d. Sidney Olcott / USA / 71 mins.
From the Manger to the Cross is valuable for two reasons: it is among oldest surviving American feature films, and it is the first narrative depiction of Jesus Christ. Nearly a decade earlier the French film The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1903) featured 31 tableaux from the story of Jesus (in fact, the two films are often packaged together on DVDs), but From the Manger to the Cross takes it one step further by putting the full story into chronological order and, in the span of slightly more than an hour, documents the life of Jesus. Yet this is another in the long line of silent historical artifacts that do not hold up in the passage of time.
Olcott and his screenwriter elected to add no new words to their production; the title cards are arrangements of selected verses from all four Gospels that put the story in order, and the effect works if you're already familiar with the story. To fit the entirety of the Gospels into 70 minutes, however, requires some rather hasty storytelling. The film is divided into four primary sections — birth and youth; the performing of miracles; travel and ministry; and the final sacrifice — and Olcott tries to hit on every notable element. Miracles seem to zip by: the blind suddenly see, the infirm suddenly walk, the possessed suddenly tranquilize.
As later films about Christ would realize, in the narrative of his life these demonstrations of divinity are meant to be felt as hope as much for the ill as for the living. The speed with which Olcott shows them robs them of their objective importance. (How easy it seems to cure leprosy in long shot and with bandages covering the leper's supposedly festered head!) The only miracle with any emotional importance is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. That scene functions well due to the patience and tension built by the director, and the expressionistic approach from the actor (Sidney Baber), who, more than gallivanting at the ability to walk, exudes an understandable shock and disorientation. The full dramatic arc shown in the moment is sorely lacking from others.
From the Manger to the Cross is reported to have been a crowd-pleaser as far into the twentieth century as the late 1930s, when many churches would screen it for their congregations over Easter weekend. That alone may be enough to outline the proper context for the film: the grand emphasis here is on delivering a mere visual depiction of the majesty of Christ without much regard to the possibilities in the power of cinema. Long stretches of the film feel untethered and the compositions are largely jejune. There are the occasional moments that feel inspired, such as the foreshadowing shot of a young Jesus as a carpenter across the frame with a beam on his shoulder and the cross-shaped shadow cast on the ground beside him. (The later crucifixion should be noted, too, for its rather staggering sense of realism.)
It simply be that, had it been made a decade later — after the features of Griffith, DeMille, et al. — this could have been a film of both robust emotion boosted through a development of its visual language. For those merely looking to have a simplistic moving image to associate with the Gospels, I imagine From the Manger to the Cross would have seemed like an affecting success; for those interested in how cinema can be used to strengthen a story through a thoughtful and artful construction, it is not a film that delivers.
03 June 2009
d. Sidney Olcott / USA / 71 mins.