Monday, March 24, 2008

King of Kings (1961)

For the Easter weekend, I went over to a friend’s house and we watched “King of Kings” (1961). It’s a very impressive film, but an odd one too. While purporting to be the story of Jesus Christ, it sometimes seems like he’s a supporting character in his own story.

Much of “King of Kings” has as much to do with political turmoil going on than it does about Jesus. It’s a good 20 minutes before the Nativity scene occurs, but director Nicholas Ray does a good job of establishing the world in which Jesus is born into. It’s a land filled with warring tribes, divided loyalties, and the iron fist of Rome overseeing all.

Jesus is played by the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter, leading some wags to call the film “I Was a Teenage Jesus.” The charge doesn’t hold true. I think he’s fine in the role, though he does represent the Sunday School picture book of Jesus than what was likely the real thing.

Many incidents in His life are discussed but not shown. We see a miracle or two, but they are filmed in a very low-key style. The Roman centurion Lucius (Ron Randell) relates the story of the feeding of the multitudes and Jesus walking on water, but we are not shown these scenes.

Lucuis is an interesting character in the film. He is first seen questioning the order from Herod to kill all the first born sons in Bethlehem. Later taking the census he comes across the teenage Jesus and as a centurion he is in a position of power to be in attendance at all the meetings and discussions concerning Jesus. It’s as if he is our window to the proceedings.

There’s also extensive footage, including a couple of lavishly staged battle scenes, of the rebel leader Barabbas (Harry Guardino) and his cohort Judas (Rip Torn) inciting Jerusalem to rebel against Roman rule.

Meanwhile, John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) is baptizing the countryside, leading to rumors that he is the long-planned Messiah, which irritates the Roman leadership.

We also get many scenes of court intrigue, between Pontius Pilate (Hurd Hatfield), Herod Antipas (oily Frank Thring), the teenage vixen Salome (Brigid Bazlen) and the high priest Caiaphas (Guy Rolfe).

Horror film fans may enjoy these scenes. Hatfield starred in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) and he doesn’t seem to have aged a day since that film. Is that typecasting or what?

The same year kids were being dragged to see “King of Kings” by their parents, they no doubt took delight in recognizing Guy Rolfe from his most famous role, the wonderful horror thriller “Mr. Sardonicus.” (1961). Rolfe also played Prince John in “Ivanhoe” (1952), a magnificently sneering portrayal. Prince John, Caiaphas, and Mr. Sardonicus? Now that’s a career.

Brigid Bazlen is a hottie and you can see why Herod would bring in John’s head on a platter for her, but the less said about her rendition of Salome’s famous dance the better. It’s strictly amateur, and no seven veils are discarded, but she does run from pillar to post with wild abandon, I will say that for her.

The film’s best scene is the Sermon on the Mount. With thousands of extras in attendance, the scene stars with Jesus on top of the hill intoning the famous words of the Sermon. Halfway through He descends from the mountain and wanders through the crowd. In response to queries from the crowd, He answers their questions which make up the remainder of the Sermon It’s a beautifully staged scene and much more effective than Jesus just standing on top of a hill. Instead the scene becomes a conversation rather than a sermon. The scene ends when someone asks Him how to pray and He recites The Lord’s Prayer. Backed by Miklos Rozsa’s stirring music, it’s a moving and memorable moment.

Rozsa’s music is one of the true highlights of the film. Trendy types may scoff at the heavenly choir that accompanies certain scenes, but that’s their loss. The music is there not to tell us what to think, but to add an extra layer of emotion to the scene. The wealth of absolutely gorgeous melody on display here makes the film a feast for the ear as much as the eye. Even more impressive is that Rozsa had scored several identical scenes in “Ben-Hur” (1959), such as the nativity and crucifixition scenes, and was loath to repeat himself. The fact that he succeeded is testament to his genius.

The famous trial scene is also played off-screen. Barabbas is shown sitting in his cell when he is told that he has been freed. Pilate offered to free Jesus but the crowd chose Barabbas instead. Again, the film seems bent on showing us Jesus’ effect on other people rather than portraying famous events in His life.

Such an approach keeps us somewhat at arm’s length from the film. It’s a very impressive film on many levels, but the emphasis on other characters ultimately leaves us wanting.

Special honors, though, go to the DVD transfer. This is one of the most impressive DVD pressings I’ve ever seen. The colors practically jump off the screen and I’ve never seen blue skies rendered so, well, blue. Director Ray uses deep focus photography in key scenes, where characters in the foreground are shown in close-up while other characters or actions take place off to the side or in the background. It’s a very effective technique.

I’ve never seen the mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth” but for me the definitive version of Christ remains Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version “King of Kings” (1927). It’s one of the most visually impressive of the silent films, and beautifully acted by all, yet still retaining the DeMille over-the-top spectacle that make his films so compelling. Fans of “It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) may get a kick out of seeing H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower, the pharmacist) play Christ.

Rating for “King of Kings” (1961): Three stars.

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