Over the next five weeks of Lent, The Irish American Catholic Mets’ Fan will be discussing five different movies based on the Gospel. The first installment will cover the 1961 film, King of Kings.
Holy Redeemer, Word Incarnate, Prince of Peace, and…captain of the Enterprise?
Yes, some five years so before he was Captain Christopher Pike in the original scrapped pilot for Star Trek, Jeffrey Hunter was Jesus, as we discover when he appears a fair amount of the way into the biblical epic King of Kings. As Christ, Hunter looks a lot like the image of Christ so ingrained in your head thanks to everything from Renaissance painting to that hippie-looking friend of yours you instantly nicknamed Jesus. The shoulder-length hair, the beard, the gentle eyes that nevertheless seem to penetrate the core of your soul– that’s Jeffrey Hunter in this film and that’s Jesus. That physical representation is so firmly etched into our imaginations, it seems like we hardly bother to try to imagine him looking any other way. We know what Jesus looks like and we know how the Gospel story goes: blah blah angel, yadda yadda Mary, so on so forth stable, et cetera et cetera baptism, this and that miracles, yakkity schmakitty Last Supper, whoseywhatsit crucifixtion, yap yap Resurrection, roll credits.
To be honest, having only seen bits and pieces of it around Easter, that’s what I expected from King of Kings: some straightforward, neat and clean, unchallenging, unimaginative rehashing of the Gospel rather than a retelling of it. Nothing controversial, nothing that would call overt attention to Christ’s call still-revolutionary acts like loving your enemies and serving he poor, just something safely pious that years from now they’ll be able to show on AMC during Holy Week.
To a point, that’s exactly what you get with King of Kings. When anyone says anything taken directly from the Bible, it’s the King James version: Jesus teaches that you can’t serve “both God and mammon,” not God and money. For people who were still many many centuries away from sewers and laundry detergent, those Israeli peasants sure do look good as do the Hollywood-perfect settings in which they live. Everything is big and sparkling, reminding you that this is very much a biblical epic in the tradition of The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. This is a nice safe Sunday school Bible story…to a point. Watch it from beginning to end and you start to notice a few things.
You notice this isn’t a one-to-one retelling of any particular Gospel. The action begins with Rome’s conquest of Israel 63 years before Christ’s birth. We see an occasional miracle, but several, from the wedding feast at Cana to Lazarus are conspicuously absent. Just before heading to Jerusalem, Jesus stops off in Nazareth “to spend time with his mother” (as the uncredited Orson Welles solemnly narrates). The Gospel is added to and subtracted from as freely as any other movie based on literature.
Characters are either built up beyond any literary basis or inserted into the story whole. Barabbas (Harry Guardino), the insurrectionist freed rather than Jesus when the mob demands it of Pilate on Good Friday, gets far more than the brief mention he gets near the end of the actual Gospel. He’s at the center of perhaps the main theme of King of Kings: the question of whether Jesus is a political messiah sent to drive out the Roman overlords or something more…or less if you’re Barabbas, who tries to hijack Jesus’ followers on Palm Sunday as part of a massive uprising against the Romans in Jerusalem The character Lucius is woven into the story as a Roman version of the Greek chorus, commenting on the story while also standing just barely apart from it. Lucius serves as a sort of captain of the guard for Pontius Pilate and although a Roman, adopts a vaguely neutral stance in the conflict that arises between John the Baptist and later Jesus and Herod and the Roman authorities. He’s loyal to the empire (“as you have a duty to your God, so I have one to my emperor” he quite fairly explains to Jesus in a scene in which Jesus comes to visit John the Baptist in prison), but also finds Jesus to be no threat to it. He refuses to participate in the slaughter of the Holy Innocents after Jesus’ birth explaining that as a Roman soldier he doesn’t go around murdering children (are we talking about the same Rome, Lucius?) On Good Friday, he serves as a kind of defense attorney for Jesus (people on trial before a Roman governor had access to legal counsel?). Both characters have screen time comparable to Jesus himself.
For all the hue and cry over the The Passion of the Christ, you can’t help wonder if maybe this movie is where Mel Gibson got his ideas. The Crucifixtion isn’t especially tough, but plenty of other scenes are. When the Roman general Pompey makes his way to the doors of the temple in Jerusalem to start plundering, his path is blocked by a line of elderly Jewish priests. Pompey doesn’t hesitate in ordering them wiped out with spears with a wave of his hand. Barabbas’ Palm Sunday rising in Jerusalem is put down mercilessly and graphically. More disturbing than the violence is the dance of Salome, which is so erotic all Brigid Bazlen is missing is the stripper pole and which is also equally creepy when you understand that her seven veils number is being done for her stepfather. If this is something you can show endlessly on AMC during Holy Week, it shouldn’t come on until after the kids have gone to bed. It’s not all nice and safe.
That extends to some of the theology Kings of Kings addresses (and the moment it addressed any theology, it addressed more than I expected). The Judas question is actually dealt with beyond just making him a simple villain. In King of Kings, Judas (Rip Torn) is portrayed as being one of Barabbas’ rebel zealots (which some theologians have postulated he actually was) and plans to use turning Jesus over to the authorities as a means of “forcing his hand” and making him come down on one side or another once and for all. Preach peace or lead the rebellion. Love our enemies or drive them out. Pick one. The “forcing his hand” theory is one of several that have been kicked around for years about what Judas’ motivation was for doing what he did. Whether you buy it or not is almost beside the point. What’s impressive is that King of Kings, made way back in 1961, is willing to look at Judas as being complicated enough to have a well-meaning if misguided reason for selling out Jesus rather than just sticking with the more palatable idea that he was a flat scoundrel looking to make a fast thirty pieces.
If you’re looking for a Gospel story at the Children’s Bible level, it’s not here with King of Kings. Not entirely anyway. It looks nice, but it’s not squeaky clean. There’s plenty of thous and thys and verbs that end in -eth, but it’s not as old-fashioned as you might think and it’s not a verbatim regurgitation of the Good News. It roughly retells the story while taking liberties that help to address matters as profound as what everyone from Jesus to Judas to Barabbas to Pilate to Herod was thinking when they each did what they did and what each may have thought of the other. It’s a poetic interpretation, meaning it’s not exactly faithful to its source material, using it only to tell the story it wants to tell. The thing that’s most appealing about it is the source material itself and there’s enough of that in there to prove that for all the Hollywood you see and for all the liberties taken, you can’t screw up the Gospel too much. A huge portion of the Sermon on the Mount is there and everything from the Beattitudes to the urging to pray for those who persecute you was plenty subversive and challenging even in 1961 (and now) that this self-consciously handsome movie can’t disguise it. Jesus is still gentle and disturbing. So too, it has to be noted, is the Blessed Mother (Siobhan McKenna) who never raises her voice above a whisper but shows herself to be iron-tough when he tells Jesus simply “I’m coming with you” when he sets off to Jerusalem and his doom. It’s an enjoyable and thoughtful interpretation but it’s not quite a holy card. And that’s what makes it enjoyable and thoughtful.
Next in the Hooray for Holy-wood series: The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964, directed by Paolo Pasolini).