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.