression that he was a very smart man whose words demanded respect. Crandall’s scenes were mostly shot in what looked like a library stuffed with books, as if being in the presence of books would give him an academic cred. But Crandall was not an alchemist, and his deep voice and knowledgeable demeanor could not spin cinematic gold from this leaden offering.

“In Search of Historic Jesus” begins its story in the Old Testament, with clips from cheapjack European epics retelling the stories of Noah, the Tower of Babel and Joshua. The life of Jesus is presented in a scattershot manner – sort of a Greatest Hits version of the Gospels with no depth to His teachings and no understanding of the historical context of His ministry. Extras clad in unconvincing wigs and crummy costumes that would not pass the grade in a Sunday School pageant tramp around Utah locations, and a few well-known character actors including Nehemiah Persoff, Royal Dano and David Opatashu turn up in small roles.

Jesus is played by John Rubinstein, who originated the title role in the 1972 Broadway musical “Pippin” and was a familiar face in television programs during the 1970s. Rubinstein never established himself as a film star and “In Search of Historic Jesus” offers evidence on why he fell short: his line readings were bland, his charisma was nil, and he completely failed to find a sense of purpose in his character’s struggles. Crandall’s narration gives Rubinstein’s Jesus a level of power that Rubinstein never generates. And having the actor buried under mounds of fake hair only added to the strangeness – Rubinstein seemed like a drearily polite Neanderthal rather than the Messiah.

What little fun exists in “In Search of Historic Jesus” can be found when the film strays from the Gospel to create a new history for Jesus. In one scene, Jesus tames a wild tiger – the big cat’s presence in the Holy Land is never explained. Elsewhere, we have theories on what Jesus was up to during the so-called missing years. One idea finds him in Persia, another finds him in Tibet, and a third has Joseph of Arimathea taking the teenage Jesus to England on a tin-purchasing trip. The film also places Joseph back in England after Jesus’ resurrection and was buried in Glastonbury. “In Search of Historic Jesus” also plumbs the Mormon theology to place the resurrected Jesus in North America to confer with several tribes before making His final ascent to Heaven.

A good deal of “In Search of Historic Jesus” considers the Shroud of Turin and whether it offers the image of the crucified Jesus in its threads. And while the film would like to use this issue to affirm Jesus’ holiness, it makes an intellectually unsatisfactory argument about the shroud’s value as evidence of Jesus’ existence.

Not unlike the other Sunn Classic films “In Search of Historic Jesus” was a box office hit, raking in $22.4 million to become the 34th highest grossing film of 1979. The film turned up on VHS and LaserDisc in the early 1990s, but a DVD and Blu-ray release has yet to occur. For those who care, an unauthorized posting of the film can be found on – but, frankly, this Sunn Classic title is not requiring a digital resurrection.

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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