The Bootleg Files: Golgotha

BOOTLEG FILES 641: “Golgotha” (1935 French film by Julien Duvivier).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: The English-dubbed version is available from a public domain label.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Subsequent controversies prevented a commercial U.S. re-release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: A proper restored version of the French-language original does not seem likely at this time.

Last week’s column focused on “The Lawton Story,” the first American sound film to present Jesus Christ as a full-frontal character. But it was not the first sound film about His life. That distinction goes to a long-forgotten French film from 1935 called “Golgotha,” directed by Julien Duvivier, who is best known for the 1937 classic “Pépé le Moko,” the 1942 all-star Hollywood film “Tales of Manhattan” and the 1948 version of “Anna Karenina” starring Vivien Leigh.

Looking back, it made sense for the French to make the first sound film about Jesus – after all, the first silent films on the subject were created in France in the late 1890s. These included a now-lost 1899 Georges Méliès work “Christ Walking on Water,” which was also offered some of the earliest examples of cinematic special effects. The introduction of sound into filmmaking created a problem for many filmmakers who feared that it would be impossible to put a credible walking-talking Jesus on the big screen. As a result of this apprehension, several silent epics on the Gospels including “From the Manger to the Cross” (1912) and Cecil B. DeMille’s “King of Kings” (1927) were re-released in the 1930s with new synchronized music scores.

Duvivier decided to take the risk of adapting the Gospels into the sound film medium. The ensuing production was fairly elaborate by the standards of mid-1930s French cinema, with an extravagant budget that enabled location shooting in Algiers (substituting for Old Jerusalem), massive sets and multitudes of extras. Duvivier might have assumed that the film would have a strong attractiveness in the global movie market, which explains why there are lengthy pauses in between dialogue exchanges and many scenes where there is much commotion but no talk.

Viewed today, “Golgotha” is strange because Jesus is barely present in the first part of the film. More than a quarter-hour passes before He is glimpsed, albeit from a distance amid the multitudes that welcome His passage into Jerusalem on what has become known as Palm Sunday. Jesus’ face and voice are kept from the viewer until roughly the half-hour mark with the clearing of the Temple, at which point he is revealed as a somber, strangely mysterious figure. Robert Le Vigan, a minor actor in French films before being cast, is a startling vision as Jesus, with pale skin and haunted eyes – from appearances, this Jesus appears to be living with daily emotional torture. His prayer in Gethsemane is so drenched in sorrow that the moment is among the most heartbreaking scenes ever filmed.

Sadly, too much of the film is polluted by unapologetically broad caricatures of the Sanhedrin chieftains and their villainous plotting against Jesus. Lumbering about the proceedings is Lucas Gridoux as a too-obvious Judas – his angst is heavily externalized in comparison to Le Vigan’s subtle internalized suffering – and Jean Gabin (with a silly haircut) as an indolent Pilate. The film gives a surprisingly decent amount of time to Pilate’s wife (played with a healthy dose of passion by Edwige Feuillère), and the delivery and dismissal of her written message to Pilate during the trial of Jesus is included in the film.

“Golgotha” manages to right itself when Jesus is arrested and judged. Harry Baur’s Herod Antipas is a foolish, silly figure whose mocking of Jesus seems more playful than malicious. The scourging is mostly conducted off-screen, with a crowd of sadistic onlookers watching with glee through the prison bars at the torture. And perhaps the most striking scene is when Jesus fails to recognize His mother on the road to Cavalry – tortured into exhaustion, He stares out at his collapsing world with hollowed eyes and a shell-shocked composure.

Duvivier offers two striking effects in the post-Crucifixion moments: a feminine angelic voice calmly informs the startled women at the tomb that Jesus has risen, and the final shot with two of the Calvary crosses taken down and carried away by Roman soldiers while the third cross – obviously, the structure used to kill Jesus – remaining in a ghostly silhouette against the sky.

In its time, “Golgotha” was hailed as a major accomplishment. An English-dubbed version was released in the U.S. in 1937 and was praised by the National Board of Review as being among the year’s best foreign films; British censors, oddly, were uncomfortable with the production and prevented it from being screened for many years. In the late 1940s, a heavily edited version of the English-dubbed presentation was broadcast by several U.S. channels to the early audiences that installed televisions in their homes.

But, over time, “Golgotha” developed serious reputational problems. Chief among these was the off-screen life of Le Vigan, who openly supported the Nazi occupation of France during World War II and was arrested and jailed for his collaboration after the war. Many film scholars also condemned “Golgotha” for seeming to place the responsibility of Jesus’ death primarily on the Jews of ancient Jerusalem.

Ben McCann, a Duvivier biographer, wisely pinpointed where “Golgotha” ultimately missed the mark. “He does not focus on what Jesus says or does,” McCann wrote about Duvivier. “Rather, he depicts how others (Judas, Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, the disciples at Emmaus) see Him. That reflection is manifested in the title, which expands the narrative from a person to a place while also calling attention to the narrative’s pre-ordained endpoint.”

The original French-language version of “Golgotha” was never released in any U.S. home entertainment format. The English-dubbed version carrying the title “Behold the Man” was released last September from a public domain label that is notorious for selling not-pristine copies of old films. A duped copy of the French original without English subtitles can be found on YouTube. But as long as the film’s value today is considered to be more of a footnote than a landmark in Jesus-focused cinema, it will most likely remain unknown to today’s audiences.

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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