If you look at super-hero movies and despair over cinema being dominated by massively expensive and relentlessly mainstream retellings of stories learned by generation after generation as we were children, get over yourself. It’s not the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last. Turn the calendar back 50 or 60 years and you can find the exact same thing but instead of Hollywood strip mining comic books for inspiration, they were turning to The Bible for salvation from this new thing called “television.”
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will examine two of the origin stories of that era in a battle to see which is more important, the tale or its telling? It’s “King of Kings” (1961) vs. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965) as swords, sandals, and Scripture fight it out for top billing.
"I'm telling you guys, stop making fun of my beard!"
Both films present the life of Jesus. No, not the guy from “The Walking Dead.” The other one. Son of God. Born of the Virgin Mary. Died on the cross for our sins. Resurrected to send his disciples to preach the Good News to the nations of the world. You know. THAT guy.
The first thing about these films is that they confirm something I’ve long believed, which is that directly presenting Christ and his impact is an impossible task. The greatest actor in human history trying to convince the audience he’s God in the flesh is like an ant pretending to be an elephant. Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in “King of Kings” gives you flashes of something like the intensity the original must have possessed. Max von Sydow as Jesus in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” projects some of the same love and serenity as the genuine article. Neither of them are ever truly effective as either Savior or as the foundation of a 2,000 year old religion that changed the world. No non-believer will walk away from these motion pictures as a convert.
"Is THAT what you call that thing on your chin?"
Which matters less in “King of Kings” because it cares more about being a work of entertainment than proselytizing. It grounds the story of Christ in a world of political intrigue and brewing rebellion, with Barabbas (Harry Guardino) cast as a rabble-rousing Jewish revolutionary who sees Jesus as an opportunity to overthrow Roman rule and Judas (Rip Torn) as an intermediary between the two who ultimately…SPOILER ALERT!!!...betrays Jesus to force Him to play the role of a king on Earth rather than the open door to the Kingdom of Heaven.
It’s an approach which certainly takes creative liberties with the source material but it gives “King of Kings” a coherent and compelling narrative that carries the viewer briskly through the film’s two hour and 51 minute runtime. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” forgoes that sort of supportive storytelling to focus more intently on Christ’s words and deeds but the result is something like a Mike Myers movie where great individual scenes never quite add up to a real story. There are segments of “The Greatest Story Ever Told” that would make wonderful Sunday School presentations, setting up a discussion of what Jesus said and what he meant. But the over three hour long version most commonly seen today is a stupefying bore and more than a bit of a slog to sit through. It’s kind of scary to think of how punishing the original four hour and 20 minute version of the film would be to watch.
"It's not my fault! It's genetic!"
Most of which has to be blamed on George Stevens, producer/director of “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” He repeatedly shoots scenes from very far away, as if he’s more impressed by the scenery than his screenplay, and weirdly focuses on Jesus’ challenge to the Jewish religious establishment rather than Roman secular authority. Jesus was a Jew and that’s very important to understanding his story but “King of Kings” realizes the conflict he embodied wasn’t within the Hebrews but with the larger world around them, which at that time was the Roman Empire. It starts with the Roman conquest of Judea decades before the birth of Jesus and has a Roman centurion named Lucius (Ron Randell) as a constant presence throughout the movie to emphasize that. Roman rule represents the fallen and flawed nature of Mankind as it is. Jesus represents what Mankind should and must aspire to be. That’s what matters and Stevens doesn’t seem to grasp that.
"'Genetic?' Is that the name of your hair stylist?"
One thing “The Greatest Story Ever Told” does handle better than “King of Kings” is the character of John the Baptist. In 1961, Robert Ryan winds up portraying John as just kind of a guy waiting for Jesus to show up. In 195, Charlton Heston brings John to life as representing the fire and brimstone elements of Christianity which we typically don’t associate with Christ himself. Heston’s Baptist is a man capable of violence, accusation, and condemnation; one who rejects the material world and longs for a better life after death. With apologies to Robert Ryan, some of the difference is probably due to Heston’s superior star quality but I think it’s also part of the effort in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” to more thoroughly present the Christian philosophy of which John the Baptist’s passionate pronouncements are a part. In “King of Kings,” John the Baptist is sort of the odd man left out of the Jesus/Barabbas dynamic. Which makes it all the weirder that “King of Kings” presents a more complete version of the interaction between the Baptist and Herod Antipas (Frank Thring).
"I've always felt beards are overrated."
Visually, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is the more picturesque of the two films. Take any moment on screen and it could be a beautiful post card from Israel or Jordan. Though why they let von Sydow go through the whole movie with such an awkwardly short haircut and a beard that looked drawn on with a magic marker, I have no idea. But when it comes to visual storytelling, “King of Kings” comes out on top. From the opening of the film where Roman power is embodied by General Pompey (Conrado San Martin) hacking his way inside the temple of Jerusalem, emerging over the bodies of slain priests with a sacred scroll, then returning the scroll to the Jews rather than throwing it in the fire, to the end where the last we see of Jesus is a giant shadow on the sand, the imagery in “King of Kings” has narrative power all its own.
"I could grow a good one if this headband wasn't cutting off the flow of blood to my face."
As you’ve probably guessed by now, “King of Kings” wins this Throwdown by a comfortable margin. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is the more complete and Biblically accurate of the two but it’s not about getting an “A” in seminary. It’s about making a good movie. In super-hero terms, “King of Kings” is like a Marvel movie. It knows what people want to see and how to give it to them. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is like “Man of Steel” (2013) or “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016). It knows what it wants to say but doesn’t consider what the audience needs to hear.
King of Kings (1961)
Written by Philip Yordan.
Directed by Nicholas Ray.
Starring Jeffrey Hunter, Siobhan McKenna, Hurd Hatfield, Ron Randell, Viveca Lindfors, Rita Gam, Carmen Sevilla, Brigid Bazien, Harry Guardino, Rip Torn, Frank Thring, Guy Rolfe, Royal Dano, Robert Ryan, Gregoire Aslan, Orson Welles, and Conrado San Martin.
"Is somebody talking about beards? Because I have a few thoughts on the subject."
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Written by James Lee Barrett and George Stevens.
Directed by George Stevens.
Starring Max von Sydow, Victor Buono, Jose Ferrer, Charlton Heston, Martin Landau, Pat Boone, John Wayne, David McCallum, Roddy McDowall, Donald Pleasence, Claude Rains, Telly Salvalas, Robert Blake, Sidney Poitier, Gary Raymond, and Joseph Schildkraut.