Biblical epics

Going to Sunday School on TV

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Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in “King of Kings”, giving us all blue steel.

This past Saturday ABC aired the Cecil B. DeMille classic The Ten Commandments. They’ve been running this movie for hte better part of half a century, and it is as much of a tradition as when CBS used to show The Wizard of Oz every October, or NBC’s annual spring airing of The Sound of Music. The latter two have fallen by the wayside over the years, with police procedurals and reruns of America’s Got Talent drawing more viewers. I didn’t watch it and haven’t in a while, mainly because four-hour Biblical epics are not always my thing.

At one point, though, they were.

Now, I didn’t grow up in some sort of extremely evangelical household, but I was subjected to a fair amount of religious programming in my childhood. This ranged from kids’ shows to movies like the aforementioned DeMille classic. Sure, I watched Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which were decidedly secular in nature, but the counter-programming to that was stuff like Davey and Goliath, the stop-motion animated show where this kid and his talking dog would get into some sort of trouble or moral quandary and often would learn a lesson, whether it was from their parents or some other authority figure. I know I watched a fair amount of that show when I was very little, probably either before or after church on Sundays because nothing else was on television except for other religious programming and I wasn’t the target demo for the Hour of Power.

Meanwhile, my parents owned a VCR and began acquiring movies pretty early in the 1980s, one of the few times in my entire life where they were on the forefront of new technology. I usually used the VCR to watch my copy of Star Wars, but also on occasion, I would watch one of three two-tape movies: The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and King of Kings. When it came to The Ten Commandments, I can tell you that I only ever remembered the film’s opening and closing–large swaths of the middle of the film are blocked from my memory. Ben-Hur was a film I may have watched through once but can only remember him knocking a roof tile into a passing parade on tape one and the chariot race on tape two. Of course, who doesn’t remember the chariot race?

King of Kings, though, was my Biblical epic of choice. Released in 1961, it stars Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus and is known for the good looks of its star (in fact, the phrase “I was a teenage Jesus” showed up in at least one review) and the fact that it was the first time Jesus had a discernible face in a movie and wasn’t “written around.” At seven or eight, when I was watching it, I didn’t know much about the film’s background and it would be a couple of years before I discovered that Jeffrey Hunter played Captain Pike in the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage”, I just wanted to see the guy play Jesus in a two-tape movie. More than once, too, to the point where i had particular parts of the movies as memorized as Star Wars.

The tapes themselves were kind of a curiosity to me because they were legitimately purchased tapes–unlike the Star Wars films I owned, which were dubbed from laser disc, these had MGM’s labels on them. But for some reason, they were not in the official cardboard box or whatever other packaging you expected from a VHS tape. No, it was in a brown plastic case that you would get at the video store, so that meant my dad or mom willingly bought this film from a store’s inventory. I can imagine that they got it at a discount because this was back when buying a movie on VHS could run you upwards of $79.95.

The tapes themselves had this idiosyncrasy of musical inserts at the beginning and end of each tape. I don’t know if they were part of the original theatrical release, although the film was done as a “roadshow” when it came out in 1961, a type of release where the studio would put it on tour and that presentation often included overtures and intermissions. I remember that these segments were stills of some sort of Biblical image with orchestral music over them, although the title card that said “Overture” was block lettering similar to what you would see on a baseball game in the early 1980s, so my guess is that it was reformatted for television.

The tapes were as well, but not in the best way. Whereas later in the 1980s and into the 1990s, movies like this would be given a widescreen treatment, the King of Kings VHS of the early 1980s was classic pan and scan with some parts of it having that Gumby Vision effect where shots were stretched vertically to get as much on the screen as possible. I remember this being especially noticeable in the scene where Jesus meets John the Baptist because there are a couple of very tight close-ups and you can see how stretched out things are. Otherwise, the film looked like just about every other Biblical epic of the era. I’m not sure if they simply used the Roman Centurion costumes that MGM had stashed in a storage closet from every other sword-and-sandals epic filmed in the California desert, but it I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

Anyway, the film pads out what is not exactly an action-packed story. Instead pho simply starting with Jesus’ birth or the Immaculate Conception, we open with Pompey’s sack of Jerusalem and that allows for both a subplot centering around Herod’s reign in Judea and another one of Barabbas leading a band of rebels against the Roman occupiers. This was what I found most interesting, probably because it was significantly more violent than the Sermon on the Mount. I also remember that John the Baptist gets more characterization and we practically get a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome halfway through the film. Even Pontius Pilate is more than just the Roman bureaucrat that oversees Jesus’ execution.

The film probably didn’t need its enormous running time, especially when it didn’t seem to do more with Jesus’ actual story than my Sunday School primer. And honestly, I wonder if it’s depictions like that which people get so used to that make movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ so controversial. But 1961 was still an era of big historical event epics, so you went big with Jesus or you didn’t go at all.

I currently have a significant aversion to religion, which began when I was a teenager and became much more pronounced as I watched it poison large swaths of our politics and society. But I still have fond memories of being seven or eight when I used to watch King of Kings all the way through.  I’m not sure if it’s because the memories are of my rather comfortable childhood or because because along with the science fiction flicks I was re-watching, it helped me develop a love of stories.  But I think I’m good on remembering how much I liked them then instead of setting aside a weekend to watch Charlton Heston part something or Jeffrey Hunter smolder.