Review - King of Kings (1961) (DVD-2003)
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King of Kings (1961) (DVD-2003)

Warner Home Video

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski


It’s 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.


With King 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!


The screen-epic 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.


The critical 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.


Also controversial 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.


Recent critical 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.


One area 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.


Narrated 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.


There aren’t 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!



2003 Dennis Kwiatkowski/Celluloid Dreams



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