King of Kings 1961 - Movie Review
WHEN the focus is fixed very simply on the figure of Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus Christ and on the acting of a few familiar episodes in the Saviour's life, there is a certain photographic reverence and purely pictorial eloquence in Samuel Bronston's elaborate screen biography of the Messiah, "King of Kings."
This mammoth Biblical drama, done in color and super-wide-screen, with a cast of thousands, opened last night at Loew's State.
For instance, there wells from the enactment of the Sermon on the Mount a potent image of the sway of an individual over an avid and restless crowd. The sight of Jesus moving in fervid fashion among a seething multitude, scattered in colorful patches across a couple of rocky hills, pausing to hear shouted questions and shouting back proverbial replies, conveys a briefly thrilling conception of the excitement of the occasion and of the times.
The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem among the pre-Passover crowds, riding on the back of a donkey and with palm leaves strewn along the way, likewise presents a stirring image of serenity amid a wild unrest. And the enactments of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion convey a sense of sorrow and sacrifice.
With much of the data in the picture delivered by a narrator's voice, speaking from the stereophonic outlets like an oracular Orson Welles, the flow of these re-enactments, these tableaux of passion-filled events, has the nature of an illustrated lecture—and that is the general nature of the film.
For the fact is that the drama of Jesus—the drama that is outlined sketchily in the limited reports in the Scriptures and hints in Roman history—is strangely lost or confused or omitted in this peculiarly impersonal film that constructs a great deal of random action around Jesus and does very little to construct a living personality for Him.
Philip Yordan, the script writer, has whipped up a mighty conceit wherein Barabbas, the Scriptural thief and murderer who was released instead of Jesus at the time of the Crucifixion at the behest of the mob, becomes the rebel leader of a Hebrew army who wants to destroy the Romans with the sword. His notions are in contrast with those of Jesus, who presumably advocates passive resistance and peace, and Judas Iscariot is presented as a well-meaning fellow who tries to coordinate the movements and followers of the two.
With Barabbas' army to maneuvre and with the Romans on the scene, with horses and haughty women and sluggish elegance, Nicholas Ray, the picture's director, stages battles and ambuscades that have nothing to do with Jesus or with credible personalities. They are the conventional trappings of melodramatic costume films, justified by the obvious intention of action and spectacle.
On the other hand, Mr. Yordan and/or Mr. Ray have missed or disguised certain happenings that were dramatic and important in Jesus' life. They have obfuscated the healings, avoided the miracles and skipped altogether the judgment of Jesus as a blasphemer and seditionist by the Jews. They have passed Him along directly from Judas' kiss to Pontius Pilate's court and have there made His trial a tedious colloquy between Pilate and a Roman centurion.
In short, the essential drama of the messianic issue has been missed and the central character has been left to perform quietly in a series of collateral tableaux.
Mr. Hunter wears his makeup nobly and performs with simplicity and taste, which is more than can be said for some others. Hurd Hatfield plays Pilate haughtily, Robert Ryan makes a shaggy John the Baptist and Ron Randell is a curt centurion.
Harry Guardino's Barabbas is a howling barbarian and Frank Thring as Herod Antipas is a grimacing and gaudy grotesque. Rip Torn as Judas Iscariot, Brigid Bazlen as Salome and Siobhan McKenna as Mary shine variously in a large cast.
Of it all, let us say the spirit is hinted but the projection of it is weak. The "greatest story" has not yet been captured for its full dramatic impact on the screen.
By: Bosley Crowther
Published: October 12, 1961