Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sick Day at the Movies -- King of Kings

Like Ken, I had a sick day at the movies (although in my case, it was more like a week). Unlike Ken, I'll hold off on the three-word reviews -- the movie I watched, "King of Kings" (1961) deserves a little more than that.

One might assume that based on about forty years of derivative and uninspired low-budget religious biopics, that the "King of Kings" would be a yawner. It's not. And unlike long-winded films such as "Pirates of the Caribbean: At Franchise's End," the over two-and-a-half-hour playing time didn't seem excessive -- it merely gave this expansive story room to breathe.

I could probably do a series of posts about different aspects of "King of Kings" that work and work well, but I'll just touch on a few.

Despite the subject matter, the production told the story in an understated fashion, which somehow made it more compelling. There're no special effects for God -- His presence made known indirectly through the characters on screen. When Christ is tempted in the desert, the devil is heard but never seen. Is Jesus wrestling with an outside tempter or an inner one? Most of us have experienced something of the latter, which gives us an emotional connection to the character.

A tenet of mainstream Christianity is that Christ was both fully human and fully divine. Conveying that convincingly takes a lot of acting chops -- and Jeffrey Hunter succeeds admirably. Although he doesn't have much dialogue, the range of expressions play across his face speak volumes. Hunter effectively shows the inner peace of Christ and has an intent stare that shows something of divine power and understanding.

He shows compassion in his final meeting with John the Baptist, clearly knowing what's in store for them both. He stares down Judas with steely resolve at the Last Supper, advising him to do what he must -- just do it quickly. His face shows the warring emotions within as he stands on the brink at the Garden of Gesthemane, and while "King of Kings" may not match "The Passion of Christ" for graphic torture, Hunter still shows us Jesus suffering convincingly (perhaps more so, as we've come to know Hunter's Jesus in good times and bad over the course of the film).

Like many other books, the first four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) underwent the Hollywood treatment -- parts of the narrative were deleted, characters rearranged, back stories changed, and so on. Herod's daughter dances provocatively for the head of John the Baptist a la Oscar Wilde's play. And that dance is no less provocative for being filmed almost a half-century ago.

Barabbas gets an expanded role in "King of Kings." Both Matthew and Mark say this prisoner the crowds chose to free instead of Jesus was an insurrectionist. In "King of Kings" he's the head of the Jewish resistance, waging a guerrilla war on the occupying Romans.

Judas Iscariot also gets some back story, which helps his motivation considerably. There's always been something of a problem with Judas. As one of the disciples he was in close contact with Jesus on a daily basis, learning from Him and seeing him perform miracles -- and yet he betrayed Him in the end for money. It seems odd that someone so close to divinity would be so unaffected by it, and the assumption that Judas was just bad just doesn't measure up.

According to "King of Kings," Judas is an associate of Barabbas, and while becoming a disciple of Jesus, maintains his friendship with the would-be liberator of Israel. Judas comes to understand that Jesus is the Messiah, but like Barabbas has a hard time fitting him into the then-popular notion of the Messiah as warrior-king.

As the story unfolds, Judas witnesses the miracles and finally understands the divinity (and power) Jesus possesses. He also knows that Jesus chooses not to use that power to topple the Romans. After Barabbas' insurrection fails, Judas comes up with a simple plan. He reasons that if Jesus was captured by the Romans and his life was personally threatened, he would act.

So Judas betrays Jesus because he believes in His power, and to place Jesus in a position to use that power to free Israel. It makes sense, and has a certain irony as earlier when Christ was in the wilderness he rebukes the devil's challenge to demonstrate His power, saying "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." In a sense, that's what Judas did. And the results were not those that anyone expected.

While lesser actors in subsequent films tried to emulate Jeffrey Hunter's performance by staring blankly up at the ceiling, so too lesser composers tried to copy Miklos Rosza's inspired score. But there's more to providing music for a religious film than just a wordless chorus and hymn-like chords.

With deft orchestration, Rozsa captures not just the mood of the scene, but also the milieu. His music for Salome's dance, while his Roman march personifies the unstoppable nature of this military force as it conquers all before it (and if you listen carefully, I think you'll hear a pre-echo of John William's "Imperial March" from "Star Wars").

At Christmas, I often use Rosza's Nativity music on my radio program. Its childlike theme use flutes, representing the shepherds, with an Oriental flavor for the Magi. The delicate scoring of his cue for the "Lord's Prayer" underlines its spiritual simplicity. And who could doubt -- after hearing the climatic finale -- that they've just seen the greatest story ever told?

I thoroughly enjoyed "King of Kings." But remember -- it's a story filtered through Hollywood. It's pretty accurate, but don't treat it as gospel.

- Ralph

And I highly recommend Telarc's recording of this score with Eric Kunzel conducting the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Great stuff!

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