King of Kings (1961), Nicholas Ray’s epic drama of the story of Christ (and ostensible remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent classic), has less spectacle than the other epics of its era but it remains one of the most interesting and perceptive Biblical epics of its era.
Narration (by Orson Welles) takes us back to the Roman invasion of the Holy Land and the enslavement of the Jews, setting the historical and social backdrop against which the familiar stories—the Nativity, the baptism, the apostles, the betrayal, the crucifixion and resurrection—play out, with blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter as the calmly intense Jesus preaching peace with passion in his eyes and a gentleness in his carriage. Robert Ryan is a magnificent John the Baptist, a rough-hewn peasant touched by divine inspiration and following his faith to the end, and Rip Torn makes Judas a fiercely dedicated revolutionary fighting to free his people from Roman bondage at the side of Barabbas (Harry Guardino). In Jesus, he sees the man who will lead them, but he fails to hear his message of peace.
Ray’s sixties King of Kings is arguably the most revolutionary of any story of Christ (as least until The Last Temptation of Christ) and in its way a remarkable portrait of the Christ attuned to the tenor of the sixties. He puts Christ’s message of peaceful resistance next to the armed rebellion led by Barabbas and Judas, and offers Judas as a misguided apostle who believes his betrayal is part of Christ’s plan. He’s right, of course, but for the wrong reasons—he foresees an Old Testament showdown with Christ as a holy Samson or a modern Moses tearing down the walls as he faces down the enemy—which makes him more of a tragic figure than a villain.
There are plenty of weaknesses in the film, from some awkward performances and risible dialogue to clumsy scenes (some of which can be attributed to interference). But whereas detractors dismissed the film as I Was a Teenage Jesus, it’s more accurately a holy Rebel With a Cause.
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On DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Home Video. The Samuel Bronston production, shot in Spain on 70mm, looks superb and the Blu-ray edition includes the overture, entr’acte and exit music of the original roadshow presentation. The supplements are threadbare, consisting of a vintage featurette, newsreels of the premier and the trailer.