Sunday, February 10, 2013

King of Kings • MGM / 1962  Directed by Nicholas Ray

When originally Released in 1962, King of Kings was almost universally reviled, seen by a critical community newly revved up on, simultaneously, the European New Wave, and an Andrew Sarris-fueled rediscovery of the glories of Hollywood’s Classic Past, as a mawkish, Sunday School-flavored, filmed religious comic book. This is, of course, ironic, since Director Nicholas Ray was, in his critical heyday, the very sort of auteurist director most emblematic of that Hollywood past, revered by the very European critics-turned directors who had set that new Wave in motion, as well as the rediscovery of the Hollywood greats in Europe, where, predictably, King of Kings was much more kindly received than Stateside. Now, with MGM’s Blu-Ray release, it may be time to revisit KOK, and baby boomer cinephiles who, despite its apparent unhipness, loved it at the time, may discover that it is both less, and more, than they remember.

Two things are, justifiably, most often mentioned (even by its detractors) when the subject of KOK is brought up: It is a visually awe-inspiring film, with a physically primal force about its stately compositions that carries us through even its most dubious moments; and, it contains arguably the best score (certainly the best “epic” score) ever written by old-school master composer Miklos Rosza, with a magisterial sweep that both reflects and supports the straightforward sincerity of the film itself. It is, particularly in the obligatory setpeices (the nativity, the sermon on the mount, the last supper) undeniably stilted and self-conscious, (though even in these moments it is never ickily cloying or sentimental), as if director Ray had been intimidated by the prospect of bringing to life these iconic passages so indelibly ingrained in the minds of billions of people Christian and otherwise, through lifetimes of familiarity. 

But Ray was a director who made his reputation making films that were seemingly mainstream and traditional on the surface, but were, in fact, hiding a sly and deeply subversive heart hidden at their core, and KOK truly comes alive in its most secular and earthy moments; most compelling and memorable not in the dusty streets of Jesus, but in the resplendent marble halls of the palaces of Herod and Pilate.

The story of Jesus’ divinity is most convincingly told not by the characters who unquestioningly believe in him, but rather by those who are struggling with their inability to give themselves over to that belief. KOK is full of great performances from a cast of Continental stars playing these conflicted folk: Viveca Lindfors is Claudia, Daughter of the Emperor Tiberius and Pilate's wife, tortured by an instinctive belief in Jesus’ divinity which she cannot explain, and which flies in the face of everything she has been brought up to believe; Hurd Hatfield (Portrait of Dorian Grey) gives the last great performance of his career, as a jaded and decadent Pilate who wishes the whole inconvenient and upsetting mess would just go away, and  Israeli actress Rita Gam is alternately commandingly cold and imperious and nakedly vulnerable as Herod’s wife Herodias, sneeringly dismissive of his weakness while terrified at the thought of being replaced as Queen by her wayward daughter Salome.

But the most memorable performance in the palace (indeed, in the film) comes from the great, (and today, barely remembered) Australian character actor Frank Thring, whose Herod is one of the great screen villains; brooding, corrupt and hopelessly obsessed with his beautiful but evil stepdaughter Salome, a precocious, manipulative nymphet so convincingly played by starlet Bridged Bazlen as the ultimate teenager from hell, that it is deeply puzzling that her career disappeared soon after her star turn in KOK
They share one of the best scenes in the film, as Herod and Salome bargain with each other for the price of her immortal dance. Thring is at once pathetic and sympathetic as he desperately offers anything and everything he can think of to avoid the one thing that Salome wants, a price Herod knows will be his undoing: the head of John the Baptist, the Prophet whom the despotic ruler has come to secretly respect. Even fellow Aussie Ron Randell, never the deepest of actors, is oddly touching and believable, as a Roman General who keeps crossing paths with Jesus, and who, despite his increasing sympathy for, and belief in, the Christ, cannot bring himself to stop following orders which he finds more and more repugnant.

Still, at the heart of the film is, unavoidably, Jeffrey Hunter, and it is evident now that the facile dismissal of his performance at the time with the phrase ”I Was a Teenage Jesus” is deeply unfair. Hunter does in fact, play Jesus as a passionate, deeply committed and often angry, young man (which of course, he must have been, and which is an interpretation supported in many passages by the Gospels themselves). As such, Hunter is convincing, believable and surprisingly unsentimental. (So much so, that it is intriguing to speculate on the basis of this performance, how different, and more complex, Star Trek might have been, had he stayed in the role of Captain Kirk as originally intended.) Indeed, Hunter, screenwriter Philip Yordan, and Ray, present a decidedly progressive Jesus, with an emphasis on a concern for the poor and tolerance for imperfection more at home with liberation theology than with the rigidly moralistic and judgmental version of Christianity proffered by many of today’s 'Christians', and which neatly parallels the intriguing, if not entirely historically accurate, subplot involving a ‘Leftist” Barabbas (Harry Guardino) and Judas (Lindfors’ future Coming Apart co-star Rip Torn) cooking up a people’s rebellion on the side.

In fact, one of the simple gifts of KOK is its respect for the basic vision of Jesus, which it re-tells in a sincere, entertaining and surprisingly compelling way. For this, for its extraordinary physical beauty, and for its first rate cast, King of Kings deserves its long overdue re-appreciation by today’s audience as one of the very best of the long string of religious epics of the 50s and 60s.


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