Director: Nicholas Ray
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.