Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1949 Cecil B. DeMille released his first Biblical epic in Technicolor, Samson and Delilah, throwing violence, sex and hammy acting at the screen in even measure. MGM bounced back with a tremendous production of Quo Vadis? that likewise also served up religious homilies while reveling in photogenic pagan excesses. But over at Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck put two of his biggest stars into a thoughtful retelling of the story of King David and Bathsheba, with a literate script by Philip Dunne. The completed movie retains the moral and spiritual problems of the original tale, respectfully and intelligently addressing its contradictory ideas.
King David (Gregory Peck) falls in love with Bathsheba (Susan Hayward), the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah (Kieron Moore) and carries on with her in secret, abetted by his personal assistant Abishai (James Robertson Justice). When Bathsheba becomes 'with child' and her husband has been nowhere near her, David fears that she will be stoned as an adulteress, a common occurrence in the city. He conspires to have Uriah killed in battle. The prophet Nathan (Raymond Massey) brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem but leaves it at the city gate because he is convinced that some unforgivable 'sin' from within the walls is responsible for a crippling drought. He soon realizes that the sin lies with David himself.
David and Bathsheba still holds up as a fine Bible picture. It presents great Bible characters as flesh and blood people with all-too contemporary problems. King David is a devout believer troubled by his inability to fill the shoes of his predecessor, Saul. He's constantly reminded by his vindictive wife Michal (Jayne Meadows) that he started as a lowly shepherd. On opposing walls of his living quarters are Saul's spear and his old shepherd's harp, a pair of incompatible symbols that frequently comment on the drama.
David is in a very modern bind. He's sworn to uphold God's law, which is administered by the humorless prophet Nathan. Jerusalem reveres David for killing Goliath, but that was many years before. His present popularity vacillates depending on how the harvest fares -- almost like a Pagan ruler, David is held directly responsible for the weather, which depends on God's favor. He can't hide with memories of his days as a shepherd, as even the old soldier he meets among the flocks (tellingly missing one hand) says that nobody could replace Saul.
God's influence is very real in David and Bathsheba, even if the script leaves squirming room for interpreters who downplay Biblical miracles. As a holy duty, but also perhaps to cement his good standing with his people, David recovers the Holy Ark of the Covenant and brings it to Jerusalem. But Nathan keeps it outside the walls, pending more intuitive signs that the city is in God's good graces.
David is very much not in God's grace, as he's carrying on a torrid adulterous affair with the wife of one of his Army officers. David and Bathsheba exchange modern rationalizations about not being loved, but they both know exactly what they're doing. The flesh is weak, and their affair makes David doubt himself further even as he's sorely needed to be the spiritual leader of his people -- God's law and Civil law are one and the same.
David eventually abuses his power for his personal gratification, putting his entire kingdom in jeopardy. No single element can be extracted from the problem. The alluring Bathsheba wants a more fulfilling life, but she's not innocent: She purposely bathed where David could see her in hopes of igniting an affair. For this she may be stoned at the gates of the city, as are common women caught in adulterous acts. David is pinned from all sides. Nathan won't let him free of his responsibility to come clean of his sins, and his wife and own ambitious son are all too eager to see him fall from power. David has the physical ability to silence his accusers, and he desperately wants to save Bathsheba's life, but he cannot do that and preserve his kingdom as well.
David and Bathsheba presents this intriguing story with a maximum of good taste. The royal affair is not glamorized. It starts out as a political problem for David and slowly creeps into every corner of his self-image. The script doesn't try to hide the fact that David is both a devout believer and a practical ruler; he doesn't necessarily believe in miracles. He looks for possible non-miraculous reasons why the soldier died instantly upon accidentally touching the Ark. He's sincerely reaching for forgiveness when he turns his back on Nathan, putting his faith in a direct appeal to God.
The script makes a strong distinction between kingly prerogatives and God's law; normally we'd expect the King of an ancient land to exercise the right to make decisions of life and death among his people. David compounds his sins by attempting to cover them up, an effort that fails. The Bible certainly understands human nature: Famous men in high office do indeed lead their nations honorably, only to be brought down by relatively insignificant indiscretions -- often directly related to their sex lives. The conclusion of David and Bathsheba asks us to determine exactly what kind of miracle "saves" David. Do he and Bathsheba simply sidestep their punishment by a timely rainstorm, or does God really hold out a special mercy and forgiveness for powerful and important mortals?
Gregory Peck is excellent in a tough role; Biblical characters rarely come off in multi-dimensions. The actor's natural integrity causes friction with David's wandering, guilty love life, all of which is suggested in good taste. Susan Hayward is less effective and her part less appealing. Bathsheba is capable of lust and remorse, but not a whole lot in between. Whenever there's a problem, she simply unloads it onto David's shoulders. We can't help but think of the poor woman stoned at the city gate; rule number one for surviving the downside of adultery would seem to be to pick a politically powerful partner. David and Bathsheba isn't a film, or a story, about female empowerment.
Raymond Massey is firm but dull as Nathan and young Kieron Moore as Uriah might as well hang a "please kill me" sign on his back. James Robertson Justice plays David's discreet aide; unlike Land of the Pharaohs, we're denied the pleasure of hearing him pronounce the word "Pyramid." Jayne Meadows is a one-note harpy of an ex-wife. Hebrew kings could apparently amass a string of wives, but divorce hadn't been invented. George Zucco is an Egyptian ambassador fresh out of Mummies (that would complicate the story, surely enough). The sultry court dancer who gets David's blood up is none other than our favorite Gwen Verdon (Damn Yankees).
Fox's DVD of David and Bathsheba is a very good transfer of a reasonable-quality color composite made from original Technicolor matrices. Hues aren't perfect but they're more than satisfactory; the movie has an impressive color scheme. Only a few matte paintings are a little too bright, like the view from David's balcony. A trailer, teaser and TV spot appear to hail from a late 1950s reissue. All of them feature David's encounter with Goliath, seen only as a flashback in the movie and obviously included to provide an action scene.
Once in 3000 Years is a remnant of a making-of featurette that cuts off just as we're getting into a little dramatization of Peck and Hayward being assigned the picture and meeting director Henry King. It sells the movie as a class product, seriously adapting the Bible story in a way that churchgoers would approve.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
David and Bathsheba rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers, TV spot, featurette fragment Once in 3000 Years
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 16, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson