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I recently had the pleasure of re-viewing a pair of my favorite biblical epics The Greatest Story Ever Told and the subject of this review King of Kings. These two films, together with my personal favorite Franco Zeffirellis Jesus of Nazareth comprise three of the most inspirational films Ive ever seen.
King of Kings was produced by Samuel Bronston, the big daddy of 1960s epics like El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, and The Fall of the Roman Empire. These films all have a place on my personal list of all-time great epics and so does King of Kings. Viewers who have not seen these epics are advised that these are some of the best films in Hollywood history and are well worth the effort of seeking out.
As director, Bronston chose Nicholas Ray, whose biggest work to date had been 1955s Rebel Without a Cause. Ray would return in 1963 to work with Bronston on 55 Days at Peking.
Ray begins telling his story by showing Roman conqueror Pompey the Great profaning the Holy Temple of God at Jerusalem sixty-three years before the birth of Christ. The Jews are shown as a proud but downtrodden people - enslaved and put to work in the quarries, cutting stone for the monuments of Rome. To enforce the Roman laws, the Romans installed an Arab as king, Herod the Great. Forests of crosses rose as Herods response to the incessant rebellions of the Jews. Into this chaotic environment was born Jesus. His first trip into Jerusalem as a baby is through a forest of crosses
Herod died and was replaced by Antipas, his son. But Antipas (Frank Thring) was not as strong as Herod and the Romans installed a governor of their own, the infamous Pontius Pilate (Hurd Hatfield). Pilate further inflames the Jews by putting graven images on the Temple walls. The story continues and follows the Gospels quite well until its foregone conclusion on Calvary.
To add some meat to the bare Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, the filmmakers concocted a subplot concerning a conspiracy between Barabbas and Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Barabbas (Harry Guardino), an insurrectionist, is shown to be an associate of Judas (Rip Torn). Barabbas wants to overthrow the Romans by force while Judas desperately hopes against hope that Jesus is The Messiah. To put him to the test, he betrays Jesus, hoping that this will force his hand and he will call his heavenly host to the inevitable destruction of the Romans. Its an effective subplot and the director really does not allow it to detract from the main story of the Son of God.
To fill in the gaps of the necessarily episodic account of Christs life, narration is provided by no less an orator than Orson Welles. The narration, written by Ray Bradbury (uncredited), is pertinent and not overbearing to the story.
Ray populated his story with strong actors in key roles - the previously mentioned Frank Thring (The Vikings, Ben Hur); Hurd Hatfield (Picture of Dorian Gray); and Harry Guardino (Hell is for Heroes, Dirty Harry). For feminine pulchritude, the glamorous Viveca Lindfors and Rita Gam play the key roles of Claudia, wife of Pilate and Herodias the wife of Antipas. Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers) was assigned the central role of Jesus, playing the Master with gravity and restraint. His mother Mary was played by the always dependable Siobhan McKenna (Dr. Zhivago, Of Human Bondage), John the Baptist was played by familiar face Robert Ryan (The Wild Bunch, Bad Day at Black Rock). The remaining actors were mainly Spaniards as the film was made in Spain which simulated the wild yet beautiful terrain of Judea.
Technicolor photography by a trio of cinematographers captures some unforgettable imagery. Sets and props are in the main top drawer, although Ms. Lindfors hairdo unfortunately makes her look like a Conehead in some scenes. The haunting score was written by Miklos Rozsca. It makes me long for the days when films were scored instead of accompanied by rock songs!
Even the nonreligious will find the film timely (or timeless) in the sense that it shows the Middle East has been in a turmoil from time immemorial. Particularly recommended for family viewing.
King of Kings is available in DVD in gorgeous 2.35: 1 widescreen Panavision from Warner Bros., or in video cassette in full screen version from the original company MGM. Either one is well worth watching. Like me, you will probably want to watch it again and again.
Thanks for reading!
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Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Good for Groups