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starring Jeffrey Hunter, Siobhan McKenna, Hurd Hatfield, Robert Ryan
screenplay by Philip Yordan
directed by Nicholas Ray
by Jefferson Robbins Painterly and static, for the most part, Nicholas Ray's King of Kings boasts one truly remarkable, energetic camera feat: a view from the top of the crucifix, gazing down the length of Jesus's body as he's hoisted into position for martyrdom. It stuck in Martin Scorsese's mind, too, and a variation of the shot appeared in his The Last Temptation of Christ. It's not an unfair comparison, as the two films both seek new paths into the Christ story by collapsing the degrees of separation between characters, plumbing the politics of Roman-controlled Judea, and introducing moments of doubt and pain for Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) that are not merely spiritual, but personal as well. When the Messiah visits the house of his mother Mary (Siobhan McKenna), he offers to apply his carpentry skills to a broken chair upon returning from his next fateful act of ministry, in Jerusalem. "The chair will never be mended," Mary says, and they mutually, silently acknowledge the destiny laid out for him. It's not Willem Dafoe boinking Barbara Hershey, but it is a human moment--the Son of Man craving a simple man's life.
Throughout, though he makes continued good use of overhead angles, Ray turns away from Cecil B. DeMille spectacle. The performance of miracles mostly happens in shadowplay, as when Jesus heals the blind man--an inversion of the way Conrad Veidt steals John Justin's sight in The Thief of Bagdad. Many of the best-known acts of the Gospels, including the loaves and fishes, the water to wine, and the raising of Lazarus, are elided completely. When Jesus listens to the voice of Satan or communes with the Holy Spirit, it's just Hunter staring at some slow-moving point offscreen. King of Kings is unlike The Last Temptation of Christ in that it's not a character study of Jesus, really, but rather a broad drama with Jesus at its centre. Ray's interested in the dynamics of this Judea and what Jesus represents--a challenge, a promise, a political opportunity--for the people he hopes to save. "He's different," muses prissy Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Hurd Hatfield), "and refuses to behave like the others." Rebel Without a Cause, anybody?
To that end, sideline figures from the Gospels emerge with names and biographies, and find themselves acted upon by the carpenter's son. Roman commander Lucius (Ron Randell) oversees the killing of newborns in Bethlehem, meets a twelve-year-old Jesus in Nazareth, spies on the Sermon on the Mount, and ends up being the legionnaire at the Crucifixion who declares Jesus the Son of God. Barabbas (Harry Guardino), later to be spared by the masses so Jesus might die, interferes at the stoning of the adulteress Mary Magdalene (Carmen Sevilla). Herod Antipas (Frank Thring) is a neurotic patricide squeezed between Rome, the Pharisees, his wife Herodias (Rita Gam) and bloodlusty stepdaughter Salome1 (Brigid Bazlen), and his own restive subjects. And Judas Iscariot (Rip Torn, unrecognizable from today's vantage point), a collaborator in Barabbas's plans for military rebellion, suffers a dark night of the soul in deciding to betray Jesus for political gain.
Jeffrey Hunter was an amazingly handsome man, but there seems little room in his mien for gentleness, let alone forgiveness. The gaze of this Jesus is not welcoming; his eyes shoot daggers carved from sapphire. John Ford found an outlet for this intensity in The Searchers, beating Hunter's Martin Pawley down to base savagery then letting him climb back to something like redemption. Hunter's brief here is largely to suffer in stillness and hit all the classic benedictive poses. When he moves, particularly in well-known episodes like the Sermon on the Mount2, it's mostly to strike new postures suggestive of Raphael. There's no assault on the Temple moneychangers, where his anger might have served the picture well. Robert Ryan as John the Baptist meanwhile feels ported over from a different movie (probably a western in which he was all set to play a crusty, reclusive prospector), yet his relationship with Jesus, passing the holy fire to his successor, has a real ache to it, grimly illustrated when he reaches through the bars of his cell to grasp his Messiah's hand.
If Hunter's key scenes are Raphaelite, Ray and his multiple cinematographers (Manuel Berengeur, Milton Krasner, and Franz Planer) at times accomplish something close to Caravaggio. There's depth, shadow, layer, and expression here: Jesus beginning his march with the cross, viewed through Barabbas's cell window; the two Marys, one a saint, one a sinner, breaking bread together; Jesus's body brought down and laid in the shadow of the cross that killed him. Still, these moments are counterbalanced by some horrific flatness in certain indoor scenes that cast harsh, uniform light across the whole. Perhaps it was the handoffs in DP duties that makes King of Kings look so haphazard, but when it's beautiful, it's beautiful.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Ray appears to have conceived of King of Kings as an opera, inserting an overture, an entr'acte, and recessional music to break the picture into chunks, studio-epic style. Those passages are retained on Warner's new Blu-ray edition, which gives full-throated blare to Miklós Rózsa's chorus-rich score. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track onboard the disc does justice to the music's aural sprawl and highlights subtleties of scoring that might otherwise go unheard, though a lack of bass means dialogue and SFX come across sounding thin. But the Technicolor is given due attention--the rich reds of Jesus's robes and Herod's tapestries look luscious. Originally filmed in Super Technirama 70 (which was actually an anamorphic, 8-perf 35mm format that ran through the camera horizontally, facilitating a 70mm blowup virtually indistinguishable from native 65mm), King of Kings was a prime candidate for HiDef, and the image fidelity of this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is especially strong in preserving Ray's compelling deep-focus shots. Extras--all standard-def with DD 2.0 sound--are fleeting: "The Camera's Window on the World" (4 mins.) is a newsreel-style pre-EPK on the filming of the Sermon on the Mount scene, while "King of Kings: Impressive Premiere on Two Coasts" (2 mins.) covers the red carpets in New York and L.A. The movie's three-minute original trailer rounds things out. Originally published: May 9, 2011.
1. Something in Salome's flirtations with John the Baptist evokes Martha Vickers's deranged come-ons to Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. And while we're at it: Brigid Bazlen? Hubba hubba. return
2. It's terrible trying to objectively watch King of Kings, particularly this scene, after Monty Python's The Life of Brian. ("Blessed are the cheesemakers," indeed.) return