Nicholas Ray’s epic try at a Life of Jesus has its defenders (his uneven career inspires more than the normal amount of back-bending critical spin from Academics & auteurists), but the film never lives up to its opening reel promise. There, the film finds a storybook look and unfussy style, played out with minimal dialogue supported by Orson Welles’ pseudo-biblical narration which guides us along the familiar story in a comforting manner. Unfortunately, once Jesus & his gang grow up, Ray can’t locate the right tone or spirit. Some of the blame goes to the film’s hair stylist who puts a ‘page boy’ on Judas, 'perms' the Apostles and over-emphasizes Jeffrey Hunter’s Jesus of Hallmark looks. But the main problem comes from Philip Yordan’s script which posits Barabbas as a sort of fighting counterweight to Jesus’s non-violent revolutionary. (Think Malcolm X vs Martin Luther King, Jr.) It’s a thought-provoking idea that doesn’t pan out, at least, not in this film. And it forces Ray to skimp on crucial scenes so we can better sympathize with Rip Torn’s conflicted Judas. The best perfs come from Siobhan McKenna’s Mary with her great froggy Irish cadence and, surprisingly, Hurd Hatfield’s ultra-slick Pontius Pilate, forever trying to wheedle his way out of things. The current DVD restoration does proud by lensers Franz Planer & Milton Krasner, but the sound-synch is fractionally off. It’s only two or three frames, but maddening. Poor composer Miklos Rozsa went straight from the Christian pageantry of BEN-HUR/’59 to this. (And QUO VADIS/’51 before that.) No wonder he works his main theme so hard over a grueling three-hours. But what a theme!
DOUBLE-BILL: Of course, there’s DeMille’s silent version from 1927, still quite a show in the fine 2-disk Criterion edition. But why not try Nicholas Ray’s much-maligned follow up pic, 55 DAYS AT PEKING/’63? He never recovered from this budget busting mega-flop, but it’s tremendous stuff in its slightly ludicrous way.