Friday, April 18, 2014

King of Kings (1961)

King of Kings was released in 1961 by Metro Goldwyn Mayer, which promoted it with a poster design similar to their 1959 Ben Hur (with the title carved in stone), but it was actually an independent production from Samuel Bronston who also made El Cid before going bankrupt with two bac-to-back 1964 flops, Fall of the Roman Empire and Circus World. King of Kings was actually a project begun by Cecil B. DeMille who planned to remake his 1925 silent as a follow up to 1956’s The Ten Commandments. After DeMille’s death, the project fell to Bronston and director Nicholas Ray. DeMille cast 50-year-old H.B. Warner, now most familiar to audiences as the pharmacist of It’s a Wonderful Life, as Jesus in the earlier production. Here the role is played by 33-year-old Jeffrey Hunter.

I don’t care for Hunter’s wispy beard or the bangs which curl slightly above his eyebrows, but his blue eyes radiate compassion and make him a very impressive Jesus. The rest of the cast is good, too, especially Hurd Hatfield as an appropriately arrogant Pontius Pilate, Harry Guardino as a hot-tempered Barabbas, and Robert Ryan, an actor whose specialty was playing psychos, as a grizzled John the Baptist. Best of all for fallen man is Brigid Bazlen as a cute, kittenish, and very sexy Salome whose stepfather, King Herod Antipus (Frank Thring), finds so fetching that he offers her anything she wants – the throne of her mother, half his entire kingdom – if she will dance for him.

Christianity is sneered at by those desiring to be hip, so director Ray’s cult following has all but ignored his impressive work on this biblical epic. The crucifixion is movingly depicted with the sky growing dark and gloomy behind the image of the three crosses at Calvary once Jesus dies and His spirit ascends to heaven. Other impressive imagery abounds, including at the conclusion when Jesus’ shadow overlaps with the fishing nets that his apostles have laid out on the shore of Galilee. Composer Miklos Rosza won an Oscar for Ben Hur, but his score here may be superior. Orson Welles provides a narration to which Ray Bradbury is rumored to have contributed, but receives no on-screen credit (nor does Bradbury with the screenplay carrying only the name of Philip Yordan).

King of Kings performed adequately at the box-office, but bypassed the big three networks when it was released to television. It went directly to the local stations where it was a staple on many a Good Friday of my youth. Even without that nostalgic appeal, it holds up well, and is a moving experience.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2014 Brian W. Fairbanks


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