The holy blockbuster

It doesn't feature in many film buffs' best-of-all-time lists, but it's probably the most watched movie ever. Twenty-five years on, Julia Stuart tracks down the makers and the star of 'Jesus'
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It is a question that would fox the most knowledgeable of pub-quiz devotees - what is the most watched movie of all time? Gone with Wind, perhaps? Titanic? ET, maybe? The answer is in fact Jesus, a film of which you have no doubt never heard, let alone seen. Made 25 years ago, it has been translated into 830 languages and, the makers claim, been seen by more than five billion people. But for all its popularity, it also attracts rabid opposition. Indeed, it is arguable that no other film has provoked quite so much bloodshed.

The film, a literal portrayal of the Gospel according to Luke, starred the British actor Brian Deacon, a former Emmerdale regular. It was the creation of John Heyman, a British producer and film financier, whose 1971 production of The Go-Between won seven Baftas and the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

In the early 1970s, Heyman conceived an ambitious project to translate the entire Bible into the medium of film, in various languages, with a view to using the results as teaching aids in Bible-study classes around the world. He was engaged in making the Gospel according to Luke - which ran to four and a quarter hours - when he was approached by an American evangelist, Dr Bill Bright, who suggested that while he was at it he should also make a shorter, English-language version suitable for cinema release.

In 1951, Bright had founded Campus Crusade for Christ International, a non-denominational Christian mission targeting college and university campuses. He had always dreamt of using film as a means of spreading the word of God to those who couldn't read. Bunker Hunt, a Texan oilman and friend of Campus Crusade, stumped up the $6m budget for the movie.

A team of 500-odd scholars and leaders of a variety of secular and Christian organisations began a five-year research programme to determine how best to make the film. It was agreed that it would be as archaeologically, historically and theologically accurate as possible; that the presentation would be unbiased and acceptable to all as a true depiction of Christ's life; and that the script would be easily translatable.

It took six months and 263 auditions in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and London to find a suitable actor to play the Son of God. Deacon, who was then 30, had starred with Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed in the 1972 film The Triple Echo, and played a number of title roles for BBC television. He was also a regular player at the Bristol Old Vic.

John Heyman, now the chairman of the World Group of Companies, part of which produced Ballykissangel, The Cops and This Life, says that he picked Deacon not only because he was "a very fine actor", but because he could be made to look "ethnically correct", and "fit as many of the moulds that had been created as possible, given the distortions that have occurred in 2,000 years of graphic art".

Paul Eshleman, director of The Jesus Film Project, the branch of Campus Crusade that now handles the film, says: "Originally, the idea was that all the actors should come from Israel, but we couldn't quite find someone in Israel who had the depth of acting experience and the humanity that Brian had. Out of them all, Brian most easily portrayed the light of Jesus, and easily expressed the kind of warmth and humanity that John wanted in the film."

Apart from the lead, and four or five bit- parts that were played by Americans, the actors were all Israelis.

The movie was shot in 1978 in more than 200 locations, either in or as close as possible to where the original action was said to have taken place. Eshleman, who played a centurion, says that the atmosphere on set was positively spiritual. "Most film sets are a bit crass and wild at times, which is what I was expecting, but I found something totally different. I found people with deep reverence towards the work that they were doing. They very much wanted to do it as God would have wanted it done, with maybe a little bit of holy fear that they might do it wrong, and maybe God would be displeased with them for playing the part in the wrong way."

However, Deacon, currently on tour playing Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, remembers it differently. "There were rows about interpretation. The producer wanted his hand on the helm, and he was a very impatient man. He would lose his temper and get very angry. Sometimes, if you were doing a crucifixion scene, you'd be strapped up on the cross and somebody would be screaming at the crew. It's not exactly conducive to creating a good atmosphere," says Deacon, 54, who now lives in Wimbledon, south London. "The Disciples went on strike one day. I think they felt, 'We've done a month on this film, we can't be replaced, and we're going to ask for more money'.

"I remember once complaining after I'd been up on the cross for a while, saying, 'Look, please just put a stepladder under my feet', and someone said to me, 'What are you complaining about? You're going to come down. He never did'. I thought, what's this? Emotional blackmail? I'm an actor!"

But some considered Deacon, then married to Rula Lenska, as something far greater than a thespian. "I found it quite difficult, because people would come to me on set and tell me their problems. I used to say, 'Look, I'm just an actor, I don't have any fine words for you'." When a fire broke out at Deacon's hotel, his stand-in told him it was the work of Satan who was trying to kill him for spreading the word of Jesus.

According to The Jesus Film Project, the film had already chalked up two converts before it was released. A "college drop-out" working in the prop department "received Christ as Saviour and Lord", as did a Warner Brother executive after a distribution planning meeting.

Jesus was released in thousands of cinemas across America in 1979. Deacon, who went there twice to publicise it, says that he felt his lack of overt enthusiasm for Jesus was a disappointment to many. "There was a lot of pressure on me. People said, 'When were you reborn?', and I said I wasn't, and they didn't understand that. I said I had a faith, but I don't go to church and I can't proselytise, I'm afraid."

Much to Deacon's chagrin, however, Jesus had a very limited release in the UK. "People thought it was very preachy and sanctimonious," says Heyman. "Britain doesn't have the core of fundamentalist believers that the US does. There was a lot of resistance to the idea of releasing it."

Deacon believes that the role may well have had an adverse affect on his career. "The film took up to eight months of my life, after which I ended up publicising it. Eighteen months had gone by, and I'd done nothing in England. It was as if I hadn't existed, and things became quite difficult for me. Before I took the part, my agent said that he wasn't sure I should because people who played that role often had difficulty getting work afterwards. And that was certainly true. When you've played a role like that, people think, how can we cast him now as a lover or a sinful man?"

Deacon has subsequently spent seven years doing voice-overs: he played Neil Kincaid in Emmerdale for a year, and had a role in Peter Greenaway's A Zed & Two Noughts. For the last six years, he has largely been doing theatre work.

But for many, he will always be Jesus. Despite the prosthetic nose and wig he wore on set, and the many years that have lapsed, Deacon has been recognised in his local park by those who have seen the film through their church. Then there are the letters. "They come from people in odd places around the world who have seen the film, saying, over pages and pages, how I've changed their life. That's what I find most intimidating and difficult to deal with. Mostly, I don't reply, because what can I say to these people?" He doesn't, however, regret making the film. "If nothing else, I've made my mark somewhere."

After the cinema release in America, Campus Crusade obtained the worldwide distribution rights. (Based in Florida, it is now one of America's biggest evangelical organisations, receiving some $400m a year in donations.) The Jesus Film Project was set up to organise its screening around the world. It had originally planned to translate the film into 163 languages, which, at that time, was the number of languages that had more than one million speakers. "Our objective now is to translate it into every language with more than 100,000 speakers - about 1,200 languages. We have done 830," says Eshleman.

Missionaries are sent from the US, Canada and Singapore to make the recordings in the field. They commission a film director to find a translator and to audition the voices for the 23-odd speaking parts. (It takes three and a half days to record Jesus.) In remote areas, the missionaries will look for someone who has directed plays. The director listens as the recordings are made, to ensure accuracy. The recordings are then edited at the Florida headquarters, and a new-language print of the film is made. Each one costs about $35,000 to make. The Jesus Film Project ships out a projector, generator and screen to enable it to be shown, usually by locals "who have pledged their own allegiance to Jesus and want to reach others who haven't heard yet", explains Eshleman. Commercial films are usually only distributed in 25 or so languages. Most people, therefore, have never seen a film in their own tongue. Some have never even seen a movie.

But Jesus has been shown to - and understood by - everyone from scientists in Antarctica to cave-dwellers in India, as well as being canoed down jungle rivers in Indonesia and Borneo. "It's a big event when the film arrives," says Eshleman. "In remote places, they are awed by the technology. They'll get very angry at the soldiers and run to the screen with machetes and try to hit the soldiers, or throw rocks at them or anyone else trying to hurt Jesus. They're surprised when they see a headshot, because they think it's a person with only a head, and there are lots of exclamations at first. But after two or three days, they have an understanding of what media is."

There is a prayer at the end of film for those who wish their sins to be forgiven. Those who come forward for more information are given details of local churches. In areas where there are none, Bible-study groups are often set up.

The Jesus Film Project says that the ultimate success of the venture won't be measured by how many people see the film (it claims a total audience of 5,040,711,440 up to 1 July this year - a figure that must include many multiple viewings), but by how many are inspired to turn to Jesus. According to its own figures, up to the beginning of this month, 188,869,483 people have "indicated decisions to accept Christ as their personal Saviour and Lord". The Jesus Film Project website quotes a team-leader in Rwanda, claiming that, "after they watch the film, it is common for Hutus and Tutsis alike to receive Christ, then go to one another and, in tears, ask forgiveness for their hatred and crimes against each other". Another story tells of the mother in Brazil who had prepared a poisoned meal for her drug-addicted son, and then went round to her neighbour's house to watch Jesus. She rushed home to throw out the food. "Now I want Jesus to renew my life and my hope," she is quoted as saying.

But while the film has no doubt changed the lives of some for the better, for others it has had dire consequences. In August 2001, Americans Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, who were working for the charity Shelter Now, were arrested after showing the film in Afghanistan. They, along with German and Australian colleagues, were imprisoned on the charge of propagating Christianity. If found guilty, they could have been stoned to death. Fortunately, they were rescued three months later by the Northern Alliance and US Special Forces.

But there were those for whom being involved with the movie cost them their life. Eshleman admitted to The Independent that some 15 or 20 people "that we know of" have been killed for showing the film in countries including Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Bangladesh and India. "There are radicals and fanatical leaders of varying traditions who say, you shouldn't come here, and, if you do, we'll kill you. We don't send anyone out. People get the film from us and decide where they'll go. We didn't have anything to do with the fact that they gave up their lives. I feel tremendous sadness for them and their families, and admiration for their commitment, and that they believe so fervently."

'Selling Jesus', a behind-the-scenes look at The Jesus Film Project, is on BBC 4 on Tuesday at 10pm