The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, April 9, 2015

King of Kings

Is there a more daunting task as an actor to play a man millions of people around the world believe to be the Son of God? Sure, any portrayal of a real-life person has to be intimidating, but playing Jesus? That's gotta be on a whole other level. As I learned from the Internet, this movie was the first American film to show an actor's face portraying Jesus Christ. Here it is, a childhood favorite and one I revisited this past Easter weekend, 1961's King of Kings.

This is the story of Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter), a man who grew up in tumultuous times in Judea as Roman occupiers keep the Jewish/Hebrew people oppressed under their thumb. Revolts and rebellions rise up from year to year as Judea seeks its freedom, its independence to get away from the control of the Roman empire. Into this world, Jesus grows up into manhood ready to do his life's calling. Having worked his entire life and living in the Galilean town of Nazareth as a carpenter, Jesus in his late 20's ventures out into the world to embrace his calling as the messiah, the son of God who will teach the world how to live. It is a message that preaches peace but will no doubt send ripples throughout the Roman empire. As Jesus travels around the country with a small group of disciples, his name, his message and his words begin to spread. His followers increase, but so does the danger around him as many want nothing more than to kill him before he becomes too dangerous.

A plot description for a film about the life of Jesus Christ is pretty unnecessary, but I had to lay things out at least a little bit. In the age of the historical film epic, this entry from director Nicholas Ray has always been one of my favorites. I grew up watching it with my Mom every spring, and even years later, it holds up. If anything, I liked it more as a 29-year old viewer as opposed to a 10-year old kid. A whole lot of history is covered in 168 minutes but things never feel rushed. 'King' was filmed on-location in Spain with countless lavish sets and natural backdrops adding an incredibly authentic feel to the proceedings. The TCM print shown on Easter looked PHENOMENAL. Just a stunningly good-looking visual movie. The musical score from composer Miklos Rozsa is pretty perfect too, big and booming mixed in with softer, quieter and just as effective emotional moments. Listen to a sample HERE.

What struck me most in this 1961 epic about Jesus is that...well, it isn't just about Jesus. Ray and writer Philip Yordan use Jesus, his life and his teachings to tell a story about the times this man lived his life. Yes, the focus is on him, but it isn't exclusively focused on him. The casting is very solid with Jeffrey Hunter playing Jesus. Up there with The Searchers as his most famous, respected and recognizable role, Hunter does an excellent job here. It isn't the most human part, but that's not his fault. Hunter is sincere and likable and genuine with a script that keys in on Jesus' teachings more than getting to know the man as a person, as an individual. What works so well is the quieter moments and the impact we see as viewers that this man has on those around him, both the believers and the non-believers. Hunter never became the huge star he could have before his tragic death in 1969, but performances like this show his acting skill.

Four years later, a similarly-themed Jesus epic -- The Greatest Story Ever Told -- would set the bar for ridiculously overdone all-star casts. That ain't the case here. Ray fills out some major roles with recognizable faces and some stars, but this is even't close to being considered an all-star cast. Oh, and that's a good thing. The best supporting part goes to Ron Randell as Lucius, a Roman officer in the garrison at Jerusalem tasked with figuring out if Jesus is a threat to be dealt with. A human, questioning part, and a really good one. Next up, Irish actress Siobhan McKenna as Mary, Jesus' mother, making the character memorable with just a few quick scenes. And then there's the most recognizable face, Robert Ryan getting a meaty part as John the Baptist, a prophet more fiery than Jesus but who preaches the same peaceful message, one predicting the coming of the Son of God.

Who else to look for? If you're familiar with Jesus and the gospels, you know the names. Also in the cast are Pontius Pilate (Hurd Hatfield), Roman governor of Judea, Claudia (Viveca Lindfors), Pilate's more open-minded wife, Herod Antipas (Frank Thring), the Judean governor, his wife, Herodias (Rita Gam), and his stepdaughter, Salome (Brigid Bazlen), disciples Peter (Royal Dano) and Judas (Rip Torn), Barabbas (Harry Guardino), and Mary Magdalene (Carmen Sevilla).

Working consistently throughout the 1950s, director Ray carved a niche for himself as a director of smaller scale human dramas. A biblical epic about Jesus? Not his usual cup of tea. For all the immense scale though, it is the softer, quieter scenes that work. Quick montages of Jesus' miracles set to Rozsa's score are beautiful and effective. The sermon on the mount boasts all sorts of massive scale but is effective because of the dialogue and Hunter's acting. Certain events are glossed over more than others with a bigger focus late on the Passion and Resurrection. Obviously not nearly as graphic as the Passion of the Christ, it remains a moving finale.

King of Kings works because it doesn't try to be gigantically epic. It is content to tell a big story -- maybe history's BIGGEST story -- and to tell it well. Well worth it though, definitely worth checking out. Also listen for Ray Bradbury's uncredited narration, Orson Welles reading said narration, and future familiar face from the spaghetti western genre, Aldo Sambrell, making his screen debut.

King of Kings (1961): ****/****


  1. Much prefer GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD with Sydow.

  2. I like that one, but the cast just becomes too much that it takes me completely out of the movie. Love the locations, the musical score, and von Sydow was excellent though, agreed.

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