• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Saturday, January 07, 2012

    Nativity Scenes Revisited - Part 3: King of Kings (1961)

    I know Christmas ended yesterday in the west, but as there is at least one regular reader of this blog that celebrated Christmas yesterday, I thought I might make at least one more entry in this series before moving on. In fact, there might be at least one more give the last news from Mark Goodacre). Besides I got a new Blu-Ray / up-scaling DVD player yesterday and this is is usually the first Bible film I head for in these circumstances.

    For a three hour film, the Nativity sequence is surprisingly short at just three and a half minutes, although, as with other entries in my series, that's excluding the slaughter of the innocents. In this film that's quite a significant point. The Nativity sequence is just a part of a much bigger prologue, which last for around 18 minutes in total. The thrust of this prologue is political and historical rather than theological. The film is big on the political context of the Romans invading and oppressing the Jews; the violent attempts to overthrow them by some; and Jesus' coming as the Prince of Peace.

    The Nativity scenes themselves are a bit mixed. There are a couple of astounding long shots, but the closer scenes look too obviously fake. This is made worse by the voices not being in-sync with the actor's mouths.

    Orson Welles narrates over a series of shots of the holy couple starting as specks in the distance and then in a wide shot and then in a mid shot. The next scene is Bethlehem which the voice notes has been "much corrupted by Rome" (again inserting the political) and Joseph struggling to find somewhere for Mary to give birth. Eventually they find the cleanest stable, not only in Bethlehem, but one suspects, the whole world.

    One thing that is striking is that the birth happens entirely "off camera". There's not even an establishing shot accompanied by relevant sounds or a fraught looking Joseph. The first we see of it is a remarkably perky looking Mary laying down the new born king.

    There's a beautiful shot of the magi following the star, one of those that relies on its movement for it's composition - I couldn't find a screen grab that captured its essence - shots like this are truly cinematic. Then it's back to the studio as the magi dismount and continue on foot to the rather twee "ah-ah-ahs" of the background chorus. Unlike the magi, the shepherds are not mentioned, but have already arrived and there's a couple of classic Nativity scenes before the scene ends in a classic pose. Interestingly this nicely composed shot bears very little relation to the reverse shot that is shown directly before it.Like other artistic interpretations of Matthew's gospel there is a certain level of parallelism between Jesus the new born king and Herod the Great. Here however things are ramped up. The scene after the stable scene is of Herod and his son who will also go on to be a king (or at least a tetrarch) in discussion with Lucius about the "King of Judea". Interestingly Herod senior almost seems to defer to his son as to the best course of action. Herod junior plays it with a straight bat, preferring to bide his time one the one hand whilst simultaneously giving tacit approval to his father's horrendous solution. Lucius objects but obeys, yet it's here that his long path to salvation begins - it seems as if this is the first time Rome's orders have ever clashed with his own morals.

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