Academic journal article CineAction

Nicholas Ray's King of Kings

Academic journal article CineAction

Nicholas Ray's King of Kings

Article excerpt

Most critics see decline in the last phase of Nicholas Ray's career resulting from his mistaken decision to direct two epics produced by Samuel Bronston. Although Ray's King of Kings (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963) receive support from Victor Perkins and Geoff Andrew, others are usually dismissive. (1) When King of Kings premiered, it became designated as just another overblown Biblical epic, labeled "I was a teenage Jesus", and treated according to conventional premises of the "decline and fall" thesis regarding a director's final works as inferior to earlier achievements. King of Kings is not without flaws. But it has been unjustly marginalized in most examinations of Ray's work. Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise never ask Ray about this film in their otherwise comprehensive interview. Neither does Ray volunteer any information. Bernard Eisenschitz regards it as disappointing. (2) However, while King of Kings is not one of Ray's major achievements, it does contains significant features of authorship, cinematic style, and historical verisimilitude, making it far superior to contemporary counterparts, to say nothing of Mel Gibson's virulent anti-Semitic The Passion of the Christ. (3)

King of Kings differs from the average Hollywood biblical epic. The genre flourished in the silent and early sound era. But the Cold War conservative Imprimatur of "In God We Trust" upon the American body politic during the Eisenhower era used Christianity as a method of social control. This was not just confined to the religious epic. Apart from McCarthyite inspired devotional tracts such as The Next Voice You Hear (1950) and conformist science fiction works involving different types of divine involvements into human affairs such as Red Planet Mars (1952) and The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), declarations of faith also appeared in those hesitant 1950s explorations into social commentary. Martin Ritt's No Down Payment (1957) contains an early scene where Pat Hingle's brattish sons ask him why he does not go to church on Sundays in a manner resembling the Hitler Youth and Parsons's children in George Orwell's 1984. Despite revealing the dark side of suburbia, the film concludes affirmatively with the central characters, squeaky clean Jeffrey Hunter, devoted wife Patricia Owens, and Prodigal Father Pat happily leaving church. Declaring the faith in Hollywood was not just confined to contemporary Biblical epics. Aided by new technologies of Cinemascope and Stereophonic sound, The Robe (1953) and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) enabled the bombastic barnstorming vocal delivery of Jay Robinson's camp Caligula to overwhelm the audience, to say nothing of heavenly choruses. The genre simply did not attract directors designated as auteurs by Cahiers du Cinema unless they were inclined to deliberately subvert its premises as Robert Aldrich (and blacklisted screenwriter Hugo Butler) did in The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (1961). Indirect Marxist elements appeared within a narrative also emphasizing the powerful role of incestuous lesbian Queen Beria (Anouk Aimee) rather than Stewart Granger's moody patriarchal hero Lot.

Nicholas Ray had a difficult task ahead of him in terms of past precedents. He soon faced problems with Samuel Bronston, screenwriter Philip Yordan, and MGM who would refuse him final cut. Cecil B DeMille had filmed an earlier silent 1927 version starring H.B. Warner whom he carefully quarantined away from other actors and technicians between shots who might have disturbed the reverential qualities he wished his star to evoke. Most depictions of the Savior would reveal him as an unearthly presence as in D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), sometimes depict him from behind, or as an off-screen presence privileged to the reverential gaze of Charlton Heston in William Wyler's Ben Hur (1959). The most cumbersome depiction occurred in George Stevens's The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) starring Ingmar Bergman's Max von Sydow surrounded by a contemporary gallery of "Who's Who in Hollywood" headed by John Wayne's overweight Roman Centurion uttering that unforgettable line "Truly, this was the son of Gawd. …

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