A.D. (1985)

From most of the gang who brought us “Jesus of Nazareth” (discussed here back in December), now we have “A.D.,” the less familiar story of the Apostles as they spread the gospel.  This one is even more drenched in guest stars, more drenched in sets and costumes and more drenched in silliness, and I say that with all reverence.  If you are looking for a religious message, stick with the Good Book.  If you want pomp and pageantry in the world of ancient Rome, settle in for six hours of it!

Let’s be honest: for good storytelling, you can’t beat the Passion story.  Other than sex, it really does have everything a truly great story should have.  Before there ever was an official New Testament, the story of Jesus, with its heroes and villains, miracles, violence and redemption, and even perhaps the hint of a prostitute (with the biggest heart of gold of them all) is just the kind of thing with which to take around the Roman Empire and hope for conversion.  Very few organized religions can match it.

However, the story loses steam after the resurrection.  The next few hundred years couldn’t hope to match the 33 Jesus spent on Earth (and most of his years are even missing–it’s a very condensed story), and that is the main problem with “A.D.”  You can have all the trappings money can buy, but without a whiz-bang story, even the trappings look thin.  Note here that most of the guest stars (slumming and otherwise) play Romans, who were far more exciting than the Apostles.  Why be post-crucifixion Mary when you can be Agrippina?

(Note: the DVD prints of “A.D.” cut out a lot, meaning the guest stars, so be prepared to do without Colleen Dewhurst, Ava Gardner’s Agrippina and Jennifer O’Neill’s Messalina, Fernando Rey’s Seneca and of course Susan Sarandon’s Livia, most mentioned, but not shown, though they certainly are in the original TV airing–the DVD is put out by a group more interested in religion than fun.)

So, keep that in mind as we slog through some of the slowest parts.  The history of Christianity is fascinating, but most of the best stuff happened right up front and then not for a few centuries.  The stuff in between, well, it means well, and it tries its hardest, but Christianity definitely had what the theater would call “second act trouble.”  Oh, sure, comic Roman Emperors and Paul’s outrageous sense of self-worth are amusing, but watching it all happen convert by convert can become tiresome at times. 

It’s two days after the crucifixion.  The scaffold is being dismantled, but otherwise, Jerusalem seems back to normal.  Two too-late-for-Passover visitors are scampering away from the city, soon joined by an awfully serene man who wants to hear their story.  “We got there in time for the bad news,” one says, that they not only missed joining “the 12,” but that Jesus is dead.  So, they went to the tomb, “but the body wasn’t there…nothing is left, not even his body.”  They are told not to be afraid, but to be “cheerful,” because this has all been foretold.  The serene man tries his best with the two frightened men, who bleat, “there is nothing in the scriptures about the power of Rome!” but when the serene man finally shows them his hands, with big holes through them, their attitudes change.  He is, of course, Jesus (Michael Wilding Jr.). 

Jesus can’t stay for dessert, despite the prodding of his new converts, who seem to understand all once he is gone and have no more fears.  This first sequence is extremely long and extremely pious, but a slow start isn’t a miniseries first.

It’s time to meet the Apostles, hiding in Jerusalem.  One claims he has been renamed “Peter, the rock” (Dennis Quilley).  In rush our two newly calm converts Cleopas (Todd Durham) and Zacchaeus (Anthony Pedley) with their story.  Thomas (Davyd Harries), doubts that it’s true (yes, that’s a Doubting Thomas joke) because he hasn’t seen him yet.  Peter does not understand how he’s supposed to move forward, but Jesus appears and says, “on your shoulders, strong enough to bear the weight of your mission” and now everyone sees him.  No trap doors, no fog, no smoke and mirrors.  Here he is folks, get your believing on!  Jesus gets in a second Doubting Thomas reference, but only so Jesus can prove to the naysayer that he is there and make him believe.  He tells them to stay in Jerusalem for a few days because soon enough will come the time to start spreading the word.

The Jews in Jerusalem are arguing.  Luckily, they have the slow steady Gamaliel (John Houseman, who did everything slow and steady in the 80s) to guide them.  He defends the action of turning in Jesus to keep the Romans placated.  Stephen (Vincent Riotta), Samuel (Ralph Arliss) and Caleb (Cecil Humphreys) are all present to join in with witty barbs back and forth.  Paul (Philip Sayer), isn’t quite trusted by the rest because Rome has honored his family.  Gamaliel tries to calm everyone by saying despite their differences, they are all one people, but Jesus and his teachings have stirred them up and they don’t know what to think anymore.  Paul is particularly vitriolic against the notion of “love” that Jesus had preached, but no one really knows if he was the Messiah or not.  “We firmly reject any claim that Jesus was anything but a good man.  We all need unity and heart.  Let us pray for this now,” Gamaliel says to bring the meeting to a close. 

Freed from thinking, Stephen and Caleb wrestle in the street with everyone cheering them on.  It’s all done in friendliness, but the Romans break it up and arrest Caleb.  Paul tries to save him, but the Roman soldiers merely sneer at him.

Remember Pontius Pilate (Anthony Zerbe)?  He’s still the head Roman in the area, and he has still has the problems of rebels in Judea.  He is told they are stockpiling gems, but he’s unconcerned.  He knows the Romans will rout them in the end and tells his aides to simply rejoice in the majesty of Emperor Tiberius.  That said, there is still the pesky problem of the new zealots.  “They are like weeping willows,” he tells his aides, “they bend until they snap back with more power.”  Everyone is thrilled with the expediency of the way he handled Jesus, but they need to set more examples.  Regarding Jesus, “his case puzzled me; his death relieved me,” Pilate says, but does not ask for Caleb immediately, preferring to wait two days until another Jewish celebration to pronounce sentence.  “They shall have another solemn date on their calendar,” he says, now just a nasty old man who loves his power.  Oh, wait!  It gets worse.  With both eyebrows raised, he asks if Caleb has any relatives and told he has a mother and two young sisters, he has them sent to Rome as slaves to thank Sejanus for “his consideration.” 

I’ll skip ahead more briskly than the movie, which delights in sweating the small stuff.  One of Caleb’s sisters, Ruth (Rebecca Saire) is betrothed to Samuel, who informs the family that Caleb is certain to be crucified.  Samuel tries to tell Ruth to leave the house with him, sensing “it isn’t safe,” but she refuses.  Meanwhile, Steven wants Paul to intervene because he’s a Roman citizen, but it’s too late for that.  How about Uncle Matthias?  He has money.  Nope, he won’t give any of it up because he believes in the teachings of Jesus.  “Ugh,” Paul says, with a roll of the eyes that can be seen miles away.  “The Lord who is one will guide us,” Paul says, stressing “one” to remind everyone it’s still the Jewish God in whom they need to have faith.  Roman guards take the sisters, and Samuel is understandably upset.  He wants to strike at the Romans, but Steven says “violence breeds violence,” stressing belief in God, who has “seen us through harder times.”  “He’s deaf!” Samuel yells. 

As the Apostles are delighting in baby stories from Mary (Millie Perkins), a wind kicks up, but only in their room.  It’s followed by a bright light that causes them to form a circle and dance in delight before leaving Mary alone in the secret room.  Gathered outside are tons of people shouting “hallelujah” and waving palm branches.  It’s the celebration day Pilate had mentioned, and everyone gathers at the Temple in high spirits.  Peter quiets them down to speak.  It turns out he’s quite the preacher.  “That great and notable day is upon us.  Jesus of Nazareth…God has raised up…let all know that God has made him both Lord and Messiah!” he tells all.  He says all they have to do is be baptized and turn away from the Jewish priests who have gathered with hostile faces, including Paul. 

Meanwhile, Caleb is saved in a brave attack as he’s on his way to be crucified, but Samuel is killed in the melee.  Stephen begs Caleb not to take revenge and seek out some Jewish aesthetics who are are big into water wells and “obsessed with cleanliness” but otherwise live cut off from the world.  They are definitely not followers of any new religious ideas.  Caleb gets to argue a bit with them and then we visit his sisters on the boat to Rome, where Ruth is depressed, but remembering Uncle Matthias, who is a follower of Jesus’ teachings, so we get a little gospel before she’s killed. 

Peter, thinking he’s Jesus because he’s seen a crippled man with a cross-shaped stick, touches him and tells him to rise, and it actually works!  This is seen by the Jewish priests and everyone gathered at the Temple.  No one is more surprised than Peter that it worked.  “I’m nobody, I’m nothing.  It’s the power of our Lord,” he says.  However, he does have a bit of ego going, so he goes a-baptizin’.  Stephen shows up to take the waters.

The action moves to Rome.  Let’s face it, as nasty as Pilate is, Judea is a backwater and the story is only going to pick up steam when we transplant at least some of heroes to the sinful capital city.  We arrive in the Senate where Sejanus (Ian McShane) is making a speech, having just survived an assassination attempt.  A note from Emperor Tiberius makes him Consul.  Valerius (Neil Dickson), son on a low-born successful soldier, has come to Rome as a spy for Sejanus because there is another plot against him, but when he falls in love with slave girl at first sight, he suddenly doesn’t want to spy anymore.  The slave girl belongs to Sejanus, who is pursuing her to beat her.  “I thought I was serving Rome,” he tells his mother, “but I suspect I’m serving an unscrupulous tyrant.”  We’ve only just met Valerius, but he’s awfully dim-witted already.  Oh, oops, did I mention the slave girl is Sarah (Amanda Pays), the sister of Ruth and Caleb?  Yeah, but you figured that out already.  It’s good storytelling.  Someone in her family deserves it.  Caleb is banished to the desert and Ruth is dead.

Speaking of Caleb, he’s in Samaria now.  He’s there working the locals into a lather to overthrow the local government.  “You must all think in terms of national freedom,” he tells everyone, as if that’s a concept with ANY meaning to small-town people in the first century A.D.  He explains how the Romans have ordered the military, down to the numbers in each garrison.  Geez, don’t piss off Caleb!  Have him drag a cross halfway through Jerusalem and you’ve got an enemy on your hands!

Lo and behold, it works.  He gets the local men to agree and they dispose one-by-one of the troops, stealing their armor as a way in.  Well, as one can expect, this does not sit well with Tiberius (James Mason, having graduated to a flashier role since “Jesus of Nazareth”), who, historically, probably would never even have heard of rebellion in Samaria. “Have I not done more for these Jews than…than…than…than…” he sputters, having no idea what he’s given then, only to get a saucy reply from Nerva (Jack Warden), who feels that this one revolt is a symptom of weakening leadership in Rome since Tiberius has gone into self-imposed exile on Capri. 

We are jumping around very quickly, where the Apostles are facing the Jewish leadership.  Gamaliel, and particularly our old pal Caiaphas (Harold Kasket) are annoyed by the gains of the “zealots,” snapping at Peter, whom he deems “the son of a fisherman” with bile.  Peter can give as good as he gets, accusing Caiaphas of putting Jesus to death, but Gamaliel urges everyone to “leave these men alone.”  If it is the work of man “it will collapse” and if it is the work of a higher power, “you cannot overthrow it.”  I think John Houseman had the same speech in “Winds of War,” no?  Alas, Caiaphas is in no better a mood than he was when Jesus was alive and he orders the whipped and to speak of Jesus no more.  The man so far called Paul (to be fair, he hasn’t settled on that yet, as he’s referred to as both Paul and Saul) is livid at Gamaliel for his “lenient” attitude toward the Apostles and they have a really dry doctrinal argument, though Paul has one good point at the end: a divided Jewry is only good news for the Roman Empire. 

Stephen takes that theory one step further, telling the Apostles that it’s time to go empire-wide with their message.  Peter’s response?  “We’re not ready for THAT yet!” to a chorus of laughter.  But, Stephen is all for pan-Judaism that stretches across the empire.  He wants to go to Greece himself, but Peter says no, the work is in Jerusalem.  “Me?  I’ve had enough of water,” says the fisherman.  To be fair, not all the kinks of theocracy are worked out so that it’s easy to swallow Christianity, but the believers are awfully good at hobbling it together on the fly.  Stephen is preaching when Paul says nothing is higher “than the law of Moses,” and Steven agrees that all of that is the foundation of what they are teaching, but that Jesus came with a new law, “the law of forgiveness, of love.”  Sounds pretty good, huh?  Who wouldn’t be at least interested in hearing a little about it?  It’s even starting to have an effect on Paul, though he claims otherwise over and over again.  Stephen emerges as the best voice of the new religion, the most eloquent and the best with a ready argument. 

But, when Stephen claims to see Jesus “at the right hand of God,” Caiaphas can’t take it anymore.  Not being able to “see” God is one of the holiest tenets of Judaism.  “Your blasphemy cannot be tolerated any longer!” Caiaphas roars, “Get out, Stephen…you have made it impossible for us!”  The sentence is death by stoning.  He dies asking for the Lord to take his soul.  Paul wants more, to imprison the whole lot of the “Greek Jews,” as they are now referred to,  and let them be judged “according to justice,” i.e. more stoning.  Caiaphas agrees, so Paul gets to play hatchet man. 

To make his point, he arrests an entire praying group, or at least just the men.  Thus, the Apostles realize it’s time to start spreading the word and send Philip (Gary Brown) abroad.  He first goes to Samaria, where he meets Caleb, who learns that his sisters were sent to Rome and his mother died.  Caleb also learns that for his role in losing Samaria, Pilate has been “recalled to Rome” and a replacement is being sent.  Caleb wants to go to Rome “and strike at the heart.”  Philip tries to talk him out of it, but Caleb is resolute. 

Back in Rome, Sarah and Valerius meet again in a rainstorm, both having tried to forget each other with no luck.  Thank goodness for this sudsy plot.  It’s hackneyed and obvious, but at least it has some dramatic heft.  Get this load of bunk as they try to deal with their differences:
He: “Suppose he [Sejanus] loved me.  This would change him.”
She: “How?”
He: “My freedom would be yours.”
She: “You want me to belong to you?”
He: “The two of us should have a chance to find our own way.”
She: “The Jewess and the Roman soldier.”
He: “A woman and a man. Being a Roman or being a Jew, I know people may find being a difference that can’t be reconciled.  Me?  It’s just like this rain.  Forgettable.”
She: “I’ll try to remember.”

And then she leaves.  Lovestruck male and sassy slave woman.  That has possibilities!

The new Procurator in Judea is Marcellus (Roderick Horn), who has ordered Paul’s spitefest to end because the Romans don’t want bloodshed.  “Thank God for that,” Gamaliel says, though Caiaphas and the others are upset because “he was doing such good work,” and decide to send him to do that work in Damascus with Seth (Bruce Winant).  Gamaliel is still the only voice of reason, but the Jewish priests are determined to stamp out the growing Nazarene sect however they can. 

On the way to Damascus, Paul is annoyed by the slowness of his men, so he sends three back and continues with just Seth.  They are caught in a giant wind storm that scares off the horses.  Paul opens his eyes, now blind as he burns with fever.  He insists that they continue to Damascus.  Paul finally confesses what he heard to Seth.  “It was his voice, the Lord.  He said, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?  We are all by nature children of anger.’  I shall persecute no more,” he says.  “I am to become one of them,” he says and asks Seth to bring him Ananais (Barrie Houghton), who baptizes him officially as Paul, now a convert to the new religion and able to see again. 

Having helped drive his uncle to insanity and death, Little Boots, known to history as Caligula (John McEnery), is teetering on the brink of madness himself.  He orders a soldier to cut off the heads of all the statues of the gods on his property and put his head on them.  But the female gods?  “Just put more hair,” he says matter-of-factly. 

Paul is worried that he’s not a teacher, with more zeal than knowledge, but the believers of Damascus tell him to simply tell his story of his revelation and people will understand.  He has an uphill battle since everyone knows to hate him.  “Cannot a man change?” he asks and then goes into the new teachings, but he meets resistance. 

Caleb goes to Rome, awed by the city and looking to attend gladiator school, in the wacky notion that once he has a sword in hand, he can get to his sisters and avenge what he sees as his own cowardice for having run to the desert.  Hasn’t he already taken care of that by helping the Samaritans temporarily rise up.  He’s offered a good job making tents by Aquila (Tony Vogel) and his wife Priscilla (Angela Morant).

I say it again, thank goodness for the fictional plot going here, because it’s ineptness gives us most of the laughs we need.  Caleb does indeed go to gladiator school, where the teacher realizes he’s Jewish the minute Caleb disrobes and then sends him off to fight some bad ass.  They have a good fight and then the bad ass removes his helmet to reveal she’s a woman!  Caleb is upset, but turned on.  Corrina (Diane Venora) is learning to fight so she can protect herself.  She doesn’t say from what, but Caleb doesn’t ask either. 

Peter and friends have made it to Samaria, where they show us what might be one of history’s first exorcisms.  It’s witnessed by slimy Simon (John Steiner), who wants to pay to learn their “trickery.”  They refuse his money and tell him he doesn’t understand that it’s not magic.  This is actually quite an interesting scene because it shows another side of what people must have thought, namely that the power of faith was mere quackery.  However, since no one is making money from it (not yet, at least), it has to be honest. 

Paul is almost killed and a high-ranking Ethiopian (Ben Vereen, in a ludicrous bit of scenery chewing) is baptized by Philip after taking all of five minutes to convert.  Caligula is baffled by the Jews, not understanding their monotheism until he can turn it to himself, saying “There is one god.  The Emperor is god,” as he’s having statues all over the empire made of himself, which is not sitting well with the Jews in Jerusalem. 

Speaking of Paul, he goes back to Jerusalem, where his conversion is doubted (yes, by Thomas).  He begs to be a minister, but Peter tells him to go back to Tarsus.  When he refuses, Peter tries to get rid of him in another way.  “You’re young, you’re strong.  You’re a traveling man,” sending him on the road with the good word.  Paul’s conversion does not go down well in Tarsus, where his father says, “there’s no room for you here.  Disinherited and disowned.”  It gets worse!  “A good Jew and a good Roman gets his reward  and you will get yours someday.  The headman’s ax or the stones of the mob or the shame of the cross,” his father predicts.  “What shame?  Don’t talk of shame,” Paul says, unmoved. 

On the northern coast of Gaul, Caligula assembles his troops and gives them a rah-rah speech before they go off to conquer Britannia, but he has a request first.  He wants them to pick up all the shells on the beach so they can be returned to Rome.  Our old pal Valerius finds this humiliating, “the shame of it!”  Even worse for morale, instead of the planned invasion, Caligula decides to send the ships back to Rome with the shells.

In Jaffa, Peter brings a woman back from the dead, much to his own surprise, and he’s then besieged by requests from the town to heal and cure.  “Go home, it’s not me!” he says to them, trying to nap.  He then he as a dream that a bunch of animals descended upon him, including some forbidden by law to eat, and he is told to dig into the buffet.  “It means you’re hungry,” Thomas tells him.  “It means we shall not be afraid to break bread with the Gentiles,” Peter retorts.  This is a giant moment in Christianity, the moment when the new religion stopped becoming merely a sect of Judaism.  Peter is summoned by Centurion Cornelius (Paul Freeman) and he goes, now convinced that non-Jews can hear the message, though Thomas refuses to enter the “house of the uncircumcised.”  The Centurion wants to be baptized, the first Roman official in the story to do so. 

Back in the fictional plot, Caleb and Corinna have fallen for each other and when he grabs her, she asks if he’s “subjugating me or Rome” and he’s too confused to make much sense.  He certainly wants her, that he admits, but he has to keep his eye on the goal of of destroying Rome.  They do get a big kiss as the scene quickly ends.  Sarah and Valerius get a moment alone too, with Valerius talking of Caligula’s madness.  “How will it end?” Sarah wants to know.  “With someone sticking a dagger in the divine Caligula,” Valerius replies quite openly.  He wants to buy her freedom, but he does not have the money.  Aquila and Priscilla discuss the problem and then, out of the blue, Aquila tells his wife, “I’ve just come to accept that the secret of life is hope.  That even death may not be the end.  I was led by his crucified hand out of darkness.”  Wait, “just come to accept?”  Isn’t that a bit strong?  However long it took, it works, because Aquila comes up with the money to buy Sarah at an auction.  He then grants her freedom and they are married.  It took nearly three and a half hours, but finally “A.D.” has a happy moment!  The only one not happy is Caleb, just told of the fate of his sisters.  “Rome,” he sneers sarcastically at Aquila, “tears our hearts apart and then fills them with love.”  Caleb refuses to see his sister until he kills Caligula (it was under the rule of Tiberius that the bad stuff happened, but one Caesar is as good as another). 

The appearance of the statue of Caligula proves to be interesting philosophically, once again bringing up the subject of whether the new Christians are still Jews are not.  The Jewish argument against the statue is first, with Caiaphas telling the local governor that the Jews will not allow it inside the Temple and will kill to make sure it is not placed there.  The sympathetic governor offers to kill himself, but knows that won’t make Caligula happy.  Then it’s Peter’s turn.  He and the Apostles argue about non-Jews joining them.  Some think the Gentiles have to convert to Judaism first, but Peter is playing a numbers game.  He wants converts any way he can take them.  He even argues that he would take Caligula, should he want to convert.  So, should this gang support the Jews against the statue or stay away?  Peter says, “the Temple is in our hearts” and they should stay away.  But, that will mean breaking definitively with the Jews.

As it appears that “A.D.” is about to turn into an Agatha Christie mystery with everyone damning Caligula to death, Caleb and Sarah are re-united, but Caleb refuses to accept her husband.  However, neither of them knows that her husband was one of the soldiers who pledged to kill Caligula.  Sighs of relief on the part of the governor and Caiaphas greet the news that the deed is done and the hated statue has its head knocked off. 

Rome has a new emperor, the timid and awkward Claudius (Richard Kiley), who gives a stuttering speech upon assuming his new role that “the Jews must leave Rome!”  He beams with unexpected surprise to find that the Senate agrees with him. 

Okay, now I’m getting a bit annoyed at the fictional plot because Caleb, though understandably in a permanent bad mood, really does give Valerius a hard time without getting to know him.  For their first meeting, Valerius goes to the trouble of learning the Bible, for goodness sake!  “I offer you my friendship, Caleb,” he says, but Caleb replies, “I can give you only my hatred in return.”  On his way out, Valerius earnestly says, “I want to build peace with you,” in English and in Hebrew, but Caleb remains unmoved.  Due to Claudius’ new policy, Valerius has to leave Rome unless his wife renounces her faith and he has to hold a trial with witnesses to prove it.  Though Sarah refuses in front of witnesses, the witnesses report all is okay.

We’ve gotten so lost in our fictional plot that we’ve neglected our pal Paul, now in Antioch looking for converts, among both Jews and Gentiles.  Faith may have to take a back seat to practicality, because a merchant in Antioch tells Paul, “you have an urgent business on your hands” and asks them to sell Antioch grain to Jerusalem, which will be out of supplies in a few months due to failed harvests and bad leadership in Rome.  Or vice versa.  Or whatever, just know that trade is somehow tempting.  Before that, though, he is able to convert Luke (Gerrard McArthur). 

Caleb is fired as a gladiator because he’s a Jew (though boss Richard Roundtree swears if it were up to him, he would keep him), so he and Corrina have to leave Rome, and Aquila and Priscilla are on their way as well, back to Corinth and teetering close to conversion. 

Uh oh.  Peter is captured and thrown into jail, and upon finding out that James has been executed, wonders aloud to Jesus how he can be “the rock” if he’s dead.  Jesus has an answer for him, appearing to him in a burst of light that somehow opens Peter’s cell door and allows him to escape.  Okay, maybe it’s not so much an answer as just a way out.  When he hears that Peter has escape, newly-appointed Herod Antipas has an overacting fit that scare the birds right out of the trees and dies.  Peter decides it’s perfectly okay to convert the Gentiles, and though there is still resistance, “understanding” is more important than circumcision.  As long as the converts don’t fornicate or kill, they are okay, basically. 

Guess who comes up with the idea of a the New Testament?  According to “A.D.” it’s Priscilla.  Yup.  At dinner with Aquila and visiting Paul, she says that “these tales of the Lord’s work must not be lost to the future,” turning serious after ribbing him for some of the more outlandish stories being preached.  Thank you, Priscilla!  Wanna write it too?  Is she Matthew?  Mark?  Where is the Gospel of Priscilla?

Co-opted by Luke, as it turns out.  Paul tells them of his flair for the comic and how he’s such a good writer.  Plautus without a sense of humor, if you ask me, but hey, apparently Paul thinks he’s quite the snazzy scribe and the one to put it all down on paper.  “I’m to become a character in a Greek tale,” Paul says, with Aquila comparing him to Odysseus and other Greek heroes.  And Paul, never one to shirk some praise, doesn’t argue.  Are you kidding?  He then preaches in the next scene, listing all the places he’s been and all the good he’s done, tossing in a bit of guilt and a bit of the fantastic.  “When you say the man Paul has cured the sick…you say wrong.  It is the power of God working THROUGH Paul,” he tells them.  It couldn’t just be God, could it?  Paul has to get his name in there whenever he can. 

If Tiberius was a sick fool, Caligula overflowing with a god complex and Claudius a fraud, they don’t compare to the man the latter leaves in charge of the Empire, perhaps as some huge joke: Nero.  Granted, he allows the Jews back into Rome, where Aquila, Priscilla-the-Ignored, Sarah, Corinna and Caleb enjoy a dinner where they talk about Paul (if he can’t be in the scene, at least he’s discussed).  Paul apparently told Aquila and Priscilla to wait for conversion, like a “slow, lingering” feeling rather than the flash of light he saw.  Why?  These two have been ready for conversion since the moment we met them!  Of all people, we’re making them wait? 

Paul takes Luke to Jerusalem for Passover and there is immediately anger from the Jews that he may try to bring him into the Temple, which is forbidden.  There’s a big plaque, “in Green and in Latin,” that anyone of another faith entering will be killed.  Luke stays outside, but Paul enters to “perform the right of purification” and once he enters, he’s mobbed, “as an agent of Rome” of all things.  Well, he is still a Roman citizen.  Therefore, the Romans in Jerusalem take the threat against his life seriously enough to investigate it.

In the fictional plot, Caleb and Valerius have become good friends and Caleb has his old job back as a gladiator.  Valerius is being sent to Palestine with the new governor, but Caleb has softened toward Rome.  “I’m married now,” is his explanation for having given up his vengeance, which is really all he’s had up until now.  “Besides, Nero seems willing to make concessions,” Caleb chirps ominously.

The new procurate in Palestine is Porcius Festus (David Hedison).  His appearance is cheered by Caiaphas, who has thought Rome too lax lately.  He wants Festus to judge Paul’s case.  Festus is furious, feeling that Caiaphas has no right to say there has even been a crime committed.  “Did you have summary justice in mind?  An accident on the road to Jerusalem, perhaps?  I’ve heard of these tricks before!” he thunders.  “We do not perform tricks, procurate.  We are at one over our love of justice,” Caiaphas says unctuously.  Paul is in prison talking about love, getting a speech that goes on a very long time with loads of underscoring.  It’s a beautiful moment, theologically, but boy does it bring the action to a grinding halt.  I mean no disrespect to the gospel of love, just its insertion right here after more than four hours of time gone by.  “There are three things that truly last,” he says in summary (we could have gone right to that), “faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.” 

At Paul’s trial, Festus proclaims, “this is an internal matter and does not concern Rome,” completely bored until Paul says he’s committed no crime against Rome.  Festus doesn’t care what he’s done to anger the Jews, but Paul appeals his case to Caesar.  “Okay, you’ve appealed to Caesar, and to Caesar you shall go,” he decides.  Phew!  Paul is able to slither out of this political morass, avoiding Jewish judgment, which surely would never have gone his way.  It’s Valerius who has to take Paul to Rome.  Discussing the internal struggles between Jews, Festus tells Valerius, “whatever it is, whatever it is, it’s…it’s…unclean, un-Roman, all too…Jewish.”  A better summation of the world’s attitude at the time has not been spoken in this miniseries.  Historically, what was going on in Palestine at the time, whether it concerned the Jews or the newer sect of zealots, none of it really mattered to Rome at large.  It was a blip in the Empire, only made to seem historically important by later events and then magnified immensely.  The miniseries is certainly on the side of Christianity, but it can’t completely ignore historical truth, so it succinctly handles it in a short line like this. 

Without going over the entire hysterical conversation, I want to catch up with Paul as he sails to Rome, slowly, with Valerius and Luke.  They talk of the fictional characters, how they have changed, etc., and then Paul asks to stop at Sidon.  “I persecuted the Jews and they went to Sidon and started a church.  You could say I started that church,” he says.  Once again, there’s nothing in the New Testament he won’t take credit for, and Luke is there to make sure of it!  He also gets off a few famous Biblical quotes during this voyage, tucked in there among the more self-righteous moments.  Valerius is a willing convert, so the writers use his thirst for knowledge as a way to let Paul explain all the new tenets of the religion.  Before reaching Rome, Valerius is baptized and converted. 

In Rome, no one really cares about Paul, so he’s allowed to go free, trailed by a Roman soldier whose only problem is “Jewish cooking,” though Priscilla aims to change that.  Valerius talks to lawyers who say that if Paul makes no fuss for a month, the case will be dropped.  And so it is.  He’s worked wonders, but still hasn’t changed Caleb’s mind.  “The new faith won’t do.  Not yet, not yet,” Caleb says, suddenly a free-Judea radical again after so long as a content gladiator.  Paul leaves Rome, but with uncharacteristic modesty.  Luke, who is staying, says he will write of all Paul has done for future generations, but Paul demures, “not just Paul, but all the Apostles.”  Yeah, but does he mean it?  After all, Luke doesn’t know the others, so Paul’s lip service to them may be just that.  He then boards a boat out of Rome with his arms raised to the crowds.

What of the other Apostles?  Peter is still around, now in Rome, gray and older, at the villa of Linus (David Rintoul), proclaiming Rome needs to be the new center of the religion, for he has had premonitions.  It can’t be Jerusalem anymore because Jews and Christians are like “siblings who can’t live together anymore” and in order to spread the word, they have to do it free of their Jewish kinsman.  “You will be a shepherd, a shepherd in the name of Jesus,” Peter tells Linus because Linus is a true Roman who understands the faith. 

The casting of miniseries favorite Anthony Andrews at Nero is genius.  It gives him a chance to dig deep into his hammy bag of tricks and play Nero as an effeminate oddball with an Abe Lincoln beard.  When first seen, he’s begging the Senate for something unimportant, claiming “the people are ready for an increase in taxation after so long a period of fiscal clemency.”  It’s his idea to allow Jews and Christians freedom of religion as long as they pay full taxes.  Sounds reasonable to him, but the Senate would rather spend money to rebuild Pompeii or strengthen their holds in Spain, Gaul and Britain.  That sets Nero off big time, and Andrews enjoys spitting out every syllable. 

Whereas Paul gets to preach to huge crowds and important people, Peter is stuck with a kindergarten asking questions that have easy answers, history’s first Sunday school with avuncular Peter a benign happy teacher.  A Senator warns him to be careful.  “Your words have different sounds to different ears,” he says, before telling him, “I want to see you again,” with a creepy look that makes him seem like a teenager asking for a second date. 

The Great Fire of Rome is quite the spectacle.  Of course Nero watches, quoting poetry, but, thankfully, not fiddling.  It’s left to our fictional characters to suffer on screen, but the viewer to suffer through Nero’s idiotic ramblings while being fondled by a woman whose only contribution to the dialogue it to look at the burning city and call the new one Nero dreams of “Neropolis.” 

Peter puts Linus in charge, calling him the Father of the Church, therefore Pope Linus technically.  He also reminds everyone that he sees a time when everyone will be “cruelly tested” before having everyone recite an “Our Father.” 

Nero and his friend Tigellinus (Jonathan Hyde) have cooked up a way to whip the Senate into a frenzy against the Christians in the wake of the Great Fire and decrees that not only will they be rooted out, but with extreme violence.  Nero particularly loves the idea of public executions in the arenas, bloodbaths for the fun of it.  Peter is arrested and we can cue the lions, or, in this case, leopards (the budget must have been shot by this point and lions don’t work cheap).  Peter is to face death on the Vatican hill by crucifixion, of which he claims he’s not worthy.  “Let me die seeing the world as the rest of sinning humanity sees it, twisted, inverted” he tells his jailer. 

Most difficult to watch is when the Christian children are dresses as lambs (Caleb and Sarah’s daughter among them) and set upon by angry drooling dogs.  Even the spectators have trouble watching this display.  Caleb and Corinna, with their gladiator training, rush into the arena, in slow motion, and kill the dogs, earning the respect of the crowd and Nero.  Valerius goes into the arena to find his daughter and picks up a dead body, but it’s not his daughter, who is safe, and angrily denies  his past.  “I am not a Roman soldier anymore. I will not serve a butcher and a pack of wolves.  Rome is not this!…I renounce my rank.  I renege my service,” he yells at the top of his lungs, but a sympathetic soldier tells him to hide instead of turning him in. 

Peter’s upside-down crucifixion is no easier to watch, but it’s kept short, mercifully.  Then it’s time for Paul to face the Romans.  Expecting to be crucified like Peter, the arresting solder tells Paul that crucifixion is only for non-Roman citizens like “Peter or your…what’s his name?”  “Jesus,” Paul replies.  “Learn it.  You may meet him someday.” 

Paul is saucy to Tigellinus in prison, unafraid of death, but Tigellinus is a smart cookie.  He feeds Paul’s ego.  “You are the fish I wanted to catch.  The rest are minnows.  They will fall back to the right once you’re gone,” he says and Paul doesn’t argue.  In prison, he holds one last service, saying he has “run the good race.”  As he’s being led past a line of crucified men, he says, “forgive them Lord, they know not what they do.”  He has to get all the Biblical lines in, because time is ticking, only Luke is nowhere to be found with his feather and parchment to record it all.  Nero himself shows up for the beheading. 

“The church is indeed stronger than the Empire that assails it,” Linus tells the faithful, and history proved him right.  He also has a chance to welcome Caleb and Corinna, saying, “I knew you’d come.”  He also gives them a recently-orphaned baby.  Linus insists the the child be raised a Christian and Caleb says he can’t, so Linus says the faith will come to the child, “just allow him to look for it.”  They are on their way back to Jerusalem anyway, since Caleb feels, “it’s time for a son to return to his mother,” metaphorically, of course. 

There we have it.  Early Christianity, with its questions, its bloodshed, it’s misunderstandings and it’s regal power.  It’s not the most engaging story, thus the fictional plot, but it does at least provide some answers and fill in some gaps.  From here, not much miniseries-worthy happens until all of Rome is converted, but let’s just stick where we are for now!

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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