Easter Sunday returns on April 12.
So while we’re all at home practicing social distancing, here are ten Easter-related movies to get you in the mood – even if you cannot go to church for Holy Week activities or have a traditional family celebration.
(And for more about the meaning of Easter, how the date is determined, traditions and songs … please see some links after the movie list.)
An admission: In the 1950 classic “Harvey,” actor Jimmy Stewart, cast as Elwood P. Dowd, has made friends with a six-feet-three rabbit (also known as a pooka). OK, so the movie is not Easter-inspired. Regardless, when I think of bunnies of memorable size, I think of the Easter Rabbit. (Trivia: Stewart is six-feet-four. So he described Harvey to reporters as being six-feet-eight.)
Most, but not all, of the following are family offerings. If you do not already have these in your film library, you have plenty of time to compare prices online. I did not check schedules at Turner Classic Movies and American Movie Classics, but I am peeved that my searches at Amazon, Disney-Plus, Hulu and Netflix turned up screenings only of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
In any case, as far as Easter-related movies, the following list of 10 opens with a musical and a rock opera – and then slips back into alphabetical order.
Here we go:
Don Hewes: “Why didn’t you tell me I was in love with you?”
1948, directed by Charles Walters. Stars Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford and Ann Miller.
Gene Kelly originally was set to co-star as Don Hewes, opposite Garland’s Hannah Brown; Kelly broke his ankle playing volleyball and Astaire replaced him.
As the lavish musical opens, Broadway stars Hewes’ (Astaire) dancing partner Nadine Hale (Miller) decides to leave and seek a solo career. Angry, Don declares he can make a star out of the very next dancer he sees. That turns out to be inexperienced performer Hanna Brown (Garland), who at first bristles as Don obviously tries to make her into his old partner. However, the new dance partners become so successful as “Hannah & Hewes” that Florenz Ziegfeld expresses interest in signing them. Knowing Nadine already is with Ziegfeld Follies, Don turns down this huge opportunity. He also does not tell Hannah he loves her. Don rationalizes he should keep their relationship strictly business, so Hannah can reach her individual potential. However, Hannah mistakenly concludes Don still is in love with Nadine. Suspicions grow when Nadine and Don costar in a nightclub floor show. Making the movie more special are the array of songs by Irving Berlin, including the title tune, “Stepping Out with My Baby,” “We’re a Couple of Swells,” “Better Luck Next Time” and “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam.”
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
Caiaphas: “One thing I’ll say for him. Jesus is cool.”
Jesus: “God, thy will is hard. But you hold every card. I will drink your cup of poison, nail me to your cross and break me, bleed me, beat me, kill me! Take me now, before I change my mind.”
1973, directed by Norman Jewison. Stars Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, Bob Bingham, Larry Marshall, Josh Mostel, Kurt Yaghijan and Paul Thomas.
Presented not as a musical, but rather a rock opera with no dialogue. The recording “Jesus Christ Superstar,” composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, was released in 1970. It was successfully adapted for Broadway. Filmmaker Norman Jewison provided a unique approach. His movie opens with a group of performers, many from the Broadway show, traveling to desert ruins to re-enact the Passion of Christ. The film was shot in Israel, primarily at the ruins of Avdat, Beit Guvrin National Park, Beit She’an and other Middle Eastern locations. Performers arrive by bus, assemble props and get into costume. One member is surrounded by others, puts on a white robe and emerges as Jesus. At the film’s conclusion, the performers, now out of costume, re-board the bus. Only actors Barry Dennen, Yvonne Elliman and Carl Anderson – Pilate, Mary Magdalene and Judas, respectively – notice that actor Ted Neeley (Jesus) is missing. A shepherd and his flock cross the hillside beneath the empty cross. Based on the concept album, the film tells the story of the final six days in the life of Jesus Christ through the troubled eyes of Judas Iscariot.
Barabbas: “How else have you lived except my way? Whoever’s against us or gets in our way, we get rid of. My knife may have bitten a few throats, but what about your weapons? They spit at thousands upon thousands. If I have taken a passing woman to myself, your armies have looted and raped across continents – and have been called the glory of the earth for doing it. You were born according to the law and raised according to the law. I was born by a girl thrown out of a brothel, who gave birth and cursed me before she died. But I tell you, we belong to the same herd.” … (And when told by Pontius Pilate that he remains protected from capital punishment:) … “He meant me to live. No killing for Barabbas. No death for Barabbas. He died in my place!”
1961, directed by Richard Fleischer. Stars Anthony Quinn, Silvana Mangano, Arthur Kennedy, Katy Jurado, Harry Andrews, Vittorio Gassman, Norman Wooland, Valentina Cortese, Jack Palance and Ernest Borgnine.
Anthony Quinn delivers a strong performance in the title role of an epic biblical tale about a criminal released by Pontius Pilate (Kennedy). The action follows the thief Barabbas, spared crucifixion when Pilate manipulated the crowd into pardoning the thief/murderer rather than Jesus. The story includes Barabbas’ return to crime, subsequent recapture and imprisonment in sulfur mines. Struggling with spirituality, Barabbas’ many ordeals lead him to the gladiator arena, where he tries to win his freedom and confronts inner demons. He ultimately becomes a follower of the man crucified in his place. Based on the 1950 Nobel Prize-winning novel by Swedish author Par Lagerkvist. Noted for a crucifixion scene filmed during an actual total solar eclipse.
Sextus: “There’s this wild man in the desert named John who drowns people in water.”
Judah Ben-Hur: “NO! I warn YOU! Rome is an affront to God! Rome is strangling my people and my country, the whole Earth! But not forever. And I tell you, the day Rome falls, there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before!”
1959 version, directed by William Wyler. Stars Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, Frank Thring and Claude Heater uncredited as Jesus Christ.
Ranging from 1925 to 2016, no fewer than five film adaptations were inspired by Lew Wallace’s novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” published in 1880. The book never has been out of print. The best version was directed by William Wyler and released in November 1959, the first movie to win 11 Academy Awards. No film has ever won more, although 11 Oscars also were won by “Titanic” in 1997 and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2003. Charlton Heston’s long career found him Oscar-nominated only once and he won for his leading role as Judah Ben-Hur. This is epic filmmaking; its $15 million budget was history’s highest at the time, with more than 300 sets constructed at Italy’s Cinecitta Studios. The movie’s greatest scenes include a nine-minute chariot race, shown without music and a dynamic battle at sea. Significantly, both scenes can be viewed in their full-frame entirety only on movie screens; yet many discovered and embraced “Ben-Hur” during television broadcasts. The epic drama introducers an aristocratic Jew (Heston), living in Judea, who incurs the wrath of a childhood friend (Boyd), now a Roman tribune. Forced into slavery on a galley and compelled to witness the cruel persecution of his family, Heston’s title character survives. Trained as a gladiator and charioteer, he dreams of vengeance. Yet there also are happenings he cannot understand. Who is the mysterious prophet with whom he crosses paths more than once? What plan does God have for him and his family?
‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’
Jesus: “Go now, and teach all nations. Make it your first care to love one another and to find the kingdom of God, and all things shall be yours without me asking. Do not fret then for tomorrow; leave tomorrow to fret over its own needs, for today’s troubles are enough. And lo, I am with you always, even onto the end of the world.”
John Wayne as the Centurian at the crucifixion: “Truly, this man was the son of God.”
1965, directed by George Stevens and (uncredited) David Lean. Stars Max von Sydow, Dorothy McGuire, Charlton Heston, Claude Rains, Jose Ferrer, Telly Savalas, Martin Landau, David McCallum, Donald Pleasance, Michael Anderson Jr., Roddy McDowall, Joanna Dunham, Joseph Schildkrut, Ed Wynn, Pat Boone, Victor Buono, Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury, Robert Blake, Sidney Poitier and John Wayne.
Using a massive number of film stars in cameo and supporting roles, director George Stevens’ story is a retelling of the Bible’s Jesus of Nazareth, from the Nativity through the Ascension. The film was released in 1965 with a running time of four hours and 20 minutes. Various edits later were made available, with the film eventually reduced to two hours and 17 minutes. Synopsis: From his birth in Bethlehem to his death and eventual resurrection, the life of Jesus (Max von Sydow) is given an all-star treatment in an epic retelling. Major aspects of Christ’s life are touched upon, including the execution of newborn males in Egypt by King Herod (Claude Rains), Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist (Charlton Heston) and Christ’s betrayal by Judas (David McCallum) after the Last Supper. There follows Jesus’ crucifixion and miraculous return.
E.B.: “Look, Dad. Ever since I was yea big, it’s been ‘The Easter Bunny would not do that’ and ‘The Easter Bunny has to be perfect.’ But, ha, I’m not perfect!”
E.B. (through intercom at the Playboy Mansion): “Yeah, right. But it says here that, ever since 1971, the Playboy Mansion has been home to sexy bunnies from around the world. … Now, I’m telling you, I am both a bunny and incredibly sexy.”
2011, combined live action and animation, directed by Tim Hill. Featuring James Marsden, Russell Brand, Kaley Cuoco, Hank Azaria, Gary Cole, Elizabeth Perkins, Hugh Laurie, Tiffany Espensen and David Hasselhoff.
“Hop” blends state-of-the-art computer animation and live action. The story: Beneath Easter Island, in a giant factory that manufactures the world’s Easter candy, the popular Easter Rabbit is preparing to pass his title and job to his son, E.B. (Brand). E.B. has no interest in the job. He wants to be a rock ’n’ roll drummer. He runs away to Los Angeles, where unemployed slacker Fred O’Hare (Marsden) accidentally runs into him. Feigning injury, E.B. tricks Fred into providing him with shelter. Meanwhile, back home a giant chick (Azaria) is planning a coup on Easter Island. Fred and E.B. both learn what it takes to grow up.
‘King of Kings’
Mary Magdalene: “He is risen.”
1961, directed by Nicholas Ray. Stars Jeffrey Hunter, Siobhan McKenna, Hurd Hatfield, Ron Randell, Viveca Lindfors, Rita Gam, Carmen Sevilla, Brigid Bazlen, Harry Guardino, Rip Torn, Frank Thring, Guy Rolf, Royal Dano and Robert Ryan.
The story of Jesus Christ from his birth in Bethlehem to his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. Filmed on a relatively grand scale, “King of Kings” includes all of the major events referenced in the New Testament. When word spreads throughout Judea that the son of God will be born in Bethlehem, King Herod demands all newborns be killed. Mary (McKenna) escapes with her young son Jesus, who grows up preaching, performing miracles and acquiring devotees. The crippled walk, the blind see, etc. One of the followers of Jesus (Hunter) is Judas (Torn). Jesus faces crucifixion after Judas’ betrayal.
‘The Passion of the Christ’
Jesus: “I am the good shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep. No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and the power to take it up again. This command is from my Father.”
Pontius Pilate: “Truth? Do you want to know what my truth is, Claudia? I have been putting down rebellions in this rotten outpost for 11 years. If I don’t condemn this man, I know Caiaphas will start a rebellion. If I do condemn him, then his followers may. Either way, there will be bloodshed. Caesar has warned me, Claudia. Warned me twice. He swore that, the next time, the blood would be mine. That is my truth!”
2004, directed by Mel Gibson. Stars Jim Caviezel, Maia Morganstern, Christo Jiykoy, Francesco De Vito, Monica Bellucci, Mattia Sbragia, Toni Bertorelli, Luca Lionello and Hristo Shoppy.
Controversial – with violence, bloodshed and gore during the scourging of Jesus that took my breath away and left me weeping. Regardless, director Mel Gibson’s R-rated effort deserved at least a Best Picture nomination. The film covers 12 hours preceding Jesus’ death, consisting of the Passion according to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It also draws on such pious accounts as the Friday of Sorrows. With no opening credits, the motion picture begins with the Agony in the Garden (the Garden of Olives, or Gethsemane), the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, the Scourging at the Pillar, the suffering of Mary as prophesied by Simeon, the crucifixion and death of Christ, and ends with a brief depiction of the resurrection. (Gibson continues to work toward a sequel to be titled “The Resurrection of the Christ.”) Dialogue is entirely in Hebrew, Latin and reconstructed Aramaic. At first, Gibson was against using subtitles; happier, wiser heads prevailed. The story, based on the New Testament: Judas expedites the downfall of Jesus (Caviezel) by handing him over to the Roman Empire’s handpicked officials. To the horror of his mother Mary (Morganstern), Magdalene (Bellucci) and disciples, Jesus is condemned to death. He is tortured while dragging a huge, heavy wooden crucifix to nearby Calvary, where he is nailed to the cross. Not for the faint of heart.
Marcellus Gallio (more than once): “Were you out there?”
Marcellus Gallio: “Surely you don’t believe he rose from the dead.”
1953, directed by Henry Koster. Stars Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, Jay Robinson, Dean Jagger, Torin Thatcher and Richard Boone.
Biblical epic which finds drunk and disillusioned Marcellus Gallio (Burton) winning the robe of Jesus in a dice game after the crucifixion. Marcellus never has been a man of faith like his slave, Demetrius (Mature). When Demetrius escapes with the robe, Marcellus experiences disturbing visions. He feels guilty for his actions. Convinced that destroying the robe will cure him, Marcellus sets out to find Demetrius and instead discovers Christian faith.
‘The Ten Commandments’
Moses at the Red Sea: “The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us. Behold his mighty hand!”
1956, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Stars Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price and John Carradine.
Seek out practically any list of Easter films and this picture is mentioned, no doubt because of a scene in which Charlton Heston, as Moses, calls for power from God and divides the waters of the Red Sea. (That said, action takes place before Jesus’ birth.) Still, the Motion Picture Academy began giving an Oscar for Best Visual Effects and John Fulton’s work made “The Ten Commandments” the first winner. But this movie began showing its wrinkles a long time ago. The intrusion by a narrator and near-laughable dialogue, makes this difficult for me to watch – all three hours and 39 minutes of it. As for a synopsis: Enjoying a life of ease in the court of Egypt’s pharaoh, Moses (Heston) discovers his Hebrew heritage and, later, God’s expectations of him. He dedicates himself to liberating his people from captivity. With the aid of plagues and divine intervention, he leads them out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. It takes a visitation by God on Mount Sinai for Moses’ mission to prevail. Nominated for Best Picture, but lost to “Around the World in 80 Days.”
Easter movies do not compare in number to Christmas movies. Nevertheless, this list could be longer; overlooked efforts range from the 1974 television special “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown” to director Martin Scorsese’s 1988 drama “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
For that matter, friends informed me that “Steel Magnolias” also is an Easter movie. It even closes at an Easter egg hunt. Hey, if “Die Hard” can be a Christmas movie, it makes sense.
Links for Easter information
For one view of the meaning of Easter, check out website allaboutjesuschrist at:
For those curious about how the date for each year’s Easter Sunday is determined, click here:
Whether curious about decorating eggs, the arrival of chocolate bunnies or even plans to dine on Easter ham, this link attempts to provide a history for common Easter traditions.
And it would not be Easter morning without “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”
I remember my mom smiling while leading such harmonies, at home and in the car during the drive to church. She made sure family members remembered every word and were not too shy to sing out loud.
But I found that the top contemporary songs older students and adults now share together around Easter are as numerous as the number of websites, and song choices vary. That said, the Good Housekeeping website provides a number of songs I’m betting you already know, including chart topping hits by MercyMe, Dolly Parton and TobyMac, to name only a few.
For Time magazine’s explanation of the origin of the Easter Bunny, click here. Other countries Easter has been associated not with rabbits, but instead with a fox, a stork or a cuckoo bird.