Would you rather play the Prophet or the Missionary?

In 1965 a Swedish actor named Max Von Sydow made his debut to English speaking audiences as Jesus Christ. Von Sydow had previously been working with director Ingmar Bergman on movies few people had seen because they dealt with the meaning of life and its constant companion, death. The producers figured the audience would accept an unknown as Jesus more than they would say Cary Grant.  Good thinking. However, ironically they had no problem casting other well-known Hollywood stars in key roles. It was really quite bizarre casting. One critic wrote: “the most distracting nonsense is the pop-up of familiar faces in so called cameo roles.” He was so right.

The movie – The Greatest Story Ever Told – was on television the other day and because I am a huge fan of Von Sydow I had to watch until at least his entrance. Ugh. It was torture.  I’ll never understand how Charlton Heston’s portrayal of John the Baptist as a lunatic in a caveman wig didn’t ruin his career forever.  

The Duke himself, John Wayne, even pops up just as Jesus is being crucified to affirm they got the right guy. “He’s the one!”   What? Did Wayne find out he was the only Hollywood A lister not given a role in the story of Christ and throw a tizzy fit?

In order to rid my mind of that stinker of a movie, I downloaded Hawaii, a Max Von Sydow flick which was released the year after The Greatest Story. It’s always been a favorite of mine only this time I watched it with the knowledge that the year before Von Sydow had played Jesus Christ.

Amen. If you’ve never seen the movie, Reverend Hale (von Sydow) believes passionately he is following the word of God through Jesus however, over the centuries the words love, compassion, and forgiveness have come to apply only to the true believers. Everyone else is a sinner and unworthy of God’s love in his eyes.

Can you spot Bette Midler in this clip?

The plot of Hawaii is based on the third chapter of James Michener’s massive history of the Hawaiian Islands: After the discovery of the islands, word has spread that sugar grows abundantly in volcanic soil and businessmen rush in to grab land from the laidback islanders.  They convince church leaders that the “heathens” on the islands are need of “salvation” which really means “colonization.” Some of the missionaries sent over fall in love with the islands and realize the people are not heathen savages … but not Reverend Hale.  He’s about as hard core Old Testament as you can imagine, inflexible, stubborn and often cruel but Von Sydow plays him as a laughable idiot with a bit of genuine kindness that tries to escape his loveless childhood but cannot.

When he realizes that he cannot convert the Hawaiians through fear and intimidation, Rev. Hale calls upon God to send earthquakes and plagues to teach them a lesson. I won’t say anymore in case you’ve never seen the movie but I’ve seen it many times and always wondered at how completely he captured the character. Knowing that it followed a bloated Hollywood block-buster depiction of the life of Christ makes it that much more interesting. At least to me.

15 thoughts on “Would you rather play the Prophet or the Missionary?

  1. So, outside of the Bergman stuff, I liked Three Days of the Condor, but what I really liked (along with no one else) was Steppenwolf. There is a story here. When I was in my twenties, I stopped in at a bar called the “Magic Theatre” and the bartender was a large Mexican man and the only patron in the place was a dwarf. There were two black strippers on a stage just beside the bar. I sat down by the stage and began talking to one of the strippers. She had read Steppenwolf and was a friend of the bar owner. He had told her that before she could work out of his place, she had to read the novel. Well, one thing lead to another and she gave me a lap dance and told me about how she didn’t really get Harry Haller. I told her to see the movie, but that it wasn’t as good as the book and she said, she’d pass. Such was my life back then and it did get better, but in a bad way. Duke

    1. Luckily as I remember Steppenwolf is not a very long novel. Von Sydow was honest about the fact that he often took roles just for the money – which I respect.

  2. I’ve never seen The Greatest Story Ever Told and didn’t know it had so many big names in it. Was it based on a novel? I saw Hawaii years ago, then read the book. I don’t remember much about either other than how awful the missionaries were to the islanders. Maybe that was the point of it.

    1. I don’t know who wrote the script for the GSET but it supposedly was based on the Bible! The missionaries were tools of the businessmen who took advantage of the Hawaiians. They weren’t all as fanatical as Rev Hale. Some actually married Hawaiian women and went “native.”

  3. Hollywood revisionist history used to really annoy me, but now I see it as sort of charming, in a “they didn’t know how funny this would one day look” kind of way.

  4. Ah…The Seventh Seal (not to be confused with The Seventh Sign with Jürgen Prochnow, though the material is the same). Von Sydow had quite the career. I saw him the first time in The Exorcist, then Exorcist II. The Emperor Ming thing in Flash Gordon is a head scratcher to me…followed by Conan the Barbarian…followed by Strange Brew…followed by Dreamscape…followed by Dune with a James Bond movie in there. Dear God, the 80s. No wonder he began making Italian movies (it worked for Eastwood).

    Once into the 90s, the only odd one was Judge Dredd. He was a distinctive character.

    1. I saw an interview with Van Sydow and he was honest. He said a lot of times he just took the role for the money and didn’t have any illusions that he was the next Olivier. But it was interesting he would take the missionary role after playing Christ. One the messenger and the other what happened to the message.

  5. I saw this so long ago, I don’t remember! I’d like to see it again. NO,I did not spot Midler! At what time along the time bar is she?
    I adore her. I was her personal seamstress for a few months, while she was in Canada making “Stella Dallas”.

    1. I believe Bette’s behind Von Sydow when he’s trying to talk to the Ali Nui. He was about 6’4″ and so she’s kind of hard to see! What a trip it would have been to be in that movie!

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