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King of Kings (1961)


Peter T Chattaway
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Not be confused with Cecil B. DeMille's THE King of Kings (1927).

Link to this film's rather lengthy post in the 'jesus point-of-view shots' thread.

Link to the short thread we had on this film two message boards ago.

Now for the new stuff. I just finished reading the Bruce Eder essay in the booklet that came with the 76-minute soundtrack CD put out back in 1992, and it had this interesting tidbit:

M-G-M executives feared that Bronston's film would take business away from BEN-HUR when the latter went into general release. Bronston's business arrangements, however, ended up allaying those concerns -- in order to finance
KING OF KINGS
, Bronston parcelled out its distribution rights in various territories around the world in exchange for hefty advances. M-G-M, figuring to corner the market on religious epics and gain some control over this competitor, bought the distribution rights to
KING OF KINGS
for the $2 million that Bronston needed to finish the film.

In the process, Bronston acquired [composer Miklos] Rozsa's services for the soundtrack. M-G-M's involvement also pushed
KING OF KINGS
into the realm of a BEN-HUR-scale spectacle, a change that meant the addition of a further 40 pages of script. These changes fundamentally altered the film.

As originally conceived by writer Philip Yordan and director Nicholas Ray,
KING OF KINGS
was a retelling of the life of Christ on a vast but human scale . . .

Director Nicholas Ray, best known for such intimate dramatic films as THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, BIGGER THAN LIFE and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, drew sincere and intensely moving performances from his leads, and also revealed himself as a skilled action director (a talent of which he would make better use in Bronston's 55 DAYS AT PEKING) in the scenes depicting Barabbas' rebellion. . . .

The major problem was that there was almost no linkage between the drama and the spectacle, which at times was so outsized that it looked ludicrous -- the Sermon on the Mount took a month to film and involved 7,000 extras, and was depicted on a scale that was mercilessly parodied in Monty Python's THE LIFE OF BRIAN. . . .

So ... are they saying that the SERMON was part of the new, added, unnecessary, spectacular 40 pages of dialogue? Cuz it has always seemed to me that the Barabbas stuff -- which Eder finds so impressive -- was the big distraction here. As I say in that other message board's thread:

Now, of the film's 170:47 length, fully 13:27 is taken up by credits and overtures and intermission music, so that leaves 157:20. Of that, the footage in which Jesus plays any significant role . . . adds up to 77 minutes and 3 seconds. Or less than half of the film. And that's about it, unless you count the relatively brief glimpses of Jesus during one of the early John the Baptist sequences (the first time we see Jesus, we're already 34:10 into the movie) or during the scene where Peter denies Jesus. But I figure the exclusion of those scenes is more than made up for by the fact that many of the scenes I've listed here already contain, within themselves, fictitious contaminants, such as all the stuff with Barabbas running around; for example, after the 2.5-minute triumphal entry, there is a 5.5-minute sequence in which Barabbas and a bunch of Jews lead an uprising against the Romans, which is violently suppressed. Elsewhere, after the 6-minute sequence in which Jesus is tempted in the wilderness and then calls his first disciples, there follows a 9-minute sequence in which Pilate and Herod are taunted by John the Baptist and decide to arrest him, while Barabbas lurks in the crowd, wondering if John might be useful to him; plus our first glimpse of the Baptist takes place within a 10-minute sequence depicting the arrival of Pilate in Palestine while Barabbas launches a guerrilla-style attack on the Roman legions (the attack itself takes up 5 minutes).

And there are other gratuitous Barabbas scenes, too.

MattPage, I believe you're on holiday now, but I hope you see this, cuz you may know more about what was original and what was added than I do!

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Right have just checked out Eisenschitz's Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. According to that the added stuff (at the studios request) was the action scene 3/4s of the way through (which I guess is the jewish rebellion on Palm Sunday), and the additon of an extra character called David (played by Richard JOhnston), who filled a similar role to Judas from what I can make out.

THe Sermon on the Mount scene seems to have always been a key part of it for Ray ("Ray saw it as the linchpin of his film"), and there's a lengthy quote of him explaining why he wanted to film it as he did.

By then the film was 3 1/2 hours, and although Ray thought it was necessary, Margaret Booth (head of the editing dept for the studio thought it needed cutting, and so the Richard Johnson character was cut out! THis led to the continuity getting blown to pieces and Ray and Yordan (who despite having long been friends weren't on speaking terms during the latter stages of filming), both regretted a line from Pilate being cut "Pagan, Jew or Christian, there is only one GOd and we are all involved" (which IMo would have been a disatrous line, although it neatly smmarises the undercurrents underneath the film. The scene beween barabbas and Judas in the caves was then shot to replace one cut involving the David character.

The ending scenes Ray filmed saw Jesus farewelling on a mountan ad then on a Lake and the closing scene we have was shot after Ray had left the project.

And then of couse they dubbed all Hunter's dialogue as well so he had a lower more serious voice, although I'm not sure when this was. The only scene added after previews was the one between the two Marys.

All in all its pretty depressing reading, an anti-auteur theory story, and a good explanantion as to the film's weaknesses. I hope that clears it up for you.

Matt

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  • 1 year later...

Great piece on King of Kings, Matt.

Just one thing to add. Yordan was a fascinating guy, but he was essentially a script factory -- kind of hybrid uber-producer and front -- who subcontracted out the work to blacklisted writers, sometimes several at time, while supervising and making the deals.

There are some people who claim that Yordan never, EVER, wrote a script after a certain point in his career.

Preminger famously broke the blacklist in 1960 by getting Trumbo credit on Exodus, but I'm willing to bet that King of Kings - given the human, political (marxist) angle was written by one of Yordan's "angels".

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I'd noticed that a few of Yordan's entries on IMDb noted that someone else did the work, but hadn't thought that K of Ks might have been penned by someone else, probably I guess cos it was his name on the novel as well (although that means nothing really I suppose).

Thanks for the info

Matt

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  • 3 months later...
Link to the short thread we had on this film two message boards ago.
Since that link is dead now, and it doesn't turn up at web.archive.org at all, here is the relevant section of the post in question, originally dated April 21, 2003:

- - -

. . . And then there is the token Jesus movie. I was browsing through a local store recently when I noticed that King of Kings, the 1961 film starring Jeffrey Hunter, was out on DVD now, so I snapped it up. Hoo-boy. Believe it or not, this was the FIRST major Hollywood film about Jesus to be released after the invention of talkies in the 1920s -- one theory has it that nobody in Hollywood was willing to make a full-fledged Jesus movie while Cecil B. DeMille, the esteemed director of the silent classic The King of Kings, was still alive -- and, uh, hoo-boy, it's inadequate.

One gets the impression that Hollywood really didn't have a clue HOW to go ahead with a head-on portrayal of Jesus, so they ended up throwing lots of distractions on the screen, so much so that Jesus ends up being barely more than a supporting player in his own life story. Consider the fact that, in this nearly three-hour film, Jesus himself appears for only about twelve minutes in the first hour -- and even THEN, we often see no more than a shadow on the wall while Orson Welles recites some of Ray Bradbury's pretentious narration. In fact, it got so bad I turned on my DVD player's clock and made note of how long each scene was.

Now, of the film's 170:47 length, fully 13:27 is taken up by credits and overtures and intermission music, so that leaves 157:20. Of that, the footage in which Jesus plays any significant role (thus leaving out, e.g., the scene where Mary pats her 12-year-old son on the head before she and Joseph talk to the Roman soldier by themselves) comes down to this:

4:30 the temptation scene

1:36 the call of the disciples

2:44 the healing miracles (mostly shadow, narrated by orson welles)

3:14 a couple of teachings, the woman caught in adultery

2:31 jesus talks to lucius about visiting john the baptist

1:47 jesus visits john the baptist

1:27 jesus accepts judas as a disciple, heals madman

2:04 john the baptist hears jesus' voice before he is beheaded

13:07 the sermon on the mount

2:36 jesus wanders with disciples (mostly narrated by orson welles)

1:31 jesus visits mary before going to jerusalem

2:22 the triumphal entry (with a hint of barabbas planning a revolt)

5:47 the last supper

5:22 gethsemane (intercut with judas going to meet the troops)

6:08 trial before pilate

3:24 trial before herod antipas

1:54 jesus is scourged and tormented (intercut with scene of judas)

4:46 the via dolorosa (intercut with scenes of judas and barabbas)

3:44 the crucifixion

2:42 jesus is taken down from the cross and buried

2:02 easter sunday morning, the resurrection

1:45 an offscreen jesus casts his shadow on peter's fishing net

Which all adds up to 77 minutes and 3 seconds. Or less than half of the film. And that's about it, unless you count the relatively brief glimpses of Jesus during one of the early John the Baptist sequences (the first time we see Jesus, we're already 34:10 into the movie) or during the scene where Peter denies Jesus. But I figure the exclusion of those scenes is more than made up for by the fact that many of the scenes I've listed here already contain, within themselves, fictitious contaminants, such as all the stuff with Barabbas running around; for example, after the 2.5-minute triumphal entry, there is a 5.5-minute sequence in which Barabbas and a bunch of Jews lead an uprising against the Romans, which is violently suppressed. Elsewhere, after the 6-minute sequence in which Jesus is tempted in the wilderness and then calls his first disciples, there follows a 9-minute sequence in which Pilate and Herod are taunted by John the Baptist and decide to arrest him, while Barabbas lurks in the crowd, wondering if John might be useful to him; plus our first glimpse of the Baptist takes place within a 10-minute sequence depicting the arrival of Pilate in Palestine while Barabbas launches a guerrilla-style attack on the Roman legions (the attack itself takes up 5 minutes). There is also a 19-minute gap between the last of Jesus' healings and the sermon on the mount, during which Mary Magdalene pays the Virgin Mary a visit, while Pilate and Herod do a lot more talking and Salome dances, etc., etc.

Now, much of that time spent away from Jesus is spent watching characters TALK about Jesus, and the dialogue in those scenes DOES fill in some of the biblical data that is missing from the scenes of Jesus himself. But the overall effect is very strange. For one thing, the 10 minutes or so devoted to Jesus' trials ends up feeling like the culmination of the subplots regarding Herod and Pilate MORE than it feels like part of Jesus' own personal drama. In fact, he doesn't really HAVE a personal drama -- he's just someone that everybody else talks about. Yet, despite all the talking, we never really get a sense of WHY he is doing the things that he is doing -- what is the significance of having TWELVE disciples? what is the significance of the bread and the wine? what is the significance of the crucifixion? what does it all mean? The film doesn't really know how to address such questions. What's more, the Jesus of the film seems a bit clueless himself -- in one famous scene, when Jesus visits Mary shortly before going to Jerusalem, he says that a chair that needs fixing will have to wait until he returns, and Mary replies that the chair will never be mended; suddenly Jesus darts his eyes in Mary's direction, as though she has just revealed something to him.

Ah well. No use obsessing over it. (Though it's probably too late for THAT assessment, in my case. :) ) One other thing I'll mention, though, is that the DVD includes a couple of newsreels hyping the film's gala premieres, and I find it just a wee bit annoying how the announcer says that this film "brings increased stature to the industry". It just reeks of that idea that some people will cozy up to Jesus because they can profit off of him -- as the talent manager in The Guru (an otherwise utterly forgettable film) puts it, "I want to be in bed with God."

- - -

And then there was this reply that I posted to one of MattPage's comments (but I have only my reply in the archives, not MattPage's comment itself), dated April 29, 2003:

- - -

MattPage wrote:

: . . . just as Jeffrey Hunter isn't on the screen much for

: a story about His life, Marlon Brando is in relatively

: few scenes in The Godfather.

That's an interesting point, though I think it's more excusable in The Godfather's case than in the case of King of Kings. For one thing, The Godfather is based on a novel of that name, and in the novel, there is a major section which fills in Vito Corleone's back-story -- basically, all the stuff that we see in the Robert De Niro scenes in Part II. But more importantly, The Godfather is not just about Brando, but about how Pacino becomes the NEW "godfather". It's about the title, or the position it represents, more than the particular individuals who bear that title or fill that position.

The first two Godfather films are also fundamentally stories about fathers and their sons -- and this is one of a number of reasons why Part III, which is pretty much exclusively about Pacino's character, just doesn't belong in the series.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 1 year later...

Jeffrey Wells on composer Miklos Rozsa:

Rozsa sometimes let his costume-epic scores become slightly over-heated, but when orgiastic, big-screen, reach-for-the-heavens emotion was called for, no one did it better. He may have been first and foremost a craftsman, but Rozsa really had soul.

I wrote this four years ago: "Listen to the overture and main title music of King of Kings, and all kinds of haunting associations and recollections about the life of Yeshua and his New Testament teachings (or at the least, grandiose Hollywood movies about same) start swirling around in your head. And then watch that Nicholas Ray's stiff, strangely constipated film (which Rozsa described in his autobiography as 'nonsensical Biblical ghoulash') and ask yourself if Rozsa didn't capture the spiritual essence of Christ's story better than what Ray, screenwriter Phillip Yordan and producer Samuel Bronston managed to throw together.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 11 months later...

Wow. Jeffrey Wells ponders whether director Nicholas Ray INTENTIONALLY had the Jesus of his movie dress up in the same colours as James Dean in Ray's earlier film Rebel without a Cause.

rebelred.jpghunterdeepred.jpg

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 3 months later...

From the latest flashback piece by longtime Variety columnist Army Archerd:

July 19, 1960:

GOOD MORNING: Nick Ray filmed the "King of Kings' " Sermon on the Mount Sequence in 10 days this week; this week he starts battle sequences -- requires eight days. Spain temperature was in the high 90s during the sermon sequence and lenser Franz Planer was a heat victim...Rip Torn, playing Judas, confessed he consulted four N.Y. psychiatrists to get their interpretation of the betrayal!...
2008 Update:
Rip Torn, on the phone from N.Y. indeed recalled the location of "King of Kings" when he was greeted on arrival at the set by director Ray with "All ye of little faith --". Torn recalled that the location was indeed an inferno and despite it he praised the performance by Jeff Hunter, as Jesus, in the difficult shoot. He admitted, although some were offended by the film, the cast was well received. They also included Siobhan McKenna, Robert Ryan, Hurd Hatfield, Viveca Lindfors and Rita Gam -- plus the narration by Orson Welles, and the magnificent Miklos Rosca score. . . .

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 2 years later...
Blu-Ray coming March 29: "Specs have yet to be revealed, but supplements will include: The Camera's Window of the World, premiere newsreels, and theatrical trailer. Suggested list price for the Blu-ray is $19.98."

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 3 months later...

Glenn Kenny offers a few screen-caps from the film in defense of his briefly articulated thesis that there are, despite what some might think, genuine auteurist touches in this film, e.g.:

Expressive in a different way is the lengthy low-angle tracking shot of Roman-built columns in Jerusalem bearing graven images; over this shot Ryan's evangelist intones a jeremiad against Roman rule, beginning, "Behold the sign of the pagan..." It's a very modern shot against which the film places an impassioned protest against, in a sense, modernity; there's a sense of definitively opposing values here that strikes me as highly apposite to Ray's overall cinematic project.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 4 months later...

Wow. Jeffrey Wells ponders whether director Nicholas Ray INTENTIONALLY had the Jesus of his movie dress up in the same colours as James Dean in Ray's earlier film Rebel without a Cause.

Whoa. Turns out Jonathan Rosenbaum made a similar point way back in 1973:

Unlike Godard, Ray cannot be considered a major stylistic innovator, at least not yet: it is much too soon to determine whether the use of multiple images in WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN will bear any fruit. (Tati’s PLAYTIME, which utilizes multiple focal points within single images, was released six years ago, and its innovations have not yet made any visible impact on other directors.) But it is equally evident that in his choice of subjects as well as his treatments of them, Ray has frequently been ten years or more ahead of his time: consider his handling of youth culture in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), drugs in BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956), ecology in WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES (1958), and anthropology in THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS (1959–1960). From this point of view, KING OF KINGS (1961) is Ray’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, not only for its somewhat pop (and pop art) treatment of the Gospels avant la lettre, but more specifically because the flaming red garments and rebellious stances of its Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) take us right back to James Dean in his zipper jacket. (As though to remind us of this icon — currently on display in Henri Langlois’s Cinema Museum — Ray is seen wearing a near-replica in WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN.)

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 2 years later...

Today being the Feast of the Ascension, I have written a blog post on the Ascension of Jesus in film, and this is one of the 12 films highlighted (though it technically does not show the Ascension).

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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