King of Kings (1961)

Director: Nicholas Ray

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I looked at my desk calendar today and saw a holiday designation I hadn’t noticed before—Easter Monday. Whether this was meant to allow employers to give employees a Monday off per their paid-holiday schedule, a strange expansion of Christian observances, or just me being obtuse, the calendar worked to my advantage. I decided it wasn’t too late to post an Easter review of the Samuel Bronston epic King of Kings.

I have a rather strange relationship with Christianity. I was raised as a Jew in an overwhelmingly Catholic town. Most of my friends were Catholic, and I went to a Catholic university, at which my simple and sincere question (“What is the Holy Trinity?”) in one of my required theology classes received the whip-necked stares of my classmates and the surprised, gentle look of my instructor, an ordained priest, who gave an explanation that I still don’t understand. Whereas I have a pretty broad knowledge of Christianity and its culture—especially Catholicism—very few Christians know much about the religion and culture into which I was born and into which Jesus was born. Perhaps because of my largely secular upbringing and my studies in college, I observe religion today much as a sociologist or anthropologist would. I mean no disrespect to persons of faith in my review of King of Kings, but the story of Jesus Christ is just that to me—a story that informs what I know about Judaism and what it became. I intend to evaluate how well this film tells its story.

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King of Kings, a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic of the same name, is a life of Jesus of Nazareth. It begins with the Roman conquest and occupation of Judea. The return of Roman subjects to their home towns to be taxed according to the new Roman census gives us our first glimpse of Joseph (Gerard Tichy) and Mary (a radiant Siobhan McKenna), returning from Galilee to Bethlehem. The town is unruly, and an innkeeper tosses some apparently drunk guests into the street. Joseph asks for a room for his pregnant wife. The innkeeper says there is no room, but he could open a stable stall for them. Jesus is born, and Mary cradles him in her arms as three kings alight from their camels, place gifts at her feet, and bow their heads to the ground.

King%20of%20Kings%20Lucius.jpgThe governor of Judea, Herod (Gregoire Aslan), learns of a prophecy that a powerful prophet has just been born in Bethlehem. He summons the head of the Roman guard Lucius (Ron Randell) and instructs him to kill all the newborn males in Bethleham. Lucius, who from the first strikes one as a decent, intelligent man, says he does not kill children and will not obey. Herod reminds him of his duty to the emperor and, reluctantly, Lucius carries out his orders. Despite the bloodshed, the target of the hunt has been spirited away by his parents to Nazareth. Herod has what seems to be an asthma attack after the murders, and we watch his son Herod Antipas (Frank Thring) allow his father to die as viciously as his father ordered the deaths of babies.

Soon Pontius Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) and his new wife Herodias (Rita Gam) arrive to govern Judea. He’s unhappy with the difficult post, but his wife reminds him that whoever can rule Judea can rule the world. He’s got his hands full. Rebel leader Barabbas (Harry Guardino) is making plans to attack the Romans and free Judea. The region is a powder keg, with all Jews on their guard. It is in this atmosphere that Lucius and other Roman soldiers move through the land to conduct a census. He arrives at Nazareth where he encounters a wary Joseph. “No trouble,” he assures them, “just conducting a census.” Mary and Joseph are accounted for, but their son Jesus is not. Lucius asks him where he was born. Jesus replies, “Bethlehem.” Lucius pauses, regards the lad carefully. Finally, he tells Joseph, “Get him registered as soon as possible.”

I really liked this set-up of the story. It introduced all of the important characters, set them in their time and a realistic landscape (the film was shot in Spain), and presented them largely as ordinary people living real life. I got a sense of the injustices against which the Jews railed—from the breaching of the sacred Temple of Jerusalem to the slaying of its priests in a perfectly choreographed launching of spears (perhaps too perfect) and the heavy taxation under which the poor populace labored. Certainly, if any group of people was ready to accept a savior, these people were, and their religious teachings gave them the hope that one would appear some day. Of course, people like Barabbas were not willing to wait for divine intervention. I was reminded of the two paths to freedom represented by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as I watched Jesus, the prince of peace, and Barabbas, who embraced violence. I also was reminded by Herod’s actions of the Torah story of the deaths of first-born Jews at the hands of Pharoah’s troops to prevent the arrival of a deliverer—Moses. The current story, of course, will turn out much differently. Instead of the slaying of Egyptian first-born to loosen Pharoah’s hand, the Christian god will sacrifice his own first-born to deliver them, if not physically, then spiritually.

Soon, Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) is a man who is ready to take up his calling. He goes into the desert to purify himself. The harsh landscape is beautiful and forbidding. We only hear the devil call out to Jesus—there are no visions, only Jesus’ denials of Satan. When he emerges, he recruits his apostles, beginning with Simon Peter, a humble fisherman. The line, “I will make you a fisher of men,” is poetically powerful and sets us up for the many famous lines that Hunter mainly utters with conviction. One crucial exception is the Sermon on the Mount. Hunter’s answers to the many questions he is asked—questioning is a very Jewish practice for their rabbi—are convincing, but the askers are mere reciters. I’m told that many of these people were Spanish and were dubbed in English. It would have been better to bring in some English speakers for Hunter to work off of. The Sermon on the Mount is a dull thud in this film.

Other scenes are vibrant. Brigid Bazlen as Salome is a wicked, wicked girl consumed by her appetites. She finds the captured John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) to be a curious animal. There’s no question that in this interpretation, Salome has encouraged Herod’s lust for her. Her dance, though tamely not the striptease it was meant to be, is still erotic. When she asks for the head of John the Baptist, her offhand remark that she “wants to look at it,” is amoral thought itself. The scene is completely satisfying.

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Another beautifully wrought scene is the slaughter of Barabbas’ army, caught between the outer and inner walls of Pilate’s palace by a ready and waiting Roman army. The rebels seem at first to be holding their own as the Romans pull back, the better to draw all the Judeans within the gates. When the Romans unleash their full fire power, they roll over living and dead Judeans alike, forcing their retreat—right into the Roman spears protruding through the slatted gate. Barabbas, atop a wall of the enclosure, looks down at the strewn bodies of his men and screams. He gets an arrow in the leg for his trouble, but his despair is far more painful.

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However, the Last Supper, played like a rudimentary Passover ritual that transforms into a communion ceremony, is strangely lifeless. When Jesus tells Judas (Rip Torn) to do what he must quickly, there is no pang of sadness in either man. The superb Hurd Hatfield makes the most of Jesus’ trial for sedition and blasphemy, as does Ron Randell, his appointed defense attorney. There was much more passion between these men than ever passed between Jesus and his apostles. The Passion seemed deliberately bland, causing the last third of the film to lose an enormous amount of steam. The final shot made me laugh at its hokey symbology.

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Nicholas Ray should have been able to turn out a work of splendor and intimacy, given his track record. The first half of the film does have those two attributes in spades. I have to wonder if studio interference might have been to blame for the film’s stillborn second half. Orson Welles lends his magnificent voice as the narrator of this well-known story, bringing it alive whenever he speaks. Miklos Rozsa’s score is grand and bombastic, not really my cup of tea but certainly accomplished and epic in nature. The Overture, Intermission, Entr’acte, and End Music reminded me of a time when lengthy films were structured like plays and that I experienced firsthand watching The Sound of Music in a movie theatre. They even sold programs. This structure lends gravity to the film and provides audiences with a thoughtful break; I wish this practice would return.

King of Kings infers how a blend of paganism and Judaism became the new religion. Jews reject the use of human images for worship (hence the film’s depiction of protests against posting plaques of the Roman emperor on the Temple pillars), but Christians embrace such images. The traditional Easter meal of lamb echoes the Jewish sacrifices to their god. The film also hints at the conversion of two Romans, Lucius and Herodias, foreshadowing the eventual conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine and perhaps the introduction of some Roman pagan rituals to this new state religion.

King of Kings may be pleasing to many Christians who find inspiration in the story of Jesus Christ. It certainly is a thrilling and epic tale. Unfortunately, this version starts to breathe life into it, only to fall into the trap of reverence, primarily in the more remote acting style that overtook many of its principals—especially Jeffrey Hunter. By bowing to convention, King of Kings loses connection.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    31st/03/2008 to 8:37 am

    Marilyn, thanks for the review. There’s nothing in this review that would irritate any Christian that isn’t a brain-dead reactionary … unfortunately, many are.
    For those of us who aren’t, I appreciate your assessment of Hunter, and Ray’s direction. Very likely, studio interference — most studios don’t like to piss off a large pool of potential movie-goers — emasculated Ray’s work to a certain extent.
    As for me, my favorite on balance Jesus movie remains Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ.” Although I do like Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to Matthew.”
    But I once, just ONCE, would like to see an actor who actually looks like a Palestinian Jew of the era play Jesus. Oy.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/03/2008 to 9:25 am

    I must admit that I haven’t seen Last Temptation and that I had to turn off Pasolini’s masterwork because I found myself doing nothing but reading subtitles. It’s a very wordy film that I felt I wasn’t able to watch. I actually would like to see a dubbed version of it, because the visuals were exciting.
    There are a lot of Christian films I really like and have reviewed, for example, The Song of Bernadette and Thérèse. Religious films in general are very interesting to me because they have such archetypal value and shed light on extremely important aspects of history and culture that continue to influence us. I highly recommend Le Grand Voyage for a look at Islam. It has very rare scenes of pilgrims to Mecca that are fascinating, and it is a wonderful father-son story.

  • Josiah Doran spoke:
    30th/10/2011 to 5:44 pm

    anybody know the name of the actor who played the creepy bearded executioner that sliced off john’s head? like after herod says “give her what she wants” this scary emotionless looking guy with a beard makes a startling appearance for about a second or two that ‘s just about as scary as a youtube screamer pop up, then he and his goons march off to decapitate John the Baptist. this is the guy I’m talking about. the executioner. you’d have to wonder if he had the mind of a robot.

  • Lukas Miller spoke:
    16th/11/2012 to 3:21 pm

    Pontius Pilate’s wife’s name was Claudia not Herodias and played by Viveca Lindfords not Rita Gam. Herodias was Herod Antipas’ wife.

  • Diana spoke:
    18th/04/2014 to 8:05 pm

    WOULD YOU HAPPEN TO KNOW WHO WAS THE VOICE OF THE DEVIL WHEN JESUS IS TEMPTED IN THE DESERT IN KING OF KINGS?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/04/2014 to 8:26 pm

    One source says it was Charlton Heston, but I can’t verify it.

  • Frank Gibbons spoke:
    10th/08/2014 to 10:08 pm

    I think Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings” is an underrated film that is marked by some dazzling cinematic moments (Pompey’s desecration of the Temple, the death of Herod, and an extended Sermon on the Mount). Although the cynical critics at the time savaged his performance, I think Jeffery Hunter delivers an adequate portrayal of Jesus. Robert Ryan and Siobhan McKenna are too old to play John the Baptist and Mary respectively and Royal Dano is ridiculously miscast as Peter. However, it’s a delight to see a young (and thin) Rip Torn as Judas Iscariot and Harry Guardino as Barabbas. Fans of Nicholas Ray should see this film, as should students of epic cinema. As a portrayal of Jesus’ life and mission, “King of Kings” falls far short of the TV mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth”. However, “King of Kings” was made for the large screen and I think that lovers of the cinema will appreciate its strengths and overlook its faults.

    It’s a long-time since I saw Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to Matthew” somewhere in Cambridge, MA (the old Orson Welles Cinema or the Harvard-Epworth Church) but I remember liking it. I was very impressed with a quote from the Marxist, gay Pasolini that was on a flyer for the movie. Pasolini had no use for “scoffers” of religion. For him, they were “petite-bourgeoisie”.

    I can’t prove it, but I don’t think that is Charlton Heston doing the devil’s voice.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/08/2014 to 11:07 am

    Frank – I really was looking for more passion in the “Passion,” but it’s a solid movie. I still have not seen Pasolini’s film because the only time I tried to watch it, I found myself reading it. This is one time I wish a film had been dubbed.
    And Heston? Well, I guess we’ll never know. :-)

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