Mark Goodacre has inspired me. As you may know he enjoys watching Jesus films. (His list can be accessed here: Celluloid Jesus: The Christ Films Web Pages). We can learn a lot about how people have read and interpreted the Bible and Christian tradition by observing what is included and excluded from these films, how characters are portrayed, etc. Well, I've decided it would be fun to do what Prof. Goodacre has been doing, but with an eye on how John the Baptist is portrayed. Since Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth is on Netflix I began there.
English actor Michael York plays John. The first mention of John is an adaption of Luke's gospel. Mary visits Elizabeth, the child in her womb leaps, Elizabeth bless Mary as the father of the messiah, etc. Then the child John is presented as being circumcised and named. We don't hear of John again until there is a scene of a scribe reading Isaiah 40, which serves as the transition to John's preaching along the river.
He is shaggy in appearance, especially his hair. His preaching is a mixture of rage and compassion, warning against a coming judgment while gracefully offering forgiveness to participants of his baptism. John warns the people against relying on "rituals" such as going to the temple and offering sacrifices. This feels a little bit Protestant in its polemic, though John as an anti-temple prophet is an interesting, and possibly historical, interpretation of his preaching.
John's preaching focuses on the hearts of the people. Crowds rush to him, evoking visually what Josephus and the Evangelists suggest when they present John as being wildly popular with the people. John's baptism washes away sins as he says, "Let this water wash away your sins," while baptizing.
The best scene is the one when Herod Antipas' train is passing through the region. John begins to yell at Antipas, rebuking him for his marriage to Herodias, Herodias is depicted on a couple of occasions as trying to convince Antipas to do something about John. Antipas replies that John is harmless, he's been in the wilderness all these years, and he doesn't want anything (as made evident by his poverty). Antipas mentions the inability to arrest John until he is back in Galilee, suggesting that the reason for the delay had to do with jurisdiction. When John screams at Antipas there is a shot of spit flying out of his mouth. Either he is unstable or extremely passionate and angry!