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The essential films for Easter & Passover

Updated: Apr 3

HERE’S A guide to some of the most powerful stories about the Jewish people and a man called Jesus – now available on disc or streaming.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)

(1) Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) was ordered by Pilate (Peter Firth) to break the legs of “The Nazarene” (Cliff Curtis) to speed up his death. When he arrives Yeshua has already stopped breathing and a spear is used to confirm his death. (2) Charlton Heston was 30 when he began the portrayal of Moses - Prince of Egypt for producer/director Cecil B. DeMille.


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy; 2016; PG-13 for Biblical violence including some disturbing images; streaming via Amazon Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Fandango (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), YouTube (4K)

JOSEPH FIENNES plays Clavius, a fictional Roman military tribune stationed in the wasteland of 33 A.D. Judaea. He finds himself at the cross during the crucifixion of the Nazarene. Cliff Curtis plays Jesus, called Yeshua here, the Hebrew name used throughout “Risen.”

Pilate's (Peter Firth) right-hand man, Clavius, has just returned from battle with Judean zealots led by Barabbas. Before he can wash the blood from his face, he's ordered to the crucifixion site of Yeshua and two others already underway. Pilate wants to end the Nazarene's suffering quickly to disperse the crowd, but, when Clavius arrives, Yeshua has already said his final words: "It is finished."

Co-writer/director Kevin Reynolds (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”) helms the film. Told through the eyes of a non-believer, it avoids a gospel-centric storyline, Rich Peluso, Senior Vice President of Sony's Affirm Films says in the "Script to Screen" featurette.

Traditional Biblical films made during the '50s and '60s – “Ben Hur” and “King of Kings” – focused on the life of Jesus, ending at the crucifixion. “Risen” covers the launching point, turning the Resurrection into a detective story. “When the military leaders and religious leaders woke up that Sunday morning and the body of Jesus was missing, it was a mystery to them,” Peluso says. Pilate unleashes a manhunt to find the body. “Without a corpse to prove him dead, we have a potential Messiah,” he says.

The story’s turning point arrives in the third act at the Sea of Galilee, where the emotional impact and spiritual authority of Yeshua and his disciples is revealed.



4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy; 1956; G; streaming via Amazon Video (4K), Apple (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

FOR DECADES, this larger-than-life, Biblical epic has dominated television ratings whenever it aired during Passover and Easter.

In fact, the ratings skyrocket when Moses confronts Rameses II and the action gets kicking. The plagues and parting of the Red Sea during the second half draw viewers as the story unfolds, says author Katherine Orrison, a film historian who wrote a biography of director Cecil B. DeMille. “No other movie on network television ever got those types of numbers.”

This year’s annual airing of “The Ten Commandments” is Saturday night on ABC.

But now you can experience “The Ten Commandments” and all of its pageantry in 4K Ultra HD – without those annoying commercial interruptions and without flipping the Road Show version between two discs. The new 65th Anniversary Edition from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment also includes the top-notch Blu-ray version (two-discs) from 2011. Both formats include an introduction by DeMille, an intermission, an overture/exit music card, an entr’acte card and a commentary from Orrison.


4K screenshots courtesy of DreamWorks Animation - Click for Amazon purchase


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy 1998, PG for Digital copy via Amazon Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Fandango (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), YouTube (4K)

IN A WORD, “The Prince of Egypt” is breathtaking with its 4K restoration with HDR10 grading and eight-channel DTS:X soundtrack. The Biblical story of Moses comes alive using traditional and computer-generated art in a world of song.

The all-star lineup of voice actors included Val Kilmer as Moses and Ralph Fiennes as Ramesses, plus a supporting cast with Sandra Bullock as Miriam, Jeff Goldblum as Aaron, Michelle Pfeiffer (Tzipporah) Danny Glover (Jethro), Martin Short (Huy), Steve Martin (Hotep), Helen Mirren (The Queen), and Sir Patrick Stewart (Seti).

The enclosed 4K disc and Blu-ray feature a 26-minute featurette on the astonishing four-year project with more than 425 animators, artists, technicians, the brainchild of Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and shorter features on the chariot race sequence chariot race sequence, the Multilanguage tracks of the Oscar-winning song “When you Believe” written and composed by Stephen Schwartz, and performed by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. The score from Schwartz and Hans Zimmer also received an Academy nomination.

More highlights include the commentary, art gallery images, and trailers.  



Blu-ray & DVD; 2013; TV-14 for violence; streaming via Amazon Video, Apple TV, YouTube

THE History Channel's docudrama “The Bible” came as a shock to Hollywood insiders for ratings – over 100 million viewers – who watched the 10-hour series.

As a whole, TV critics were not kind, throwing plenty of stones at the $22 million production, calling it poorly acted and too violent. But executive producers Mark Burnett (“Survivor,” “The Voice”), his wife Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”) and massive CGI effects generated a punch Cecil B. DeMille could have only dreamed of for his 1956 epic, “The Ten Commandments.” That classic is what inspired them to take on a TV miniseries, even though it was such a daunting enterprise. How do you split 66 books – Old Testament and New Testament – into 10 hours? “It could have easily been 100 hours,” Burnett says. The couple assembled a team of Biblical scholars and writers, carefully choosing stories, big and small.

The series is divided into 10 episodes:

(Old Testament) “In the Beginning” – quickly moves from the Garden of Eden to the Great Flood, then to Abraham chosen by God to lead his people to the Promised Land.

Exodus” – Commanded by God to free the Israelites from Egypt, Moses then next receives the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai.

Homeland” – The 12 tribes of Israel begin a new life, but face numerous invaders; Samson is gifted by God to fight the Philistines. The prophet Samuel makes Saul the first king of Israel.

Kingdom” – King Saul and his army, including young hero David, defeat Goliath and the Philistines. David becomes king and captures Jerusalem, providing a new home for the Ark of the Covenant.

Survival” – 400 years later, the Jews are enslaved in Babylon, while Daniel is thrown into the lions' den. The Israelites return to Jerusalem.

(New Testament) “Hope” – The angel Gabriel tells Mary, pledged to marry Joseph, that she will bear the Son of God, a child to be named Jesus. Decades later, John baptizes Jesus and, with the power of the spirit, he heads into the desert to face Satan. The mission of grace begins, and Jesus picks his disciples.

Mission” – Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples travel from town to town, preaching love and forgiveness, while showing the power of God through miracles including raising Lazarus from death.

Betrayal" – Triumphantly, Jesus arrives at Jerusalem as prophesied centuries earlier. At the Last Supper, he tells his disciples one will betray him, and is arrested.

Passion – Peter denies the Lord and the crowd demands Jesus be crucified. Nailed to the cross he has been forced to carry to Golgotha, Jesus dies uttering: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Courage” – Sunday morning, Jesus rises from the grave. Before ascending to heaven, he instructs his disciples to tell his story, and the first-century church is born, with the promise of the Holy Spirit.

The unfamiliar international cast is mostly British. Filmed in the barren regions of North Africa, hundreds of Moroccans are extras. Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, then 33, is a believable, compassionate Jesus. The overall acting is solid, while violence peaks at levels matching “The Lord of the Rings,” with plenty of sword action. Still, Jesus' torture is ruthless (though nothing like Mel Gibson's “Passion of the Christ”) and the crucifixion is bloody.

Narrator Keith David speaks with suitable authority. Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer supplies his trademark atmosphere, with Australian Lisa Gerrard (“Gladiator”) providing angelic background vocals.



Blu-ray & DVD; 1959; Not Rated; contains scenes of action violence; streaming via Amazon Video, Apple TV, Fandango, Movies Anywhere, YouTube

WARNER BROTHERS spent over $1 million in 2009 for the 50th Anniversary restoration of “Ben-Hur” starring Charlton Heston.

Using the original 65mm camera negative (275 percent larger than normal 35mm film stock) and scanning each frame in 8K, as detail leaps off the screen. We are way past due for the 4K physical disc release. The process took longer than expected. “Our primary goal was to deliver the finest presentation possible and we have succeeded,” says studio executive Jeff Baker, vice president and general manager of catalog films.

Heston stars as the fictional Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince sentenced to slavery by his childhood friend Messala, a Roman commander played by Irish actor Stephen Boyd. Years later, Ben-Hur seeks vengeance until a fateful encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.

In the late 1950s, Hollywood was desperate for a blockbuster. MGM pinned its hopes on “Ben-Hur” with 50,000 extras, 300 sets, and a budget spinning out of control. Legendary director William Wyler (“Wuthering Heights,” 1939; “The Best Years of Our Lives,” 1946) pressed on, delivering a sword-and-sandal epic with the greatest action sequence then ever filmed – the chariot race. It saved the nearly bankrupt studio. “Ben-Hur” won 11 Oscars, a record shared with “Titanic” (1997) and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” In his commentary, Heston calls the three-week chariot training a “formidable task."



Blu-ray; 1977; unrated

THE TV MINISERIES was the must-see phenomena of the 1970s. Stories unfolded nightly like the groundbreaking “Roots” or weekly like “Rich Man, Poor Man.” If you missed an installment in the days before streaming and on-demand, you were out of luck.

So it was a very big deal when director Franco Zeffirelli's $18 million British/Italian production of “Jesus of Nazareth” hit the airwaves. At the time, he was best known for his lavish and accessible version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Knowing he was behind the camera for the production, filmed mostly in North Africa (Tunisia and Morocco), before it aired in two, three-hour segments over Palm Sunday and a week later on Easter, was as exciting as the announcement of Spielberg making a film for TV.

But the public uproar was massive as well. Zeffirelli said he wanted his Jesus to be “an ordinary man – gentle, fragile and simple." That caused some Christians to denounce it. They activated a writing campaign to General Motors, who planned to sponsor the series. As a result, GM backed out and Procter and Gamble stepped in, getting the airtime for a substantially lower price.

Still, Americans were captivated. More than 90 million watched the all-star, international cast featuring Olivia Hussey as Mary, who had become famous as Zeffirelli's Juliet; Anne Bancroft (Mary Magdalene), Peter Ustinov (Herod the Great), Michael York (John the Baptist), Christopher Plummer (Herod Antipas), James Farentino (Simon Peter), Ernest Borgnine (The Centurion), Laurence Olivier (Nicodemus), Anthony Quinn (Caiaphas), Rod Steiger (Pontius Pilate), Claudia Cardinale (The Adulteress), James Mason (Joseph of Arimathea) and Ian McShane (Judas Iscariot). An unknown was selected for the role of Jesus: fair-skinned, blue eyed British actor, Robert Powell. That selection might be unthinkable today, but his portrayal is honest and believable; he dominates the series as the Messiah. Powell’s face looks as if transported from a Renaissance painting, especially with Zeffirelli’s dramatic lighting and camera framing.

In an interview in Shout’s presentation, York talks at length about how the production felt obligated to get the story right. “Playing the role of John the Baptist was manna from heaven for me," he says. York relied on the original scriptures and viewed as much religious art as possible. “This great story has been the center of the Christian life and depicted by all of the great masters.”



Blu-ray, Digital Copy; 2004; both R and re-cut PG-13 versions include sequences of graphic violence too intense for children, and many adults; streaming via Amazon Video, Apple TV, Fandango, Movies Anywhere, YouTube

MEL GIBSON’S in-your-face depiction of the final 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ is powerful and graphic. The Blu-ray set includes his theatrical release and a "Recut" version, edited to lose six minutes of violence. Both are difficult to watch, featuring scenes of brutal flagellation and the crucifixion. No detail is excluded; the Blu-ray picture is razor-sharp; the soundtrack is a showcase for John Debney’s haunting score.

Four commentaries are available on the theatrical cut: The first with Gibson, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and the editor, in which they discuss technical aspects; a second features producer Stephen McEveety, second unit director Ted Rae and visual effects producer Kevin Vanderhan; the third has composer Debney, and a fourth features theologians. A pop-up track, with Biblical and production notes, show how actor Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus, suffered bouts of hypothermia, a lung infection, shoulder dislocation, cuts and bruises, and was even being struck by lightning while hanging on the cross.



Blu-ray, DVD; 1961; PG-13 for some violence; streaming via Amazon Video, Apple TV, Fandango, YouTube

JESUS WITH BABYBLUES and an auburn bob?

That’s some of the criticism producer Samuel Bronston and director Nicholas Ray (“Rebel Without a Cause”) faced over 60-years ago for their re-make of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 life of Christ in “King of Kings.”

Jeffrey Hunter (“The Searchers”) was selected out of hundreds for the role of the Messiah. At 35, he seemed perfect since Jesus began his ministry at age 30. It’s still considered Hunter's most famous role.

Most of the gorgeous production was filmed in Spain, subbing nicely for the Holy Land. Bronston and Ray built nearly 400 sets, hired over 20,000 extras and recruited an all-star international cast that included Siobhan McKenna (Mary, mother of Jesus) from Ireland, Carmen Sevilla (Mary Magdalene) and José Antonio (Young John) from Spain, Ron Randell (Lucius) from Australia, and Viveca Lindfors (Claudia) from Sweden, with Robert Ryan (John the Baptist), Hurd Hatfield (Pontius Pilate) and Edric Connor (Balthazar) from the U.S.

The storyline is a CliffsNotes version of the Gospels moving rapidly from the Nativity to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Regrettably, a fictional subplot involving Jewish patriots was conjured up by screenwriter Philip Yordan. The upraising coincides with Jesus’ peaceful entry into Jerusalem as Barabbas leads a revolt against the Romans in which hundreds are killed.

But the Sermon on the Mount scene is worth the price of the Blu-ray. Filmed with thousands along a hillside in Spain, Hunter is convincing proclaiming “The Beatitudes" and “The Lord’s Prayer.” Orson Welles provides a steady narration throughout, bridging the story from one key sequence to the next.

Warner Bros. has produced a striking HD picture from the 70mm Super Technirama negative. It might not be the greatest Biblical epic, but has its moments.

Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer


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