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The life and death of Jesus from a political perspective
on April 11, 2004
The 1961 remake of "King of Kings" (it was originally a 1927 silent film) is the most political of the Hollywood epics on the life of Jesus, a genre that would include "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "Jesus of Nazareth" but not "The Last Temptation of Christ" or "The Passion of the Christ." By "political" I mean that Jesus is born into what is clearly a political world. The film begins with Pompey the Great, the Roman conqueror of Israel, profaning the Temple. The Jews are presented as an enslaved people, put to work in quarries to produce the stone for Roman monuments, making it seem like we are covering the same ground as "The Ten Commandments." Herod the Great is presented as being an Arab who is installed as the "King of the Jews" and who crucifies hundreds of his rebellious subjects.
Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) is apparently married to the daughter of the Emperor Tiberius, and therefore has aspirations of becoming the next Caesar. Pilate and Herod Antipas (Frank Thring), along with their wives, apparently eat dinner together every night. "King of Kings" also has the distinction of having the biggest battle scene in a movie about Jesus as the men of Barabbas (Harry Guardino), pointedly called patriots and not zealots, attack a column of Roman centurions. At one point Pilate asks, "How many men does he have?" The centurion replies, "God, Jesus or Barabbas?" "Barabbas," answers Pilate. The Jews are clearly a political problem for the Roman procurator, who is offended that Jerusalem is bedecked with statues of the Roman gods.
When I watched this film again today it seemed clear to me that screenwriter Philip Yordan is not happy with the story found in the Gospels and keeps creating new scenes. John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) goes to see Mary (Siobhan McKenna) and Jesus goes to visit John in prison (so much for the rather sobering idea that the only time these two cousins ever met was when John baptized Jesus). John argues for Jesus to go to Jerusalem at the start of his ministry, and when Jesus chooses a different path, John goes instead, making it really easy for Herod Atipas to arrest him. Meanwhile, Mary is overly resistant to her son beginning his ministry; no doubt this is intended to be foreshadowing of the death of Jesus, but it does reflect poorly on her faith (compared this to the powerful portrayal of Mary in Mel Gibson's film or the serene faith of the mother of Jesus in "Jesus of Nazareth").
In many ways this film does not trust Jeffrey Hunter with the role of Jesus that he is playing. Many of the miracles are done with heavenly music playing and often Orson Welles narration (written by an uncredited Ray Bradbury) takes great pains to tell us what we are seeing (Welles has a curious habit of pronouncing all of the letters if the word "apostle"). I do not think Jesus says anything before he saves the adulteress with the wonderful first stone criteria. But then this film does a complete about face and lets Hunter do what I think is the longest segment in one of these films concerning the Sermon on the Mount.
Ultimately, this is the pivotal scene of "King of Kings." The key thing is that this is a Jesus who comes down from the Mount to walk amongst the people and talk more directly to them. Hunter does have a few good moments, where he clearly comes across as trying to persuade the multitude to be righteous instead of just preaching platitudes. This is a Jesus who is trying to relate, which results in a curious juxtaposition of a Sixties "cool" Jesus and a political climate reflecting a Fifties "Cold War" mentality.
This film was produced at the start of the Sixties, so Jesus is not really being portrayed as a hippie, but the long hair is certainly there. Hunter's natural stare has an inherent element of rebuke in it, so it is not like this Jesus is any type of hippie. The attempt at a more naturalistic delivery by Jesus does work at times during the Sermon, and it is the one scene that justifies watching this epic. Hunter's performance also stands out in comparison to those of his disciplines, where neither Royal Dano as Peter or a young Rip Torn as Judas distinguish themselves in any way; Pilate and Herod Antipas are the two most interesting characters in the film, set up because for this film the crucifixion of Jesus is clearly a political act.
It was explained to me once how each of the four Gospels has a different perspective on the life of Jesus and essentially a different purpose. In looking at the major films made about the life of Jesus you can probably make a similar claim. Of those films, "King of Kings" with its heavy political themes becomes the easiest one to so label.