Saturday 21 May 2011

Our Lady's Month V - King of Kings (1961)

King of Kings, rather like Ben-Hur is a 'story of Christ', that is, a series of fictional narratives that are blended with the Biblical account of Our Lord's earthly life. Unlike Ben-Hur, it gives Our Lord a face - Geoffrey Hunter's face, in fact - and gives Our Lady a voice - and an Irish accent! - played by Siobhán McKenna.

The music of King of Kings is also memorable and links it to other Biblical epics, Quo Vadis? (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959), which also featured scores by Miklós Rózsa.

Lowlights include the inclusion of the unbiblical 'For Thine is the Kingdom...' as Our Lord gives the 'Our Father' to the Apostles.

What would an Hollywood Biblical epic be without Charlton Heston? Apparently, it would be like this. The film received a poor review both from America (see below) and Time magazine (Friday, Oct. 27, 1961):

King of Kings (Samuel Bronston; M-G-M). Christianity, which has survived the Turkish onslaught and the Communist conspiracy, may even survive this picture; but individual Christians who try to sit through it may find themselves longing for extreme unction.

A remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 life of Christ. King of Kings was produced in Spain by a marked-down DeMille named Samuel Bronston who built 396 sets, hired some 20,000 extras and a dozen slightly famous players, spent more than four months and $8,000.000. And what emerged? Incontestably the corniest, phoniest, ickiest and most monstrously vulgar of all the big Bible stories Hollywood has told in the last decade. Nevertheless, the subject is so dear to the hearts of millions that King of Kings will undoubtedly be filling Hollywood's collection plates for months to come. Scheduled for reserved-seat. pre-Christmas release at fancy prices ($1.50-$3.50 on Broadway), the film will soon be playing in 26 cities from Los Angeles to Rome, has rung up an advance sale of about $600,000—bigger than Ben Hur's.

Fortunately. Bronston's bust enjoys one solid virtue: a script precisely organized and competently prosed by Playwright Philip (Anna Lucasta) Yordan. who has often quite sensitively reconciled the grandeurs of the King James version with the need for a fresh, contemporary tone. After noisily establishing the Romans in Palestine. Scenarist Yordan moves swiftly and synoptically through the Gospels: The Nativity, The Flight into Egypt. The Massacre of the Innocents; Christ's boyhood, baptism and temptation in the desert; Salome's Dance and the murder of John the Baptist; the Sermon on the Mount, the triumphal procession to Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, the Trial before Pilate, the Ascent of Calvary, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection. Unfortunately, many of these episodes are shamelessly scanted and most of Christ's miracles—certainly the most dramatic moments of his ministry—are inexplicably omitted. The time thus saved is devoted to two bombinating battles that never actually took place; to a wildly unhistorical subplot that exaggerates Barabbas (vaguely identified by the Bible as an insurrectionist) into a sort of George Washington of the Jews, and makes Judas merely a bewildered Benedict Arnold; to a number of incidents in the life of Christ —among them a dramatic death-cell confrontation with John the Baptist—that are nowhere sanctioned by scripture and invariably ring false.

Director Nicholas Ray makes few positive contributions. With his customary penchant for the pretentious (Johnny Guitar), he slushes up the sound track with angel voices—all, as usual, soprano, apparently on the theory that only girls are nice enough to be angels: he fancy-pants around with his camera in a ludicrous gilt-plaster palace that looks as if it were made of baroque-candy; and he ever-so-reverently overdresses his hovel scenes till they gloom and glow like cheap reproductions of Murillo.

With his actors Director Ray does no better, Frank Thring plays Herod Antipas in the grand, grotesque manner of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, but since nobody else is playing at the same pitch he just looks like some kind of a nut. Robert Ryan reads the part of John the Baptist with a clear Midwestern twang, and a degree of woodenness that may incline the spectator to sympathize with Salome when she calls for his head on a platter. As Salome, 16-year-old Brigid Bazlen is pretty enough, but as a belly dancer she has too little ootch in her cootch. And as the Mother of God, Siobhan McKenna does little more than smirk and mince as though she were playing Mother Machree. The imitation of Christ is little better than blasphemy.* Granted that the role is impossible to cast or play; granted that the attempt may nevertheless be worth making. Whatever possessed Producer Bronston to offer the part to Jeffrey Hunter, 35, a fan-mag cover boy with a flabby face, a cute little lopsided smile, babyblue eyes and barely enough histrionic ability to play a Hollywood marine? And why dress the poor guy up in a glossy-curly pageboy peruke, why shave his armpits and powder his face till he looks like the pallid, simpering chorus-boy Christ of the religious-supply shoppes?

The definitive criticism of Bronston's Christ, and indeed of his entire film, is expressed in the snide subtitle by which it is widely known in the trade: I Was a Teenage Jesus...

*Writing in America, a Jesuit weekly, Film Critic Moira Walsh last week anathematized Hollywood's biblical epics as "disedifying and even antireligious," and called King of Kings "the culmination of a gigantic fraud perpetuated by the film industry on the moviegoing public." Noting that the film has been criticised by the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency as "theologically, historically and scripturally inaccurate," she adds: "Christ is there as a physical presence, but His spirit is absent . . . There is not the slightest possibility that anyone will derive from the film any meaningful insight into what Christ's life and sufferings signify for us ... It is obvious that Bronston, Ray and Yordan have no opinion on the subject of Christ, except that He is a hot box-office property."


Anthony S. Layne said...

I've never seen King of Kings, so I can't comment on how justified the review in America is. But Hunter's Jesus can't be any worse than that of Robert Powell (Jesus of Nazareth), who gives a performance that needed proper staining and shellacking to be wooden.

By the way, were you aware that, when you first mentioned Hunter's name, you spelled his first name "Geoffrey"? I won't needle you too hard for it; similar things happen over here when we convert British English into American English.

Deise Girl said...

Really eerie film ;-0

Recorder said...

Hey Anthony,

Good spot! Actually, I hadn't done any research at the time so I spelled it the way I thought. The next "Jeff" ref. is lifted in a quote so I didn't even get it right the second time! Thanks for the comment tho. Nice to know someone's reading.

Just how dynamic do we think Our Lord actually was? Maybe there is a happy medium between a stuffed shirt and JC Superstar but I'm not sure that Our Lord is anywhere on that spectrum. MAYBE He is written or directed in a symbolic style where the personality that an actor might bring is deliberately kept out of the performance.

If you think this one is eerie, wait until you see next week's installment. I quite like CB de Mille's 1927 version:

Quis ut Deus said...

Wow and there I was loving this movie all down the years!

Philly said...

Yeah I got to agree. This film makes the Good News more like the weather report during twister season!!!!!

Virgo Potens said...

I think that a great deal of the adverse comment on this film and also the Greatest Story ever told must be based upon a mockery of the subject. You should know better than to republish it.

Convenor said...

Anthony S., well spotted!

Virgo P., the criticism seems to come, at least in part, from impeccable contemporary Catholic sources.

The film always strikes me as being far darker than I remember it. As a series relating to portrayals of Our Lady, it's a fair point that as she is personalized, her persona seems to become vaguer. That certainly strikes me as strange.

God bless you!

Veronica Lane said...

I don't think that inaccuracy as regards the Biblical narritive is necessarily a bad thing. It is, after all, a work of dramatic art rather than a representation of the Bible, which probably wouldn't make a very good screen-play and probably wasn't intended to be. Even St. John admits that his Gospel does not contain all that happened but was a presentation that we might believe. I don't think the criticism is fair, unless something really scandalous had been added or omitted. That would be a cause of serious concern. Otherwise, as Deise says, the film is strongly atmospheric. I remember watching it on Good Friday one afternoon after Church and it really captured the imagination and maintained the reverent awe of the Passion readings.

Ransome said...

Guys I think we have GOT TO LET UP on these movies. They're not perfect but they're just not that bad. Anthony, you can check them out on YOUTUBE. Not all the episodes are there but there is enough to get a sense of it.