Screen Pilates: Barry Dennen

Continuing a series on screen portrayals of Pilate that I began last year during Holy Week.  The figure of Pontius Pilate has always intrigued me. The fifth Prefect of Judaea, Pilate looms large in the Gospels. His name Pilate indicates that his family was of Samnite origin. Pilate is mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus as having condemned Jesus. In 1961 a block of limestone was discoved at the site of Caesarea Maritima, the Roman capital of Judaea, bearing an inscription of Pilate dedicating a Roman theater there. That is almost all we know about Pilate outside of the Gospels, Josephus and Philo. Pilate today would be forgotten, instead of being the best known Roman who ever lived, but for his role in sentencing Jesus.

Last year we looked at Rod Steiger’s portrayal of Pilate in Jesus of Nazareth, here, and at Richard Boone’s in The Robe, here.  Next up is Barry Dennen in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973).

It would take many posts for me to detail how much I disliked Jesus Christ Superstar, which for me symbolized much of what was wrong in the world in the late sixties and the seventies.  Taking pride in being historically inaccurate and a mishmash of ancient and modern, the play and film was just as confused theologically and totally divorced from traditional Christianity.  Jesus is portrayed as petulant, weak and indecisive, a depiction which might be blasphemous if it had more thought behind it.  However, amidst all of the dross there are a very few high points, and Dennen’s performance  is the best of these.

The video at the beginning of this post depicts the sequence where Pilate has a dream about the upcoming trial of Jesus.  Historically, it was Pilate’s wife who had a dream about Jesus:  [19] And as he was sitting in the place of judgment, his wife sent to him, saying: Have thou nothing to do with that just man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.   (Matthew 27:19)  Pilate in each of the Gospel narratives is portrayed as very reluctant to have Jesus executed, mystified as to why Caiaphas had Jesus brought to him, and wary that Caiaphas was seeking to shift the responsibility for the death of Jesus over to him.  The dream of his wife was just what Pilate needed to give him a foreboding that this was not merely a routine execution, but a matter of extreme importance that he could not fathom.  The song brings all of this out quite well.

The trial sequence in the above video demonstrates how confusing the whole affair must have seemed when viewed from Pilate’s eyes:  Why did Caiaphas want this man dead?  Why isn’t Jesus defending himself?  Why is he answering my straight forward questions with cryptic remarks?   A Jewish mob crying out that they have no king but Caesar?  Jesus had a considerable following, where are they?

Pilate was the representative of Rome in Judaea.  He had imperium granted to him by the Emperor, the power of life and death over every Jew he encountered, but in the Gospels he is shown as completely bewildered at the conflict between Jesus and the members of the Sanhedrin who sought his blood, a mere instrument in the skilled hands of Caiaphas.  His washing of his hands is not only Pilates’ way of attempting to absolve himself of responsibility for the death of Jesus, but also a symbol of his removing himself as best he could from a situation that was simply beyond his ken.

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  1. I loved this movie when I was a little teenybopper, chiefly because my friends and I thought Ted Neely (who played Jesus as an indecisive hippie) was cute. I agree that Dennen was good in the role.

    It seems that playing Jesus in JCS has become Neely’s life-long meal ticket. A few years ago I was downtown with a friend (who happened to be one of the girls I went to see JCS with when we were 8th graders) and we saw a notice for Jesus Christ Superstar starring Ted Neely playing at a local theater. Now you would think that playing the role of Jesus has a definite built-in age limit, and is automatically off limits to someone eligible for AARP card, but apparently not. (The makeup artist has quite a job on his/her hands.) My friend spotted the sign first and said to me with astonishment “Is Neely entering Jerusalem seated on a wheelchair?”

  2. BTW, the nuns in pantsuits played JCS for us in religion class, which is one reason my generation’s knowledge of the Faith is so lacking – we were listening to rock operas and making “God’s Eyes” with yarn and popsicle sticks in religion class instead of learning unfun stuff like the catechism.

  3. I get confused when I read the word “Judea”.
    The Jews considered Palestine their home land and Palestine is in Judea.
    Jerusalem is where Jesus is from and that’s part of Palestine?

    I know I have that wrong.

  4. The Jews considered Judaea their homeland with Jerusalem as its capital. Palestine was a term used by Egyptians, Greeks and later Romans for designating the land between Syria and Egypt, the boundaries of this area being indistinct. The Jews ruled various parts of this area throughout their history. At the time of Christ this area was ruled by Rome through a bewildering combination of local rulers and direct Roman rule.

  5. JCS had a black Judas right at the beginning berating Jesus for going passively to His Cross. It portrayed the cynical Jewish establishment in Caipahas with his deep sepulchral voice. A movie like that would be unusual today.

  6. This Pilate exhibited anger and jealousy. Anger because Jesus did not submit to his views and perhaps because Pilate was victim bashing as Jesus caused an uprising. Jealousy because Jesus remained in sovereign control of Himself. Jesus said that God was “far away” and this is a very limp way of describing the kingdom of God, for Jesus in the Gospels says that the kingdom of God is at hand. “My kingdom is not of this world” is not heard either. I never saw JCS but the idea that God is far, far away almost unreachable, sure does sow despair.

  7. Donna V.: My daughter got to paint a “pet rock” with which she was instructed to converse. (First year Catholic high school). The cildren are still making “God’s eyes” out of popsicle sticks instead of learning the “unfun” catechism, but now the chidlren are doing this after having been removed from the Sunday Mass.

  8. If Judas and Caiphas did not trust the TRUTH, they were damned by their own free will.

    Maybe so, but who is this mysterious entity: “the one with the greater guilt” in the Passion narrative. The one without whose “power from above” Pilate could not act. Surely it cannot be small greasy fries such as Annas and Caiphas or even the Emperor in Rome. In St John’s Gospel more so than in the others Jesus Himself is orchestrating the proceedings with perfect symmetry to a certain end. The only choices I can think of for that mysterious being are Satan or God Himself. Against such powers what are puny human beings?

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