Friday, April 17, 2020

Movie Review: "King of Kings" (1961)

King of Kings

Director: Nicholas Ray

Producer: Samuel Bronston

Screenplay: Philip Yordan, Ray Bradbury (uncredited)

Narrated by: Orson Welles (uncredited)

Cinematographer: Manuel Berenguer, Milton R. Krasner, Franz Planer

Music by: Miklós Rózsa

Starring: Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus

Production company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Country: United States

Initial release: October 11, 1961

Run Time: 168 minutes

After World War 2, with the emerging rivalry between television and movie theaters, cinema turned in earnest to the Bible as a thematic basis for displaying itself in grandiose and overpowering ways. Cecil B. DeMille both advanced and expanded his reputation as the creator of the lavish biblical spectacle with his Samson and Delilah (1949) and the dramatic remake of his own 1923 version of The Ten Commandments (1956). Both of these were the top box office movies of their respective years.

However, neither DeMille nor anyone else in Hollywood undertook to remake his silent The King of Kings (1927). In fact, it would be thirty-four years until we got another movie that showed the face of Jesus Christ, with the appearance of Samuel Bronston's Jesus film of a similar title, King of Kings (1961). The most likely factor for this long gap was DeMille's own continued presence and prominence in Hollywood through the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's - the first three decades of the sound era. Filmmakers instead focused on biblical epics, where if Jesus was involved in the story at all, his face was never seen nor was he the main character. Censorship laws in Hollywood also contributed to this delay, since Jesus was not allowed during this time to be portrayed irreverently, and who was to decided what was irreverent or not, thus stifling the art-form. However, when DeMille died in 1959, within two years MGM would follow its box office success it had with Ben-Hur in 1959, with Samuel Bronston's harmonizing epic-production of King of Kings.

In November 1958, the idea for King of Kings began as a proposed film project based on the life of Jesus between Samuel Bronston and John Farrow following their collaboration on John Paul Jones (1959). However, by the next year, Farrow left the project due to creative differences, and Nicholas Ray, whose credits included Rebel Without a Cause (1955), was shortly after hired as director. Farrow later explained that in the context of Jesus's trial, Bronston wanted him to "whitewash the Jewish leaders, and lay blame entirely on the Romans. I refused to make these changes. I quit." Additionally, according to associate producer Alan Brown, he stated that "his script was not really a script, it was the Four Gospels put down, and Sam called me and said, 'I cannot even understand this, it's all Thee and Thou and everything else.'"

Ray then hired screenwriter Philip Yordan, whom he previously worked with on Johnny Guitar (1954), to write a new script. It was on Yordan's recommendation that the film be retitled from Son of Man to King of Kings. Furthermore, Bronston hired several Biblical scholars in order for the script to adhere to the Gospels, which included playwright Diego Fabbri and theologian professor George Kilpatrick who wrote the books The Origins of the Gospel According to St. Matthew (1946) and The Trial of Jesus (1953). In March 1960, Bronston received approval of the script from Pope John XXIII, who met with the producer at the Vatican. Financing of the film was initially provided by Pierre S. du Pont III, but Bronston appealed for more funding from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer who was interested in the film following their success with Ben-Hur (1959). With MGM involved, mandatory rewrites and additional scenes were added to the film. Final production costs of the film was at around $8 million.

Several actors were considered to play the role of Jesus. In May 1959, it was reported that Alec Guinness had met with Bronston to discuss playing the role of Jesus. With Nicholas Ray as director, he considered Peter Cushing, Tom Fleming, Christopher Plummer, and Max von Sydow (who would later play the role in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)) for the role of Jesus. Ultimately, on April 21, 1960, Jeffrey Hunter was cast as Jesus. The idea to hire Hunter for the role came from John Ford, who suggested him to Nicholas Ray after directing him on The Searchers (1956). Ray also knew Hunter as he had directed him in The True Story of Jesse James (1957). Bronston agreed to the casting mainly because of the actor's striking blue eyes explaining that "I really chose him for his eyes. It was important that the man playing Christ have memorable eyes." After he finished filming for Hell to Eternity (1960), Hunter was approached for the role after being given the script to which he agreed. Hunter's widow later on explained how he was the only one who would take the part, as actors were wary of playing the role of Jesus. She also said Hunter was deeply affected by his experience. Orson Welles was hired to provide the omniscient voice-over narration, which was recorded in London.

In 1959, Bronston had established his eponymous production studio in Spain where he observed the rugged countryside resembled Judea. Principal photography began on April 24, 1960 at the Sevilla and Charmartin studios, near Madrid, Spain where 396 sets were constructed for the film. The film was shot on multiple locations throughout Spain, one of which included the Venta de Frascuelas near the rocky terrains of Chinchón for the Sermon on the Mount scene where 7,000 extras were used.

The film premiered at Loew's State Theatre in New York City on October 12, 1961. It received mainly hostile reviews from film critics, but was a box office success. Time Magazine wrote a negative review describing the film as "[i]ncontestably the corniest, phoniest, ickiest and most monstrously vulgar of all the big Bible stories Hollywood has told in the last decade." The New York Times felt that the movie had "the nature of an illustrated lecture" and was a "peculiarly impersonal film that constructs a great deal of random action around Jesus and does very little to construct a living personality for Him." Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post panned the film as "a picture which never should have been made" due to the filmmakers' decision to present Jesus as "a universal, non-controversial figure," explaining that "to excise His dynamic, revolutionary concepts is to make His journey on earth a hollow ritual, a pointless fairy tale, an essay on How to Live Dangerously and Still Win." Geoff Andrew called it "one of the most interesting screen versions of the Gospels, adding that "some of the performances appear to lack depth, but one can't deny the effectiveness of Miklós Rózsa's fine score, and of Ray's simple but elegant visuals which achieve a stirring dramatic power untainted by pompous bombast."

King of Kings music score, composed by Miklós Rózsa, was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. Rózsa's most recent work at the time was the score for MGM's epic Ben-Hur (1959), for which he won his third Oscar. Rózsa composed the scores for many of MGM's epic films, including Quo Vadis (1951).

Despite the brutal negative reviews, King of Kings would later become known and even hailed as the first large-budget, major-studio sound film in English to actually show Christ's face.

The three-hour film was made like an opera, with a musical overture and included an intermission between two acts. The Jesus story is placed within the framework of world history - ancient and modern. The narrator - with a God-like voice and perspective - speaks appropriately with biblical sounding words like "And it is written...." If you listen with care during the opening sequences, you will recognize allusions to the holocaust of the Jews by the Germans during Word War 2 and the conflict of the Jews and the Arabs after 1948. There is a correlation in this film between the world of antiquity and the modern world, leading the viewers to identify with the oppressed Jews.

In this film Jesus is portrayed as a miracle worker, though it shows few miracles, and those it does show are very impersonal. He is also portrayed as a teacher, with the Sermon on the Mount serving as the centerpiece for this dimension of Jesus' ministry. Above all, however, Jesus is portrayed as a Messiah of "peace, love and the brotherhood of man". In the story, Barabbas wants him to be a Messiah of war, but is disappointed. Judas Iscariot tries to play both sides in the film, by being a friend to both Jesus and Barabbas, but having his own ideas of what the Messiah should be, thus leading to his final betrayal of Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate pacifist in King of Kings, which presents Jesus as so non-violent and so non-threatening that it leaves viewers wondering how such a nice guy ended up on the Roman cross. Some have thus called this film "the Gospel According to Hollywood."

King of Kings is not a bad movie, but it is very much a bad movie about Jesus. It makes too many wrong choices, even if it does seem to have right intentions. I found absolutely nothing moving or exciting in this film. I was most engaged in this film with the character of Barabbas. At least you knew where he stands and he was compelling. The best scene in the film is when Barabbas and the two thieves who were to be crucified with Jesus are talking in prison. The less I saw of Jesus, the better the movie was. I don't lay the blame for this on Hunter, but on whoever cast him and wrote his script. The script is horrible, even though most of everything Jesus says comes out of the Gospels, but they are twisted enough to make the careful listener cringe. For example, Jesus opens the Sermon on the Mount with "Blessed are the poor, for theirs in the Kingdom of heaven", but for some reason fails to include the fact that Jesus said "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Perhaps this is because Samuel Bronston was a Marxist revolutionary, and he had a specific agenda in mind. Hunter was also too handsome and young for this role, with too much emphasis on his penetrating blue eyes and his shaved body (even his armpits are shaved!). These two factors are probably the only way this production tried to show a certain divinity in Jesus, who is called "God" in the film, but it shows a very humanized portrait. Along with Hunter, Siobhán McKenna was a terrible choice for the role of the Virgin Mary, who looks older than Joseph when she gives birth to Jesus, and doesn't become appropriate looking age-wise until we see her at the crucifixion.

Ultimately, we see Jesus in this film as a good and noble person, a virtuous person, who offends no one. The result is a strange, disembodied representation of Jesus by filmmakers looking to profit off the story and not risk in any way getting in trouble with the censorship board. This indeed is a Hollywood Jesus, but even more so a non-denominational Jesus of pluralistic America. Christ is as neutral and undynamic as possible parading around in New Testament garb with the style of a pageant. As one critic noted: "A life of Christ should be an irresistible challenge to man's conscience. Instead, this one is a tranquilizing drug ... and bad art."

Out of a rating of 1 to 10, I give King of Kings a 6.1.