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Film / King of Kings

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King of Kings is a 1961 Biblical epic about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, directed by Nicholas Ray and distributed by MGM.

One of the first Hollywood films since the silent era to avert depicting Jesus as The Faceless or The Ghost out of piety, it stars Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus — and Rip Torn as Judas Iscariot, whose role is somewhat beefed up. Philip Yordan wrote the screenplay, while the narration was written by an uncredited Ray Bradbury and spoken by an uncredited Orson Welles. The music score was composed by Miklos Rozsa.

Not to be confused with The King of Kings, a 1927 version of the story directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

Tropes found in King of Kings include:

  • Adaptational Heroism: The film portrays Caiaphas as an Anti-Villain. Biblically The Fundamentalist, the Chief priest's conflict with Jesus over ideology and tradition is omitted from the film. Here, Caiaphas opposes Jesus because he fears the man will stir insurrection that would motivate Pilate and the Romans to increase persecution of the Jews. Although he understands Jesus is a man of peace, he will convict him as a Necessarily Evil for the protection of his people. It is when Judas frames Jesus as working with Barabbas that he finally acts to arrest him.
  • Ascended Extra:
    • The film has an extensive subplot of Barabbas being a Foil for Jesus - a fiery would-be liberator from Roman rule as opposed to a peaceful spiritual savior. Judas is also portrayed as Barabbas's close friend, and they even get into a battle with Pilate's soldiers early in the film. When Judas meets Jesus, he thinks he can help them overthrow the Romans through force. When this doesn't work out Judas betrays Jesus to the priests. Judas and Barabbas being friends was a device used in several subsequent adaptations.
    • The Roman centurion at the crucifixion also gets this treatment. He is given the name Lucius, and he keeps popping up in various points of Jesus's life, like being in charge of the massacre of Bethlehem, and acting as Jesus's defense attorney during his trial before Pilate. But he doesn't age much if at all.
  • Animal Motif: In the climax to Salome's dance, she runs straight to the throne, her skirt spread out like wings. This shot is shared by a giant bird cage, which receives a close-up. Surrounding the throne are a series of pillars, resembling bars. In her next and final scene, she is timid and docile, like a caged bird.
  • Battering Ram: The Zealots build one from sawed-off planks and a wagon to break through the Gates of the Fortress of Antonia.
  • Bible Times: Naturally, as it's about Jesus.
  • Composite Character: This is probably the first major Jesus film to combine Mary Magdelene with the Adultress Jesus saves from stoning.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: Judas is torn between his commitment to the Revolt and Jesus. The film implies that Jesus understands this, and it quotes from the Gospel of John where Jesus tells Judas, "Do it quickly", implying that Jesus wants Judas to betray him.
  • Darker and Edgier: Apart from being an epic deconstruction of the Gospels, this was later rated PG-13 for its violent content and is perhaps the edgiest Biblical epic of its period.
  • Deconstruction: More than other Biblical films that came before (and after, see The Greatest Story Ever Told), Ray's film actually is the first to portray Jesus within the historical context of the Jewish Revolts. His ministry is framed in entirely political terms by the Roman authorities and the zealots and Jesus himself sees his ministry as Take a Third Option between the violence of the revolt and the Roman occupation.
  • Defensive Feint Trap: Barabbas' rebel army attacks the Roman Fortress. Killing a few soldiers in the area, they make a makeshift-battering ram and break through the gates to storm the interior space. Things going swell...until they find the interior is heavily guarded and defended. The Romans entrap and crush the rebels.
  • Depth of Field: Several scenes of the film feature a shared shot of two characters: one in extreme close-up & one in the background. Somewhat different from a Rack Focus because both figures are in focus.
  • Didn't Think This Through:
    • Antipas persuades Salome to dance for him, promising her anything in return by his word as a King. Her wish is the head of John the Baptist, someone he does not want dead by his hands.
    • Barabbas thought he could turn the crowds at Passover into an army to storm the Fortress, crush the Romans, and lead them back to Jesus. The Fortress is successfully defended, and the army is crushed.
    • Judas believed Barabbas would follow his plan to stand by Jesus at Passover as a peaceful symbolic display of power against the Romans. Barabbas instead starts a revolt to the Roman Fortress that gets his followers massacred. Further, Judas betrays Jesus on the belief that the threatened Messiah will then use his powers to destroy the Romans. Jesus allows himself to be arrested, tortured, and crucified.
  • Epic Film: With a poster of the "huge towering letters" kind later parodied by the posters of Monty Python's Life of Brian.
  • Faint in Shock: When the Guilt-ridden Judas sees the cross constructed for Jesus' crucifixion, he does this.
  • Graceful Loser: Although he cries out in anger over his crushed revolt, Barabbas surrenders by dropping his sword to Lucius.
  • Heir-In-Law: Pilate hopes being married to Caesar's daughter makes him a likely successor.
  • Historical Domain Character: Pompey the Great has a cameo in the beginning, when the Jews are conquered by the Romans.
  • I'll Pretend I Didn't Hear That: Visiting the family in Nazareth for tax registration, Lucius discovers the boy Jesus was born in Bethelehem at the time of the Infant Massacre he executed 12 years ago. He decides to ignore this survivor.
  • Intermission: Part One ends with Barabbas planning to attack the Roman Fortress.
  • Klingon Promotion: When Herod the Great is too old and sickly to sit on his throne, his son Herod Antipas claims it. Herod the Great crawls at his feet, but he kicks him away, killing him.
  • Kneel Before Zod: Herodias demands John the Baptist to do this after he insults her.
  • La Résistance: The underground movement of Barabbas. They actually start an uprising in Jerusalem after Jesus has entered it, but it's swiftly put down by the Romans. Barabbas is captured in the fighting, and this leads to the scene in the Gospels where he is set free in place of Jesus.
  • The Mentor: John the Baptist (played by Robert Ryan).
  • Ms. Fanservice: Salome, whose famous dance is shown in its entirety.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Lucius the centurion, who is unnamed in the Gospels (the figure who says "Truly this man was the son of God!")
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome:
    • A number of Jesus' miracles are only talked about, reported to Pilate by Lucius.
    • A subverted moment because it was not awesome: Pilate's Public Trial of Jesus ("Behold The Man!", "Give Us, Barabbas!" and "Crucify Him!") is also offscreen.
  • Older Than They Look: When it first came out, the film was dubbed "I Was a Teenage Jesus" because of Jeffrey Hunter's youthful looks, though he was actually 33 years old; ironically, the traditional age of Jesus when he died.
  • Pretty Boy: As a result of Jeffrey Hunter's casting, Jesus is quite easy on the eyes.
  • Rule of Symbolism: When Jesus appears to his disciples on a beach after the resurrection, he's only presented through voiceover and a shadow - which merges with a fishing net to form a giant cross.
  • Separated by the Wall: Jesus looks through a window at John the Baptist in his prison cell. John climbs up the wall to the window to grasp Jesus' hand. This is momentarily, as John falls back down.
  • Shown Their Work: The film's opening section is a highly accurate portrayal of the Roman Occupation of Judaea and the political tensions that came there. So much so that Martin Scorsese likened it to a 'newsreel'.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Barabbas views Jesus and Judas as this. He initially agrees to Judas' idea to handle the Passover his way (Judas wants a peaceful but symbolically strong assembly to crown Jesus their King), but behind his back, Barabbas declares Judas a dreamer and a fool.
  • Sword and Sandal: Through the battle scenes, not mentioned in the Gospels.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: John the Baptist gives this one to Herodias:
    Herodias: It were better to cut his vicious tongue from its roots.
    John the Baptist: Woman, is not your cup of abominations full enough?
    Herodias: How dare you say that to my face? Get down on your knees and beg my forgiveness!
    John the Baptist: You, woman? Who has given herself to the captains of Assyria? To the young men of Egypt? Who has deserted her first husband's bed, to live in incestuous lust with his brother?
  • Tragic Villain: Judas Iscariot (as played by Rip Torn) is very sympathetically depicted as a man having Conflicting Loyalty between Jesus' ministry and the underground movement led by Barabbas. The film also implies that Jesus understood this, and condoned and even ordered Judas' betrayal at the Last Supper, uttering the much-debated line from the Gospel of John: "What you must do, do quickly."
  • Villainous Breakdown: This appears to be what happens to Salome in her final scene. Feisty and uninhibited in her previous scenes, she is finally portrayed as demure and child-like, gazing at a birdcage with little interest in Herod's confrontation with Jesus (except for her attention to Herod breaking a clay vase, which is temporary). It seems something traumatic happened to her in the time between her dance and her present appearance, probably something to do with John's execution.
  • The Voice:
  • Wham Line:
    Jesus: [knowing the time to go to Jerusalem (and his fate) is now, hiding the truth from his mother] The chair will have to wait.
    Mary: The chair will never be mended.
    [Jesus is stunned]
  • Widescreen Shot: Filmed in Super Technirama 70, meaning many of the Depth of Field shots suffer in Pan and Scan.
  • Worthy Opponent: Lucius respects Barabbas. However, this view cools considerably when Barabbas gets acquitted instead of Jesus.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Barabbas views himself as a freedom fighter but the Romans view him as a dangerous outlaw.