Bible Studies

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Spectacular split-focus diopter lens shot, one of many…

KING OF KINGS, the Nick Ray version, really is a good film, it just doesn’t have a very good Jesus. A shame, since everyone else in it, apart from a few dubbed Spaniards, brings something interesting to the feast. The array of bad guys are amazing fun, rather like in DUNE (in epic cinema, only the villains get to enjoy life) — Gregoire Aslan and Frank Thring make a smutty brace of Herods, Hurd Hatfield and Viveca Lindfors are a smooth Mr and Mrs Pilate, and Brigid Bazlen a red-hot jail-bait Salome. Also Rita Gam from SIGN OF THE PAGAN — and Orson Welles’ VO mentions “the sign of the pagan” being nailed to the temple walls, in straight-faced homage to the Sirk cheesefest.

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The clothes-line of evil.

Harry Guardino, though apparently determined to give us his best Burt Lancaster impersonation, is awfully good as Barabbas, and Rip Torn (unrecognizable in his svelte and vulpine youth) is an ace Judas. Flawed is interesting.

Of course, people like Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, or Royal Dano as Peter aren’t allowed to play flawed (except in Peter’s denunciation scene), but both manage some good scenes. RR is just such a powerhouse. I bet even when they cut his head off he was still the tallest man in Judea. Not sure about his caveman costume, but you can’t have everything.

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“I found his casting offensive at the time.” ~ Martin Scorsese.

As everybody already knows, Jeffrey Hunter as J.C. is the weak link in the Super-Technirama chain. It’s American Epic Acting at its most lifeless, without the muscularity of a Charlton Heston to give it basic dynamism. When Ray stages the Sermon on the Mount on the move, it’s terribly effective (one of the things Scorsese borrowed for his LAST TEMPTATION was the idea of Jesus in action, rather than posing for a stained glass window as in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD), but doubly hampered by the facts that Hunter is a poor orator and walks awkwardly.

The best thing I can say about Hunter is that his smug smirk when he’s being all mysterious adds a bit of irritation to the character, which is something few actors have pursued (well, maybe Ted Neeley in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR). You’re not supposed to want to slap Jesus. The sensation is surprising, and therefore interesting, and so the movie starts to breathe.

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Thring enthroned.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems to be drowning under the waves of Miklos Rosza music. I love M.R., but he does tend to do the expected thing, especially in epics. It’s schmaltzy, and that’s fine in BEN HUR but it’s not the effect Ray’s aiming for here, mostly. One the other hand, the Welles VO, scripted by Ray Bradbury from an original idea by God, rarely lets up but gives the film the grandeur and religious emotion Hunter lacks. Welles may not have been the greatest actor ever, but he had a terrific gift for evoking awe and terror in his voice — hammy, perhaps, but effective, like the film.

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The production design ¬†and costumes by Georges Wakhevitch are incredibly imaginative, convincing and distinctive. Not quite as monumental as some other Bronston productions of the era, though certainly not skimping on grandeur, but the use of patterns, wall paintings, and even graffiti creates a unique world that recalls Fellini’s call for his SATYRICON to be “a science fiction film set in the past.”

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What nobody seems to talk about is the film’s intent. The assumption may be that a Bronston film has no intent, beyond spending the Hollywood money trapped in Franco’s Spain, creating something that could be exported and profitable. But a Ray movie does have a cause, or at least a personal angle.

The first things that struck me was the this was a truly post-Holocaust bible movie. The opening features Rabbis executed by firing squad, and bodies being slung into a pit and burned on mass pyres. Accordingly, the film plays like the antithesis of Mel Gibson’s antisemitic sermon of hate THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST — here, it’s stressed that Herod is not Jewish, and Pilate, rather than being portrayed as a struggling politician trying to make the best of a rotten assignment, as is often the case, is a hissy, sadistic oppressor, and an idiot who stirs up political foment against Rome by his insensitive response to local traditions. The scene where the mob is offered Jesus and chooses Barabbas happens off-screen — we hear about it along with Barabbas (“Your supporters yelled loudest”) and the dramatic point being made is that Barabbas is moved by the greatness of Christ, not that the durn Jews killed Jeebus.

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The other shift of emphasis is away from the miraculous. Ray shows healings, some of which are staged to look as if Jesus might be raising the dead, but we don’t get any unambiguous statement that he does so. The drooling maniac is healed in a way that doesn’t look supernatural so much as spiritual or even psychological — Jesus embraces him and brings him to his senses. The walking on water and feeding of the five thousand bit is only described to us in a report to Pilate — the strong impression is that these wacky tales may be merely mass hysteria and rumour-mongering.

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THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST similarly tried to soft-pedal the magic-working, showing Jesus using herbs and stuff in his healing (though Willem Dafoe does cure one guy using a Thelma Schoonmaker jump-cut to vanish his deformity). You can’t altogether strip the wizardry from the New Testimony without upsetting the very people who are likely to buy tickets, but Ray’s shift of emphasis confirms that he’s not particularly a religious artist, but definitely one involved in humanity — violence, sexuality, politics and psychology are his daily bread.

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This impressive closing shot, by the way, was merely a test Ray did to see if the idea had legs. The producers, who had abruptly tired or pouring money into the mega-production, refused to let him reshoot it, and stuck the temp version in. Another compromised Ray ending — if you have the DVD of REBEL, you can see the last shot the movie was supposed to have — one of the best widescreen closing shots ever executed. The day somebody decided not to use it (after Ray had walked off the picture in post), Warner Brothers must have been home to the largest concentrations of human stupidity anywhere in the world.

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10 Responses to “Bible Studies”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Can’t believe I’ve never seen this!

  2. I think I’d seen most of it, but in the wrong ratio on TV. Doesn’t count.

    The film may not be a masterpiece of drama but it’s a masterpiece of widescreen composition, maybe more so than any of Ray’s other films.

  3. “I bet even when they cut his head off he was still the tallest man in Judea.” You are brilliant! That’s all I’ve got.

  4. Thank you sir!

    I just reached the intermission on The Greatest Story Ever Told — I’m having a long Jesusy weekend. I think this one’s even crazier than the Ray, and its reputation as a snoozefest is quite undeserved.

  5. You’re in fine form here, David. I loved it from that line about “a smutty brace of Herods” onward. Hunter was pretty, though, in a teen idol kinda way. (Should I be the first to invoke the famous title for the film, “I Was A Teenage Jesus”?) And the desire to slap The Pretty Savior isn’t *exactly* out-of-place (cf. Bunuel’s Jesus in LA VOIE LACTEE). One additional subtext, though, that you don’t talk of — cf. the Barrabas scene — is between-the-lines anti-Blacklist resentments. This comes, of course, with the presence of Yordan’s name in the credits and Bronston’s penchant for using blacklisted script contributors.

    (Side Note: I had a friend, back in college days, who was endlessly amused by the fact that this film’s Savior displays hairless armpits during the crucifixion scene. A sign of sanctity, one guesses.)

  6. Writes my dear friend George: ” I heard that after playing Herod Antipasto in that [Frank Thring] said of Jeffrey Hunter: ‘F*ck what a Christ! Christ what a f*ck!’ “

  7. Hahaha!

    My favourite Bunuel Jesus is probably the portrait in Nazarin: http://dcairns.wordpress.com/2009/05/14/jesus-cripes/ (bottom).

    The blacklist stuff seems present in The Greatest Story Ever Told too, or maybe it’s simply that the ethical issues of informing, accusing and speaking truth to power were anticipated by the biblical story.

  8. You’ll find a much better Jesus HERE

  9. Ridiculously, I’ve never seen The Garden. And I’m not going to watch it on YouTube, that’s for sure. I saw Jarman talk about it when it was just going to be a little documentary about his place in Dungeness. It blossomed.

    A screening on DVD is required!

  10. Of give it a look. Derek’s Jesus is gay male couple. And his Mary Magdalene sings “Think Pink!” from Funny Face.

    It was made more collectively than any of Derek’s othe films as he became quite ill and nearly died halfway though the shoot. Everyone continued on, and he rallied for the editing. Then it was on to Edward II or Chistopher Marlowe Meets Cole Porter

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