KING OF KINGS - Blu-ray review

Although it may rely a little too heavily on spectacle, it features fine acting, direction, and photography. On Blu-ray it makes a splendid showing.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."
--Matthew 4:4

Of the many movies made about the life of Christ, this 1961 production from MGM is probably the most towering and inspirational of the lot, without being excessively pious, sentimental, or preachy. Although it may rely a little too heavily on spectacle (the filmmakers shot it, after all, in an era of super spectaculars), it features fine acting, direction, and photography. On Blu-ray it makes a splendid showing.

MGM went all out when they made the '61 version of "King of Kings," a remake of Cecile B. DeMille's 1927 epic, only doing it one better by portraying the entire life of Christ rather than his final few years. Samuel Bronston ("El Cid," "55 Days at Peking," "The Fall of the Roman Empire") produced the picture; Nicholas Ray ("Johnny Guitar," "Rebel without a Cause," "55 Days at Peking") directed it; Miklos Rozsa ("The Thief of Bagdad," "Spellbound," "Ben-Hur," "El Cid") composed the music; Harold F. Kress ("Mrs. Miniver," "The Yearling," "The Teahouse of the August Moon," "How the West Was Won," "The Greatest Story Ever Told") edited the film; Philip Yordan ("The Naked Jungle," "El Cid," "55 Days at Peking," "Battle of the Bulge") wrote the script (with a little help from the "New Testament" and several historical documents); and Ray Bradbury ("The Martian Chronicles," "The Illustrated Man") wrote the narration, uncredited. Impressive.

The film tells the story of Christ from His birth to His crucifixion and resurrection and does so with intelligence and grace. Rozsa's score gets a bit melodramatic at times but has an appropriately lofty appeal. Clashes between Jewish freedom fighters and Roman soldiers are surprisingly exciting. And the cinematographers do a terrific job capturing the breadth and beauty of the Spanish landscape, where they shot the film almost entirely on location, the Sermon on the Mount especially grand and inspiring.

But the movie is at its best conveying the narrative without ever overtly deifying Jesus. The movie never attempts definitely to portray Christ as a mere man, a teacher, a rabbi, a magician, a prophet, a messiah, a messenger of God, or the Son of God Himself. This is a Christ for all viewers--Christians, Jews, atheists alike. Even the miracles of Jesus seem less than miraculous and more simple acts of faith. Yet there is always a dignity, a spiritual nobility about Christ's actions that set Him apart as a Son of God. The movie has it both ways.

Nonetheless, the movie could never have succeeded without its actors, all of whom perform well for director Ray. In the lead role is Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus. The knock against him was that he looked too young for the part, a ridiculous criticism since Hunter was thirty-five at the time and playing a character several years younger. Yes, this was the same Jeffrey Hunter who a few years later would star in the pilot episode of "Star Trek" and walk away from the series. Just think: He could have become William Shatner. Hunter died prematurely of a stroke in 1969 at the age of forty-two. A shame; he was a fine actor who never got the credit he deserved. His Jesus is humble and straightforward. There is no attempt on Hunter's part to create a mighty God or a bigger-than-life Presence. He delivers his lines in a perfectly natural, unforced manner that makes his words all the more powerful.

The supporting cast are equally impressive. Orson Welles narrates, doing so in a reverent, somber, and soothing voice that, again, never overdramatizes the tale, never tries to elevate it to monumental significance through any means other than the words themselves.

Siobhan McKenna plays Mary, the mother of Jesus; Hurd Hatfield is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea; Carmen Sevilla is the other "Mary" in Jesus's life, Mary Magdalene; Harry Guardino is Barabbas, the Jewish guerrilla leader; Ron Randall is Lucius, the Roman commander sympathetic to Jesus; Rip Torn is Judas, who would eventually betray Christ; Frank Thring is Herod, the Jewish king sucking up to the Romans; Robert Ryan is John the Baptist, who prepares the way for the coming of Christ; Brigid Bazlen is Salome, the young woman who so captivates Herod that he'll do anything for her; and many more.

Despite the film being too long for its own good and a bit slack in several places, there were moments in "King of Kings" that brought tears to my eyes, something I hadn't remembered the first time I saw it and something I totally didn't expect. It's quite a good picture, actually, whether you happen to be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, believer, nonbeliever, or not.

Using MPEG-4/AVC encoding and a dual-layer BD50, Warner engineers capture the scope of the film's original 70mm Super Technarama and Technicolor. Nowhere does the packaging indicate that this is a complete restoration, yet the picture quality is excellent throughout, so I suspect WB did a good deal of touch-up work on an already good print. The screen is admirably clean and clear, a thin veneer of natural film grain providing just the right amount of texture to the picture. Colors are brilliant, with an abundance of deep reds, burnished golds, and lush greens. Definition is mostly sharp, very occasionally a tad soft, with no signs of edge enhancement or filtering. In all, the PQ rivals Paramount's Blu-ray restoration of "The Ten Commandments," if not so completely solid or rich or so consistently well delineated.

The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sounds a bit harsh by today's standards, with little treble or bass extension and even less dynamic range. There is a decent front-channel stereo spread, not too wide but, as I say, adequate; and almost no surround activity that anyone would notice. Fortunately, the dialogue is easy on the ear, thanks to the soundtrack's quiet backgrounds and smooth midrange response.

I'm not sure there would have been much that Warner Bros. could have provided in the way of extras even if they had had the room for them. As it is, we get a well-worn, four-minute vintage featurette, "The Camera's Window of the World," in standard screen and black and white; a two-minute première newsreel, also in standard screen and black and white; and a widescreen theatrical trailer.

Other than those few things, the disc includes a generous fifty-two scene selections; English, French, German, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English and Italian captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes housed in one of those flimsy Eco-cases that all the studios seem to love so much these days. I don't.

Parting Thoughts:
Before receiving the Blu-ray edition for review, I hadn't seen "King of Kings" in almost fifty years, not since it first came out, and I hadn't remembered how very good it was. In my mind, I kept thinking of it as just another big, long, slow-moving Biblical epic, and while it does display some of those qualities, it's much more. It paints a picture of Christ that the viewer can interpret in any number of ways, depending on how the viewer approaches the subject. With its discerning script, understated performances, and often stunning cinematography, the movie stands the test of time and remains a moving testament to the power of peace and love.

"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."
--Luke 11:9


Film Value