“And it came to pass in these days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city. So it was that Joseph, a carpenter, went up from Galilee unto Bethlehem to be taxed with his wife, Mary who was with Holy Child.”
Every spring around the time of Easter you could count on several annual films to make their way to televisions across the country for special family presentations. For Easter you had The Greatest Story Ever Told and King Of Kings. For Passover there was always The Ten Commandments. And so it is an appropriate time to see all three of these films make their way unto high definition and Blu-ray for the very first time. We’ve already reported on the excellent release of The Ten Commandments. Our review of The Greatest Story Ever Told will come to these pages very close to Easter itself. That leaves the one more in this Holy Trinity of movies to review.
King Of Kings is told in the epic style that has found much success with stories from the Bible. It has all the markings of a huge epic. You literally have a cast of thousands that populate the impressive locations. The film was shot in Spain, and while not the Holy Land that it depicts, you can’t really fault the locations for any of the movie’s shortcomings. The cinematography makes great use of these lands and creates an effective atmosphere for what should be a compelling story. Everything about the production is big. There are wonderful costumes, but the props are a bit out of place here. The Roman swords look about as fake as I’ve seen in a low-budget affair. Still, that’s a forgivable flaw. After all, this is the majestic story of Jesus, and one shouldn’t quibble over such small details. With that statement, somewhere Cecil B. DeMille is rolling over in his grave quite agitated. Jesus tells us to forgive lest we be forgiven. So, pay no attention to the swords.
But, there are venial sins (small potatoes) and there are mortal sins (big potatoes). Swords are of the venial kind. Turning one of the most compelling stories in history into a somewhat sleepy parade is of the mortal kind. Those are the ones that can really keep you outside those pearly gates. There are too many problems in the way the story is told. Perhaps it’s just too much to tell in just three hours. I think not. Jeffrey Hunter plays Jesus here, and while he might have been a fine actor, the worst that you can say of a man playing Jesus is that he lacks inspiration. Hunter reads his lines as if he were reciting the items on his tax return. He’s surrounded by such awesome splendor and is lost too easily among it all. It doesn’t help that there were last-minute changes to the production format. One might have to forgive Hunter his transgression in light of that fact. The film originally called for Hunter’s Jesus to carry the film’s narrative. Somewhere along the line Ray Bradbury — yes, that Ray Bradbury — was hired to write a narration that was read by Orson Welles. Both of these accomplishments went uncredited. Seeing the final result, I suspect neither is proud of the job they did. The incessant narration takes away from the performance and places us less comfortably in our church pews listening to a reading, or worse, a sermon. Whether Hunter’s performance was lacking requiring some attempt to fix it, or he was robbed of the chance to deliver a truly remarkable performance by an ill-advised last minute change, whatever the truth, we, the viewers pay the ultimate penalty here.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber took some of their ideas for their Jesus Christ Superstar Rock Opera from here. The film appears to highlight many of the same lines and characters. At the Sermon On The Mount, Jesus actually appears a bit the image of a rock star. I expected to see young girls swooning and fainting as he passed by. I can certainly see someone walking away with the idea of Jesus as a hot star after watching the movie. This is far more of a Hollywood film than Mel Gibson’s rather violent telling of the Passion in recent years.
It’s far too long to spend the required three hours just to check it out. You already know the story, and there are superior films. We’ll be examining one of those soon. My advice is that you wait it out until then.
King Of Kings is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 23 mbps. Like many epics of the time, this movie was originally filmed in 70mm. That’s just the kind of master print that should deliver a nice high-definition image even when the movie is 50 years old like this one. While the print doesn’t appear to demonstrate much in the way of restoration, there are some good things to say here. Colors really pop, particularly reds. The Roman uniforms and some of the wall mountings demonstrate a rich red texture at times. The picture offers only an average image when it comes to sharpness and detail. There are moments of focus issues that might very well be a part of the original film. Black levels are weak, and that destroys a good many of the film’s emotional moments.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is likely faithful to the original mono sound. While surround wasn’t around in 1961, this film did sport a 6-track playback audio. That makes this one a natural for a subtle surround track. The atmosphere is solid and there is no hiss or distortion that often comes with a 50-year-old film. Dialog is always easy to understand. Hunter speaks rather softly, but it comes through without problem. I even caught an ADR error. The soldier reporting on the miracle of the loaves and fishes makes a mistake with his lips that is covered up by dubbing the correct line. It’s not noticeable on the audio, so we’re talking excellent ADR. I only caught it because of the lip mismatch.
It’s all in Standard Definition
The Camera’s Window On The World: (3:56) A vintage black&white promo piece on the filming of the Sermon On The Mount.
Two Newsreel Premiers: Just a couple of minutes of red carpet stuff.
The film contains the original Overture, Intermission and Closing music segments.
The film is also notable for starting the Hollywood Jesus curse. Several actors who have portrayed Jesus on film have befallen odd tragedies. In Jeffrey Hunter’s case, he died just 6 years later at only 42. Of course, I don’t believe in such things, but when Hunter died there were several pieces written about the subject, and it has been rumored to have caused more than one high-profile actor to turn down the role in other films. I think the real curse here was that the movie just didn’t live up to the classic epics of the time. It did take in over $25 million at the time which was pretty respectable in 1961. Why did it do so well? After all, “it was the time of miracles“.