01 April 2013


The Hollywood Biblical epics of the 1950s and '60s are about as perfectly uniform as any genre has been: the same kind of intoxicatingly lavish sets and costumes with the same kind of stentorian, declamatory acting telling the same kind of feebly-developed but ostensibly "inspirational" narratives as the same kind of lush, achingly earnest string-based score wails on the soundtrack. There are fluctuations in quality, naturally enough, but for the most part I have observed that an individual's response to any of them is going to be more or less the same as to all the rest. They have their cluster of defenders, like anything, but for the most part, the genre is regarded today as an exceptionally solemn and cheesy subset of the historical epic that has aged worse even than other, secular large-scale '50s costume dramas, already not a branch of filmmaking that has remotely the same freshness and vitality to a modern viewer as many others.

But then there's King of Kings from 1961, one of the very weirdest Bible-derived movie of the period. Glance at it, and it feels exactly the same as any of them; earnest and strained and dreadfully serious. Take even a little bit of time to dig in, and it suddenly reveals itself to be damn near radical in how much it breaks with convention. The hard-boiled auteurist in my would like to say that this is because it was directed by Nicholas Ray, a man prone to upending expectations and confronting audiences with warped psychologies and scenarios, but in perfect honesty, I cannot: much of what is strangest about King of Kings is too buried in the screenplay to imagine that it originated with him, and while the work is plainly the product of a strong director, very little about the way it was made is obviously typical of Ray's aesthetic specifically.

In point of fact, King of Kings was something of a director-proof movie, anyway. It was produced by a man named Samuel Bronston, who for a short span of time in the '60s was hellbent on making himself a star in the world of florid history epics: the cynical among us might notice that Cecil B. DeMille had just died, leaving a vacuum in the world of gigantic spectacles, one that a a cunning producer might be able to jump into, especially if he had the balls to title his first movie in that vein almost, but not quite, the exact same as DeMille's much-loved 1927 The King of Kings, to which it is otherwise not related.

Bronston's output at this point is bizarrely self-contained: four giant movies between 1961 and '64, two apiece for directors extravagantly talented in making intimate, oddball genre films that by no means suggest the kind of training to put over a costume drama: Ray with King of Kings and 1963's career-killing 55 Days at Peking, and Western master Anthony Mann with El Cid from '61 and The Fall of the Roman Empire from '64. Only El Cid was an appreciable hit relative to the budget, and after 1964's Circus World, directed by Henry Hathaway, Bronston's career pretty much died off. But he tried. Oh how he did try. King of Kings announces itself as a costly, prestigious film right from the details of its production: filmed in the oh-so-fancy Super Technirama 70 format, with a whole gang of Oscar winners involved in writing, shooting, editing and scoring. By any stretch of the imagination, it's a honey of the producer's art: it is all kinds of lavish and sprawling, blowing past two-and-a-half hours in telling a story that feels more expansive still. If it's not as exhaustively well-appointed as the very best of the best history films of the era, it's certainly well in the thick of the fight for the best of Tier 2.

That being said, the script provided by Philip Yordan is not remotely like any of the other movies it was competing with. King of Kings was the first significant "Life of Christ" movie since the silent era (another sign of Bronston's ambition, no doubt), and knowing only that fact about its content going in, it's a real shock how much Jesus of Nazareth, as played by prettyboy Jeffrey Hunter, isn't a prominent character, or at least no more prominent than anyone else. Possibly the single most off-kilter and compelling fact about the movie, in fact, is how much Jesus is defined as an off-screen character: until the last 40 minutes of the movie come along to dramatise the Passion, most of the plot is carried through scenes of people - apostles, Romans, Jewish priests - discussing the reports of Jesus that have come in from every which way, and trying to decide what to do about him. Basically, it's a nominally devotional film that's far more interested with 1st Century realpolitik than with spiritual uplift. The film tips its hands in its most obvious interpolation, depicting Barabbas (Harry Guardino) as not just a violent prisoner but as the leader of a regular People's Front of Judea, a firebrand radical resisting Roman occupation and recognising in Jesus his own negative double, the figure of peaceful resistance instead of violent revolt. There are ancient traditions of recognising the Biblical Barabbas as an anti-Roman freedom fighter, but nothing of the sort is stated within the Christian Gospel, and the addition of this element to the story - and it is a major subplot, with Barabbas getting a lot more screentime than many more well-known and significant figures - clearly flags something that the film is up to not just in this plotline, but throughout: it's attempting to build a wholly secular historical context in which to situate a recognisably human Jesus.

There are, in essence, three different movies jockeying for prominence in King of Kings, or at least two-and-a-half. The movie that Yordan wants to write, and frequently does, is a story about plausible, secular history and the actions of men, and this is a movie Nicholas Ray is certainly sympathetic towards, though his direction tends more towards a psychological study than an historic one, with a frankly daring fixation on tight close-up for a movie shot in such an exhaustively wide aspect ratio. All the things that the director can be responsible for in a movie like this: camera angles, unifying the performances, lead this way, with Ray absolutely captivated by the feelings of the various people who are affected by Jesus's earthly existence: King Herod Antipas (Frank Thring) is a puffy, sweaty, scared man who is concerned about keeping his largely honorific rule intact; Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) is curt and annoyed by such a pointless non-issue being constantly brought to his attention by his wife Claudia (Viveca Landfors) and his aide Lucius (Ron Randell), sympathetic to Jesus's ministry; high priest Caiaphas (Guy Rolfe) is a realist terrified by Jesus's potential to bring Roman destruction on the Jews; John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) is a man ecstatic to have his faith validated; apostles Peter (Royal Dano) and Judas (Rip Torn) are conflicted in their own ways about their love of and doubt about this new Messiah. Every single one of them is treated by the director with utmost gravity, so much the focal point of their own scenes that we can't think of them as supporting characters in Jesus's story, but fully-formed people. This is inherent in Yordan's script, but it's really mostly done by Ray's shockingly intimate camera, living with the characters and giving them weight in dramatic, architectural compositions - there are many odd but totally effective camera choices throughout here, including heavily angled perspective shots that don't line up to any character's perspective but still give us a heavy editorial feel, or shot emphasising the physical relationship of people to one another and their environment. Again, this isn't the first thing I think of when I think of Nicholas Ray (though I guess I can see traces of Rebel Without a Cause in some of the picture), but it is great, counter-intuitive filmmaking.

The other film is the generically-insistent movie about Christ's life meant to uplift the audience, the overt function of every other comparable movie made during a 15-year span, forced upon a flexible Yordan and clearly not of much interest to Ray, who fumbles a lot of key scenes. This element of the film, in addition to being burned into the movie simply on account of what it is, bleeds through in things like the Ray Bradbury-scripted narration read by a sleepwalking Orson Welles (whose pronunciation of "apostle" and "Barabbas" is, speaking diplomatically, a little non-standard), or Miklos Rozsa's ethereal, aching score, which I pretty much hate despite it being frequently cited as one of his best (but then, I am no fan of Rozsa), as it cheapens the film's complexity by aurally reducing it to just another damn movie for church groups (I will note that it's an obvious influence on John Williams, especially the Grail theme from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). It bleeds through as well in scenes that were presumably forced by a producer keeping his thumb on the picture, where it lurches, not always persuasively, into a more mystical, spiritual register.

The join between two very different movies, the largely secular and psychological one versus the spiritual and worshipful one, doesn't hold. It's at its worst in moments like the Sermon on the Mount, which feels trivial and fake despite all the armies of extras thrown at it (the limp, non-oratory acting doesn't help, but it's framed to emphasis how much it looks like a movie, not like a gathering at the foot of a great teacher), or the last 20 minutes, where everything becomes a shambles - Christ's resurrection is an event I personally disbelieve in, but even I have the hope of it being a more transcendent, stirring cinematic experience than the perfunctory, rushed event that closes out this movie.

King of Kings, then, is essentially a failed experience, though a captivating one, and many of the scenes (especially the ones centered on Pilate and John the Baptist) are as good as anything in the history of the Biblical epic, while even the boring, tedious sequences are not unusually so (even at its most banally conservative, this is still incomparably more energetic and cinematic than the stillborn 1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told, the next major Life of Christ movie in English). If anything holds it together at all, it's surprisingly Jeffrey Hunter, whose blank, blandly all-American appearance and disaffected performance creates a tabula rasa that such a disjointed, concepty version of this story requires, despite all the teasing at the time of the film's making about I Was a Teenage Jesus and the like. To a considerable degree, King of Kings is at every turn about people projecting the Jesus they expect onto the actual Jesus; Hunter inhabits the role without obviously "playing" it, and is thus ideally suited to anchor that theme. It's not "good" acting, but it is precisely the acting the movie requires, and it's the only reason that the fascinating, scattered movie holds together even as well as it manages.


Not Fenimore said...

Hmmm, sounds interesting; my experience of the genre is pretty much limited to the '59 Ben Hur and the '56 The Ten Commandments, neither of which I was terribly impressed by, so I wouldn't have been too interested in this to start with; but you've made it sound actually like kinda a neat picture. Which is your curse, I guess; lord knows I'd never have sought out Blood Feast or even The Last Airbender without your insidiously entertaining reviews urging me on.

...Well, and not quite the same genre per se, but I've also seen the '73 Jesus Christ Superstar so THANKS VERY MUCH FOR THE TITLE, JERK. It's going to be a week before I stop having "My mind is clearer now / At last, all too well..." popping my head at all hours. :P

Tim said...

For what it's worth, I'm not terribly fond of either of those movies myself - I think there's a much better 2-hour movie inside The Ten Commandments and nothing good in Ben-Hur than the chariot race. And at any rate, King of Kings is a hell of a lot more intellectually engaging than the pair of them combined, though maybe not as splashy.

Also, try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you, oh, don't you know everything's alright? Yes, everything's fine.

David Greenwood said...

I'll watch any half decent movie with Rip Torn anywhere in it, especially when it's produced by SAMUEL L. BRONKOWITZ.

Brian said...

It makes me wonder: Could someone make a semi-historical*, almost completely secular Jesus movie today?

If you ended with the crucifixion, and never once showed any actual miracles/evidence that he was supernatural, but only him preaching, and that people BELIEVE him to be such. Could that get made and released?

*This going with the debatable position that any of the gospel account can be considered even semi-historical. I don't personally feel that it is, but I couldn't come up with a better way of wording it.

Not Fenimore said...

@Tim: I kinda walked into that one, didn't I?

@Brian: I was going to say no, of course not, at least in North America - but then, when I was writing this up and trying to think of snarky song lyrics to throw back at Tim, I kinda got to thinking that modulo the "semi-historical" part, that's basically what Jesus Christ Superstar was, wasn't it? It shows essentially nothing supernatural whatsoever. Of the main characters, nobody (excepting Peter and Simon but quite possibly including Jesus) thinks Jesus is divine in the St Paul/Apostles Creed sense. And, as per your requirement, it ends with the Crucifixion. Pity about those tanks, then.

franklinshepard said...

I think the issue with making a secular Jesus movie is who's going to watch it? Certainly not Christians. And I don't think atheists or agnostics will be lining up to see it either. So that leaves...people who are fascinated by the historical Jesus. A pretty small subset of the population.

FWIW, Paul Verhoeven wants to make a movie like what you're describing.

David Greenwood said...

And yet... When Mel Gibson was producing The Passion of the Christ, everyone was sure it would be a total failure. Who'd watch an R rated religious movie in Aramaic?

Millions as it turned out. It's easy to say now "Oh, of course, the evangelicals turned out in hordes, you just knew that was going to happen" but nobody did.

It's a shame studios are afraid to take artistic risks because I'd love to see someone try something like Pasolini's "Gospel According To St Matthew" today (which was a great movie, but I'm not big on Italian neo-realism).

These are after all the same studios who refuse to cast minorities in leading roles because audiences would be "turned off" or "confused", despite the fact that something like 40% of filmgoers are people of color, and a mostly untapped market.

You never know until you try. And even then, you still don't know for sure. Here's a great idea: release movies that are good. Simple, isn't it? Make quality and the people will follow.

franklinshepard said...

You could be right. But I have a hard time thinking of an untapped audience interested in a secular Jesus film. Are the millions of Americans who are atheist/agnostic but very interested in learning more about an apocalyptic Jewish prophet who got himself killed 2000 years ago? Maybe, but I don't know any of them.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a pretty great movie, but the resurrection is there. The miracles are there. Christians around the world love that movie precisely because it's faithful to the original text they believe is the word of God.

David Greenwood said...

@franklinshepard A few demographics leap to mind:

1) The large number of Americans who have been raised culturally Christian, but don't give much thought to the religious aspects of it, curious about a Christian movie that might actually be meaningful to them. This would have been me in high school. There's a lot of these.

2) Hardcore Christians who will watch anything with Jesus in it, and even if it isn't as miracle-y as they might like they'll still pay admission at least twice.

3) The Oscars, and anyone associated with that whole prestigey thing (you know this would be some solid gold awards bait).