It is difficult to view the 1961 version of “King of Kings” without wondering whether the creative talent involved in the production had any familiarity with the inspiration for their work. Although it was not unusual for Biblical epics to take some fanciful liberties with the subject matter, rarely has the sacred text been so wildly rewritten.
“King of Kings” was pushed forward by Samuel Bronston, a Romanian-born independent producer who advocated the use of Francisco Franco’s Spain as a setting for Hollywood epics – the lower costs of producing large-scale films in Spain, coupled with Franco’s happy cooperation in providing hordes of extras from his military forces, made the country an ideal location for creating cost-effective extravaganzas. Bronston zeroed in on the life of Jesus for a film after Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1959 commercial success with “Ben-Hur” – the studio agreed to distribute Bronston’s work, which carried a then-impressive $8 million budget. And although the film was shot in Spain, film historians have pegged it as the first sound-era Hollywood studio production to offer an on-screen Jesus as the central character of a film.
Oddly, Bronston picked Nicholas Ray to direct “King of Kings.” Ray excelled in moody melodramas such as “In a Lonely Place” (1950) and “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) and in offbeat happenings including the brilliantly warped Joan Crawford Western “Johnny Guitar” (1954) and the Arctic adventure “The Savage Innocents” (1960) with Anthony Quinn as an Eskimo – which, of course, inspired Bob Dylan’s ode to “Quinn the Eskimo” in his beloved song “The Mighty Quinn” – but he had no previous experience at the helm of a costume epic.
Not helping matters was the casting of Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus. Hunter was a handsome, blue-eyed screen presence who appeared in several well-regarded 1950s films including John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) and “In Love and War” (1958), but few people acknowledged him to be an actor of great dramatic range. Hunter himself may have been confused on his casting, giving Hollywood gossip diva Louella Parsons the astonishing explanation, “Christ was a carpenter and 33 years old, and I am 33, and I suppose my physical measurements fitted the description in the New Testament. At the time of His death, He was robust, and not a delicate man.” Hunter was fitted with a reddish-blonde wig that looked conspicuously artificial and a red cloak that seemed a bit flashy for the character Hunter was playing; Hunter also shaved his body hair for Crucifixion because it did not match the color of his wig.
But the problems with Hunter were only obvious when was on screen, which was not that often in “King of Kings.” Philip Yiordan’s screenplay assigned Jesus to a near-supporting role, with a mad mix of violent and off-kilter characters taking up much of the running time. Yiordan opted to open the story with Pompey’s conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BC, which set the foundation for the sociopolitical circumstances in the period around Jesus’ birth. The Nativity happens in a split-second – no sooner have Mary and Joseph entered the manger than the Three Wise Men show up. Identified by narrator Orson Welles by their folkloric monikers of Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, they arrive with ornate gifts, although Mary (played by the red-haired Irish theater star Siobhan McKenna) looks at their presentation with seemingly mild indifference. The lack of surprise follows Mary throughout “King of Kings” – further into the film, she is visited at home by John the Baptist and then even later by Mary Magdalene, and she acknowledges both guests with an air of vague resignation over her son’s penchant for attracting scruffy friends.
Yiordan’s screenplay kicks around the Biblical facts with FIFA-worthy gusto, misidentifying Herod the Great as an Arab and having him order the Roman centurions to carry out the Massacre of the Innocents – never mind that the Roman legions would not have taken orders from a puppet king installed by Rome. Yiordan also invented the character of Lucius, the centurion who coordinated the massacre and would later intersect with Jesus while taking the census in Nazareth when Jesus was 12. Lucius also turns up to serve as Jesus’ legal advocate during the trial by Pontius Pilate. Herod’s death in the film is sped up by a fatal action from his scheming son Herod Antipas (again, no historic record of that), and the film gives the impression that he inherited his father’s entire realm (Herod’s kingdom was divided by Rome among his three sons).
The film also imagined Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias as having a chummy relation with Pontius Pilate and his wife Claudia (although she is not identified by name in the Gospel of Matthew, the only Biblical book that acknowledges her existence). The two couples hang out for dinner and conversation, occasionally joined by the high priest Caiaphas, who sourly reminds everyone that the people dislike the religious leaders of Judea because they were chosen by Rome. (Caiaphas’ observation comes from the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus and not the Gospels.) Herod Antipas, Pilate and Caiaphas keep a surveillance on John the Baptist – and, yes, Salome shows up for an appropriately Oscar Wilde-worthy hoochy-koochy dance that results in the baptizer’s head on a silver platter, although Jesus makes a surprise visit to the dungeon to see John before his death. And, as luck, would have it, Lucius the centurion is also running the dungeon and allows John to enjoy some quality time out of his chains for Salome shakes her stuff.
But there is also Barabbas, who is leading his army of Jewish rebels against Rome. He staged a brazen ambush on Pilate and then tried to stir an uprising in Jerusalem after Jesus enters the city riding on a donkey. Barabbas’ second in command is one Judas Iscariot, who was torn between Barabbas’ muscular pushback against Rome and Jesus’ pacifist teachings. You know how this turns out – the film isn’t that revisionist!
With all of these shenanigans going on, there is precious little time for Jesus. As a result, the bulk of His miracles and His teachings don’t make it to the screen. The Sermon on the Mount does get a nice chunk of footage, with Jesus wandering through the masses while dropping his insights with a surprising degree of insouciance. Jeffrey Hunter’s reedy voice fails to deliver the majesty of the sermon, and it is surprising that anyone outside of those standing three feet from Jesus could hear what is being said.
Oh, and narrator Orson Welles insists on using a hard “t” pronunciation of “apostle.” Don’t ask why.
“King of Kings” is certainly a big film, with tons of extras running about in various action sequences and overcrowding the mount for Jesus’ sermon. But producer Bronston failed to deliver on the level of star wattage that one associates with Biblical epics. Robert Ryan as John the Baptist was the biggest name of the bunch, with B-listers Hurd Hatfield, Rita Gam, Viveca Lindfors, Guy Rolfe and Ron Randell, along with then-up and coming actors Rip Torn (as the neurotic Judas Iscariot) and Harry Guardino (as the Brooklyn-accented Barabbas). Perhaps in gratitude for being able to shoot in Spain, Bronston cast Spanish stars Carmen Sevilla (as Mary Magdalene), Gerard Tichy (as Joseph), Antonio Mayans (as the apostle John) and Luis Prendes (as the penitent thief); the Spanish stars’ lines were badly dubbed with voices that did not quite match their appearances.
Reviews of “King of Kings” were mixed to negative and the box office return was below what Bronston had anticipated. An unknown Hollywood smart-aleck dubbed the film “I Was a Teenage Jesus” because of Hunter’s youthful appearance. But Hunter would claim in a 1964 interview with the Chicago Tribune that the film had a positive impact on many people.
“I still get an average of 1,500 letters a month from people who saw me in that film and share the beauty and inspiration I derived from it with me,” he said. “There are some things that can’t be measured in dollars and cents and how can anyone put a price – even the price of a million-dollar career – on the role of the greatest Being this mortal world has ever known?”