Warner Bros. // 1961 // 170 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // February 25th, 2003
The Power. The Passion. The Greatness. The Glory.
The life of Jesus Christ is quite possibly one of the greatest and oldest stories ever told. Though there have been many biblical epics over the decades (including the ever popular The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur), MGM's King of Kings stands as one of the best adaptations of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazarene. Directed by Nicholas Ray (the James Dean classicRebel Without a Cause, 55 Days in Peking) and produced by Samuel Bronston (The Fall of the Roman Empire, El Cid), King of Kings is now available on DVD care of Warner Home Entertainment.
In King of Kings, we are introduced to Jesus Christ (played with restraint by Jeffrey Hunter, The Searchers), the holy son of God and Savior of man. In his time Jesus was both loved and hated, admired, and despised for who he was and what he did. The film chronicles the life of Christ as he grows from a young boy to a full grown man, the only human who ever lived without sin. Along the we meet the people who played a part in Jesus' life, including Jesus' loving mother Mary (Siobhan McKenna, Dr. Zhivago), the apostle Peter (Royal Dano, House II: The Second Story), the sniveling King Herod (Frank Thring, Ben-Hur), Lucius the Roman Centurion (Ron Randell, The Longest Day), the spiteful Salome (Brigid Bazlen, How the West Was Won), the egotistic Pontius Pilate (Hurd Hatfield, The Picture of Dorian Gray), and Judas (Rip Torn, Men In Black), one of the twelve disciples who would eventually turn his back on Jesus and bring about his demise. As Jesus spreads his message of love and peace, many will come to know him as the Son of Man, and yet others will devise a way to quiet the Messiah. But in the end, the power and majesty of Jesus life endures as his message is carried into the world, even after his crucifixion and eventual rise from the dead.
Today, there are some stories and themes that Hollywood has trepidations about. Religion -- specifically those of surrounding the teachings of Jesus Christ -- don't show up on the silver screen very often. Though there was a small resurgence in Jesus' life on television (two biopics about Christ aired on two different stations a few years back), generally Hollywood shies away from stories based on the Bible (and I won't comment on such films as Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, as my recollections of it are not complete and accurate). This is a shame since the Bible is, among other things, a very fascinating and intricate book of stories and characters.
Ah, but there was a time when producers put together spectacular events featuring some of the greatest stories ever told. In Cecile B. Deville's classic The Ten Commandments, we had Charlton Heston as Moses, preaching the word of God from two stone tablets (little known fact: Commandment 11 was "Thou shalt speak softly and carry a big NRA card"). Though there have been a few "Christian" movies playing in theaters lately, they're generally of very poor quality and far too preachy for the general public's tastes (Omega Code, Champion, and Left Behind, I'm talkin' about you). Though producer Samuel Bronston's King of Kings is filled with speeches and Christian dialogue, it does so in a straightforward manner with intelligence, honesty, and quality.
I myself am a Christian who attends church every week. I believe that Jesus was the Son of God and will be coming back someday to judge, as Rich Mullins might say, "the quick and the dead and the sons of man." However, I won't pretend to be a scholar of the Good Book -- I don't read the Bible half as much as I should. To this end, I can't say how entirely faithful King of Kings is. Certainly it gets all the major events right: Christ's sermon on the mount, the last supper, and Jesus' crucifixion are all on display with stunning visuals and color. The rest are possibly just details -- I have the feeling that for the sake of film a few liberties with the characters and dialogue have been taken. Though the movie clocks in at just under three hours (phew!), it moves briskly over Jesus' life and events by way of narration (in a booming voice that could pass for the Lord himself).
The performances are all very good, albeit in a 1960s sort of way. There is the occasional overacting, especially by a young Rip Torn as the traitor Judas Iscariot. Some other actors play it up with a side order of ham, though the late Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus Christ shows great restraint and an imposing screen presence. I suspect that the most daunting character an actor can play is that of Jesus Christ...you never know who -- or what -- may be watching. Other standouts include Frank Thring as a sleazy looking King Herod, and Hurd Hatfield as the smug Pontius Pilate (the man who would eventually lead Christ to his death). While the characterization tends to be a bit stiff and one sided, overall these are enjoyable performances by actors with respect and admiration for the material. Complimenting this is director Nicholas Ray's direction featuring some wonderful battle scenes and beautiful photography.
Of the handful of movies dealing with the Christian faith -- and Jesus Christ's life in particular -- I can easily recommend King of Kings. For me it's one of the most important stories that can be told. For others it's a beautifully shot film with decent performances and a moral message. Either way, King of Kings is worth the watch. Amen.
King of Kings is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Like the film's production values, this transfer is grand and full of life. The Technicolor schemes and patterns are a sight to behold in a glorious widescreen image. Overall Warner's work on this disc (the film was originally distributed by MGM) is very good -- the colors and black levels are all solid and dark without any major flaws hindering the image. Though there are a few small inconsistencies in the image (including a tiny amount of grain and some softness in the image), I was pleased with how nice this transfer looked.
The soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English (as well as Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono in French). I was more than happy with how full and bombastic this mix sounded. To my surprise, there are a good number of directional effects throughout the three hour running time, plus a wonderfully majestic musical score by composer Miklos Rozsa (20 Million Miles To Earth, Time After Time). Though a small amount of distortion can be heard in some of the dialogue and effects, overall this is a very enjoyable audio track that should please those in possession of a home theater system. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
I shall not judge Warner for adding only a few extra features on this first DVD edition of King of Kings, lest I be judged. That being said, the supplements included on this disc are pretty light. Making up the heart of the features are three interesting black and white shorts from the early 1960s: "The Camera's Window to the World," "King of Kings: Impressive Premiere on Two Coasts," and "King of Kings: Egyptian Theater Premiere, Hollywood, CA." The two premiere specials feature cheesy narrative ("Jeffery Hunter, youthful American actor chosen from scores of actors to play Jesus Christ...") and the stars all smiling for the camera. Each is very short but worth a look for nostalgia value. "The Camera's Window to the World" is a brief look at the scene involving Jesus' sermon on the mount and the scores of extras (over 7,000 of 'em) that were needed to make film this daunting speech. All of these are presented in a full frame version with a minimal amount of scratches and imperfections. Also included on this disc is a pointless list of the cast and their characters, and an entertaining anamorphic theatrical trailer that's so overblown that you'd think it was touting the actual Second Coming.
For those interested in checking out Christianity, or just brushing up on theology, King of Kings is a good place to start -- though keep in mind this is Hollywood's version so nothing is set in stone (except the commandments...har-har-har). Warner Bros. has done a fine nice job on the transfer and audio, and while the supplements are light, they're a lot of fun.
I have a bad feeling that baaaaaad things will happen to me if I find this movie guilty. All prior charges are dismissed!
Review content copyright © 2003 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 170 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "The Camera's Window to the World" Featurette
* "King of Kings: Impressive Premiere on Two Coasts" Featurette
* "King of Kings: Egyptian Theater Premiere, Hollywood, CA." Featurette
* Cast and Crew List
* Theatrical Trailer