Sunday, February 01, 2015

Life of Brian's Parody of the Sermon on the Mount in Jesus Films

The most iconic scene in Life of Brian is, of course, the opening post-credit scene in which Jesus is delivering the Sermon on the Mount to assembled thousands (In Judea. AD 33. Saturday afternoon. At around tea time).  Such is the success of Life of Brian that most of us are now more familiar with the parody than what is being parodied.  Everyone knows Life of Brian but relatively few are familiar with its source material.  As it happens, the scene is even funnier when viewed against the background of the Jesus films of the 1960s and 1970s.

Geoffrey Burgon's score is a superb pastiche of just what one hears at this point in both King of Kings and Greatest Story Ever Told. After shots of the crowds gathering, we have a clear shot of Jesus (Kenneth Colley) silhouetted against a blue sky.  As the camera pans back from Jesus, and as we get further and further away, we hear Jesus less and less distinctly until we arrive at Brian his mother Mandy. Mandy cannot hear a word and shouts, "Speak up!"  Iconic lines follow.  "Blessed are the cheesemakers!"  "Did you hear that? Blessed are the Greek!".

The point of the parody is the depiction of the Sermon on the Mount in the epic Jesus films like King of Kings.  Jesus is speaking to a cast of thousands and it is hardly surprising that people cannot hear:


But if you think it would take a lot of projection to speak to that crowd, compare Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) about to give the Sermon on the Mount in King of Kings:


Jesus is so far in the distance in that shot that you can hardly see him.  Here is a little help:


It is not very different in the Greatest Story Ever Told in which Jesus (Max Von Sydow) gives his sermon to a group of disciples arranged around him in a circle, with a crowd listening at greater distance (imitating Matt. 5.1-2 and 7.28-29), and the vast landscape of Utah visible in the background:


It's not easy imagining being able to hear a word Jesus said from that kind of distance.  But take a look also at the way that Kenneth Colley is presented in close up against the blue sky in Life of Brian:


The similarity with the close-up of Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, who is similarly preaching against the backdrop of blue sky, is clear:


The colour in King of Kings is exquisite.  Jesus wears this unusual but rather striking red outer garment only during the Sermon on the Mount sequence in the film, and Ray makes sure to accentuate the contrast with the luscious, cloudless blue sky. 

But this draws to our attention the fact that while there are real similarities between the King of Kings sermon and the Life of Brian sermon that parodies it, there is one quite noticeable difference.  Kenneth Colley in Life of Brian looks nothing like Jeffrey Hunter or Max Von Sydow.  Why is that?  Colley in fact looks similar to Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth. And in 1979, when Life of Brian was released, Jesus of Nazareth was a very recent memory.  In fact, as Matt Page reminds us, Life of Brian even used some of the same sets that were used by Jesus of Nazareth out in Tunisia.  

Jesus of Nazareth does not feature a classic Sermon on the Mount scene, though it does repeatedly feature the teaching from the Sermon, and it has one scene in which Jesus gives both the beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer to a gathered multitude relatively late in the production:


The composition here, with its gorgeous oranges and browns, is quite unlike the Life of Brian and King of Kings sermons with their blue sky mountain shots, but Robert Powell's Jesus provides a close analogue to the few seconds we see of Kenneth Colley's Jesus.  Here is Colley:


His long dark hair and beard, and the arrangement of his garments is just like Powell's:


The sermon in Life of Brian thus parodies not only the scope and grandeur of King of Kings and Greatest Story, but also the very look of the Jesus most familiar to viewers in the late 1970s, Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth.

If you need a refresher, here is the scene from Life of Brian:

video


3 comments:

Donald Smith said...

Nicely done, Mark. Really enjoyed the review. :)

TonyTheProf said...

Really enjoyed this analysis.

Mark Goodacre said...

Many thanks. I enjoyed writing it. Part 2 is coming next week!