Aug. 7, 2006
King of Kings (1961)
Grade: 54/100

Director: Nicholas Ray
Stars: Jeffrey Hunter, Robert Ryan, Ron Randell

What it's about. The life of Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) is presented, along with guest subplots involving vengeful Jewish guerilla leader Barabbas (Harry Guardino), spooky Jewish prophet John the Baptist (Robert Ryan), and the decadent, sinful court of King Herod (Frank Thring), whose hottie stepdaughter Salome (Brigid Bazlen) is perhaps the most evil of all. Orson Welles provides the resonant narration.

How others will see it. This costly and dramatic epic takes great pains not to offend Christians. Thus, Christ is certain to forgive everyone, heal anyone, resist the devil's temptations, and nobly bear his crucifiction. Jesus' mother, Mary, is proud, gracious, and inscrutable. Perhaps even smug. You certainly won't hear her nag hubbie Joseph, "We have to sleep in a manger? I'm about to give birth here! Can't you get a special at the Marriott?

How I felt about it. Everyone else, though, is all too human, and subject to revisionist history. Barabbas, formerly the notorious murderer, is now a freedom fighter for the oppressed Jews. Pontius Pilate, formerly reluctant to crucify the silent, sad-faced Jesus, is now a sadist who secretly relishes the prospect. However, Judas is still the guilt-ridden, confused betrayer, and Peter is still cowardly following his mentor's capture.

Also familiar is the depiction of the Romans and their Arab allies as corrupt and blasphemous. Meanwhile, the Jews are godly and decent folk who just want to be left alone to grow their beards as long as nature allows. The Roman occupation changes matters, though. Rabbis collude against Christ, mostly off-camera, and would-be liberator Barabbas kills in the name of vengeance.

World War II movies often include a "good" German, to let us know that it was the Nazis and not the German people who were bad. Similarly, King of Kings includes a good Roman, centurion Lucius (Ron Randell), to inform us that Romans are not just smirking killers with a fetish for wearing plumed metal helmets.

Since the treatment of Jesus is too pious to draw crowds to theaters, the subplots largely unrelated to Jesus dominate the first half of the film. Inevitably, the crucifiction is covered, but is given about the same amount of screen time as the scene with Salome's naughty dance to secure the head of John the Baptist. The crucifiction itself is tame compared with Mel Gibson's gruesome The Passion of the Christ.

The first half scenes that actually include Jesus, such as his famous sermon on the mount, can be unconvincing. Jesus speaks in a tone that can be heard by only a fraction of attendees, and questions are asked in a too orderly and distributed fashion.

The message of King of Kings is not the mission of Christ. True, the story evolves from widescreen Roman epic entertainment toward Jesus' crucifiction and resurrection. But even the second half, though about Christ, focuses on his events rather than his beliefs. Jeffrey Hunter, with his fervent blue eyes and otherworldly poise, is well cast as the one historical figure unlikely to see revision.