• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Thursday, July 27, 2006

    King of Kings A Few Additional Comments

    Having already reviewed Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), and written the accompanying scene guide I recently watched it again, for the first time in widescreen, and noticed a few extra things I’d like to comment on. Whilst most critics view the film as a bit of a disaster, no doubt due to the power struggles etc. during production, there are several places where the artistry of Nicholas Ray still shines through, particularly visually.

    One thing I noticed on this viewing was this shot of Jesus at the Last Supper (above). Whilst even early Jesus film’s like The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ avoid showing him with a halo, many Jesus films find alternate, subtler ways to continue this tradition. For example, Godspell depicts Jesus with a 70s "afro"-style hair cut; The Greatest Story Ever Toldplaces him in front of a lighter coloured arch. Here, Ray places a light on the back wall directly behind Jesus actor Jeffery Hunter’s head.

    I also noticed the visual similarity the film makes between the betrayal of Jesus, and the way Herod the Great is betrayed by his son Herod Antipas (as he murders him). Both scenes involve overhead shots, and the betrayer walking up steps en route to their betrayal. Both are attempting to climb up in the world under their own steam. Also in that scene we see the death of one King of the Jews – Herod, prefigure that of Jesus. As Herod falls back down the stairs he lands on his back in a cruciform position, a point which Orson Welles’s narration also notes.

    Despite the vast backdrops this film is shot against, and the spectacle of scenes such as the Sermon on the Mount, Ray also creates a far more intimate Jesus film than those that preceded it, with more of a focus on the motivations and emotions of the key players. This is partly due to the number of close ups in the film, in particular there are two shots where Jesus’s eyes fill the screen. There are also a number of close ups of Judas’s face. Whilst DeMille also uses close ups they feel more detached and objective. DeMille often clouds his close ups with soft focus effects, or refrains from showing Jesus looking directly at the camera. The notable exception – where he heals the blind girl – is the warmest part of HB Warner’s portrayal.

    Alongside the use of close ups we also see a number of shots where Ray physically arranges the actors in places which speak volumes. There are several places where although two characters are talking, the one nearest the camera has their back to the other who stands to the rear of the shot. Such placing, which was popular in the 50s and sixties in films such as Paul Newman’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof signifies the one character trying to shut out the other, and prevent them from coming any closer, or perhaps having their mind on other things. The distance between the characters signifying some other form of distancing, or that their thoughts are far away. In the final scene with Jesus at his mother’s house, Jesus tries to talk about unfinished tasks from his days as a carpenter, but his mind is clearly elsewhere. It takes Mary to articulate what is on Jesus’s mind.

    Whilst I’m discussing some of the visual references of the film, I may as well mention the only place where this film deliberately references the earlier film The King of Kings (1927). On the road to Calvary we see the end of Jesus’s cross bump its way along the street, and just as in the DeMille film the camera moves in for a close up.



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