The Warner Bros’ blockbuster King of Kings (1961) was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Ben Hur (1959) by once again combining the story of Jesus with a miscellany of sub-plots. Even the giant letters carved in stone in the King of Kings title design are an obvious mimic from the recent predecessor. The problem none the less is that King of Kings doesn’t have the content and style to pull off a successful comparison with knockout films such as Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments, Spartacus or even the faulty but entertaining Cleopatra. In a word, King of Kings is boring. The movie depends too much on the narrator Orson Welles telling us what’s going on, how people feel and what’s the significance rather than letting the film properly show the story. Actually, Orson realized the movie provided poor drama and tried to get his name removed from the list of credits at the last minute.
Too much in this story of the Christ is missing. The best of the miracles are not shown on-screen, including the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on water, giving the impression again that the movie is a series of loosely connected incidents rather than a seamless tale.
In comparison, The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur are exciting from the very beginning with plagues and pestilences and jealousies and exciting chases all holding the attention of the cinema audience and later the DVD addict. In particular, Ben Hur weaves the story of Jesus cleverly within the adventures of the main character played by Charlton Heston. But King of Kings has no real drama, just a series of snippets from the first century of the Christian era.
True, in King of Kings, we have Jeffrey Hunter playing Jesus. But he lacks majesty and is obviously just another actor with blue eyes and a serious look. When he preaches, he does so in a low voice which obviously could not have been heard by the multitude gathered at the Mount. He answers their questions such as “How is it possible for me a tax gatherer to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?” in canned tones as if he is the chairman of a sixth form debating society.
Other characters waft in and out without being part of any interwoven plot. John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) isn’t allowed to do much acting and appears as another cardboard cut-out, howbeit one without a head towards the end.
The waspish Frank Thring, who brilliantly played Pontius Pilate in Ben Hur, spends most of his time on screen as king Herod lusting after his step-daughter and trying to make Jesus perform miracles. Needless to say he fails all round.
Guy Rolfe plays the high priest Caiphas but isn’t given any scope to show his mettle beyond moaning that governing Judaea is very difficult with all the factions and revolutionaries. Indeed, the only actor to shine in the entire movie is the relatively unknown Harry Guardino who plays the freedom fighter or terrorist, the rascal Barabbas. In a complete movie devoted to Barabbas, Antony Quinn was to take the lead role.
Since the treatment of Jesus is too pious to draw the crowds to the theatre or to the DVD recorder the sub-plots needed to be very important.
But even potentially salacious diversions such as the dance of Salome and the suggestions of incest in the ruling family of Judaea are not built up to any sort of significance. Interestingly, the crucifixion scene at the end is about the same length as Salome’s dance and equally unconvincing.
The execution of Jesus shows none of the gruesomeness which accompanied the Roman way of death. As a result, we are left wondering what all the fuss was about.
As a grand historical epic with a cast of thousands, King
of Kings was meant to be a follow-up on the success of Ben Hur. Although the landscape in King of Kings looks authentic, with its desert and rocky wilderness, and the sets and costumes are generally good, there isn’t enough in the plot to hold the attention of the watcher.
\This may be why, in the cinemas of the 1960s, many patrons failed to return after the curtain came down at half time for the Interval.