Screen Pilates: Rod Steiger

Wednesday, April 20, AD 2011


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 orgin.  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 capitol 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.

This is the start of a series examining how Pilate has been presented in films.  First up  is Rod Steiger, the method actor to end all method actors, and a character actor who achieved stardom with intense, some would say frequently over the top, performances.  Steiger gives an interesting portrayal of Pilate in the superb Jesus of Nazareth  (1977).  Overworked and tired, with a bad temper on edge, he is forced to judge Jesus, and clearly finds the dispute between Him and the Sanhedrin to be completely incomprehensible.  His queries to Jesus, “Who are you?  What are you?”,  sum up how mysterious this  business is to him, and echoes the query of Jesus to his Apostles:  “Who do you say that I am?”

Ultimately Pilate condemns Jesus and this sequence may be viewed here.  To forestall a riot, Pilate sentences Jesus to be crucified.  Pilate still obviously finds Jesus to be utterly mysterious.  His wondering who is the real threat to Rome, Barabbas or Jesus, before he passes sentence on Jesus as the mob howls for him to free Barabbas, indicates that he understands at some level that this is all very important, but he simply cannot fathom why.  Steiger portrays Pilate as world weary and baffled by his encounter with this strange Galilean.

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8 Responses to Screen Pilates: Rod Steiger

  • For all his talents, I think Steiger was miscast here. From scripture and other portrayals, Pilate seems frustrated and perplexed, but he never quite loses it. Rather he dumps it all in the laps of the mob giving them a choice. In his mind, he washed his hands and felt no responsibility for condemning Jesus. See Frank Thring’s cool performance in Ben-Hur for a stark contrast to Steiger’s ranting.

  • I think the only movie I liked Steiger in was as Napolean in “Waterloo.” Even that was a bit of a stretch.

    I did like Hristo Shopov as Pilate in “The Passion of the Christ.”

  • I may be historically incorrect. Here goes. During Passover, Jeruslaem was filled with Jews from all over the world. Pilate was under pressure from his superiors not to suffer a riot during the festival. The Jews were filled with religious fervor and even more volatile during passover: imagine ritually commemorating whipping the Egyptian Empire while suffering under the yolk of Imperial Rome and its “victorious gods.” Pilate was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    Old Sicilian proverb: “Once you draw the sword, throw away the sheath.”

    RE: Josephus’ account of the “sit-in in Caesarea.” Don’t know if any other similar event occurred anywhere else in Roman history. If so, one wonders how the empire survived until the Fifth Century A.D. Imagine how the zealots were encouraged after calling Pilate’s bluff.

  • “See Frank Thring’s cool performance in Ben-Hur for a stark contrast to Steiger’s ranting.”

    All the screen Pilates will have their turn Joe, although it is probably something I will reserve for Holy Week each year. Tomorrow we look at Richard Boone’s interpretation of Pilate.

  • Not to mention Telly Savalas in “The Greatest Story Ever Told”… the role for which the future Det. Theo Kojak shaved his head — and kept that look for the rest of his life.

  • Another marvelous performance Elaine! Playing Pilate has seemed to inspire many actors to give their very best effort.

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