Posted in: Film Reviews

Out of the Past: King of Kings

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Seek and thou shalt find … or not, as the case may be. There is by now a good deal of useful critical writing available in English on the work of every film buff’s favourite genius maudit, Nicholas Ray. But Ray experts fall curiously taciturn on the topic of King of Kings, the longest of the director’s films, his second-most-costly, and arguably his worst-received. The Time reviewer even accused the film of blasphemy; in Europe, critics were content to suggest that any film casting a drippy jeune premier like Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus Christ would have to be at best risible. Time revealed that the film’s trade nickname was I Was a Teenage Jesus, something Leslie Halliwell’s smug and deeply reactionary reference book The Filmgoer’s Companion reminds us of with each new edition.

Well, one expects this sort of thing from the journalistic bourgeoisie; costume epics might as well have their reviews written sight-unseen, so hardened are reviewers’ attitudes. But if one looks to, say, V.F. Perkins’s book, Film as Film, full of adulation for Ray, the comments on King of Kings amount to no more than a tabulation of cuts and alterations and impositions made by others, gleaned from the interview with the director conducted by Perkins and others for Movie 9. Look, in that issue of that magazine, to Perkins’s article “The Cinema of Nicholas Ray” and you will find one sentence in seven pages. There are two brief references to the film – one a redundant and silly comparison with Norman Jewison’s hideous, then-current Jesus Christ Superstar – in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article “Circle of Pain” in the Autumn 1973 Sight and Sound. The lengthy, very interesting interview-cum-career-summary presented by Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise in Take One V, 6 (January 1977), which aims at being comprehensive, doesn’t mention the film once.

Obviously, the general reader with an interest in Ray is going to come to one conclusion: those scathing reviews (“…the corniest, phoniest, ickiest, and most monstrously vulgar superspectacle since…” – you guessed it, that nameless Time man again) were right. Surely, even the director’s devotees were embarrassed by the movie? Then again, it’s in a very unfashionable genre, and the Christian faith presents lots of problems for critics who wish to appear hip. In Europe, the film did terrible business and is very rarely shown. Anyway, it was the first Nicholas Ray film I ever saw, and I saw it again recently, after an interval of nearly 17 years. My memories of it were not very encouraging, but I was interested to see whether Ray’s normally very strong auctorial presence was as submerged as all the heretofore suggests.

It was and it wasn’t. There is a lot wrong with King of Kings, but I was far more impressed than I thought I would be, and it certainly bears Ray’s signature. It suffers in all manner of obvious ways: the special-effects work is mainly crude, particularly when Christ is tempted of the Devil; some of the acting is inadequate, some overly variable; and  screenwriter Philip Yordan (also responsible for one of Ray’s best films, Johnny Guitar) provides some distinctly cringeworthy verbiage. This is more true of the extensive narration than the dialogue; despite some heroic vocal flourishes by an uncredited Orson Welles, the pseudo-poetic, pseudo-Biblical phrasing of the commentary is often hard to bear. Then again, the front-office boys were on Ray’s back at all times, and so, one may guess, were hordes of religious advisers anxious not to be offended. There were not only endless difficulties in the editing of the film, there were lots of up-front compromises. I would suggest that the only way to make a good film on the life of Christ is to make a personal movie, and to hell with the possibility of upsetting someone; this, one may deduce from the aforementioned Movie interview, was Ray’s view, too, but it wasn’t M-G-M’s or, I’m sure, producer Samuel Bronston’s. Could a multi-million-dollar epic be sold on peace, love and universal brotherhood? Hardly. Hence, King of Kings sports a couple of battle scenes not referred to by the Bible, the spilling of blood being, as usual, deemed more commercial by the front office than the utterances of the Prince of Peace.

The irony is that these two blatant box-office interjections are not only excitingly filmed, but also tie in with the film’s most interesting aspect. King Of Kings, unlike previous Biblical epics, succeeds in presenting Christianity as an utterly revolutionary movement, so completely innovative, and thus daunting, that it proves not a little baffling and frightening to the common people as well as to its obvious opponents. Ray is quite as interested in the politics of Christianity as he is in its philosophy (or more interested?), and the film’s emphasis is toward the social and personal relevance of Christian doctrine rather than to any kind of intellectual exposition. The Jesus of Ray’s film bears little resemblance to the Victorian bible-art that influences most earlier depictions in the genre; this Christ is more often clad in apostrophic red than in the miraculously dust-free white of, say, The Robe or Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version. (James Dean, as Rosenbaum reminds us, wore a red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause.) Similarly, the Last Supper is served at a Y-shaped table rather than the usual long board of Leonardo’s painting, and the Jerusalem streets contain enough dirt for a pathway of palm leaves to be sensible as well as symbolic.

The political situation in Judea is fraught enough even before Jesus comes on the scene. The major structural innovation of the film is its depiction of that mysterious fellow, Barabbas. There exists a legend to the effect that Barabbas the robber, so summarily described in the Bible, was in fact Christ’s brother. The plot of Par Lagerqvist’s short novel Barabbas and also of Richard Fleischer’s much more elaborate 1962 movie version presents us with a series of events that oddly parallel, in worldly terms, the metaphysical events of Christ’s Passion (though Fleischer’s film, despite some impressive dialogue by Christopher Fry, is less than ideally rigorous here). Ray, more straightforwardly, gives us a Barabbas who is a committed revolutionary of the conventional sort; his idea of freedom is the sort gained by much wielding of the sword. Thus, the choice between Christ and Barabbas is a real one; the spiritual salvation offered by Jesus, hard to understand and harder to gain, is in many ways less appealing – certainly less seductive – than what Barabbas offers, which is, in a phrase, “We want our revolution now!”

The ideological opposition of Jesus and Barabbas is presented by Ray in an elaborate series of visual and verbal patterns. “I am fire and He is water!” says Barabbas at one point; Barabbas is seen forging weapons in an underground furnace whilst Christ is, of course, a man associated with waterways, a fisher of souls. It is pointed out that they have the same first name. The commentary refers to them as being “the right and left hand of the same body.” Both are involved in pointed conversation expressing personal philosophy with the Roman officer Lucius (Ron Randell plays this invented character). Though the two men vaguely look alike, Barabbas is dark, Jesus fair, whilst Jeffrey Hunter’s Midwest WASP face contrasts with Harry Guardino’s urban-Italian-Catholic-proletarian appearance. Each is linked to the other by a couple of go-between characters who are, in turn, opposed to each other – Lucius, the Roman who seems to embody a good deal of Christianity, and Judas Iscariot (Rip Torn), the apostle who is unable to shake off the insurrectionist notions of Barabbas.

In a sense, this conflict is a very American one. Barabbas has plenty of machismo; one can envision him on the frontier or as a street kid in a modern metropolis. Ray is very careful to suggest, though, that Christ’s eschewing of violence even in the face of death is both a moral and intellectual strength; if we remember his Martin Pawley in The Searchers, Jeffrey Hunter seems more shrewdly cast than one might initially have supposed. Thus, Ray’s Christ, by virtue of his individualistic toughness, is a more subversive figure than the predictable Barabbas; his one-man ride through Jerusalem at the same time as Barabbas’s bloody and utterly unsuccessful attempt to seize the city by force is the shrewder, more politically effective act, and thus infinitely more dangerous. A WPA veteran like Ray would understand this pretty clearly; let us not forget that one of his unrealised projects in more recent times was a movie about the Chicago Conspiracy Trial.

The political thinker has not vanquished the poet, though. The visual quality of King of Kings is very uneven, but a familiar signature is discernible in the multi-textured iconography of the film, its network of shields and coins and weaponry and breastplates (for Rome) balancing and offsetting the representation of the Jews via cloth and stone and wood and natural phenomena. And Jesus Christ is, like every other Nicholas Ray hero, a stranger here Himself. Christ’s last appearance on earth in this version is not to an assembled multitude but solely to His surviving disciples, on a deserted beach. The disciples set off in several different directions to carry out His work and leave Him alone by the sea, a corporeal being still, for all that His shadow lengthens unceasingly across the sand, as it will across history.

© 1979 Pierre Greenfield.

2010 Afterword: King Of Kings became a familiar item on British TV throughout the 80s and 90s, usually at Easter. Several further viewings later, I’m still not comfortable with the commentary, but I was mistaken to blame Philip Yordan for it – Bernard Eisenschitz’s brilliant biography of Ray makes it clear that it was a late addition to the script, anonymously written by Ray Bradbury. (There are those who believe that Yordan didn’t actually write Johnny Guitar, either, but it’s worth noting that Ray named only him as writer in interviews about that film.) Eisenschitz’s very detailed account of the filming of King Of Kings – clearly a far more nightmarish experience for Ray than we knew in 1979 – also reveals, rather astonishingly, that a few days of the shooting were directed by musicals expert Charles Walters. The things that are wrong with the film are all up-front, you can’t miss them. In 1961, most people let it go at that. I think that’s a pity; and that those prepared to give it a bit of extra effort may find it a stimulating experience.

Direction: Nicholas Ray. Screenplay: Philip Yordan. Cinematography: Franz F. Planer, Manuel Berenguer, Milton Krasner. Sets and costumes: Georges Wakhevitch. Editing: Harold F. Kress. Music: Miklos Rozsa. Production: Samuel Bronston.
The players: Jeffrey Hunter, Robert Ryan, Siobhan McKenna, Viveca Lindfors, Ron Randell, Hurd Hatfield, Harry Guardino, Royal Dano, Frank Thring, Guy Rolfe, Rita Gam, Brigid Bazlen, Carmen Sevilla, Rip Torn, Gregoire Aslan, George Coulouris, Orson Welles (uncredited narrator).

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.