King of Kings (1961)
Directed by Nicholas Ray. Written by Philip Yordan. Photography, Franz Planer, Milton Krasner, Manuel Berenguer. Editing, Harold F. Kress, Renee Lichtig. Set design & costumes, Georges Wakhevitch. Music, Miklos Rosza. Producer, Samuel Bronston. Cast: Jeffrey Hunter, Siobhan McKenna, Hurd Hatfield, Ron Randell, Viveca Lindfors, Rita Gam, Carmen Sevilla, Brigid Bazlen, Harry Guardino, Rip Torn, Frank Thring, Guy Rolfe, Maurice Marsac, Gregoire Aslan, Royal Dano, Edric Connor, George Coulouris, et al. 168 minutes.
In 1927, during the waning days of silents, Cecil B. DeMille made an impressive life-of-Jesus film called "King of Kings." Nicholas Ray's longer 1961 version goes one better. It is surprisingly moving and sober, and while reverential, it amounts to much more than a collection of biblical postcards. The narration, spoken by Orson Welles, is limited (that is, not invasive) and well done.
The movie came after a spate of youth-centered pictures such as Nicholas Ray's own classic "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955), and after silly titles like "I Was a Teen-Age Frankenstein" or "I Was a Teen-Age Werewolf." So the wags dubbed it "I Was a Teen-Age Jesus " -- a good jest had the movie deserved it.
But it didn't. The joke was unfair to the film, its makers and Jeff Hunter. Hunter's face may lack the necessary intelligence for his role, but he is so well directed that he's convincing enough.
True, his King's English is not perfect. Hunter tells the rebelling Jews : "Romans are conquerors. If you become conquerors you will be no different than them." Good pacifism, bad grammar. Someone ought to have caught that jarring "than" and credited Christ with better English, so to speak. But then, literacy is not Hollywood's forte.
The picture establishes a clear continuity from Jews to Christians, that is, it stresses the Christians as Jews. There are several unusual scenes. Among them, Golgotha's disorderly array of crosses comes through like a mass of TV antennas --whether by chance or on purpose I cannot tell. Curiously, the opening of Francois Truffaut's British-made "Fahrenheit 451" of 1967, with its own antennas, bears some resemblance to this.
(Interestingly, Ray Bradbury, whose book Truffaut adapted, is the uncredited writer of the narration of "King of Kings")
Jesus on the Cross is not a ghoulish sight. We see no torture. The descent comes very rapidly and discreetly. Physical violence and pain are neither underlined no exploited.
The interesting supporting cast includes Siobhan McKenna, Robert Ryan, Hurd Hatfield, Viveca Lindfors, Rita Gam and Rip Torn.
There are many Spanish supporting actors and extras. The movie was filmed in Spain, as was the entire quartet of "epics" produced by Samuel Bronston. These were Bronston's claims to fame: "El Cid" (1961, also partly shot in Italy and the UK); "The 55 Days of Peking" (1963); "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964). The 1960s were the heyday of shooting "epics" and action pictures in Spain, including the works of Sergio Leone --his justly famous Spaghetti Westerns --which were also Paella Westerns.
Beautiful score by Miklos Rozsa. "King of Kings" absolutely ought to be shown letterboxed, but is not always.