King of Kings (1961) (DVD-2003)
Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski
hard to believe that it has taken until the year 2003 to see the release of King of
Kings on DVD. King of Kings was
Samuel Bronston’s 1961 widescreen super-production based on the life of Jesus.
Starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus and featuring thousands of extras, the film was a profitable moneymaker for distributor
Metro-Goldwn-Mayer and has been a perennial favorite on television and home video.
of Kings, both producer Bronston, and MGM hoped to achieve a cinematic blockbuster along the lines of MGM’’s prestigious
and acclaimed Ben-Hur which had been filmed a year before. While King of Kings was not the smash that Ben-Hur had been, it did prove to be lucrative. But because Bronston’s
production was of such an epic scale, he had to enlist MGM as the distributor in order to obtain enough money to finish the
film. Nearly 400 sets were constructed, many of them massive—one
of them over one hundred feet in height. A cast of thousands was recruited—in
fact, the famous Sermon on the Mount featured 7,000 extras alone!
was lensed in 70mm Super Technirama (the same film process used for Kubrick’s Spartacus). 70mm, or its horizontal film-gauge equivalent, was particularly good for spectacles
and films with impressive landscapes as evidenced by its use for other films of the time such as Ben-Hur, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Lawrence of Arabia and The Ten Commandments.
response to King of Kings has varied and changed over the years. Initially, critical response was mixed. Also the casting
of Jeffrey Hunter in the title role has been alternately criticized and praised. Film
critic Leonard Maltin has stated of Hunter’s casting: “While he may not have been the movies’ most convincing
Son of God, he was surely the prettiest. This boyish blue eyed actor, almost
absurdly handsome, probably couldn’t have held his own with Olivier, but his screen persona combined virility and sensitivity
in a way atypical of most Hollywood leading men.” Hunter’s
career wound down after his portrayal of Jesus and he died young after a head injury at age 42.
were the film’s subplots involving the activity of Barrabas and Judas. The
film suggests Barabbas and Jesus as wishing to achieve similar ends--a change in existing conditions--but using opposite methods,
one advocating violence, while Jesus preaches peace. The film also attempts
to explore a rationale Judas may have had for his own actions.
King of Kings is
typical in many ways of the wide-screen spectaculars of the era. Where it departs
from convention is in its depiction of Jesus. 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.
assessment of King of Kings (which incidentally was directed by Nicholas Ray—celebrated
for his direction of the James Dean film Rebel without a Cause) finds the film
received in a more positive light than was experienced at the time of its release. Part
of this may be due to the quality and obvious care of the production and the splendid performances as well as the absence
of computer generated spectacle.
that had always received unanimous acclaim was the stirring musical score by Miklos Rozsa which you have been hearing in the
background as I speak. Rozsa faced the rather difficult task of composing a score
for an epic Roman spectacle about Christ after just having finished scoring the same essential subject matter for Ben-Hur. But Rozsa clearly rose to the occasion and his magisterial
theme for Christ is indelibly inscribed in the viewer’s consciousness and is one of those themes one simply can’t
get out of one’s head afterwards.
dramatically by no less than Orson Welles, the film also successfully exploits its Super Technirama cinematography. The 70mm wide-screen film spectaculars of the era gave the moviegoing experience an added dimension. This type of wide-gauge film is rarely used in film production and presentation in
today’s Hollywood; the original impact of these larger-than-life movies is unlikely
to be again experienced. That is where this DVD does a great service. The quality of the image transfer is so good, the detail, clarity, color and sharpness of the photography
is so vivid, that this DVD release is the closest approximation on home video to what it must have been like to experience
this film in state of the art movie palaces of the time. The DVD does not have
any restoration credits, but it should when a transfer is this good.
many extras on the disc—but the short documentary footage on location during the filming of the Sermon on the Mount
and the footage of the film premieres are important historic documentations.
The DVD release
of MGM’s presentation of Samuel Bronston’s The King of Kings is a vivid
reminder of a time when spectacular battle sequences, epic pageantry, lush symphonic music, striking photography and dramatic
storytelling combined to provide the cinematic experience of a bygone era which is well worth revisiting on DVD!