King of Kings (1961): Nicholas Ray’s Biblical Epic, Starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus

The life of Jesus Christ is chronicled in King of Kings, an earnest but intelligent epic, directed by Nicholas Ray toward the end of his Hollywood career.

Samuel Bronson, the legendary producer of El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, and Nicholas Ray, the director of Rebel Without a Cause and 55 Days at Peking, team for this powerful tale of the life of Christ.

Rich in scale and detail, this biblical epos is set against the tumult of Roman occupation, and contains notable performances by Jeffrey Hunter (Jesus), Rip Torn (Judas), Harry Guardino (Barabbas) and others.

From the Nazarene’s humble birth to his nomadic ministry, from the teachings to murderous conspiracies, from death on a cross to resurrection — key events of 33 years that changed the world are here. An epic that both entertains and ennobles, King of Kings wears its crown with reverence and strength.
Ray achieves the right balance between exterior scenes of the stunning landscape and interior ones, which convey the more intimate interaction between the characters in a dramatically compelling way.

Cecil B. DeMille directed a silent film about Jesus Christ, titled The King of Kings and starring H.B. Warner as Jesus. That film, however, begins when Christ is already an adult. In contrast, Ray’s 1961 version tells the story from the beginning and places Jesus’ life in the political context of the Roman conquests and empire.  As Jesus becomes an active preacher and healer, his activities are contrasted with the political stance of Barabbas and his insurgents who battle against the Roman occupiers.

In other films, Barabbas is seen as the murderer whose freedom is offered in exchange for Jesus’ life, but in King of Kings Barabbas plays a major role, and is depicted as an incendiary figure fighting Roman domination and as a good friend of Judas Iscariot.  Judas believes that he can persuade Barabbas to embrace Christ as a liberator and that he can influence Christ to take up arms against Rome, but Barabbas becomes disillusioned after listening to the Sermon on the Mount. It is then that Judas decides to betray Christ to the Romans. When Lucius frees Barabbas, Lucius pointedly commands Barabbas to go look at Christ as he carries his cross.

The narration, written by the uncredited novelist Ray Bradbury (the script is credited to Philip Yordan), is voiced impressively by Orson Welles in his unmistakable voice, adding gravitas (and prestige) to the epic.

Though he has appeared in several  good movies before, including John Ford’s The Searchers in 1956, Jeffrey Hunter was considered to be just a pretty face.  But in this film, he’s well cast, rendering a dramatically effective performance.

So is the incredibly versatile Robert Ryan (mostly known for film noir), who’s cast as John.  The film has so many merits that you tend to overlook the excessive performance of Hurd Hatfield as Pontius Pilate.

Known for his good eye for casting, Ray populated his film with first-rate actors in secondary roles, including Royal Dano, Harry Guardino as Barabbas, Rip Torn as Judas, and Viveca Lindfors as Claudia.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Ray is that he successfully avoids the kitsch and banal treatment that has characterized most Hollywood biblical epics.

Released on October 12, 1961, King of Kings was one of the top ten money-makers of the year.

Running time: 161 Minutes