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Blu-ray Review: King of Kings (1961)

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The Film

Nicholas Ray was a master at subverting the surface features of his films to reveal a more sinister — and interesting — subtext beneath. Suburban placidity gets the once-over in Rebel Without a Cause and especially Bigger than Life, while the typical heroics of the western ring false in Johnny Guitar.

What makes his 1961 biblical epic King of Kings so disappointing is there’s hardly a hint of anything below the handsomely mounted surface textures of the film. Like most of Hollywood’s biblical productions, this telling of the life of Christ suffers from a serious case of bloat, but even individual scenes are totally inert. Flat recreations of biblical scenes are propped up with opulent production design, and occasionally the sheer amount of extras in a scene (like in the Sermon on the Mount) results in something approaching spectacle, but the film mostly feels like it’s perfunctorily checking boxes.

Narrated by Orson Welles, the film tells the story of the life of Jesus Christ, from his birth in a crowded stable in Bethlehem to his public appearances and miracles to his eventual betrayal and crucifixion. The WASPy Jeffrey Hunter plays Jesus as an adult, and if his complexion and blue eyes weren’t such a distraction, it might be apparent just how little dynamism he brings to the role. This is a Jesus that seems more passive that compassionate. One can only imagine what he would’ve done if the film included the scene where he drives merchants out of the temple.

King of Kings attempts to give the story some narrative energy through a subplot where Jewish freedom fighter Barabbas (Harry Guardino) plots to overthrow the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. This film explores this element of the story with more detail than probably any other Jesus film, but it ultimately feels like more of a distraction than anything. The contrast between Barabbas’ violent methods and Jesus’ peaceful approach is made over and over ad nauseam. With the film running close to three hours as it is, this padding seems especially unnecessary.

King of Kings is by no means the worst film version of Jesus’ life, but it’s more notable for the seeming lack of Ray’s directorial stamp anywhere and some interesting casting (besides Hunter, we have Robert Ryan as John the Baptist and Rip Torn as Judas) than its majesty or reverence.

The Blu-ray Disc

King of Kings is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.4:1. This is an overall quite lovely transfer of the film’s 70mm Super Technirama Technicolor presentation. It doesn’t reach the astonishing level of the recently released Ten Commandments, but the deeply saturated colors reach a near film-like level and the image is consistently sharp. Object fine detail can be a little muddy, particularly in medium and long shots, but close-ups feature lots of crisply rendered detail.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is most notable for its sweeping presentation of Miklos Rozsa’s grand score. Dialogue is a little hollow, but cleanly presented.

Special Features

DVD leftovers are all there is here, with a brief, sort-of making-of featurette titled The Camera’s Window of the World, two premiere newsreels and the theatrical trailer, all looking pretty rough in standard definition.

The Bottom Line

The Blu-ray upgrade is certainly worth it for those who enjoy the film, but anyone looking to see Ray on Blu-ray should head toward Criterion’s release of Bigger than Life.

About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.