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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » King of Kings
King of Kings
Warner Bros. // Unrated // February 25, 2003
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted March 6, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

King of Kings sets itself up for a tough comparison right from the very beginning, with its title design mimicking the "giant letters carved in stone" look from Ben-Hur. It's of epic length! It has a cast of thousands! It has swordfights, belly dances, and miracles! Unfortunately, what it doesn't have is the content and style to pull off a successful comparison to knockout films like Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, or even the problematic but entertaining Cleopatra.

I like historical epics (I'm particularly a pushover for any movie with Romans in it), so King of Kings started off not neutral, but on the positive side of my mental balance sheet. But King of Kings managed to use up its credit and move into the red, mainly because it's, in a nutshell, boring.

King of Kings tells the story of the life of Jesus Christ. And "tells" is the key word here, because a rather intrusive narrator tends to inform us, in solemn tones, of what has happened, what people think or feel, and what the significance is of events, rather than letting the film actually show the story. For viewers who are deeply interested in seeing an enactment of events in Jesus' life, King of Kings may offer something of interest (though it manages to skip some of the events I'd like to have seen dramatized; the walking on water and the miracle of the loaves and the fishes both take place offstage). But as a film, King of Kings falls short: rather than a plot, it has a series of loosely connected incidents strung one after another without any real sense of cause and effect.

It's not the fault of the historical setting or the Biblical material: take, as counter-examples, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur (subtitled "A Tale of the Christ"). The Ten Commandments is exciting from the get-go: you have hidden identities, jealous stepbrothers, the rise and fall of pharaohs, plagues and pestilences, exciting chases, you name it. Regardless of how you view the historical Moses and his message, it's easy to be interested in Moses' great plans and adventures. Ben-Hur is likewise filled with the title character's dramatic adventures, but it also handles the story of Christ quite skillfully, weaving it so that we see how it's relevant to the characters we've come to know and care about. In short, these films captivate the viewer by telling compelling, exciting stories with interesting characters. In contrast, King of Kings has no real drama in its plot.

In terms of character, King of Kings truly misses the boat with Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter),by trying to balance on the fence between "realistic" and "mystical." In Ben-Hur, he's also a character, but in what I've always thought was a masterful touch, we never see the face of Christ himself, only his shadow, his hand, a glimpse of his back or a silhouette: in other words, we're allowed to fill in the character with all the mystique and majesty accorded by the other characters' reactions to his teachings, and never confronted with a plainly human actor. In King of Kings, however, Jesus is a major character, and we see him in any number of ordinary circumstances. Like this, it's not possible to sustain the aura of mystique that Ben-Hur pulls off so well: Jesus is quite clearly an ordinary human being. And if the role had been played out that way, emphasizing the humanity of the character, it might have been a great success: we might have empathized with him on a person-to-person level.

However, King of Kings also fails to present a convincingly human, "ordinary man" Jesus. Hunter moons about, looking holy, which translates as having his eyes typically slightly unfocused and looking off into the air. He is always slightly distant, never really "there," and his speeches have the feeling of canned scripts rather than heartfelt communication. It's very difficult to care about this rather holier-than-thou fellow with his immaculate robes and dreamy expression; he remains a cardboard figure throughout the movie, never achieving either mystical status or a three-dimensional reality.

In general, it seems like the filmmakers were afraid to let the cast actually do any acting in this film. As I've said, narration is used extensively throughout the entire film, telling us, rather than showing us, what's going on, which significantly cuts down on what the actors are allowed to do. The only character with any real life to him is Barabbas (Harry Guardino), who is here presented as a kind of terrorist/freedom fighter (the label depending on which side is referring to him) with plans to free Judea by force. He's the only one who manages to seem reasonably awake and in character; it's a pity the movie wasn't just about him.

I can't quite end this review without touching on one last area where King of Kings undermines its own credibility as a "historical" epic: its presentation of the Romans as The Evil Bad Guys (tm). What is it with Hollywood and the Romans? Sure, they conquered a lot of the territory around the Mediterranean (the Romans, not Hollywood), but they were hardly the only country of the time making the attempt, merely the most successful. The Romans were highly tolerant of the religions of the people in the conquered provinces: as long as the people did their duty to Caesar, they could worship their own god or gods as they pleased... in fact, the Romans were incredibly open-minded about religion compared to later Christian empires. And the Romans were a fairly technologically advanced civilization, with well-developed science, technology, and arts that trickled down into its colonies. The Judeans certainly had issues with Roman conquerors, but King of Kings' portrayal of the Romans is nowhere even close to an accurate picture of the Roman empire of the time. Watching King of Kings, I couldn't help but be reminded (repeatedly) of the "What have the Romans ever done for us?" skit in Monty Python's Life of Brian, which rather undermined the serious effect the film was striving for.

As a "grand historical epic" with a "cast of thousands," King of Kings should at least look good. For the most part, it's okay. I admit that the obviously plastic Roman armor kind of bugged me, but other than that, the sets and costumes look good, and the scenes with the Romans (which are really the most interesting parts of the film) show some attention to visual detail. The landscape looks authentic, with some impressive shots of the desert and the rocky wilderness surrounding Jerusalem.

The DVD

Video

The one praise I can unreservedly give to King of Kings is about its transfer: it's stunning. Presented in an anamorphically-enhanced widescreen image that preserves the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, you'd think that it had been filmed this year, not 1961. Well, the 1960s-we-love-Technicolor color scheme kind of gives it away, but in terms of image quality, it's like new.

Colors are bright and vibrant, and very well behaved: there's no bleeding of any colors, even the strongest primary tones. Skin tones are completely natural as well, and contrast is excellent, with even shadowy scenes looking great. The only flaw I saw was the occasional tiny print flaw. Other than that, it looks superb. And clean – amazingly so, and without sacrificing any detail at all, unlike some transfers I've seen that eliminated noise at the cost of losing detail in the image. In short, the restoration job on King of Kings was simply outstanding, and anyone who enjoyed the film will be knocked out by just how good it looks in Warner's DVD release.

Audio

I was quite impressed with the remastered Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. While not much spatial separation could be achieved for dialogue and main sound effects, the music has been very effectively spread across all the different channels to create a fairly immersive audio experience.

Dialogue is always clear, and is always in balance with the other elements of the track, including music. That's no mean feat in a film of this era, and I'm very pleased to report that King of Kings doesn't have any issues with volume levels at all: the music rises and falls appropriately to the scene, but never becomes overly loud. The sound overall is clean and clear, with no distortion or any background noise.

A dubbed French 2.0 soundtrack is also provided, along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Extras

The special features are rather skimpy on this DVD. "The Camera's Window of the World," a short, four-minute documentary filmed during the making of King of Kings, offers a look behind the scenes of the "Sermon on the Mount" scene, filmed in Spain with 7,000 extras. The black and white documentary is in poor condition, but watchable. Two newsreels from the film's premiere are also included, totaling two and a half minutes; one has the original commentary introducing the stars and other famous faces at the premiere, and the other simply has the film's score overlaying images from another premiere. An original trailer for the film is also included, as is a cast list.

Final thoughts

The historical background is very Hollywoodian. And the acting and characterization is weak. And the plot is dull. Still, it's an epic, with great scenery, Romans (always a plus), and some okay battle scenes. King of Kings would have gotten a slightly higher rating had it not been for the fact that it runs an agonizingly long two hours and 51 minutes; the snail-paced King of Kings is simply too long for its own good. I'd suggest it as a rental for any viewer who's interested in it but hasn't seen it before. On the bright side, the DVD transfer is simply stunning, with a gorgeous anamorphic transfer and excellent sound, so anyone who does like the film can go out and buy it with confidence of getting a superb transfer.

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