King of Kings ★★★★

Even a subversive juggernaut like Nicholas Ray (Bigger Than Life, Johnny Guitar) could be studio-bartered by an MGM biblical epic on Jesus. If you've seen this reiteration numerous times—the Three Wise Men arriving in Bethlehem, the speechified Sermon on the Mount, the anguish praying at Gethsemene, the solemn crucifixion in Golgotha, then King of Kings may come across as another reverential routine checklist. However, that would be dismissing what remains on the periphery, which I found quite remarkable. Cue the unrest.

Two sequences: The Massacre of the Innocents, and the Passover, are filled with Ray's trademark rawness. Rarely has this story depicted the Romans stealing babies from their mothers—filled with engulfing fires, and rabidly dramatic chaos. As for the latter, fervid rebels are strewn by spears, while Barabbas leads the Hebrew Army (!) at the grounds of the Antonia Fortress. To me, envisioning this seems more preferable than a familiar step-by-step play to Jesus' Resurrection. Beyond this, never has a biblical film given so much extensive interest to the political intrigue of Herod's Court. From the gobsmacking patricide among fallen curtains, to Herodia's innate jealousy of her daughter Salome, and inviting High Priest Caiaphas to discuss the machinations they'll inflict on Jesus.

Along with Miklós Rózsa's resoundingly stirring score (composed the same year as his excellent work in El Cid), to the majestic wide-screen 70mm upon crowded hills, and Orson Welles' deeply intoned narration, is an epic that surges with poignancy. Also, the internal life of John the Baptist gets a worthwhile amount of time, from cleansing those at the River Jordan to his fetid imprisonment and beheading. Both intimate and mammoth details have been included here, most of which are given ample room to breathe. The only rushed segment, when Jesus wades through the Judean desert and is tempted by Satan, is just reduced to a paltry few minutes. That's my only structural qualm.

As for the Messiah himself, Jeffrey Hunter plays him with taciturn devotion and mellow warmness, although Dafoe and Caviezel's versions have provided him with more afflicted complexity. Yet he's still given moments that are truly touching (Ray's best directorial flourishes: the haggard blind man who approaches Jesus' shadow on the wall, the split-diopter shot of Herodia's frailty in the Court, the reverse tracking shot of Mary Magdalene running from the horde, and position a bird's-eye-view on the rising crucifix.) Ultimately, where this resides strongest for me is heightening those previously unexplored moments that biblical epics had elided. The political turmoil that's materialized from Jesus' life is frankly unsettling, as gruesome action unfurls in Egypt and Jerusalem. Then it's interspliced with humble segments on expressing His Word. That makes for a very thorough experience.