Monday, March 29, 2021

#2,545. King of Kings (1961) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Nicholas Ray may have directed it, but 1961’s King of Kings belonged to producer Samuel Bronston. The man who would eventually spearhead big-budget spectacles such as El-Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, it seemed only natural that Bronston would be the one to bring the grandest epic adventure of them all – the life of Jesus - to the big screen.

Opening in 63 B.C., when Pompey the Great (Conrado San Martin) conquered Jerusalem, King of Kings then presents the story of Jesus (played by Jeffrey Hunter) as written in the New Testament, from his birth in a Bethlehem manger to the miracles he performed, straight through to his trial and crucifixion. Joining Hunter is a supporting cast that includes Siobhan McKenna (as Mary), Robert Ryan (John the Baptist), Frank Thring (Herod Antipas), Hurd Hatfield (Pontius Pilate), and Ron Randall (as Lucius, Pilate’s second in command). In addition, Royal Dano portrays the apostle Peter and Carmen Savilla is Mary Magdalene.

Along with relating the biblical tale of Jesus, King of Kings (which was narrated throughout by the always-reliable Orson Welles) also dedicates a fair portion of its 168 minute runtime to the story of Barabbas (Harry Guardino), a revolutionary determined to rid Judea of Roman rule. Barabbas’s good friend Judas Iscariot (Rip Torn), himself an apostle, tries to convince the rebel to talk with Jesus, but Barabbas favored action over words, and would initiate a failed coup in Jerusalem on the very day Jesus entered the city (one of the film’s few action scenes, this battle is fairly exciting).

Hunter is serviceable in the lead role, and has a few strong moments (especially when Jesus is praying in the garden just before his arrest), though the standout performances are delivered by Ryan (as the Baptist), Thring (as Herod Antipas), and especially Guardino (as the oft-angry Barabbas).

There are plenty of big moments throughout King of Kings; along with the battle in Jerusalem, there’s the impressive staging of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus addresses a throng of followers, while the opening scene of Pompey entering Jerusalem gets the movie off to a thrilling start. And while he was a bit out of his element helming a lavish spectacle, Nicholas Ray did occasionally let his creative side shine through (during the crucifixion scene, he mounts his camera on top of the cross as its lifted into place, and the dance scene featuring Herod Antipas’s stepdaughter Salome, played by Brigid Bazlen, is also well-staged).

While King of Kings may, indeed, be an atypical Nick Ray film, as biblical epics go it ranks right up there with Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments as one of the era’s best.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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