Continuing our series on screen portrayals of Pilate that I began in 2011 during Holy Week. The posts on portrayals of Pilate by Rod Steiger, Richard Boone, Barry Dennen and Hristov Shopov may be read here, here, here and here.
Telly Savalas in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) gives a fairly stolid performance as Pilate. He portrays Pilate as a world weary Roman functionary to whom Christ is merely a problem he does not need. When he transfers Christ’s case to Herod, we see Jose Ferrer who gives a strikingly good portrayal of Herod Antipas. Ferrer portrayed Herod as a man touched against his will by the words of John the Baptist. Now however he has executed John the Baptist, and has given himself up for damned, taking refuge in drink.
Herod sends Jesus back before Pilate, now seated as judge in public representing all the majesty of Rome. Savalas underplays the scene, emotionlessly going through the process of having the mob choose between Barabbas and Christ, and then sentencing Christ to death. His words are sparse, without gestures. In sequences that are usually played for drama, Pilate is almost a passive observer, someone long predestined to play his role, like a character in a play, and powerless to do other than what he is fated to do: condemn Jesus. As he washes his hands, we hear Pilate’s thoughts: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. Pilate is depicted as a mere instrument in the hands of God, his sentence an essential part of our salvation as set forth in the Creed. One of the more thoughtful representations of Pilate on film.