The Bible is renowned for its simplicity but it’s more complex than Christopher Hitchens or most people give it credit for. I’ve ruminated about Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings, not to be mistaken with de Mille’s version. And it’s always been my obsession to know the differences between the four Gospels and its relation to the film adaptations.
I watched the movie when I still had TCM and couldn’t distinguish it from the other, overlong epic period movies at the same time. I didn’t give it a chance and I changed the channel, regrettably. Thank serendipity for the second run-in, when I saw Ray, through Orson Welles’ Godlike voice over contextualizing Jesus’ rise with Roman imperialism, infrastructure building and the burden of oncoming tribal hostility between Jews and Arabs.
I will say that the movie’s depiction of the historical figures somehow contradicts Biblical accounts and sometimes, one woman’s spirit is captured more so than the other. Mary (Siobhan McKenna) has a soldier-like loyalty to God, willing to ride an improvised steed to Egypt to run away from a Herodain onslaught, She also returns to Nazareth and showing to a Roman official named Lucius that Her young son is the only one who survives. The book and movie fork into the interpretations of the Virgin, as the Gospel of Luke already shows Her, in pregnancy, as an indoctrinated, militant woman poetically reciting Her knowledge of Her purpose in the Father’s master plan. Although the movie’s portrait of Her is delightful enough, the Mother learning from the Youth and His lessons of peace of love which counters the warlike ideology of the area and period. She shares these lessons with Magdalene, a possessed woman in the Bible but commonly depicted as a prostitute in adaptations.
Salome is also maligned as well as her family. In the movie’s first scenes, Herod Antipas ousts his ailing and genocidal father, the son having respect for his enemies like the unknown Saviour and His cousin who grows up to be John the Baptist (the interestingly cast Robert Ryan). Antipas marries Herodias, bringing her daughter Salome in tow. Salome dances her way into getting John beheaded, the texts portraying her as Herodias’ weapon. Ray’s version subverts these women’s characteristics. Salome becomes a lustful young woman, having her stepfather’s father’s violent streak, ending her dance by sitting on the same thrown that Antipas himself has stolen. It’s easy to joke that her similarities with Herod exposes Antipas’ subliminal lust for his own father. Herodias, on the hand, isn’t as scheming as she’s depicted in the Bible, the film actually placing her as one of the audiences on the Sermon on the Mount with Lucius, both authority figures attracted to the message that tries to destroy the system that makes them benefit.
Lastly, there’s Judas Iscariot, the Bible characterizing him as a thief and traitor. Contemporary interpretations of him have always wondered why Jesus would include Iscariot into His fold, most likely knowing that he needs someone to help Him sacrifice Himself. Norman Jewison has a black actor for Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and we can add whatever symbolism we can to the colour blind ensemble, keeping in mind the racial tensions in the 70’s. Ray also paints Iscariot as a Zealot but chose a different strategy in his casting. It’s already strange and absolutely typical of Hollywood to hire the all-American Jeffrey Hunter, who does his best as the quote-worthy preacher. For Judas he picks another dirty blonde, Rip Torn, showing these two men as mirror images, Iscariot’s double loyalties haunted by Jesus unwavering sympathy, a part of a complex, political rendition of the Saviour’s life and world.