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.