Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 23, 2011)
One of many Biblical epics to appear in the era, 1961’s King of Kings attempts a fairly straight look at the life of Jesus. In 63 BC, Roman leader Pompey (Conrado San Martín) sacks Jerusalem, desecrates holy temples, kills priests and prepares to make off with the loot he expects to find. Instead, he locates nothing more than ancient runes. He plans to burn them, but in a rare act of kindness, he hands them over to a surviving holy man.
Not that this means good things for the Jews, however. The Romans enslave, murder and generally brutalize/subjugate them. The Jews have little to give them hope other than a prophecy that a leader will soon come to help them.
We go ahead oh, 63 years to find a carpenter named Joseph (Gérard Tichy) and his pregnant wife Mary (Siobhan McKenna). They come to the corrupt city of Bethlehem so she can give birth. Their offspring gains attention – and news of a “Jewish king” scares local leader Herod (Gregoire Aslan) so much that he orders his minions to slay all newborns in the area. Joseph and Mary escape, however, and the child grows up to be Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter). You probably know what happens next.
Of course, that’s the nature of this tale. When you retell the life story of Jesus, obviously the audience will likely bear strong familiarity with the material. As a Biblical epic, King doesn’t do anything remarkably well, but it doesn’t flop either; it provides a reasonably solid take on its topic.
I get the feeling King doesn’t enjoy a particularly good reputation, though I think much of that stems from its reception in 1961; it appears the movie’s become better embraced since then. I think it deserves that boost, as it musters a fairly effective overview of Jesus’ life and times.
Actually, the “times” part becomes one of the movie’s strongest points. Most films of this sort tend to be extremely Jesus-centric, but King offers a broader scope. It offers better than average background for the Roman occupation and related events, so it puts Jesus’ life in context. We don’t simply see a sermon here and a miracle there; we examine these events within a greater framework, and that makes them more involving.
The wide scope does mean a certain level of superficiality, as even with almost three hours at its disposal, King must run through most events pretty quickly. Still, it handles these well enough, and it does especially well when it nears its ending. As they should, Jesus’ last days are given the greatest importance, and the movie delves into those scenes with its strongest sense of power and emotion.
Other scenes lack the same depth, of course, but the movie usually executes them well. King comes with a generally respectable cast of actors who offer generally respectable performances. Hunter got some criticism for his attractiveness; he was mocked for being such a “teen idol Jesus”. I don’t have a problem with his looks, and he brings a nice sense of quiet authority to the role. He doesn’t become the most dynamic Jesus on film, but he handles the part’s requirements with reasonable aplomb.
King does lose some points due to often lackluster production values. Maybe the other big-budget flicks of the era spoiled me, but this one seems a bit cheap at times. It doesn’t muster the grandeur one expects, and it also suffers from some truly awful dubbing; clearly a number of non-native English speakers needed to be looped, and these elements stand out in a negative way.
Despite these problems, King of Kings provides an above-average Biblical epic. While it never quite soars, it manages an interesting take on its topic and gives us something worthwhile.