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King of Kings(1961)
The life of Jesus Christ from the Nazarene’s humble birth to his nomadic ministry, from the teachings to murderous conspiracies, from death on a cross to resurrection.
Filmed in Technirama.
For more about King of Kings and the King of Kings Blu-ray release, see King of Kings Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on March 23, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: Nicholas Ray
Writer: Philip Yordan
Starring: Jeffrey Hunter, Hurd Hatfield, Siobhan McKenna, Ron Randell, Harry Guardino, Viveca Lindfors
» See full cast & crew
King of Kings Blu-ray Review
Rebel with a cause.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, March 23, 2011
Nicholas Ray directed two of the most iconic films of the 1950's, neither of which would seem to predict his ability to helm King of Kings, one of the more interesting depictions of Jesus' life caught on film. Before Ray brought this gargantuan 1961 Samuel Bronston production to the screen, he made headlines in 1955 with his Rebel Without a Cause, one of the most iconic films of that sanguine decade, and a film which was notable for vaulting James Dean to superstardom, as well as its frank exploration of disaffected youth, including one of the first more or less "out" gay characters of that era, Sal Mineo's touching Plato. A year earlier, Ray directed what has become one of the biggest cult films of the 1950's, the infamous Johnny Guitar, a film which fairly bristles with political commentary, not to mention a not especially subtle lesbian subtext, that makes it one of the most unusual "westerns" to ever reach the silver screen. Ray, who was by all accounts someone who at least flirted with neurosis, may seem preternaturally ill equipped to manage a filmed life of the man seen by billion worldwide as their personal Lord and Savior, and yet that very odd temperament may be what makes Ray's King of Kings such an unusual, and often extremely compelling, film experience. Unlike George Stevens' overtly reverential The Greatest Story Ever Told (which I'll also be reviewing soon for Blu-ray.com), King of Kings takes a more human approach toward its subject and in fact imbues the entire Christian movement with a bracing political context that makes supporting characters like Judas (Rip Torn in a semi-hilarious Dutch Boy haircut) and Barabbas (Harry Guardino) in their own way as important as Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) himself.
As with other large scale Biblical or historical dramas from the 1950's especially, we get a narrated prologue of sorts which sets the scene, courtesy of the stentorian tones of an uncredited Orson Welles. This part of King of Kings, while perhaps necessary, is easily the weakest section of the film and augurs for a much stodgier experience than the actual main part of the movie turns out to be. Once we get the basics of bad guys Herod and Pontius Pilate, and good guy Jesus, as well as the political hangers-on like Judas and Barabbas, Philip Yordan's quite eloquent screenplay allows us to peer inside the sociopolitical climate of Roman occupied Palestine and how the natives were seeking to throw off the Imperial yoke. This aspect of King of Kings is what sets it apart from many other depictions of Jesus' life, and it is perhaps the most telling indication that we're watching a Nicholas Ray film.
When confronted with a story this epochal, there are several pitfalls which await even the most seasoned filmmakers. Ray was able to evade a lot of them with King of Kings, offering stellar production design, an absolutely gorgeous music score courtesy of Miklos Rozsa, crisp and elegant cinematography from the trifecta of Manuel Berenguer, Milton Krasner and Franz F. Planer, and, as noted, a literate screenplay by Philip Yordan. Yordan, who regularly "fronted" for blacklisted writers during the HUAC and McCarthy eras, was obviously no stranger to political intrigue, and he imbues his script with a brilliantly defined examination of the roiling political climate in and around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. For once Judas is not simply a cipher in a figurative black hat, but is given a sociopolitical background that at least to partially explicate his dark motives. But even Yordan can't avoid the portentous (and pretentious), faux-King James approach to dialogue that seems to somehow be a requirement of Biblical films from this period. (Yordan went on to script Bronston's independent films like El Cid, 55 Days at Peking and The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Also troubling are a couple of key performances. Robert Ryan is simply miscast as John the Baptist and often seems lost in the pomp and circumstance which surrounds the rustic character. And while Jeffrey Hunter has perhaps been somewhat unfairly pilloried for his "teenage idol Jesus" take on the iconic character, the fact is he's forced to deal with the most ritualistic dialogue of the film, a daunting task for even the most accomplished actor. When you contrast Hunter's more low key approach with Max Von Sydow's in The Greatest Story Ever Told, the differences couldn't be more stark. Hunter is frankly kind of like a surfer dude Jesus, while Von Sydow seems to be bringing over every inner turmoil and sturm und drang from his darkest outings with Ingmar Bergman. Which approach you prefer is probably going to be a result of your own private musings on what Jesus may have been like in "real life."
In terms of the other supporting players, Bronston and Ray assembled an international cast which frequently does amazingly wonderful work. Siobhan McKenna is a minor revelation (no pun intended) as Mary, the mother of Jesus. Bringing tenderness, joy and sorrow simultaneously into several line readings, she brings both the triumph and tragedy of the character fully to life. Hurd Hatfield is surprisingly understated as Pontius Pilate and manages to convey an imperial majesty combined with arrogance that is perfectly suited for the role. In terms of camp value, probably the best thing about King of Kings is Frank Thring's hyper-sibilant take on Herod Antipas. In a performance that rivals Peter Ustinov's Nero from Quo Vadis for pure decadence, Thring is a hoot (for wont of a better word) to watch, and his heavily lisped "Danssse, Ssssalome" deserves to become an all-time favorite moment for the more jaded amongst you. Probably the most surprising performance here, at least to those more acquainted with his later, more crotchety, work, is Rip Torn's nicely nuanced take on Judas Iscariot. Torn is wonderfully, well, torn between Judas' wish for justice for Jews and his growing militancy. (In full disclosure mode, I should confess that Rip and his late wife Geraldine Page were lifelong friends of my late Uncles, and in fact Rip eulogized both of my Uncles at their funerals).
King of Kings also boasts one of the glories of post-World War II music scores, an absolutely sumptuous symphonic outing by the fantastic Miklos Rozsa. Rozsa had been cutting his teeth on Biblical and quasi-Biblical scores for years, and always brought an authenticity to his scores that frequently found him mining the theoretically "bad" parallel fifths and fourths in voicings to achieve a suitably ancient sound. But here he crafts an incredibly melodic score that features one of the most gorgeous main themes of any film of this period. While some of Rozsa's techniques may seem ham-fisted to jaded modern day audiences (the use of an angelic choir whenever Jesus comes into view, for example), the power and majesty of his writing simply can't be underestimated.
King of Kings is obviously a throwback to the time when huge Biblical epics were a stock in trade for the major studios, a seeming sure bet in terms of appeal and box office riches. What is so striking about this film, however, is its frankly contemporary take on the political climate of Jesus' time, a focus which almost seems to ignore the larger questions of divinity and humanity cohabitating in one individual and makes Jesus the standard-bearer for any oppressed people looking for salvation and freedom. While that may not be theologically "correct," it gives King of Kings a solid and visceral impact that many other more staid and stolid recountings of Jesus' life never even begin to approach.
King of Kings Blu-ray, Video Quality
While it may not qualify as being outright miraculous, King of Kings' brilliant AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1 is stunningly gorgeous and is one of the best big format transfers to Blu-ray that we've seen. For once, color timing is near perfect, with those deep Technicolor reds and blues that define this era of film. I took some brickbats when I argued the Blu-ray release of Quo Vadis was not color timed correctly, and all I can say is, compare the Technicolor reds of that film to this one to see what I mean. While color is amazingly well saturated and brilliantly robust, the overall picture simply bursts with sharpness and clarity, giving King of Kings an amazing pop and presence. This was originally presented in SuperTechnirama, a 70mm format which seems perfectly suited for a Blu-ray transfer, and this release should delight virtually all videophiles. Grain is intact, looking completely natural, and contrast and black levels are solid. There are a couple of extremely minor, niggling complaints the most persnickety viewers may have, including some brief (and I mean very brief) tendencies toward noise in some of the dustier, sandier sequences, but otherwise this transfer is a marvel. The SD-DVD of King of Kings looked pretty darn spectacular in its day, but this Blu-ray is, well, a revelation.
King of Kings Blu-ray, Audio Quality
King of Kings gets off to a less than spectacular start, at least with regard to dialogue, on this generally brilliant lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Unfortunately it's always been evident that the prologue sequence was post-dubbed, and the very noticeable difference in ambience and even volume is even more marked in this new lossless track. This sequence also suffers from the same synchronization issues we've seen (heard?) in previous home theater releases. OK, that's the bad news. The good news is virtually everything else about this track is superb, from the opening swells of strings and brass that announce one of Rozsa's most epochal scores, to the bulk of the film, where dialogue is well represented. Surround channels are fully alive here with a nicely cinematic approach that recreates the original film's four track mix. There's not an overabundance of low end here, but there never has been. Fidelity is generally very good, though some moderate hiss and slight boxiness is still apparent from time to time, once again as it always has been on previous home video releases. But the trade-off here is more than worth these passing qualms. All sorts of interior lines of Rozsa's score are fully audible now for perhaps the first time, and the entire track sounds surprisingly spry, considering its age.
King of Kings Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
King of Kings Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
If you've never seen King of Kings, don't let the frankly scary cover art frighten you away. (What, is Jesus a zombie all of a sudden?) While this film has some of the problems that most Biblical dramas do, including a distant take on its supposed lead character, Yordan's screenplay is really one of the more interesting of films of this ilk, placing Jesus in a roiling sociopolitical climate that makes his entire "rebellion" come alive. Brilliantly staged by Nicholas Ray and featuring a simply gorgeous score by Rozsa, this is the sort of old school epic they simply don't make anymore, and it looks and sounds fantastic on this new Blu-ray. Highly recommended.
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King of Kings Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Holiday Edition: The Making of MGM's King of Kings (Updated) - December 24, 2011
One of the 1960's most acclaimed religious epics was released by MGM in Super Technirama 70. For a special holiday Silver Screen column, read on to learn about this spectacular production released on a superb Blu-ray from Warner Home Video. Lost photos, lobby cards, ...
• King of Kings Blu-ray Announced - December 16, 2010
Warner Home Video has announced King of Kings for Blu-ray release on March 29, 2011, in time for the Easter holidays. This 1961 biblical film epic, directed by Nicholas Ray and produced by Samuel Bronston, tells the life of Christ set against the tumult of Roman ...
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