Genghis Khan is certainly one of the great figures in the history of the world. When you say “Mongolia,” he’s the first person of whom you’re likely to think. He conquered China, swept westward, and eventually had a chain of shopping mall formal wear rental stores named after him. Were it not for Genghis Khan’s contributions to society, I would have been at a loss as to wear to rent my tux for the prom back in 1990. But aside from all that, he was one of the world’s great conquerors, and whether he was a hero or a villain depends largely on whether or not he conquered in your name or just plain conquered you. Certainly as with all history’s epic conquerors — Ramses, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Vlad Tepes, and Bono from U2 — Genghis Khan is a person who lends himself to having a sweeping, vast, and complex movie made about his life and influence. And like most of the conquerors throughout history, he’s still waiting for that movie to be made.
Neil Marshall has basically been making the same movie his entire career, tweaking the formula here and there, refining the process, but ultimately still turning in survival horror about a group of well-trained individuals who find themselves facing overwhelming odds behind enemy lines. Dog Soldiers saw British special forces troops besieged by werewolves in a remote farmhouse. The Descent pitted cavers against subterranean beasts in the wilds of Appalachia. Doomsday threw a crack military squad into a post-apocalyptic Scotland. And then comes Centurion, a movie that is basically “what if it was Doomsday, but in Roman times?” Lucky for me and Marshall, I’ve enjoyed all his films. I liked Dog Soldiers a lot, absolutely loved The Descent, thought Doomsday was wonderful, and was pretty damn happy with Centurion. As far as I’m concerned, he can keep on making the same movie for another ten years or more, and I’ll keep watching.
There are a lot of directors who work with that special someone of an actor forging a partnership that becomes legendary within the cinematic world. Martin Scorsese had Robert DeNiro. ohn Ford had John Wayne. And German director Werner Herzog had Klaus Kinski. If you know anything about Klaus Kinski, this may seem a bit of a raw deal for Herzog. After all, as far as anyone knows, John Wayne never tried to knife Jon Ford to death on the set of a movie, and Robert DeNiro never insisted to Marty that he was the reincarnation of Jesus or the famed violin virtuoso Paganini. On the other hand, it’s equally unlikely that Scorsese has ever returned a knife fight with his own conspiracies to murder his favorite leading man. Although one has to question the authenticity of some of the wilder tales about the working relationship between Herzog and Kinski, there’s no doubt that some of it was indeed true and they had the sort of relationship that could be described, if one wanted to be tactful about it, as “dynamic.” The defining factor in the relationship between Herzog and Kinski was that Kinski was, to use a scientific term, bat-shit crazy while Herzog, in turn, was crazy as a shithouse bat. Yet somehow, you throw the two together, and the result was sheer brilliance etched from utter lunacy.
In January of 2013, Teleport City had a pretty notable server meltdown and database corruption, which naturally, occurred while I was on vacation and with spotty internet connection. Thus began a big move from hosting the site on my own server and dealing with all the backend hassle that entails, to moving it to a hosting service (wordpress.com). All has been pretty awesome as a result, but one of the things I lost during the move (besides an amazing history of bizarre search phrases that brought people to the site) was all our statistics. In the ten months we’ve been in our new home, traffic to the site has been pretty encouraging, but there are a number of older reviews that got imported and were never really promoted in our new space. They make up the Teleport City bottom ten, the least viewed reviews since we made the big move.
See, it all started back around 499 B.C. The Persian Empire was having some serious trouble with their territories along the Greek coast. The city-state of Miletus led a revolt against the Persian conquerors, but their hope that the famously fierce Sparta would rush to their aid did not come to fruition. Sparta was having enough trouble just keeping its serfs from revolting and didn’t have time to go helping other cats in a revolt of their own. The rebel city-states did find aid from Athens, however. A victory in the provincial capitol of Sardis encouraged other conquered Greek cities to rise up as well, and before they knew it, Persia was looking at a good chunk of its empire suddenly breaking away. The key to sustaining the empire was in whuppin’ the Greek mainland, specifically, in whuppin’ Athens. Sparta was a threat as well, but their hesitance to travel very far out of their own territory meant Athens was in the bullseye.
You are probably like me, at least in some ways. Many of you were Jackie Chan fans. You came in during the wild, wild days of Police Story, Project A, and Dragons Forever, or maybe a couple years later it was Drunken Master II that turned you on to Jackie. Or hell, maybe you’re even older than me, and you were around for Young Master and Dragon Lord. Whatever the case, you knew the first time you saw one of those movies that it was something special. You became obsessed, started haunting the local VHS-stocking Chinese supermarkets in search of Jackie Chan movies you’d never heard of. You began scouring other video stores for the rare dubbed domestic releases. Or you decided that it was time to enter the seedy shadow world of tape trading. Anything to get your hands on another movie, or hell, even a scrap of information. At the time, there was no world wide web. There was no Netflix. If you wanted info on Jackie Chan, or any other Hong Kong movie makers, your only sources were Rick Meyers’ column in Inside Kung Fu magazine, and word of mouth.
I’ve been a fan of Hong Kong cinema since about 1989. Pretty much all of us who got into the films around that time did so by seeing either The Killer or Police Story, released in the United States as Jackie Chan’s Police Force. For me, it was Police Story. I was over at my friend Dave’s house. He was the one who was responsible for really sending me off the deep end of obscure film collecting. Usually, we convened in his basement to watch whatever ridiculous splatter film had been released that week, but on that night, he decided to trot out a sampling of stuff that had recently been sent to him. And that’s how I first saw Police Force.
Oh, I’d seen Jackie Chan movies before; I just didn’t know it. We had the old “Kung Fu Theater” broadcast on the weekends, so I’d caught Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Spiritual Kung Fu, and a few others. But I didn’t know Jackie Chan from Hwang Jang-li at the time. It wasn’t until I was watching that ridiculously insane opening action sequence in Police Story, with Jackie dangling off a speeding bus and driving through — literally through — a shanty town, that I learned his name and knew there was something about him that… well, to be honest, something about him that wasn’t quite right, but in the most glorious way.
For years, being a Jackie Chan fan was challenging but rewarding. If you lived somewhere other than a major urban area, you really had to work to find any of his movies. I used to drive upwards of an hour to a Vietnamese grocery store on Preston Highway in Louisville. They stocked a modest but well-chosen selection of Hong Kong films there, most dubbed into Vietnamese. And if you think English language dubbing is bad, well let me tell you: nothing can prepare you for the horrors of a bad Vietnamese dub. I remember sitting down to watch A Chinese Ghost Story II off a tape that had been dubbed into Vietnamese. There were like four people doing the dubbing for all the characters, not bothering to try and do different voices. Whoever wasn’t working at the moment was sitting in the background having a conversation of their own, unrelated to the movie, and at some point, everyone started eating lunch. If one of them had to do a line while their mouth was full, well, no worries. Just mumble it out as best you can.
When I moved to Florida, things were better and worse. There was only one store in Gainesville that stocked any movies at all — an extremely meager selection of bootlegs, though that didn’t matter to me since the cranky middle aged guy behind the counter refused to rent his crummy bootleg videotapes to non-Chinese people. Luckily, Orlando has a pretty huge (for Florida) Asian population, and there was a grocery store there called Trung My that stocked hundreds and hundreds of tapes – originals, at that. It was a glorious wonderland with absolutely no organization whatsoever. Tapes were piled three rows deeps on the shelves. If you had a particular movie in mind, you better have worn your expedition gear and brought a sleeping bag, because you were probably going to be there for a while. But if you simply wanted to stumble across something amazing, then you didn’t have much work to do.
The drawback, though, was that Orlando was about a two hour drive from Gainesville. For a college kid with no money for food, let alone gas, it was a substantial investment of time and money just to rent a movie. It was good fortune, then, that Trung My’s tapes cost a buck to rent for a whole week. So we could assemble a team of hungry Hong Kong movie fans, split the cost of the trip, and rent four or five movies at once, also picking up some tasty treats from the local bun shop. Oh yeah — we’d also stop in at Fairvilla Video, but umm, well… I guess if you’re from the Orlando area, you know what that means.
During our whole era of discovering something a billion other people already took to be common knowledge, a couple things were occurring that would begin to alter the landscape for Jackie Chan fans. First, Jackie was getting older. And second, the end of British stewardship of the island nation was fast approaching. Staring down the gun of a return to being governed by the Chinese mainland — the last time Hong Kong had been subject to Chinese rule, there were still emperors in the Forbidden City — a lot of the big names in the Hong Kong film industry started looking toward England, Canada, and the United States as a new base of operation. The US, in particular, meant having a stab at Hollywood, and even for a film industry as huge and accomplished as Hong Kong’s, making it in Hollywood still held an undeniable seduction — like how even the most accomplished online writer still dreams of getting a book deal, even though a book would probably be read by fewer people than a successful website.
So in the middle of the 1990s, a lot of the people who built the Hong Kong film industry into the global juggernaut it became in the 1980s jumped ship. Some did so with no intention of returning to Hong Kong and subjecting themselves to the uncertain tenderness of the Communist government in Beijing. Many others decided to try a balancing act, working in Holly wood while also maintaining their career in Hong Kong. What we all should have foreseen, though, was that handover in 1997 was the least of Hong Kong cinema’s concerns. for years — decades, actually — the industry had been controlled by organized crime. For a while, this meant that there was enough money being pumped into the industry to finance any ridiculous piece of crap a film maker could crank out. But as uncertainty over the future began to grow, and as actors and directors began to organize opposition to triad control, the gangsters who controlled huge chunks of the film industry began to gut it.
At the same time, piracy reached such rampant levels that even the most popular movies struggled at the box office. Dirt cheap VCDs of big movies were available weeks before the movie itself was released, resulting in no one bothering to go see a movie at the theater. It was all too much for the increasingly fragile shell to support. By the new millennium, the Hong Kong film industry came crashing down.
Jackie Chan’s career seemed to be on a similar trajectory. He tried his hand in Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Things started out promising. Rush Hour was watchable, and Shanghai Noon was, in my opinion, quite good. Each movie got a sequel (or two), and while I like Shanghai Knights pretty well, I can’t remember a thing about Rush Hour 2, and I never even bothered to finish Rush Hour 3 — and that was on while I was on a plane, with nothing else to do. The need in Hollywood to stuff Jackie into increasingly dopey comedies resulted in him starring in all sorts of stuff that probably never should have been made, and his age coupled with the much heavier focus on insurance and avoiding broken necks that prevails in American film making meant that the Jackie we got in America was not the Jackie we’d grown to love in Hong Kong.
His Hong Kong films fared better for a while. the late 90s and early 2000’s saw the release of a lot of Jackie Chan films I liked: Who Am I, Accidental Spy, Mr. Nice Guy — no classics among them, but for me, plenty enjoyable. Jackie himself seemed to have entered a self-destructive phase, though. Drinking heavily, making a tabloid spectacle of himself multiple times, getting exposed as a rotten husband and father in a series of scandals — if it was a lukewarm time to be a Jackie Chan fan, it was a bad time to be Jackie Chan (and an even worse time to be his wife). His personal demons seemed to manifest themselves most famously in 2006, when a drunken Chan meandered out of the audience and stumbled onto the stage in the middle of a concert by Taiwanese pop idol Jonathan Lee. Chan capered about, demanded to sing a duet, tried to conduct the band, and then threw some slurred insults at the crowd. It didn’t do a lot to revive his waning popularity.
And then the movies really started to reflect the crumbling personal life. His Hong Kong films went from good to bad, and his American films went from middling to unwatchable, with pretty much everyone pegging The Tuxedo as the worst Jackie Chan movie ever made. Through it all, a core group of people stuck with him, hoping against hope that we would once again see the light of day, that Jackie would pull himself together, make amends with his estranged family and fans, and remind us all of why we came to love him so much. Things were grim through these years, filled as they were with Robin B. Hood, The Medallion, The Myth, and The Spy Next Door. One by one, those who had done their best to stick by Jackie — not excuse him, mind you — fell away, until eventually, even the most die hard of his fans had no reason at all to do anything other than give up on him.
And then something happened. In 2009, Chan made Shinjuku Incident. It was not the Jackie Chan movie people expected. Even his best films have been filled with dippy comedy and ham-fisted mugging for the camera, but this movie saw a much grimmer Chan, something more along the lines of the glimpse we got in Ringo Lam’s Crime Story. Here was a Jackie Chan who was no longer trying to deny his age. Here was a Jackie Can who was trying to make a good movie, with a good script and good acting. After years of poopy diaper jokes and Jennifer Love Hewitt striking Karate Kid poses, Shinjuku Incident seemed to be saying that it was time to start paying attention to Jackie Chan again.
And then, in 2010, came Little Big Soldier, and Jackie Chan fans, covered in cobwebs and the dust of the wasteland, knew that our time in the wilderness was finally at an end.
Little Big Soldier returns Jackie to the period setting of his older movies, something he hasn’t done often since the late 1970s. The Myth saw Chan trying his hand at the sort of sweeping period epics that became all the rage in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, and just not getting it right. For this second attempt at a period setting, Jackie eschews trying to mimic the wire-fu antics of recent epics and just makes an old fashioned kungfu film. He plays the old soldier, a happy-go-lucky farmer who has spent the last several decades of his life serving against his will in the army. He has lasted that long because of his unique approach to warfare, which is to shout, trigger a spring-loaded arrow mounted to his breastplate, then fall down and play dead until the fighting is over.
When the film opens, the nameless old soldier is the only apparent survivor of a bloody battle that saw both sides annihilated. As he roams the corpse-strewn battlefield, he soon discovers that he’s not as alone as he thought. The two opposing generals are beat up and near death, but not so near death that they can’t try to kill one another. The younger general (New York-born Wang Lee-Hom, recently of Lust, Caution and previously appearing in the execrable China Strike Force) best the older, but then collapses from his wounds. Realizing the opportunity suddenly in front of him, Old Soldier binds up the fallen enemy general and sets off to turn him in for the reward about which the farmer has dreamed: a modest parcel of land and lifetime exemption from military service.
Making his way across the war-ravaged countryside, however, is not as easy as Chan’s frequently-singing farmer hoped, especially once the general wakes up and slowly begins to recover from his wounds. The duo soon realize they are being pursued by a force commanded by the general’s younger brother (the seemingly fey but freakishly buff Yoo Cheng-jun). It’s the old chestnut about the younger brother, jealous of the older. So begins a game of cat and mouse that gets even more complicated with the arrival of a band of volatile brigands and occasional warring armies.
If Little Big Soldier‘s backdrop is epic in scope, the central story is intensely intimate. Jackie Chan wrote the script, and it’s a very personal, introspective meditation on a variety of subjects, not the least of which would be getting older, but the most obvious of which is the nature of warfare and loyalty. Chan’s farmer is torn between several different forces. His loyalty to his country means that he must answer the call when he is conscripted. But his father’s dying wish was that, since Chan’s two other brothers had already been killed in the war, Chan somehow survive to carry on the family name. Thus he comes up with the playing dead ploy. He sees no honor in battle and shakes his head wearily as the captive general gives him speeches about patriotism and warfare and the glory of dying on the battlefield. All Jackie can see are the shattered lives, sad people, and ravaged farmlands.
Jackie’s movies have been called many things; “deep” has never been among them, but Little Big Soldier has a world-weary yet somehow optimistic philosophical edge to it that immediately lets you know Chan is putting his heart and soul into this one. The result is equal parts charming, quaint, refreshing, and poignant. As he nears sixty, and with enough injuries to kill a normal man, Jackie can’t pull off the stunt work he used to do. Anyone who expects that of him at this point in the game is, frankly, kind of an asshole. Not that Little Big Soldier is bereft of action — there’s plenty, some of it involving Jackie, much of it being shouldered by the younger members of the cast. In place of Jackie Chan the stuntman, we’re getting Jackie Chan the actor and Jackie Chan the writer. I don’t know what sort of shape his personal life is in, but Little Big Soldier feels like a lot of personal demons being looked square in the eye. The movie hits the perfect notes — balancing the action and comedy (which is generally pretty funny, for a change) with hint of melancholy and an ending that is truly heart-wrenching. This might be the first Jackie Chan movie that makes people cry (no, Heart of the Dragon didn’t make me cry, no matter how many times Jackie and Sammo cried at each other). And unlike many times before, the shifts in tone feel completely organic.
There are some familiar faces sprinkled throughout the cast, but for the most part, they were actors with whom I was unfamiliar. Great performances all the way around. Jackie tones down his mugging, when mugging is called for, to a more believable level, and the rest of the cast are giving it their all as well. Yoo Sung-jun seemed like he might be a weak link at first — the feminine acting pampered guy being a stock character in kung fu films, usually handled with as much over-the-top-hamminess as possible — but he really pulls a great performance out of the character. He’s aided by the script, which doesn’t allow the character to become a cartoon. By the time we’re nearing the end, he’s not even really the bad guy anymore. Although the story of Jackie’s old soldier is the center of the plot, the relationship between the two estranged brothers is no less powerfully realized.
If any portion of the story gets short shrift, it’s that of actress Lin Peng, playing a woman who has escaped a life of being forced to entertain troops. Where Jackie’s farmer is eternally optimistic despite the carnage through which he must maneuver, the singing woman is much more bitter. Unfortunately, while we understand Jackie’s quest, both physically and spiritually, hers seems just as interesting but largely undeveloped. She simply drifts in and out of the movie in a couple spots. I suppose, though, that’s the point. As Old Soldier and the general travel across the countryside, their journey intersects with multiple people whose lives have been wrecked by the war: farmers turned to brigandry, scholars turned to slaves, soldiers turned to deserters. It lends a creeping sense of sadness to the atmosphere of the film, a particularly effective way to write a movie about war without ever showing the war.
The other aspects of the film achieve the same high quality. The cinematography is gorgeous. One of the benefits of Chinese governance of Hong Kong is that filmmakers can now take full advantage of the mainlands uncountable sweeping vistas and dramatic scenery. The sort of half-assed setting, uneven pacing, and other rough around the edges elements of some of Jackie’s recent films are not present here. This is a near perfect, well-polished piece of film making. Director Sheng Ding is no one I’d ever heard of, and it turns out that’s because he’s never done anything else. The hand behind the direction is remarkably deft and able, so much so that I think Jackie must have had more than a passing involvement in what went on behind the camera.
To be blunt, I was stunned. I’d heard good things about the movie going into it, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it was. It might not be Jackie’s best action film — that honor probably still belongs to Project A or Drunken Master II — but it’s Jackie’s best film. It balances the action and comedy we hope for and expect with a truly moving story. Even if I hadn’t spent the last decade being increasingly disillusioned with his work, even if my exuberance over his films had never faltered I don’t think I would have been prepared for just how good Little Big Soldier is. Seriously — you will ever be able to hear the phrase “A big road passes through my house…” without tearing up.
Release Year: 2010 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jackie Chan, Yu Rong-guang, Wang Lee-Hom, Ken Lo, Yoo Sung-jun, Wang Bao-qiang, Lin Peng, Mei Xiao-dong, Wu Yue, Jin Song, Du Yu-ming | Writer: Jackie Chan | Director: Sheng Ding | Cinematographer: Zhao Xiao-ding, Ding Yu | Music: Xiao Ke | Producer: Jackie Chan | Original Title: Da bing xiao jiang
If you ever wondered what Jet Li would look like as a giant armored pine cone, this is the movie for you. Hong Kong, which I guess is now Hong Kong/China, has been on a “Warring States Period” kick for a couple years now, thanks in large part no doubt to the success Zhang Yimou has had internationally with the genre (and yes, I know his films were set long before the Warring States). I’m not one to complain. Hong Kong has always made a lot of period piece films; it’s just that now that have somewhat more historically accurate costuming and sets than they did in Half a Loaf of Kungfu. This sudden re-emergence of the period piece probably also has to do with mainland China’s willingness to throw money into the projects, not to mention actors and all the landscapes one of the biggest countries in the world can provide. Given the access, how can a filmmaker resist making a movie in which a guy in armor stands atop some impressively craggy peak and surveys a field of soldiers below him?
Asoka is a pretty funny guy to know absolutely nothing about. In terms of ancient world history, he was a man the caliber of Julius Caesar or Ghengis Khan or Qin Shi-huang, the first emperor of China. And like these men who were more familiar to me, Asoka embodies all that is noble and ruthless, admirable and despicable, about men who live lives of epic scale. These complexities in great men — “great” referring to the scope of the accomplishments and the impact they had on the world around them more than being a description of their demeanor or potential as a drinking buddy — make for superb cinema if you are willing to deal with these complexities. Many times, a movie is not, and you get a rather shallow, white-washed impression of the man (Julius Caesar more so than any of the others, at least in the West).
I’m no Christian. This is probably pretty obvious to anyone who’s been with us for a while. I don’t believe in God. Not any of them. Well, maybe God of Gamblers, but that’s about it. However, while this would place me firmly in the camp of the atheists, I’m much happier not camping with anyone based on religious beliefs or lack thereof. Where I confuse people is that I like to discuss religion and religious evens, the sociology and history of religion, religious and Biblical archaeology, but I have absolutely zero interest in debating the existence of God. It bores me to tears utterly and completely. I don’t want to be argued at by people trying to convert me any more or less than I want to hear atheists hurling their arguments at believers. I’m a laid-back kind of non-believer who doesn’t care what you dig, at least not up until the point where you start executing people for religious reasons.
My interests in religion are not theological. They are, as a said, historical, archaeological, social, and literary. I was simply interested in the story as a story, in the metaphors and meanings behind the action, in the humanism of the New Testament and the guts and gore action and warfare in the Old and how those who would use The Bible to justify their hatred of another so often selectively forget the teachings of that bearded dude they claim to love. I read the Bhagavad-Gita for the same reasons. I bear no religion a grudge, though most organized churches and sects I could do without. That said, I should also confess another fact some of you might already know: I love me a big overblown epic. Especially big overblown ancient-world epics. Give me a cast of thousands in tunics stabbing each other and careening about in chariots, and I’ll probably be a happy viewer. So obviously, throw all these tastes together, and you can guess that I really love big, lavish Biblical productions. Charlton Heston standing in front of special effects and throwing stone tablets down at people, things like that.
As a fan of these films, I’ve always been struck by how few of them are about Jesus. He does, after all, play something of a large role in the whole Christianity thing. And yet, few and far between are the films about the man. You’d think there would be hundreds. Perhaps it’s simply too daunting a task. After all, it’s a long and complex story possessed of much depth that might be difficult to translate to screen, especially in a way that would be intelligible to the so-called uninitiated (actually, I don’t know if they’re called that at all). Plus, the man is a gigantic, larger-than-life character who must radiate charisma, compassion, emotion, and majesty on a grand scale. That’s a tall order for an actor other than Nicolas Cage to fill, to be told “try and act just like the son of God.” So it is that most directors stuck to other stories from The Bible, and John Huston tried to do the entire thing with disastrous results. Jesus would stroll in from time to time, but he was never the central figure.
And curiously, he’s not exactly the central figure in King of Kings, one of the first grand-scale retellings of the life of Christ.
It’s not really important, at least to me, whether or not Jesus was the Son of God. Personally, not believing in God, I find it difficult to believe he had a son. So that’s a pretty easy one, as far as I’m concerned. Whether or not he was a true historical figure is a thornier issue, but I figure yeah, there probably was a Jesus or someone very much like him, and some the events of his life are more or less based on fact. Regardless of whether or not he’s your homeboy, there’s little point in arguing against the notion that, at the very least, he’s a compelling historic and/or literary character, not to mention being one of the most influential men of all time, regardless of who or what he was or was not. So a movie about him is a pretty big undertaking, and King of Kings goes about this Herculean task primarily by not focusing on Jesus.
We do get to see his greatest hits and usual highlights reel: the three wisemen and the manger, the meeting of John the Baptist, the pilgrimage into the desert, Sermon on the Mount, and needless to say, the Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection (but he doesn’t get to show off his watar-to-wine or water walking bits). But these are exactly how I describe them: highlights. With the exception of the Sermon on the Mount, they don’t take up much screen time and aren’t delved into too deeply. It’s almost as if the movie doesn’t know exactly what to do with Christ, like he’s too big and too intimidating a character to tackle. So we skip around with only a cursory touching on the big moments. Heck, other than being born, Jesus hardly even shows up for the full first third of the film, which deals more with King Herod, Roman governor of Judea Pontius Pilate, and the Roman general (I think he was a general) Lucius.
When Jesus shows up to do some preaching or work some miracles, it’s rarely shown in much detail. More often than not, narrator Orson Welles comes on and something more or less along the lines of, “And then Jesus did show up and perform some miracles and preach a spell.” On the other hand, we get long looks at the court of King Herod, at Brigit Bazlan as Salome doing her seductive dance (thank you Satan, or whoever was responsible for that sequence), and at Judeaic freedom fighter and political agitator Barabbas (Harry Guardino) making plots and launching guerrilla attacks on the Roman legions. Barabbas, in fact, becomes one of the two most interesting characters in the whole film, the other being the compassionate Roman soldier Lucius (Ron Randell). See the problem there? Yeah, in a movie about Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ really should be your most interesting character.
Instead, Jesus Christ is Jeffery Hunter, the very spitting image of the blue-eyed, blond-haired messiah that dominated the West for much of the 20th century. Hunter was definitely the hottest Jesus in film history until Mel Gibson made his Jesus torture-porn movie, but hot doesn’t make for interesting. It looks like poor Hunter was simply overwhelmed by the role. Rather than trying to conjure up any of the fire or charisma or passion (not that passion) that made Jesus the sort of man who could move thousands, Hunter simply glides glassy-eyed from one big set to the next. He’s not so much playing Jesus as he is wearing a robe and showing up on set to read passages from The Bible in a dull monotone. If you didn’t know who the character was already, you’d be utterly baffled as to why anyone would follow him. He’s non-dimension, completely devoid of charm or spark or anything that might make you think this Jesus guy, he’s something special all right. The only reason anyone would follow this king of kings is because the story demands it of them or they thought he was the Burger King.
I think another part of the problem is the movie is simply too scared to play it straight with Jesus. They err on the side of reverence to the point of dullness. He speaks without emotion. He seems to have nothing inside, because the script seems to think it’s safer to portray him in this otherworldly fashion than to deal with his humanity and passion (not that passion). Or maybe they’re of that group that considers Christ entirely divine and not human. What were they called? It caused a lot of problems for Justinian and Theodora in Byzantium. Remember? Unfortunately, my history falters at the name, and my book on Byzantine history is all the way across the room. Oh what the heck? There, are you happy? I got up and walked all the way across the room to look the term up, only to find out that that was my book on The Crusades. I don’t know where my Byzantium books are right now. The place is a bit of a jumble.
Anyway, you had the Orthodox Byzantine church that maintained Christ was human then divine, which makes sense to me and makes his story more compelling. The other faction believed he was entirely divine, which again in my opinion, makes his story less moving. A divine being on the cross almost seems like he’s only pretending to be in pain, while a human up there speaks more to my human side, especially when that side is getting poked by a spear that will eventually be used by Robert Patrick to defeat neo-Nazis. I don’t know, though. I’ve never tried to crucify a god, and I’m not looking to have the experience any time soon. So the people who made King of Kings either believed Christ was entirely divine and thus should show no human charisma and emotion, that the mere fact of his divinity is what sways people, or they simply believed that divinity was dull.
As much as the film falters in the story of Christ, if succeeds in many other areas, and is quite more effective if you think of it not as the story of the life of Christ, but the story of the times of the life of Christ. The movie is not without its wonderful moments and engrossing characters, chief among them as I said Lucius and Barabbas. Herod is there only to cower and simper, while Pontius Pilate is there only to be smug and condescending. Lucius, however, is a more complex character. A soldier in the service of Caesar, charged with maintaining the peace in volatile Judea, Lucius still shows interest in and compassion for the locals. His belief, and indeed that of Rome in general, is that Judea should be administrated without interfering with the local religions. Frankly, as long as they’re paying their taxes, the Jews can believe whatever they want to about Jehovah and Jupiter. As Lucius’ position brings him into contact with John the Baptist, and later with Jesus himself, he grows to admire Christ and the message of peace and understanding. He never betrays Rome, never takes up arms against the emperor, but he does eventually defend Christ with vigor at the sham of a trial before the crucifixion. He’s not a Christian, but he believes in the rights of others to be Christians.
On the other side of the conflict is Barabbas, who eventually got himself his own movie starring Anthony Quinn. Barabbas is a freedom fighter, a Jewish rebel who thinks Christ’s sermons are eloquent, but that freedom from oppression at the hands of the Romans will come only through armed insurrection. He is Bose Chandra to Jesus’ Gandhi (or rather, I suppose, Bose Chandra is Barabbas to Gandhi’s Jesus. Or something. You know what I mean). He sees Christ as a man with the same goal but different methods, and ultimately, as a convenient distraction to the Romans that will allow Barabbas and his men to launch a really pathetic little rebellion. Scenes with Barabbas lend the film a political tone, but just as it never seems to trust Jeffery Hunter with the role of Christ, neither does it trust itself to deeply explore the political struggles in Judea that serve as the backdrop to Christ’s story. It is perhaps Ray’s most daring move to cast Barabbas not as a thief and criminal as is so often done, but as a rebel and warrior. To me, as one interested more in history than theology, I would have been happy to see it dig more in this direction.
Other characters fare well also. Rip Torn plays Judas, who here I think gets a fare shake. It’s common among people who don’t sit around thinking about this stuff to simply see Judas as the great villain of Christ’s life, when the way I see it, he was actually the great facilitator who allowed Christ to become the messiah and martyr that changed the world. Certain groups of theologians even feel that Christ himself instructed Judas to betray him so that he may fulfill his destiny. In King of Kings, we see a Judas who believes that the key to Judea’s freedom lies somewhere in between the gung-ho war-waging of Barabbas and the peace and compassion of Jesus. He believes totally and without doubt in the power of Jesus, and thinks that if he can orchestrate a situation in which Jesus “feels the blade of a Roman sword against his neck,” then the Savior will finally break down and use his powers to free Judea from the yoke of Roman rule. As we all know, it doesn’t quite work out that way.
Other incidental cast members leave a little to be desired, and some are downright awful. But that happens. In particular, the portrayal of Mary (with her lilting Irish accent, no less) is puzzling. Like Hunter, she plays her part with a lack of emotion that borders on tedium. We get it, Mary. You’re holy. You think you could at least show a little emotion while your son is being nailed to a cross?
Production-wise, King of Kings manages to be an epic without an epic budget. Sets are big and opulent, the cast is large, and the scenery is sweeping, though it’s certainly more American West than it is Middle East. Miklos Rosza’s score is suitably bombastic and epic and moving. Rosza was the final word on epic soundtracks, and he’s in fine form here, though not quite top form. The writing is, as you can ascertain, uneven, and it takes liberties with The Bible when it has to, or when it departs from the source material and includes bits and pieces taken from other, later Biblical dramas. But all in all, it stitches together a story that is perhaps too big for the big screen, and does a decent job if you’re less interested in Biblical accuracy than you are in just getting a halfway decent epic. Even if you discount this whole Jesus thing, Nicholas Ray has assembled a thoughtful film that manages, I think, to pay proper if slightly boring respects to the source material while also giving the increasingly socially and politically aware audiences a little something more contemplative to chew on. Not subversive, by any means, but also not rote repetition of existing ideals.
Costumes are so-so, and another problem pestering this movie is that everything is so spotless and clean. Jesus’ robes look like they just came back from the dry cleaners, even after he comes in from his pilgrimage to the wilderness. A lot of other costumes have a stiffness to them that makes them look like, well, costumes, and not actual clothes. And while I don’t have the lust for blood and misery in the torture and crucifixion of Jesus that Mel Gibson seems to have, I’d still have to say this is the cleanest, least painful scene of a guy getting nailed to a cross that I’ve ever witnessed. Once again, chalk it up to the ratings code, Hunter’s weakness as an actor, or the film’s own timidness about really sinking its teeth into the meat of the story. In the end though, this is less a movie about his death than his life, and less about his life than the times, if you know what I mean.
Problems abound, but in the end, I still found this a plenty pleasing epic tale where the best parts are in the least epic moments and within not the story of Jesus, but in the many subplots and schemers anchored by director Ray’s cunning but not obvious look at power and the quest for direction in life. King of Kings, despite the weak portrayal of the actual king of kings, is still big, impressive, and possessed of enough multi-dimensional supporting characters to keep me both interested and entertained. And as far as cinematic Christs have gone, not many — if indeed any of them — have gotten it right, so we can forgive King of Kings its rather naive, outdated, and somewhat dull approach to the man. If you dig a good overblown Biblical epic, King of Kings isn’t the best, but it’s not a bad way to spend some time.
Monophysites! Those were the cats in Byzantium who didn’t believe Christ had a human portion, that he was entirely divine. There. That was going to bug me all night. Now I’m just going to worry that I got the entire thing wrong.