Thursday, September 8, 2011

King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Though it begins with the overture and audiovisual bombast expected of a 70mm Biblical epic, King of Kings soon turns into a movie that establishes emotional resonance even as it continues to deliver vast-scale shots of grandeur. Beginning more than 50 years before Christ's birth, Nicholas Ray's film thus dedicates its first images to the sights of Romans sacking Jerusalem, enslaving, pillaging and murdering Jews to establish supremacy. This curbs the sense of wonder, to say the least. Yet this focus on the historical context of the Gospel finds a secular approach to the religious story. The Jews in this film do not pine for a savior because of age-old prophecies; they simply need someone to help them escape this misery.

This situates the film somewhere between Ben-Hur and The Last Temptation of Christ. Though not as humanizing as Martin Scorsese's controversial film, Ray's epic nevertheless breaks ground of its own, breaking from the tradition of showing Jesus in synecdochical ellipses to show Christ in full. The mere process of visualizing him humanizes him, focusing on the man instead of the symbol. Ray understands this, even going so far as to frame most of Jesus' miracles in shadow or other indirect visuals to firmly separate the man from the god. Ray does not visually segment these sides of Jesus for the purposes of commentary or irony, merely to keep our focus on the man even if, like all Ray heroes, becomes an idol before our eyes.

Working for an independent production company (though the film was later distributed by MGM), Ray had to make do with a modest budget of $6,000,000, a small sum even then, especially for a 70mm extravaganza. The limitations are evident: a number of miracles are not shown but described by a soldier reporting to Pontius Pilate. Ray clearly called in some favors to make sure he could complete the project, and the cast brims with former collaborators. Most intriguing is Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus, considering his previous work for Ray was as Jesse James. There, his icy stare and impenetrability made him stilted. Here, despite the literally ancient nature of his dialogue, Hunter's blue eyes convey only kindness and compassion. Christ's Golden Rule was "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," but as one looks into Hunter's "teenage heartthrob" face (he was 33 at the time), one senses that maybe that was just because Jesus wanted someone to reciprocate his complete love and gentleness for mankind.

Hunter's emergence after Jesus' childhood and a diversion to show the Jewish rebels fighting back against Herod and Pilate—another bit of historical rationalization that unfortunately carries on too long despite the thrill of the insurrection scenes—elevates the film from its beautiful but static presentation to one that subsumes its grandeur into the humanity of its godly protagonist. This can be seen first when Jesus heads into the desert to confront Satan's temptations. First, Ray frames Jesus' time in the desert as clear torment, and the devil's temptations are thus made more tangibly enticing for offering relief to Jesus. When he passes these tests, though, a faint smile passes his face, one not of braggadocio but relief. This is not the smile of an infallible god but a man who has resisted the sway of sin and won, a man who had genuine stakes in his test and passed from effort, not a foregone conclusion.

Indeed, so much of this film feels unexpected for its subversion of iconography and mythology for more personal angles and even modicums of historical accuracy, finding fresh inroads for the endlessly repeated Gospel tales. The Sermon on the Mount becomes less a lecture than a Socratic dialogue between Jesus and the skeptics and faithful, a condensation of other of Jesus' teachings into an exchange of ideas no less edifying than outright instruction. We meet Judas (a young, unrecognizable Rip Torn) as a rebel under Barabbas (an overracting Harry Guardino, all gritted teeth hisses and animal-skin garb); his eventual betrayal of Jesus is the result not of base greed but conviction that the threat of Roman punishment will bring out the full power of the man he believes is the Son of God, leading to the Jews' deliverance. When the crowds later call for Barabbas' freedom instead of Christ's, we finally get a sense of why the Jews would want him freed over Jesus. He's the one who directly fights the Roman oppressors, while Christ continues only to speak of better days in the next world.

No longer framing through the compression of CinemaScope, Ray nevertheless finds a way to practice his architectural perfectionism in Super-70. Though many shots of the film carry the impersonal vastness of the Biblical epic, Ray inserts numerous moments that betray his hand. King of Kings boasts inventive angles, frames within the frame, and a use of shadow that, ironically, convey the warmth of God incarnate rather than encroaching menace. Red soaks the palace of Herod, as if the blood spilled of all the men, women and children cut down by his command caked his home. Best of all is a moving shot of a chained John the Baptist scaling a prison wall just to touch Jesus' outstretched hand, a shot that gains even more emotional resonance from the framing of Christ's shadow beside John as he looks up, effectively signaling that Jesus is already with him even as he reaches for the Lord.

Also a delight is Miklos Rozsa's rousing score, a justly famous swell of brass that now exists far outside the film itself as one of the great classic soundtracks. I'd never seen this film before, yet I recognized the main brass theme instantly, never knowing it came from this movie. Rozsa also did the score for Ben-Hur, but I may well prefer his work here. Rozsa also judges the moments of more intimate humanity, adding nuance and texture to the gargantuan roar of his Hosanna trumpets. By the end of the film, even that fist-raising theme has been on a journey of its own, wracked through the pain of Christ's sacrifice and reemerging with renewed vigor with the resurrection.

Much better than expected, the unfairly neglected King of Kings nevertheless fumbles occasionally for its overlength, ironically because Ray does such a good job of humanizing Christ that he makes many huge moments somewhat distracting and disjointed. He spends too much time on the Passion, yet he impressively avoids lingering on images of torture, eliding over graphic images to come at the torture and crucifixion from different angles. If it overstays its welcome, King of Kings nonetheless does succeed as a unique portrait of Christ in a saturated pool of depictions. I admit a bias for any film that approaches Christ as a man first and a god second, but Hunter, who failed to impress me as Jesse James, found the soft contours of his stiff, undying youth, and Ray tempered the anti-auterist format of the Biblical epic with his invigorating compositions. As I did with Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, I found myself willing to follow this Jesus, not because I believed he was the Son of God but because he was a good person, tested and struggling like the rest of us. It's more impressive if a man can overcome such obstacles anyway. Though Ray still has to cater to the full Christian significance of the story, his humanizing touches make this one of my favorite depictions of Jesus in cinema.

*This omission, I feel, was the most disappointing result of the limited budget. By having to talk of the call for the violent Barrabas' freedom, Ray must deny himself some more mob commentary, for what is the rabble calling for Christ's crucifixion but the original and most notorious mob? Then again, it does spare this telling of the Gospel its most antisemitic aspect, which is not without worth.


  1. This film around Easter whenever it's shown on a Spanish channel like Univision or Telemundo, my mother wants to watch it as it's called Reyes de Reyes with the film dubbed in Spanish. This year, she got see it with my grandmother and her sister this past May as I DVRed the film just for them. It's something they like to do around this time though I couldn't watch because of the dubbing and commercial breaks. It's something I can't do.

    Anyways, I like what you're doing with the Ray blog-a-thon.

  2. One excellent review of this Ray film. Thanks.

  3. Film was obviously made with the intention of not offending Jewish Hollywood elites since the Jewish element in the death of Christ is all but missing from this film. Quite a distortion from the Bible.