The Royal Albert Hall has a long history of showing films and on 5 January 1913 hosted one of the very first ‘Blockbuster’ movie screenings – Sidney Olcott’s From the Manger to the Cross.

This silent film accompanied by organ music depicted the life of Jesus Christ and ran for a total of 59 consecutive shows. It attracted thousands of intrigued viewers, HM Queen Amelia, HRH Princess Henry of Battenberg, and the Duke and Duchess of Wellington, and plenty of controversy.

‘The Albert Hall will witness what is probably the most ambitious experiment that has yet been made in cinematography – the presentation of a series of pictures depicting the life of our Lord. Every effort will be made to present the pictures under reverent conditions, and the devotional character of the occasion will be intensified by the singing of carols to the accompaniment of the great organ of the Albert Hall.’
The Times, 23 December 1912

This was one of the first Hollywood blockbusters to be filmed outside of the States, in Palestine, where Canadian director Sidney Olcott cast young British actor and poet Robert Henderson-Bland in the lead role, propelling him from obscurity to worldwide fame.

British actor Henderson-Bland became probably the world’s first method actor by immersing himself entirely in what he thought it would be like to be Jesus Christ. In Palestine, Bland worked hard to banish “all alien thoughts and vagrant moods… It meant a surrender of soul, a submerging or personality, as to make normal life seem strange to me and my immediate memories alien.

Bland wanted to stay true to character until the very end so when it came to filming the final crucifixion scene, Bland wore a real crown of thorns pushed down onto his head and insisted on carrying the cross which was fifteen feet long. So realistic was this scene that as he passed a nearby convent one of the nuns fainted and the Mother Superior rushed out with a glass of wine to quench his thirst, although this ruined the filming!

From the Manger to the Cross
From the Manger to the Cross

Finally, they tied him with to the cross and pulled it up into position, while the watching nuns wept openly. Bland describes the awful pain and how “every bone in his body seemed to start through my skin” and he nearly lost consciousness.

Afterwards, Bland stated that “I feel that I shall never be able to pick up my life where I dropped it on the Hill of the World’s Redemption. I do not believe that any man ever had such an awe-inspiring experience.

Controversy

Although the sensitive religious subject matter had been approved by members of the clergy before release, and nearly all reviews of the film were positive both for its cinematic qualities and its artistic excellence, opponents including The Daily Mail declared “Is nothing sacred to the film maker?”. The controversy surrounding the film led to the creation of the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), an organisation which the film trade itself created to forestall official censorship.

Hear more about this remarkable film and other films shown at the Hall at Royal Albert Hall and the Silver Screen with the Hall’s archivists Liz Harper and Suzanne Keyte, on Saturday 29 October.