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I was warned not to do it. Actors who play Jesus are supposed to have a hard time getting other roles to follow, but I felt this was a myth. After all, how can you be typecast as Christ?Jeffrey Hunter, King of Kings (1961)

Over Easter weekend, the Financial Times (FT) featured an article which tells us that biblical films are once again all the rage. With some (mostly sacrilegious) exceptions, we haven’t seen the likes of them for nearly 50 years.

Religious films are highly complex, particularly when one digs beneath the surface.

On Easter Sunday, I watched the 1961 version of King of Kings, which I recorded on Good Friday 2014, when BBC2 broadcast it.

Yesterday’s post discussed famous Episcopalian Cecil B DeMille‘s 1927 silent version with the same title. Both films take a different story line with the story of Jesus Christ according to the New Testament — and a few other sources, including their own imaginations.

The difficulty in making such films must be a testament to God’s sovereignty; man is incapable of perfectly translating a Bible story, especially our Lord’s life, to film. Some are better than others, yet, we can all sit back and criticise them.

After watching King of Kings, I did a bit of research, the results of which are below.

First, for all those who think that Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings looks dated, wait another 40 or 50 years and watch favourite movies which were released this year. If you don’t see how dated they have become by 2060, your children and grandchildren will certainly help point the way!

Another bit of evidence points to the manliness of the stars playing our biblical heroes. The FT points out in a comparison between then and now that Jeffrey Hunter’s Jesus in 1961 was promoted as showing ruggedness combined with integrity and humility. They ask whether the same could be said of Christian Bale playing Moses.

The article goes on to say that the Bible is no longer viewed as a sacred text but as one to exploit in film. The new release, Noah, from what I have read, is a paean to what are known as eco-Christians.  Noah, apparently, becomes isolated from his family as he becomes more concerned about the environment during the flood. Hmm. Yet this is not what Genesis was trying to say. First and foremost, Noah believed profoundly in God; otherwise, he would not have built the ark so painstakingly. He knew he had to save the animals as instructed; however, never did he think they or the planet were greater than humanity or God’s sovereignty. He believed that God would help him accomplish the divine plan. That’s what makes Noah’s trial a great story, not ecoscience.

The FT says that, with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004) and Mark Burnett’s television series, The Bible, there is room for more biblically-oriented films. Son of God, a feature length film adapted from The Bible, is soon to be distributed internationally.

As Joel Osteen says — like him or not — people will be more willing to see a film about the Bible before they enter a church. They want to find out about the big picture first, then get more detail.

This perspective is what has made religious films so popular over recent decades. Have people ever asked you, ‘Who was Jesus? What was He like?’ I’ve had that question several times, especially in recent years. The answer needs to be summed up well. Hence the difficulty in making a film of His life and, to a lesser degree, of an Old Testament prophet’s life.

King of Kings was released in 1961 during the era of Roman action epics, which seemed to capture the public’s imagination. Whether by accident or design, director Nicholas Ray takes us through a Roman epic combined with the life of Christ.

Screenwriter Philip Yordan did an admirable job of portraying what John MacArthur often speaks of in his Gospel commentaries: the political situation at the time which caused the Jews to ultimately reject Jesus for Barabbas. A few years ago, I cited the Reformed pastor, the Revd P G Mathew of Grace Valley Christian Center in Davis, California, who posits that Barabbas probably was the first liberation theologian and religious terrorist. And, like so many of today’s terrorists, he came from what we would call a ‘good family’.

The dialogue in King of Kings points out that both Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth share the same first name. Judas — portrayed extrabiblically — attempts to persuade Barabbas that he and Jesus also have the same political objectives in mind, just different ways of achieving them.

Orson Welles’s solemn, uncredited narration, which atheist sci-fi author Ray Bradbury wrote, provides all the continuity the King of Kings viewer needs to better understand the political atmosphere of the day.

Nicholas Ray, noted for his films of a few years before, Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Johnny Guitar (1954), attempted to blend the epic with the biblical, meeting with stunning yet mixed results. Apparently, the original version of the film had 45 minutes of extra scenes in it which did not make the final cut.

That said, cinematographers Manuel Berenguer, Milton Krasner and Franz Planer shot the scenes in a characteristic Ray fashion. Having seen Johnny Guitar many years ago for film class — an assigned viewing — the montage (composition) with Ray’s love of bright red juxtaposed against grey and blue was instantly recognisable. (I’ll never forget Joan Crawford’s bright red lipstick in Johnny Guitar.)

Jesus wears a bright red cloak in the Sermon on the Mount scene. Mary, with a white linen veil, wears a red cloak underneath her blue one, which plays to her traditional colour theme of blue, red and white as depicted in mediaeval religious art.

The Roman prison is characteristically grey. We see the slope of stone running from the prison floor to the small barred ‘window’. We see John the Baptist (Robert Ryan), desperate to touch Jesus’s hand, repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — attempting to scale the 45-degree angle of stone in the shadows.

These small yet significant details make Christ’s life and those of the others featuring in the Gospels more real for the viewer. Granted, as with DeMille’s version, based on different events, not everything shown happened in the New Testament. However, both films are evocative stories which withstand the test of time.

The main problem was balancing the Roman swash-and-buckle scenes with those of Jeffrey Hunter’s Christ. Bible Films Blog thinks the imbalance irreparably impedes the film (emphases mine below):

On paper King of Kings (1961) should have been one of the most successful Jesus films ever made. Producer Samuel Bronston and writer Philip Yordan were just months away from making the smash epic El Cid, Nicholas Ray was one of Hollywood’s hottest new directors, Mikos Rozsa wrote arguably his best ever score, and Jeffrey Hunter, possibly the most aesthetic Jesus ever, lead an impressive cast. Somehow, even despite the face of Jesus finally returning to cinemas after a long exile, it all went wrong. Whilst this film still ranks amongst my favourite Jesus films, it’s certainly the least defen[si]ble selection.

Rozsa’s score is beautiful and parts of it will still be going through one’s head a day later, particularly the haunting yet uplifting Hosanna-punctuated piece at the end of the film.

The revered New York Times film critic of the day, Bosley Crowther, wrote:

With Barabbas’ army to maneuvre and with the Romans on the scene, with horses and haughty women and sluggish elegance, Nicholas Ray, the picture’s director, stages battles and ambuscades that have nothing to do with Jesus or with credible personalities. They are the conventional trappings of melodramatic costume films, justified by the obvious intention of action and spectacle.

On the other hand, Mr. Yordan and/or Mr. Ray have missed or disguised certain happenings that were dramatic and important in Jesus’ life. They have obfuscated the healings, avoided the miracles and skipped altogether the judgment of Jesus as a blasphemer and seditionist by the Jews. They have passed Him along directly from Judas’ kiss to Pontius Pilate’s court and have there made His trial a tedious colloquy between Pilate and a Roman centurion.

In short, the essential drama of the messianic issue has been missed and the central character has been left to perform quietly in a series of collateral tableaux.

Whilst Crowther’s criticism is certainly valid, by the end of the film, I was still moved — as I had been when I first saw it as a child — by Jeffrey Hunter’s calm depiction of Jesus. Also, contrary to what some viewers say, the last scene, with Welles citing the Great Commission (Matthew 28) and Christ’s shadow forming the vertical part of a cross against the Apostles’ fishing nets laid out in a horizontal line is a beautifully unforgettable finish, particularly as it is accompanied by Rozsa’s moving soundtrack.

Today, depicting Jesus would not be a problem. Indeed, given the liberties which film makers take with our Lord’s life, it should become a problem once again. Ray’s King of Kings was the first film to show His face as depicted by an actor since DeMille’s film in 1927. Jeffrey Hunter had to redo the Crucifixion scene because a preview audience did not like his chest hair which had to be shaved.

These days, people object to Hunter’s WASPy looks: ‘Why doesn’t he look more Jewish?’ It would be better sometimes to not judge the past by our 21st century standards. The more one reads about King of Kings, the more one realises how lucky we are it was made at all! The studio, director, producer and everyone else involved in the film were very concerned not to offend the public. Today it would be exactly the opposite.

As Celluloid Dreams points out:

For several decades, filmmakers avoided showing the face of Jesus out of respect for the subject. In fully showing Hunter’s face, the film would be perhaps the first to completely depict Jesus on screen since perhaps the silent-film era and it would be followed a few years later by Max von Sydow’s commanding portrayal of Christ in the less ornate, and more meditative, production of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

I read in the Radio Times movie review that Hunter’s initial delivery was so weak that he had to redub all his lines. Agnes Moorehead (later Endora in Bewitched), a devout Presbyterian, coached Hunter on his voice delivery and inflection.

Another site said that Hunter took this role very seriously to the extent that he avoided the other cast and crew for the most part. Meanwhile, the filming was done in Spain, and hundreds of volunteers showed up to be extras for the Sermon on the Mount scene. When Hunter appeared on set, everyone — not just the Spanish extras but cast and crew, too — were awed to see him. So, his social reticence out of respect for the role served him well.

Readers might wonder what happened to Jeffrey Hunter after King of Kings. Although he continued working in film and television, his career was never the same.

Sadly, he suffered a concussion whilst filming in Spain in 1969. His wife was alarmed to find that he could not speak and could barely move. Once back in California, she took him to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, but doctors said he had no serious injuries other than the concussion and a displaced vertebra.

On May 26, 1969, he slipped on a set of steps in his home, fell, fractured his skull on the banister and died the following day of an intracranial hemorrhage, despite surgery. He was 42 years old.

Hunter’s funeral was held at St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, California, and he was interred at Glen Haven Memorial Park, Sylmar, California.


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