King of Kings (1961)


(director: Nicholas Ray; screenwriter: from the New Testament/Philip Yordan; cinematographers: Manuel Berenguer/Milton Krasner/Franz Planer; editors: Harold Kress/Renee Lichtig; music: Miklos Rozsa; cast: Jeffrey Hunter (Jesus Christ), Robert Ryan (John the Baptist), Siobhan McKenna (Mary), Rip Torn (Judas), Hurd Hatfield (Pontius Pilate), Brigid Bazlen (Salome), Harry Guardino (Barabbas), Frank (King Herod); Runtime: 165; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Samuel Bronston; MGM; 1961)

A sweeping and at times stirring biblical epic.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Some disdainful critics called Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings, “I was a teenage Jesus.” That was a boorish reference to Ray’s youth rebellion pic “Rebel Without a Cause.” In due time, the pic regained respectability and is now considered one of the better Bible pictures–actually more thoughtful than most. This religious epic is told in a simple, straightforward narrative manner, covering the 33 years from Jesus’s birth through the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. It does a good job imaginatively playing out the relationship of Jesus with John, the 40 days in the desert, the choosing of the apostles, the Sermon on the Mount, Judas’s betrayal at the Passover seder or Last Supper and Jesus’s trial. The film portrays the thief, Barrabas, as a firebrand rebel leader of the Jewish resistance who advocates violence as a means to an end; While Jesus is his opposite, who preaches a message of peace as a means to an end. By building his drama around this religious and philosophical conflict, Ray establishes a tension that belies the undercurrents of a power play for support of the people, as he asks the viewer to contemplate the true meaning of power.

The film’s narrator Orson Welles (Ray Bradbury was the uncredited writer of the narration) was so disenchanted with the project, he wanted his name removed from the credits. Philip Yordan (Johnny Guitar) penned the quirky script into a political one and one of betrayal–more related to history than the usual Hollywood conventional pieties. Jeffrey Hunter’s Christ wears a shiny red cloak, something James Dean would look comfy in, but he nevertheless delivers a credible and restrained performance. Robert Ryan excels as John the Baptist. Harry Guardino does a fine job interpreting the fiery Barabbas as if he were a radical Zionist freedom fighter bent on political gains. Siobhan McKenna’s Mary is seen in a sympathetic light, though she seems older than the usual Mary portrayal. Hurd Hatfield captures the dandified nature of his Pontius Pilate, though in an over the top manner. Rip Torn hams it up as Judas, but is fun to watch even as he becomes a tragic figure. Still there are far too many others in the large supporting cast that have superficial roles that lack depth.

Miklos Rozsa’s score is effective. The film’s lush Technicolor and magnificent visuals and widescreen effects are pleasing to the eye. The location seems authentic, as well as the costumes. Things move along in an intelligent manner despite reports of producer Samuel Bronston’s constant meddling. Overall it’s a sweeping and at times stirring biblical epic, a film that Ray should not have been crucified for in such an unchristian manner for doing it in his own inimical style.

King of Kings was previously filmed in 1927 as a silent by Cecil B. DeMille.