It has such huge potential as a stage play, as 12 Angry Men does. In fact, many parallels can be drawn between Jerome Bixby’s 2007 movie, The Man from Earth and Reginald Rose’s 1957 movie 12 Angry Men. They are both dialogue-driven movies that employ a handful of actors, set in an enclosed space. And like 12 Angry Men, The Man from Earth’s 200,000 dollar budget is not to be underestimated. It’s a cult classic with a sequel titled The Man from Earth: Holocene already in its post-production stage.
It begins as a hypothetical scenario posed by Professor John Oldman, at the farewell party his friends throw him; what if a Cro-Magnon lived to this day? First they think it’s an idea for a science fiction that John is working on. But the conversation soon spirals out of control when the retiring scholar reveals that he is, indeed, 14,000 years old, qualifying him as a Cro-Magnon. In order to not get his cover blown by letting people discover that he doesn’t age, he’s forced to move on every 10 years. Although his friends – who are experts in their own fields of history, biology, archaeology and psychiatry – are taken aback at first, they play along in the spirit of the ‘game’ they think he’s playing. They try to refute him and John shoots down every argument.
Set in John Oldman’s living room – ‘Oldman’ itself a pun for ‘old man’ – the whole movie revolves around this discussion and the reactions it generate. The movie is somewhat akin to a television movie and it’s obvious that not all the actors are professionals. The lackluster cinematography, editing and directing and the general technically inferior nature of the movie only works to heighten the superior screenplay, which in turn enhances the movie’s charm as a cult classic. Bixby is a classic science fiction writer responsible for some of the ‘Star Trek’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’ episodes.
One has to admit that the detailed screenplay woven around a Cro-Magnon living to this day is no doubt imaginative as it is fascinating.
In the movie Bixby puts forth thought-provoking theosophical ideas. John confides that he was in India at the time of the Buddha. He refers to the Buddha as the “most extraordinary man” he has ever known.
But the greatest and perhaps the most ingenious twist comes when Dan asks John whether he had met any biblical figure. John is visibly uneasy. The audience can literally feel the atmosphere in the living room change as the movie nears its climax, when John says, “The mythical overlay is so enormous…and not good. The truth is so, so simple. The New Testament in 1,00 words or less: You ready?” To which Edith retorts, “I don’t think I wanna hear this. Harry will you take me home?”
Edith is so pious that she believes that entertaining John any further is sacrilegious. To cut a long story short, all present convince Edith to sit through it. Tight fisted, Edith begrudgingly agrees. And John makes the biggest revelation in human history, albeit in beguilingly simple terms.
“Guy met the Buddha, liked what he heard, thought about it for a while, say 500 years, while he returned to the Mediterranean, became an Etruscan and seeped into the Roman Empire. He didn’t like what they had became. A giant killing machine. He went to the Near East thinking, ‘why not pass the Buddha’s teachings on in a modern form.’ So he tried. One dissident against Rome. Rome won. The rest is history.”
This nonchalant third person narration makes the impact all the more potent. But only because Bixby’s concept of Jesus is nothing novel. In fact, the time from his childhood years till the beginning of his ministry, also known as the silent or lost years, has been the subject of many speculations. Specially since the New Testament makes no mention of this 18-year period. It is said that in 1887, the Russian war correspondent, Nicolas Notovitch claimed that he found a document titled ‘Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men’, at Hemis Monastery in Ladakh. This has serious ramifications for Christianity as Issa is the Arabic name for Jesus in Islam. Notovitch’s story with a translation of the document was published in French in 1894, as ‘Unknown Life of Jesus Christ’.
According to the scrolls, Jesus left Jerusalem at the age of 13. He went to the Himalayas and studied Buddhism under monks in Tibetan monasteries. Along the way he also learned Hinduism. Although uncorroborated and subsequently debunked, in 1922 a Vedanta scholar by the name of Swami Abhedananda found a similar manuscript at Hemis Gonpa, translated to Tibetan from the original Pali scrolls.
At the end of John’s recount Edith condescendingly says, “I knew it. He’s saying he was Christ.” To which John quickly clarifies that ‘Christ’ was a title conferred upon Jesus to fulfill prophecy. When Dan questions about the crucifixion, John explains that he had learned to block the pain with Buddhist meditation he had learned in Tibet and India! This earns Bixby bonus points as he has ingeniously expanded on Notovitch’s story. John goes on to recount, still in third person, that “he had learned to slow his body processes down to the point that they were undetectable. They thought he was dead.” But what John was not prepared for was the resurrection. He did not count on some devotees to see him literally rise from the dead, he tried to explain but they wouldn’t have it. “Thus I was resurrected,” says John.
When Edith points out that there is irrefutable stories about the childhood of Jesus. Dr. Will Gruber, the psychiatrist explains that history hates a vacuum. “Improvisation, some of it very sincere fills most of the gaps,” in fact, this is the case with most historical accounts, specifically those related to religion. “It’s always been a small step from a fallen leader to a God,” points out Dan.
While Edith makes a futile attempt to defend the integrity of the Bible, Dan points out that the philosophical teachings of Jesus are Buddhism with a Hebrew accent. Indeed, qualities such as kindness, tolerance, brotherhood and love are common traits both Buddhists and Christians are encouraged to inculcate as well as ‘a ruthless realism acknowledging life as it is’. At least that’s what John tried to teach, until the talking snake that tried to make a lady eat an apple ruined everything. “So we’re screwed,” says John.
John goes on to point out follies in religion that have been the stuff of books like Da Vinci Code. Follies committed not just in the name of Christianity but most religions. John points out that priests make a living through seduction and terror, peddling heaven and hell to the common man to save their souls, souls they never lost in the first place. “I threw a clean pass, they ran it out of the ballpark,” says an exasperated John. This begs the question, would these be the exact sentiments of Jesus if he was privy to how his teachings have been distorted over the years. All the ceremony, rituals, processions, cookies and wine are not what John had in mind when he tried to teach Buddhism to the Mediterraneans.
When William asks what he has to say to those who don’t believe in Jesus, John says that they should believe in what he tried to teach, without rigmarole. “Piety is not what the lessons bring to people. It’s the mistake they bring to the lessons.” In fact, blind faith is perhaps more dangerous than an altogether lack of faith. It was the Buddha who said that the Dhamma must be grasped thoroughly as if catching a cobra by the neck. In Alagadduupama Sutta the Buddha uses the simile of the wrong grasp of a snake to illustrate the danger of misconceiving the Dhamma. At one time John says, “Fairytales build churches,” meaning not truths. In fact, history is always shrouded in mystery and myth.
What started as an interesting science fiction movie ends up as quite an interesting and illuminating critique of religion. All in all, The Man from Earth is a very thought-provoking movie that makes us re-evaluate our theological stance.