Film Review: King of Kings (dir by Nicholas Ray)


The 1961 film, King of Kings, was the final biblical film that I watched on Easter.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it tells the story of Jesus from the Nativity to the Ascension.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it’s an epic film that was directed by a renowned director.  (In this case, Nicholas Ray.)  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings also has a huge cast and there’s a few familiar faces to be seen, though it doesn’t really take the all-star approach that George Stevens did with his telling of the story.

Probably the biggest star in King of Kings was Jeffrey Hunter, who played Jesus.  Hunter was in his 30s at the time but he still looked young enough that the film was nicknamed I Was A Teenage Jesus.  (Some of that also probably had to do with the fact that Nicholas Ray was best known for directing Rebel Without A Cause.)  But then again, for a man who had so many followers, Jesus was young.  He hadn’t even reached his 40th birthday before he was crucified.  As well, his followers were also young while his many opponents were representatives of the establishment and the old way of doing things.  It makes perfect sense that Jesus should be played by a young man and Hunter gives a good performance.  As opposed to so many of the other actors who have played Jesus in the movies, Jeffrey Hunter is credible as someone who could convince fishermen to throw down their nets and follow him.  He’s passionate without being fanatical and serious without being grim.  He’s a leader even before he performs his first miracle.

King of Kings is one of the better films that I’ve seen about the life of Jesus.  While remaining respectful of its subject, it also feels alive in the way that so many other biblical films don’t.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Nicholas Ray focuses on the idea of Jesus as a rebel against the establishment.  Ray emphasizes the casual cruelty of the Romans and their collaborators.  When John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) is arrested by Herod (Frank Thring), it’s not just so the filmmakers can have an excuse to work Salome (Brigid Bazlen) in the film.  It’s also to show what will happen to anyone who dares to challenge the establishment.  When Jesus visits John the Baptist in his cell, it’s a summit between two rebels who know that they’re both destined to die for the greater good.  When Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) makes his appearance, he’s smug and rather complacent in his power.  He’s not the quasi-sympathetic figure who appears in so many other biblical films.  Instead, he’s the epitome of establishment arrogance.

As a director, Nicholas Ray keeps things simple.  This isn’t Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments.  The emphasis is not on grandeur.  Instead, the film is about common people trying to improve the world in which they’re living, while also preparing for the next.  Jeffrey Hunter gives an excellent performance as Jesus and, all in all, this is one of the better and more relatable biblical films out there.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Ivanhoe (dir by Richard Thorpe)


Welcome to England in the 12th century!

That’s the setting of the 1952 best picture nominee, Ivanhoe.  It’s a green and healthy land, full of chivalrous knights and corrupt royalty and outlaws who steal from the rich and give to the poor.  King Richard the Lion Heart (Norman Wooland) left on a crusade and he hasn’t been seen for a while.  Richard’s evil brother, the cowardly King John (Guy Rolfe), rules the country and has little interest in making sure that Richard returns.  Even when Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) discovers that Richard is being held for ransom, John declines to do anything about it.

Ivanhoe is determined to raise the money to pay the ransom and restore Richard to the throne of England, even if he has to secretly compete in a tournament to do it.  Of course, before he can do that, he’ll have to buy a horse and some armor.  Fortunately, he comes across Isaac (Felix Aylmer) and his daughter, Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor).  Isaac and Rebecca give Ivanhoe the money necessary to purchase a good horse and equipment.  Rebecca falls in love with Ivanoe, despite the fact that Ivanhoe is in love with Rowena (Joan Fontaine, who spends most of the movie looking rather bored).

Speaking of love, the king’s favorite knight — the hot-headed but honorable Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) — has fallen in love with Rebecca.  That, of course, complicates matters when the anti-Semitic King John attempts to have the Jewish Rebecca burned at the stake for witchcraft.  When Ivanhoe invokes the “wager of challenge,” in an effort to save Rebecca’s life, Sir Brian is chosen as the court’s champion.  Needless to say, this leads to some awkward moments….

Listen, I would be lying if I said that it was easy for me to follow the plot of Ivanhoe.  It seemed like every few minutes, someone else was plotting against either Ivanoe or King John and it got a bit difficult to keep track of what exactly everyone was trying to accomplish.  By the time Robin Hood (Harold Warrender) showed up, I have given up trying to make sense of the plot.

Instead of worrying about the exact details of the plot, I decided to just enjoy the film as a spectacle.  If nothing else, Ivanhoe is gorgeous to look at.  The colors are lush and full and the costumes and the sets are all wonderfully ornate.  Apparently, 12 Century England was a very colorful place.  There’s a lot of battles and jousts and sword fights.  I couldn’t always keep track of who was fighting who but at least the film moved at a steady pace.

Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine make for a dull leading couple but a young Elizabeth Taylor is stunning in the role of Rebecca and George Sanders transforms Sir Brian into a truly tragic figure.  Guy Rolfe is memorably evil as King John, though he’s perhaps not as much fun as Oscar Isaac was in Robin Hood.  Everyone in the movie looks good in their period costuming.  Really, that’s the most important thing.

Ivanhoe was nominated for Best Picture but lost to The Greatest Show On Earth.

A Movie A Day #292: The Bride (1985, directed by Franc Roddam)


The Bride opens where most films about Frankenstein and his monster end.

The Baron (played by fucking Sting, of all people) has agreed to create a bride for his creation, who in this movie is named Viktor and played by Clancy Brown.  Jennifer Beals plays the Bride, who is named Eva.  Eva looks like a normal, beautiful wielder-turned-dancer so when she first sees Viktor, she screams.  Viktor gets upset and starts to trash the laboratory.  “Don’t be impertinent!’ snaps the Baron’s assistant (Quentin Crisp).  A fire breaks out.  Quentin Crisp dies and so does another assistant played by Timothy Spall.  The monster escapes.  The Baron takes Eva into his household.  The Baron is obsessed with controlling Eva, who wants her independence and who has fallen in love with Cary Elwes.  When Eva sees a cat, she screams.  “You never told me about cats,” she tells the Baron, “I thought it was a tiny lion!”

The rest of the movie is a bewildering collection of cameos from respected thespians forced to recite some of the worst dialogue in film history.  Viktor befriends Rinaldo the dwarf (David Rappaport), who tells Viktor about how much he dreams of one day seeing Venice.  After Rinaldo is murdered by Alexei Sayle, Viktor swears that he will go to Venice and he will take Eva with him.

(Timothy Spall,  Quentin Crisp, and Alexei Sayle are not the only British performers to be strangely miscast in The Bride.  Keep an eye out for Phil Daniels, Ken Campbell, and Tony Haygarth, all wasted in small roles.)

The Bride attempts to put a revisionist, feminist spin on the story of Frankenstein but it ultimately just looks like a two hour Duran Duran video, with a guest vocals provided by Sting.  The scenes with Clancy Brown and David Rappaport work but otherwise, every important role is miscast.  Jennifer Beals is monotonous as the Bride and Sting never comes close to suggesting that he is capable of the type of mad genius that would be necessary to create life.  When it comes to the Bride of Frankenstein, stick with the original.

One final note: Both Sting and Phil Daniels also appeared in a much better film from Franc Roddam, Quadrophenia.  I recommend seeing Quadrophenia almost as much as I recommend forgetting about The Bride.