KING OF KINGS opens with the surging uplift of Miklos Rozsa’s heavens-beseeching Overture and Main Title, the score—from the ‘creator of ‘Roman music’—one of the components that grace the 171-minute 1961 production about the life of Jesus. From producer Samuel Bronston, this was the first of his massive epics of the early 60s, its boxoffice success paving the way for the wheel-dealing Bronston to make El Cid, 55 Days At Peking, Circus World and The Fall Of The Roman Empire. Directed with flair by a harried Nicholas Ray, while occasionally clunky, it’s much better than its generally derided critical reputation. Lavishly done, it looks grand, has an interesting cast who mostly do well by their roles, and gets the basic Biblical babble across, though the script—the weakest element—plays holy hell with some characters and events. While Godless reviewers sneered, the flock flocked in to make it one of the most popular movies of the year. Notably, it was the first major sound film to show Christ’s face, with 33-year-old Jeffrey Hunter in the role. *
Ray, who’d worked with the dependable, unpretentious Hunter a few years before on The True Story Of Jesse James, picked the all-American over others in consideration like Peter Cushing, Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow (he’d have his turn a few years later), because he felt Hunter could convey gentleness and sincerity and had blue eyes that practically glowed with conviction. Robert Ryan (from Ray’s On Dangerous Ground and Flying Leathernecks) signed on to lend some gravitas as John the Baptist, and others doing good work included Hurd Hatfield as a bemused Pontius Pilate, Frank Thring as a degenerate Herod Antipas, Ron Randell as a fair-minded Roman centurion, Rip Torn as Judas, 16-year-old Brigid Bazlen as the vixen Salome, Rita Gam as a foxy Herodias, and an intense Harry Guardino as Barabbas.
“Woman, is not your cup of abominations full enough?”
Originally budgeted at $5,500,000, it may have topped out as much as $8,000,000 as production control swung back & forth between factions both creative and financial. Trouble with the script structure dogged it from the onset (Philip Yordan is credited) and when MGM exerted pull (and more money), much extra filming was done at great cost, then most of that was jettisoned. Wholly fictional battle scenes involving Barabbas were interjected to pump up the excitement level; his character enlarged from bare mention in the Bible to being a revolutionary leader in this telling. Well, why not?, since most of the ‘greatest story’ is historical speculation crossed with centuries worth of political & theological cross-currents, rewritten to suit. The action keeps the kids awake, so the “message” gets through.
Of course, since it’s 1961, things are too clean (later, more graphic versions would be more pictorially convincing), and it often has a Sunday school pageant feel to it; Hunter’s earnest portrayal (which looks like how countless millions had been taught to think Christ would have appeared) can’t help but occasionally suffer when the script has him padding through the Holy Land dispensing one-liners (“be nice so when you die things will even out”, and so forth). Ironically, the bad guys have the best dialogue. Generally, the momentum holds until the Last Supper, trial and Crucifixion sequences, which are rather lackluster. It sort of hamstrings the Peace & Love idea when the liveliest scenes in the film are a battle (actually a slaughter) and a sexy dance that ends with someone’s decapitation.
When the patchwork of editing had to cohere, Ray Bradbury was called on to write a linking narration, spoken by Orson Welles, who intones the passages with due dignity. Salome’s dance is fairly hot, the costumes and sets are neat, the Rozsa music score is always a plus and the impressive Sermon on the Mount is accomplished using 5,400 extras. All location work was done in Spain.
Critics were pretty harsh for the most part (too harsh), and no awards showed up, but people did, and the gross came to $22,900,000, 8th highest for the year. While yours truly has a definite spiritual side (thank you, Nature), I’ve never been, am not, and doubt like Hades if I’ll ever get around to embracing r-r-Religion. Yes, you’re shocked. Yet that admission of hellbound heresy doesn’t mean the Imperial we can’t be moved by the passions of others in their devotion (when they’re not threatening to kill you to prove how much they love God/Jehovah/Allah/Mel Brooks), and be deeply touched by words of comfort, music of exultation and deeds of sacrifice. With caveats, I like this well-intended movie, and if you love it, brother/sister, more power to you. A lesson of sorts, regarding critics as doyens of taste and arbiters of wisdom (from the ‘lest-ye-be-judged’ Dept.) can be gleaned by looking at how easy and lazy it can be diss a mountain of hard work from hundreds or thousands of individuals with one cheap, funny line. In the case of this epic, some unknown wag dubbed it ‘I Was A Teenage Jesus’, and the snotty putdown endures to this day. The resultant haw-haw-aren’t-we-smart? fallout went a long way toward hamstringing Jeffrey Hunter’s career and tarnishing the reputation of director Nicholas Ray. Not cool, or for that matter, very Christian.
In the brightly costumed throng: Siobhan McKenna (as Mary, and too-saintly, even as Mary), Viveca Lindfors (not much to do as a haughty Roman court dame), Royal Dano (fine as Peter; other than Torn’s Judas, the other disciples get zip), Guy Rolfe (an underwritten Caiaphas), Gregoire Aslan (fine as nasty Herod Antipas), Carmen Savilla (a cipher as Mary Magdalene), Gérard Tichy, George Coulouris, and Edric Connor. Satan’s voice was provided by Ray Milland. Agnes Moorehead did chores as a dialogue coach. Bufflings, see if you spot Richard Johnson among the Mount mob. His role, which was substantial, was deleted from the final cut. The cinematography duty was shared between Franz Planer, Manuel Berenguer and Milton Krasner.
* The silent King Of Kings, produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, was a big hit in 1927, and thanks to being constantly loaned out to religious and civic groups worldwide for decades, it’s down as one of the most-seen movies of all time. Per screenwriter Yordan: “They were talking about negotiating with the DeMille estate and giving them 10% of the distributor’s gross. So I said “Register the title!” I remember it cost a six cent mail stamp. They sent it to the MPAA and DeMille had never registered it. So for six cents we got the title!”