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For a brief span between the mid-'50s and the mid-'60s, the genre of the Biblical epic had a foothold in Hollywood unlike any other time before or since. Primarily attributable to the industry's desire to pull out all the stops in its battle with the new medium of television for the American public's leisure time, producers sought to render the world's most fundamentally known and revered stories on the grandest possible scale. Samuel Bronston, who had some of the most lavishly mounted film productions of the era to his credit, made his contribution to the cycle with King of Kings (1961), an impressive and thoughtful retelling of the life of Christ.
The Rumanian-born Bronston first tied his career to the film industry in the early '40s, when he went to work at MGM's French unit after his graduation from the Sorbonne. While he had set himself up as an independent producer by the mid-'40s, his achievements had been relatively undistinguished until the late '50s. At that point, he became a pioneer in the industry practice of locating epic-scale productions in Spain, and thereby ameliorating the massive costs involved. With MGM's involvement for distribution, Bronston set his sights on an $8 million remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 silent that had set the standard for depicting the story of Christ on film. While he would ultimately overextend his company, and be effectively out of business by the mid-'60s, Bronston had some of the most imposing cinema spectacles of the period to his credit, including El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963) and Circus World (1964).
In choosing a screenwriter, Bronston turned to his familiar collaborator Philip Yordan, whose resume included Broken Lance (1954), Johnny Guitar (1954) and The Harder They Fall (1956), as well as the aforementioned Bronston-produced sagas. Bronston then made the somewhat surprising decision to hire Nicholas Ray to direct. Ray, who teamed with Bronston here and on 55 Days at Peking, did so in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to establish independence from the major studios. While the director is more typically associated with intimate tales of isolated men (Rebel Without a Cause (1955), In a Lonely Place (1950)), his facility with the widescreen camera and his understanding of its narrative possibilities ultimately proved to serve King of Kings well.
The last major hurdle was the casting of the protagonist, and Bronston turned to Jeffrey Hunter, the former juvenile lead whose all-American good looks were used to good effect by John Ford in The Searchers (1956) and The Last Hurrah (1958). A genuinely global talent hunt garnered the remaining players who took on personas from the New Testament; Robert Ryan as John the Baptist; Rip Torn as Judas; Hurd Hatfield as Pilate; Harry Guardino as Barabbas; Siobhan McKenna as Mary; and Frank Thring as Herod.
Probably the most ambitious scene in the entire film is the Sermon on the Mount sequence. It was shot in five days in Venta de Frascuelas (southeast of Madrid) using five cameras and 5,400 extras. In Nicholas Ray: An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz, the director recalled, "we constructed what, according to my crew, was the longest track ever built, from the top of a hill to the bottom, with a track counterbalancing it on the opposite slope, the cables wound round a pair of olive trees, and we followed Jesus as he moved through the crowd, answering the questions he was asked." Unfortunately, Ray's creativity was often compromised by behind-the-scenes power struggles. According to Gavin Lambert in Eisenschitz's biography, "The atmosphere was really evil: it was like two courts...Nick and Phil Yordan, who had been old friends, were not speaking. Yordan was executively above Nick, so he was there not only as a writer, but to see that Nick shot his script. And it was like an arena, these battlements, this enormous open air set. There was the court of Nick at one end, and the court of Yordan way over at the other, and they communicated only by walkie-talkie radio, they never spoke a word directly. "I wonder what they're up to down there," Nick would say, "I wonder what they're plotting...But I'm going to sneak in a few things..."
When King of Kings elects to stick to the scriptures, it does so in a tasteful and intelligent manner, as best evidenced by the treatment of the Sermon on the Mount, which utilized untold numbers of extras to striking effect. The filmmakers' attempts to impose a more conventional dramatic structure upon the narrative only wound up inflaming elements within the American clergy. The story opts not to open upon the Nativity, but the Roman conquest of Judea some 60 years prior, and chronicles Rome's oppression during that interim. The choice to limn the character of Barabbas as history's first radical Zionist, rallying his supporters to achieve by force the ends that Jesus sought through peaceful means, sat poorly with various theological circles.
Mixed sentiments were forthcoming from film critics as well, and the film's grosses on its first release topped out at $6.5 million, a respectable take but much less than hoped. Viewed as a whole, however, such harsh responses to King of Kings seem unwarranted. The end product is a compelling and visually striking entertainment that benefits from many outstanding creative contributions, notably the lovely score from Miklos Rozsa and the vivid cinematography of Franz Planer. The production is also complemented by its narration, delivered by Orson Welles and scripted by an uncredited Ray Bradbury.
While industry wags sneered at Hunter's casting by dubbing the project I Was a Teenage Jesus, the actor ultimately acquitted himself ably, vesting the role with vitality, compassion and serenity. His comfort in performing for Ray, as he had previously in The True Story of Jesse James (1957), was evident in an interview the actor granted to Films and Filming in 1962. "Ray is a man who, like Ford, has a great ability to communicate ideas concisely," the actor stated. "He's a quiet man; he's not bombastic on the set and if he has something that he wants to tell you he tells you alone." For all the ballyhoo that surrounded King of Kings, the project did not give Hunter's career the boost he had hoped for. For the remainder of his life, he toiled in increasingly forgettable projects at home and abroad (a notable exception being the original pilot episode of Star Trek). In 1969, after a rooftop fall, he died in surgery; he was only 43.
Producer: Samuel Bronston, Alan Brown, Jaime Prades
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Philip Yordan
Cinematography: Manuel Berenguer, Milton R. Krasner, Franz Planer
Film Editing: Harold F. Kress, Renee Lichtig
Art Direction: Enrique Alarcon
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Jeffrey Hunter (Jesus Christ), Siobhan McKenna (Mary), Hurd Hatfield (Pontius Pilot), Ron Randell (Lucius), Viveca Lindfors (Claudia), Rita Gam (Herodias), Carmen Sevilla (Mary Magdalene).
C-161m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg