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Film / The Fourth Wise Man

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Whenever you did these things for the least of my brothers, you did them for me

A 1985 film adaptation of the 1895 short story "The Other Wise Man" by Henry Van Dyke, starring Martin Sheen.

Artaban, a Magi, astrologer and physician, sees the heavenly signs proclaiming the birth of the King of Kings, and with three others plans to journey to Bethlehem and pay homage and offer gifts, certain that this meeting will give his life new purpose. He sells all he owns to obtain three gems of immense worth, a sapphire, a ruby and above all, a flawless pearl.

He sets out with his slave, Orontes, but is held up tending to a man who would have surely died without his help, and so the other three Magi leave without him and he must barter away the sapphire for camels and supplies to cross the desert.

In Bethlehem, Artaban is too late again, Mary and Joseph have already fled and Herod has ordered the deaths of every male infant in the town. The ruby goes as a bribe to a captain to move on, sparing a child's life.


For years, Artaban searches for Jesus, trading on his medicinal skills for food and shelter, and always missing him. In time, he stops at a leper colony outside Jerusalem where their is much need for his healing and organizing; he helps them dig a well, sow crops, and eventually settles into a leadership role, to the disgust of Orontes, who was promised his freedom should he return Artaban safely home.

Finally, he gives up on his dream of meeting the King, and goes to sell the pearl for much-needed supplies for his community. He arrives in Jerusalem just in time for the crucifixion of Jesus. He goes to use the pearl to buy Jesus' life, but is again diverted and instead buys a young woman's freedom from slavery. Artaban dies but slightly after Jesus, in despair for never giving him so much as one part of his gift. He hears a voice telling him that his many kindnesses and good works over the years are all the gift that was ever wanted.


The Fourth Wise Man contains examples of:

  • All-Loving Hero: Artaban, who is driven by a deep need to meet the promised king, but cannot turn his back to anyone in need.
  • As the Good Book Says...: As in the short story, Artaban's one, dying, conversation with Jesus is almost word-for-word Matthew 25:35-40.
    Whenever you did these things for the least of my brothers, you did them for me.
  • Christian Fiction: Being the adaptation of a short story based on a Biblical tale, with an explicit message about helping others.
  • Condescending Compassion: Tigranes almost drips smugness and false sympathy when telling Artaban how his father died.
  • The Complainer Is Always Wrong: Orontes never misses a chance to bemoan his fate, especially in the leper colony. But Artaban is vindicated in his compassion by the literal Word of God, and when freed Orontes nevertheless returns to help his old master.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Artaban gets one when the townsfolk burn down the leper colony, their crops, all that he's built in the night, and in the morning an old friend/rival appears to tell him his father died alone in wretched circumstances and mock him for never finding his king.
  • For Want of a Nail: The one decision, to stop and help the sick man, radically changes the course of Artaban's life.
  • God Before Dogma: Artaban knows his God is compassionate, but doesn't really understand that until all his attempts to honor the king of kings in the traditional way- the earthly way- have "failed", and God appreciates them anyway. The Aesop isn't that dogma is bad (the three Magi also being sympathetic) but that a god who prioritizes it over actual virtue and love isn't worthy of being called God.
  • Smug Snake: Tigranes, who drips superiority and condescension in every scene.

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