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Story of David, The
Untold millions have sought solace and comfort from the Psalms through the ages. Of course there's probably nothing quite so comforting as being plucked from obscurity to lead your people, not to mention smiting a giant, something the Psalms' supposed author, David, experienced. This 1976 television movie following David's life from his young shepherding years through his death is highlighted by a less glossy sheen (a lot less glossy sheen, more about which later) than most Hollywood Bible epics, while it also suffers from that same "television-itis," a small scale feel that hinders its larger ambitions. Whether you as an individual viewer derive comfort or annoyance from The Story of David is probably therefore predicated on how you react to sometimes laughable production values, even as they surround a fair degree of intelligent writing and characterization.
One of the more famously laughable moments in Hollywood's Biblical oeuvre is Victor Mature's hilarious "fight" with the stuffed lion in Samson and Delilah. Well there's a runner up in the Israel and Spain filmed Story of David. In the opening sequence, a lion is about to prey on one of David's beloved sheep (a black sheep, no less). David hauls out his trusty slingshot and hurls a rock toward the beast, seen only in stock footage, of course. We hear the squeal of the animal, and then it cuts to a laugh out loud "dead" lion made of plaster of paris or somesuch material, looking absolutely nothing like the animal we've just seen. It's moments like these, sprinkled throughout David's three hour running time, that may make some viewers approach the telefilm as high camp, rather than a heartfelt exploration of the character of one of history's great icons.
If you can get past that sort of unintended comedy, there's really quite a lot to like about The Story of David. Scenarist Ernest Kinoy, a journeyman television writer with scores of credits, does an admirable job of mostly following scripture to a tee, content wise, while informing the production with a less stodgy and pretentious element than a lot of films of this ilk tend to have. We get some appealing repartee between David and his brothers (though why some of them speak with Israeli accents and others are good old American boys is probably something you shouldn't spend too much time thinking about), and the relationship between the young David (Timothy Bottoms) and Saul (Anthony Quayle) is well handled and equally well performend. Bottoms appears to be doing his own singing here, and his simply voice on some authentic sounding "ancient" melodies (Laurence Rosenthal's underscore is one of the highlights of this production) is quite affecting. His "lyre strumming" is at times completely out of synch with the actual score, but, again, I guess that's minor quibbling.
Bottoms does exceptional work portraying David's rise from simple shepherd to warrior and ultimately king (though he never really plays the royal years--that's left to Keith Michell). Quayle makes an imperious, yet oddly vulnerable, Saul, giving the character an undercurrent of fated tragedy that starts with virtually his opening scene with the prophet Samuel. The first half of the film is largely the interplay between David and Saul, and by the time David has pitted himself against Israel's first king, all the while still admiring and loving both him and his son Jonathan, there's a palpable sense of a family, whether linked by blood or not, in disarray, with epochal repercussions.
Part II sees Michell take over the title role and essay the years of David's kingship up through his death. This of course includes some of David's less than honorable decisions, including that whole Bathsheba and Uriah episode that seems to give adulterers a bad name. Michell is regal (much like he was in Six Wives of Henry VIII), but it's a wounded royalty, especially after Bathsheba (a lovely Jane Seymour, wearing perhaps a bit too much eye liner in that late 70s manner) enters the picture. Michell's best scenes are crowded at the end of the film, after he realizes his affair with Bathsheba has doomed him to a poisoned family and political climate, and, later, as his sons being feuding over who will inherit his throne.
David does best when portraying the intimate family dramas. Probably because of budgetary restraints, there are no "epic" moments in this film, which actually will play into its verisimilitude for some viewers. Battles are often between scraggly groups of 10 or 12, doing hand to hand combat. You won't see any "cast of thousands" in this outing by any means.
The film was evidently shot by totally separate units, one helmed by David Lowell Rich, the other by Alex Segal. While there is a definite through line between the two sections and no real stylistic differences to speak of, there is the occasional continuity weirdness, as in two different actresses playing Michal and Abigail at different times in their lives. Michal's older adult scenes are played by the excellent Susan Hampshire.
The Story of David was one of the first big Biblical telefilms. While it's redolent of the late 70s (lots of "big" hair on both men and women, for instance), it's also heartfelt and offers a sort of direct simplicity that's unusual in this kind idiom. If it hasn't aged quite as well as its source material, it's nonetheless notable for its generally excellent performances, nice location photography, and especially the extremely evocative underscore of Laurence Rosenthal.
This is a pretty shoddy looking DVD, seemingly from source material that wasn't stored professionally. Part I is especially bad, with quite a bit of damage and really horrible bleed through, which leaves a totally strange dot matrix pattern on all the blue skies. Grain is also overwhelming at times, which I'm sure was in the original source material. Things improve slightly with Part II, which does not have the bleed through problem at least. Colors are generally strong, especially in closeups, when the excessive grain doesn't show so much.
Luckily the original mono soundtrack has withstood the ravages of time in much better condition. All dialogue is crisp and easy to hear, and there are no anomalies in Rosenthal's brilliant underscore. English and French subtitles are available.
Only previews for other Sony products are included, and to my mind, that doesn't count.
The Story of David offers a small scale recounting of one of the Bible's great stories. Bottoms, Michell, Quayle, Seymour and Hampshire all do outstanding work. The video quality is pretty distressing, but there's enough here of interest to warrant an evening's rental. Rent it.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet