What follows is the stuff of Bible film folklore. The film bombed, lead actor Richard Gere won the Razzie for "Worst Performance of the Year" and it would be almost 30 years before another major studio would venture into the Hebrew Bible again.
Surprisingly, though, King David is not nearly as bad as all that. Gere's award probably hung on the infamous nappy scene where he strips off an dances as the ark makes its way into the city. It's hard to suppress a giggle during the scene but in fairness to the filmmakers the text is clear that David's dancing was undignified and semi-naked. It's hard to imagine anything being a great deal more undignified than Gere monkeying around, but his display certainly fits the bill - it's easy to sympathise with Cheri Lungi's Michal. And, if nothing else, it's a tribute to Gere's flexibility as an actor that just three years later he was winning over hearts everywhere with his portrayal of a sex-trade client with a heart of gold.
The other things that makes King David stand up well to some of the other films about David is that it is relatively short. At 114 minutes it manages to compress the storyline fairly effectively, covering all the main events: Saul's sparing of Agag, Samuel anointing David, David playing for Saul; David slaying Goliath; David and Michal; David fleeing for his life; Saul executing the priests; the deaths of Saul and Jonathan; the Ark being brought into the city; David's affair with Bathesheba; the rape of Tamar; Absalom's rebellion and Solomon's succession. There's even time to go into some of the incidents the other films don't cover such as Abigail and his other wives. By using a narrator the film is able to skip onto the next episode fairly quickly, although sometimes this is too much, too quickly with too little explanation.
There are a few moments of interest for Biblical scholars. The film brings out and enhances some of the prophetic aspects of the story, such as Samuel using the Urim and Thummim to clarify which of Jesse's sons is to be anointed king. Samuel also follows this up by prophesying to David what else will to happen including that God will challenge him in a none-too-subtle reference to his fight with Goliath.
There are also echoes of other Bible stories, such early in the film when Saul cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It's a phrase most familiar for being spoken by Jesus on the cross, but that is, of course, a reference to Psalm 22. Psalm 23 pops up as well as one of the songs David plays Saul (a feature of many of these films). Later on Absalom is question as to the whereabouts of Amnon and answers "Am I my brother's keeper?" with a reference to Cain and Abel.
Perhaps the most significant re-appropriation of the Bible is the story of Jacob wrestling with God. This first occurs as one of Saul's dreams, but it is then read out by Ahimelech shortly before he and his fellow priests are murdered. The idea of wrestling with God and not just settling for the accepted way of doing things seems to underlie much of the film. As a boy David fought Goliath when no-one else would. As a king he danced semi-naked and shows mercy to Absalom in contrast to his advisors' reading of the law. Nathan even accuses him saying David thinks he "knows his [God's] will better than the prophets".
This pattern finds ultimate expression in his final piece of advice to Solomon, his heir. "Be guided by the instincts of your own heart, no matter what the prophets tell you. For it is through the heart, the heart alone, that God speaks to man". Whilst such a "follow your heart" message is hardly a radical for a Hollywood movie, it is certainly contrary to the understanding of the time, a fact confirmed by Nathan's disapproving face as David says it.
That's hardly surprising as Nathan is portrayed as a dour, harsh and inflexible character throughout. Even the way he challenges David by telling him the "You are the man" parable lacks any real conviction, and the film doesn't seem too troubled by the whole affair. In this film it's Bathsheba who approaches David and the screenplay conveniently rearranges the order of events to suggest that Uriah is killed before David sleeps with Bathsheba. Later when Absalom is declared dead David mourns at length, whilst Nathan stands nearby scowling and rebuking him "When will you learn to obey the Lord your God instead of your emotions".
The scene following this is, perhaps, one of the most interesting in the film. David has been planning his temple, but when he hears God has rejected his plan he picks up Goliath's old sword an smashes his model temple to pieces. What's interesting is that as he is doing this (in slow motion no less) the narrator starts by saying "Fear the Lord and serve him in truth with all your heart. Consider the great things he has done for you" before adding "And behold it came to pass that David sinned no more. And the Lord smiled upon his servant David and strengthened his hand and gave him victory over his enemies wheresoever he went" before listing all the tribes David destroyed. The act of smashing the temple seems to be the filmmakers having an unsubtle swipe at organised religion, particularly as the narrator seems to endorse his actions by talking about David having God's favour.
Yet the film can't completely cut itself free from the grasp of organised religion. Having contrasted David's faith with Nathan's inflexible religion the filmmakers desperately try to glue back on the branch upon which they had until recently been sitting. David lies on his death bed dispensing "follow your heart" advice like a 13 year old who's just discovered Facebook, but then expresses annoyance at the presence of a scribe. "Must you record every word I utter?" David enquiries irritably? "It's for the Book of Samuel my Lord. You ordered it". It's a strange attempt to lend the film some historical credibility with a rather old theory about how the Books of Samuel may have come into existence. It bears very little relation to any historically credible theory, not least because the Book of Samuel was only known by that title well into the Christian era. Furthermore, the scenes of David on his death bed come from the start of 1 Kings rather than 2 Samuel, and, of course, there David says nothing that could really be summarised by the above.
It's possible, I suppose, that this is a clever suggestion that Nathan and his ilk got their hands on "the book of Samuel" and changed David's words to something that rather more suited their purpose. Possible, but unlikely. This is, after all, a film where all too often demonstrates its 'sophistication' with slow motion running; a David that can't shoot straight; a pre-battle "I'm Spartacus" type moment; and, yes, a man in a nappy dancing like a big monkey.