Film Review: King David (dir by Bruce Beresford)

A film about David, the young shepherd and musician who eventually became the second king of Israel?

That sounds like a great idea!

After all, David is one of the most compelling figures in history.  Whether it’s the slaying of Goliath or his ill-fated friendship with Jonathan or his uneasy relationship with Saul, every detail about David’s youth feels perfect for cinematic drama.  And then, once David become king of Israel, the drama doesn’t end.  David finds himself dealing with both politics and temptation.  He falls in lust with Bathsheba and, in a moment of terrible weakness, he arranges for her husband to be killed in battle.  His own son, Absalom, turns against him and then, despite David’s very clear orders to the contrary, Absalom is executed while he helplessly hangs from a tree.  For every triumph in David’s life (like the time he used a slingshot to take down Goliath), there’s a tragedy.  For all of David’s attempts to be a good and wise king, he still struggles with his own weaknesses.  Every detail of David’s life seems like it belongs on the big screen.

So, now that we’ve agreed that the life of David would be perfect for a movie, consider this: A film about David, a master of both poetry and politics who was known for his deep emotions, starring Richard Gere?


The 1985 film, King David, has all the potential to be a great film but it’s pretty much doomed by the fact that David is played by Richard Gere.  Today, of course, Richard Gere is an above average character actor who is well-cast as older, seemingly successful men who have never quite conquered their own self-doubt.  That’s not the Richard Gere who shows up in King David.  The Richard Gere who shows up in King David is the blank-faced, youngish Richard Gere who was best-known for films like An Officer and a Gentleman and American Gigolo.  Richard Gere is so miscast as David that just the sight of him takes you out of the film’s reality.  While the film plays out, you find yourself saying, “Richard Gere just killed Goliath.  Richard Gere just spied on Bathsheba.  Richard Gere is dancing through the streets of Jerusalem.”

There are a few good things about King David.  Edward Woodward gives a good performance as Saul, who has always been overshadowed David but who was, in his own way, almost as compelling a character.  The film does a credible-enough job recreating the ancient world and it’s entertaining to see the iconic Italian actor George Eastman show up as Goliath.  Far too often, though, King David becomes one of those films where every big action scene is shown in slow motion and there’s too many close-ups of swords being tossed into the air.

According to Wikipedia (that’s right, I did some “serious” research for this review), King David was actually made because it was felt that the film would be able to draw in the same audience that loved Star Wars.  That turned out to not be true as the film was a huge flop and apparently damaged a lot of careers.  But, flop or not, it was still on TV last night, which just proves that movies are forever.

Black Brigade (1970, directed by George McCowan)

During the closing days of World War II, General Clark (Paul Stewart) wants to capture a Nazi-controlled dam and he thinks he’s found just the man for the job.  Captain Beau Carter (Stephen Boyd) is a tough and good with a knife and a gun.  Carter is sent to take command of a ragtag group of soldiers who have spent the last three years waiting for combat.  The only catch is that the soldiers are all black and Captain Carter is a racist redneck.

This was an Aaron Spelling-produced television movie that was originally broadcast under the name Carter’s Army.  When it was released on video, the name was changed to Black Brigade, probably in an effort to fool viewers into thinking that it was a cool blaxploitation film instead of a simplistic TV movie.  The film has gotten some attention because of the cast, which is full of notable names.  Roosevelt Grier plays Big Jim.  Robert Hooks is Lt. Wallace while Glynn Turman is Pvt. Brightman (who keeps a journal full of the details of the imaginary battles in which he’s fought) and Moses Gunn brings his natural gravitas to the role of Pvt. Hayes.  Probably the two biggest names in the cast are Richard Pryor as the cowardly Crunk and Billy Dee Williams as Pvt. Lewis, who says that he’s from “Harlem, baby.”

Don’t let any of those big names fool you.  Most of them are lucky if they get one or two lines to establish their character before getting killed by the Germans.  The movie is mostly about Stephen Boyd blustering and complaining before eventually learning the error of his ways.  The problem is that Carter spends most of the film as such an unrepentant racist that it’s hard not to hope that one of the soldiers will shoot him in the back when he least expects it.  The other problem is that, for an action movie, there’s not much action.  Even the climatic battle at the dam is over in just a few minutes.

There is one daring-for-its-time scene where Lt. Wallace comes close to kissing a (white) member of the German Resistance, Anna Renvic (Susan Oliver).  When Carter sees him, he angrily orders Wallace to never touch a white woman.  Anna slaps Carter hard and tells him to mind his own goddamn business.  It’s the best scene in the movie.  Otherwise, Black Brigade is forgettable despite its high-powered cast.

The International Lens: The Experiment (dir by Oliver Hirschbiegel)

The 2001 German film, Das Experiment, is a film that’s probably more relevant today than when it was first released.

The film deals with a social experiment.  For a payment of 4,000 marks, volunteers are separated into two groups.  One group will be prisoners and they will spend several days in a makeshift prison that’s been constructed in the basement of a lab.  The other group will serve as guards.  Though the “guards” have been told that they are not allowed to physically harm any of the “prisoners,” they are still under strict orders to maintain order in the prison.  While the two groups play their roles, they’ll be observed by Prof. Thon (Edgar Selge) and his assistant, Dr. Grimm (Andrea Sawatzki).

If this premise sounds familiar, that’s because it’s based on something that actually happened in the United States in 1971.  At Stanford University, a group of students were split into prisoners and guards, much as in The Experiment.  In real life (and, in the film), both groups of students quickly adapted to their roles.  In real life, the experiment was canceled after it became apparent that the guards were abusing the prisoners.  In the film, the experiment continues even after it becomes obvious that things are getting out-of-hand.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is often cited as an example of both how quickly power can corrupt otherwise normal human beings and how, psychologically, people have a habit of assuming the habits of whatever group to which they’ve been assigned.  It’s often seen as proof of how easily people can fall into an authoritarian mindset.  That’s certainly what happens in The Experiment, in which the guards quickly go from being a bunch of fun-loving dudes (one of them is apparently an amateur Elvis impersonator) to being a bunch of power-mad sadists who justify their actions by saying that they have to maintain order no matter what.  Even when ordered by Dr. Grimm to end the experiment, the guards assume that her objections are just a scripted part of the experiment and they instead escalate their behavior.

The main character in The Experiment is Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu ), a freelance journalist who also works as a taxi driver.  Tarek agrees to take part in the experiment because he wants to write an article about the experience and make some extra money.  Tarek is assigned to be a prisoner and given a new name: #77.  What Tarek doesn’t know is that Prof. Thon specifically selected him because Thon feels that Tarek’s rebellious nature will lead to a conflict with Berus (Justus von Dohnányi ), the most severe of all the guards.  It turns out that Thon is more correct than even he realizes.  The participants in the experiment may start out joking and enjoying themselves but it doesn’t last.  While Tarek seeks refuge in his fantasies and his memories of making love to the enigmatic Dora (Maren Eggert), the guards are thinking of new ways to psychologically abuse him. Perhaps not surprisingly, it all leads to torture, rape, and eventually murder.

The Experiment is an effective look at how quickly people can be seduced by their own power, one that is all the more disturbing for the fact that it’s taking place in Germany, a country full of people who should know where an authoritarian mindset leads.  The first time I watched the film was in 2010 and it was difficult not to associate what happens to Tarek to what was going on in the war on terror.  At the time, the film seemed heavy-handed but crudely powerful.  Watching it last night, while under lockdown, the film felt downright prophetic.  Watching the guards slowly go mad, it was hard not to question whether or not that’s what we have to look forward to in the future as more and more people take it upon themselves to police whether or not their neighbors are standing 6 feet apart from each other.  If we’ve learned anything over the past two months, it’s that more people fantasize about living under an authoritarian state than are willing to admit.

The Experiment was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.  It was his directorial debut.  Three years after making The Experiment, Hirschbiegel would lunch a thousand memes by directing Downfall, a film about the final days of Hitler.  If you want understand why Hitler lost the war, watch Downfall.  If you want to understand how Hitler came to power in the first place, watch The Experiment.