"KJB: The Amazing Tale of the birth of the King James Bible" can best be described as a "celebration" of the Authorized Version, released to mark the occasion of its 400th anniversary this year. A docu-drama narrated and hosted by John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings trilogy), the film takes the viewer through the tumultuous times which led up to the publication of the KJB in 1611. Produced by IA Productions and Lionsgate as a direct-to-DVD release, it is a film clearly targeted to a Protestant Christian audience and, to a lesser degree, British history enthusiasts. While for many this may appear as condemnation, given the often poor quality of many "Christian" films and documentaries, KJB comes off quite well when compared with many mainstream historical docu-drams and may be of interest to a general audience as well.
Overall production values were quite good, even lavish, with excellent cinematography, music and editing. There was none of the repetitive use of "money shots" so beloved of directors of low-budget doc TV. What was perhaps most distinct about this production were the longer than normal dramatic sequences. At times, these "mini-dramas" were so extensive and engrossing as to almost threaten to derail the documentary through-line.
On their own, these dramas were quite good, and when compared with other recent depictions of the Tudor and Stuart eras, were refreshingly unglamorous. Paola Dionisotti as Elizabeth I, with her eccentric mannerisms and hilariously askew fright wig, presents a far less varnished (and perhaps more accurate) version of the Virgin Queen than the recent iconic portrayals by Cate Blanchet and Dame Helen Mirren. The bulk of the dramatic narrative, however, is given over to Andrew Rothney as James VI and I. One could almost say that this is as much a biography of James as his book. Rothney's James is one of emotional frailty and sudden flashes of strength and even vitriol. The two best scenes in the film involve a debate with his tutor George Buchanan (played with Puritanical intensity by James Bryce) at a young age, and the negotiation with establishment churchmen and puritans which leads to the commissioning of the AV. Both scenes are emotionally charged, but also give a good sense of James's legendary scholarship. As a family film, KJB skirts around the more sordid and controversial aspects of James's character, but such details would not have been relevant to the main story of the translation in any case, and would only have been sensationalistic if included.
Perhaps the best acting in the film, however, comes from Rhys-Davies himself. As host, his enthusiasm for history and the KJB are palpable. As he ambles through churches and palaces, his energy and gusto make other historical documentary hosts seem pale, even cold-blooded by comparison. His great moment comes at the end, when he ascends into the pulpit and intones some of the "highlights" of the KJB's remarkable prose. Listening to these so-familiar passages in Rhys-Davies baritone, it was not hard to see how even atheist Christopher Hitchens can have a sense of awe and reverence at the power of the KJB's language, as he recently expressed in Vanity Fair.
Despite all the remarkable qualities of this doc, there is one great weakness to "KJB" and that is there is so little about the KJB itself. With so much attention given to the royal succession, the commission and even the gun powder plot, the actual translation process becomes a secondary consideration. Yes, translation work is not exactly "hot stuff" dramatically, at least it is not as visually dramatic as the gunpowder plot, which only has a tangential connection to the story of the KJB, and I realize that the filmmakers were attempting to garner as wide an audience as possible, but I find this lack of imagination disappointing. To be fair, my complaint about this is not directed exclusively at the makers of this film, but comes from an overall and long-term dissatisfaction with so much of "educational" programming. Is it an inherent limitation of the medium? I'm not certain, but it would be encouraging to see more filmmakers take a risk and make the effort to create truly intellectually engaging and inspiring documentaries.
That said, the filmmakers attempt to make up for the film's weaknesses in the bonus features of the DVD. For my money, this is where the gold is. Along with some trailers, there is a 40 minute long featurette called "Words from the Wise". This is in fact the real documentary about the KJB. Comprised entirely of interviews with historians who are given only minor sound-bites in the main doc, a much more comprehensive and interesting picture of the KJB finally emerges. Much of the discussion revolves around the colourful lives of the translators and the often heated committee meetings. While listening to these historians, which included the likes of Carl Trueman, Helen Moore, W.B. Patterson, William Naphy, David Burke, Peter McCullough, Pauline Croft and Ashley Null, I kept thinking to myself `why wasn't this dramatized?' and `why didn't they mention that character in the main doc?'
Along with this featurette there was also a twelve minute interview with John Rhys-Davies. I did not watch this immediately, suspecting it to be one of those puff pieces where an actor is allowed to wax uneloquent on material for which he or she is not exactly an expert. To my amazement, when I did finally watch it, I found it to be the best and most moving twelve minutes of the whole DVD. Rhys-Davies may not be a professional scholar, but as a word-smith, he was able to articulate a view of the significance of the KJB almost as worthy as the prose of the KJB itself. Two of my favourite quotes:
"It's a special Bible, written at a special time, a time when the language was actually molten, when language could have gone any way... they shaped it thus."
"The Protestant Reformation is about a need for words, is a need for great sermons, is a need for instruction, is a need for moral debate as much as it is entertainment. They don't want these puny thirteen minute homilies, they want four hours of scholarship [and] difficult reasoning. They want the assurance that there is a way from this mire of earth to the certainty of heaven. How do we navigate, how do we negotiate a way there? Tell us, o curer of our souls! And they get it."
The interview ends with Rhys-Davies discussing his own relationship to faith. I won't say whether he is or is not a Christian, but will leave that for the viewer to discover. As a Christian myself, I found his testimony to be the most unbelievably moving few minutes I have seen on video in a long while. If there are Christian filmmakers out there reading this, moments like these are the kind of thing you need to be capturing on film.