For all its low reputation, Samuel Bronston's much-mocked King of Kings is easily the best and most intelligent of the `devotional' versions of the life of Christ, largely because it sets Jesus as a historical figure and, to a degree, a victim of history and politics in troubled times. More importantly, it manages to do it without being as relentlessly dreary and one-note as George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told, which becomes more of an endurance test with each passing year. Even the vigorously-staged battle scenes serve a real dramatic purpose, pitting Barabbas' Davidic warrior would-be Messiah against Jesus' spiritual deliverer ("I am fire, he is water - how can we ever meet?") that is many ways the real conflict of the film: the fight between material pragmatism (the Romans, Herod, Barabbas) and spiritual idealism (Jesus and his followers). Even Caiphas is given a very modern reading, not as a black-hearted villain but as an unpopular Roman-appointed religious leader who genuinely cares for his flock, fearing that Jesus' popularity could be used by the Romans to start a Holocaust that will destroy his people.
There's much imagination at work too: while Jeffrey Hunter's Messiah suffers from MGM's insistence on redubbing the part in more `masterful' tones, he proactively interacts with the crowd in the Sermon on the Mount, played almost like a press conference, while the Last Supper takes its visual design not from Da Vinci but from the CND's peace symbol. The casting IS variable - Robert Ryan's John the Baptist, Hurd Hatfield's Pontius Pilate, Harry Guardino's Barabbas, Ron Randell's centurion, Guy Rolfe's Caiphas and Gregoire Aslan and the great Frank Thring as Herod Sr. and Jr. are fine, but Rip Torn is surprisingly awkward as an otherwise well-conceived Judas Iscariot doomed by compromise, Royal Dano's Simon Peter is a better idea on paper than onscreen (particularly when given dialog) and Siobhan McKenna's eminently punchable misty-eyed Mary is a tad too Oirish Catlic for my tastes. Yet despite its weaknesses and the virtual sidelining of Jesus for much of the running time - this is more a film about His times and His effect on those around Him than His life - it's never less than totally involving, and often genuinely moving.
Despite reputedly losing interest in post-production, Nicholas Ray's direction is excellent, his mastery of the wide screen making great use of the 70mm format and showing real inspiration in his handling of some of the miracles, scenes greatly enhanced by Miklos Rozsa's superlative score. Even Ray Bradbury's poetic narration, beautifully delivered by Orson Welles, originally intended as a quick fix to paper over the cracks in the narrative, genuinely adds to the film's complex political picture of an occupied territory. Not that some of the cracks aren't still visible, as in the meaningful exchange of looks on the Temple steps between Jesus and Richard Johnson (whose constantly changing part - one day a freed gladiator, the next an Arab, the next a Romanized Jew - was otherwise totally deleted). But they're minor complaints in an extraordinary epic that achieves more of its ambitions than its given credit for.
Incidentally, how on earth did they get the obscene graffiti on the barracks walls past the censors in 1961? Less obvious on the DVD copy, you can't miss it on the 70mm prints!
Warner's DVD is a beautiful transfer and, unlike MGM/UA's slightly cropped laserdisc issue, in the correct aspect ratio. Extras are thin, though - a teaser trailer and brief newsreel footage. The all-region Blu-Ray release includes the newsreel footage and the longer trailer for the film's general release.