Back in the early Sixties, playwright and prolific screenwriter Philip Yordan had been experiencing contractual challenges at Columbia, and accepted an offer from colleague Nicholas Ray to work on the script for what ultimately became "King Of Kings;" Samuel Bronston's attempt to cash in on the Epic Biblical craze after "Spartacus," while distributor MGM must have felt the project would make an interesting adjunct to their own mega-success "Ben-Hur" - a hope certainly evident in the "Kings" graphic poster design.
Yordan ignored the original script draft (then titled "Son of Man"), which consisted of excerpts from the Bible, and allegedly using a team of writers, helped fashion a script for "Kings" within six weeks, making more sense from the original draft's structure, and arguably adding a sexual subtext that elevated Christ's disciples to enraptured, spiritually engorged, doe-eyed fanboys.
With the massive "El Cid" also on the go, Bronston was still able to pull off the kind of grand spectacle which audiences had come to expect at the time. Like "Solomon and Sheba" and "Spartacus," "King of Kings" was photographed in Super Technirama 70, Technicolor's own widescreen system that employed a spherical lens to unsqueeze the image to a scope ratio, and Warner Bros.' new DVD transfer is just plain gorgeous. The film's key cinematographers exploited Spanish locations, particularly vast hills, mountainous terrain, and beautiful set decor.
Though lacking the massive sets of "Ben-Hur" and "Fall of the Roman Empire," "Kings" is successful in expressing a kind of intimate grandeur; a suitable approach for what's arguably the story of a hippie who bucks the establishment and is killed to prevent any further rumblings against a military occupation. Nicholas Ray, then in need of a good job (and later to tackle Bronston's " 55 Days in Peking" [M]), took a stab at Christ's life, and frequently experimented with an early diopter lens that permits two sharp focal points - an extreme facial close-up, and far distant position to remain in focus simultaneously. Frank Thring as the murderous Herod Antipas has several high-kitsch scenes that benefit immensely from Ray's oddball camera positions (including a wild overhead angle), and Christ's crucifixion is heightened by a POV shot that must have been quite trippy on the big screen.
Bronston furthered composer Miklos Rozsa's Biblical career phase - spanning "Quo Vadis" and "Ben-Hur" - by requesting another grand choral score, and while less thematically diverse than "Ben-Hur," Rozsa's stirring themes boom though the surround speakers. "King of Kings" also has a weird sound mix - whether affected by budget constraints, mediocre location sound, or an attempt to stylize the film's intimate storyline, the actors' dubbing comes from dampened sound booths, giving the dialogue channel a rather unreal quality. Sound effects are rather limited, though the final storm after Christ's crucifixion rumbles through most of the discreet channels.
The DVD's extras include "The Camera's Window Of The World" - a grainy black & white promo shot during a day's shooting for Christ's sermon on the mount (a complex sequence involving giant Technirama cameras maintaining artful compositions and vistas, while Christ wanders through 7,000 extras to answer queries and criticisms) - and two promos covering the dual premieres in New York and Los Angeles. The first one follows key above-the-line participants as they arrive all pretty (including Carroll Baker and a youthful Nicholas Ray), while the second lacks original sound, and has a score cut playing, as the film's stars (including Jeffrey Hunter) arrive, along with several celebrities (Yvette Mimieux, Jayne Mansfield, David Janssen, and uber-buxom Sabrina, from the sleaze classic "Satan In High Heels").
A clean anamorphic trailer combines still paintings with scenes from the mountain sermon, with the usual screen text superlatives.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan