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Films like Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings offer a good litmus test of critical seriousness. The product of an at best variable talent, it puts Hollywood apologists in an awkward position. Faced with its appalling vulgarity and awkward, creaking construction, the chauvinists of popular cinema have to scramble either to develop strategies to get around the film’s shortcomings or find someone to blame for them. Producers make convenient scapegoats, while directors without critical cachet are doomed before they start. For those canonized by auteurists, however, no argument is too strained to support the crumbling edifice of Hollywood mediocrity. When quality is not inherent, it gets invented.

The fortune that was no doubt spent on King at least assures it looks good. The women (with the exception of Siobhán McKenna who has to look sexlessly Holy as the Virgin Mary) are uniformly gorgeous in that slinky, coiffed manner that Hollywood equates with Decadence anywhere other than Rodeo Drive. The design is imaginative, even if it seems calculated primarily to show off the budget. As such, it is just in keeping with the whole project. The DVD packaging boasts that 7,000 extras were used in the Sermon on the Mount scene alone. We can take their word for it and still wonder about the contradiction of Jesus’s message of humility and simplicity being staged on the scale of War and Peace. Then again, “Hollywood filmmaking” and “humility” are practically oxymoronic.

It is difficult not to sympathize with Jeffrey Hunter, so grossly miscast as Jesus that even he seems to be aware of how ludicrous he looks. And sounds: while the narration and some of the dialog is in Hollywood’s pompous, pseudo-liturgical “Verily, the Lord spoke unto Jesus and said…” style, poor Hunter, with his bronzed surfer looks and matching intonation is just hopeless. The Lord might as well say “Hey dude, get thee unto Jerusalem and, like, kick some butt.” (When Jesus emerges from the wilderness, John the Baptist [Robert Ryan] does say to two of the disciples “There’s your new rabbi,” like a car salesman introducing a new line of Fords, except with considerably less excitement.)

The Passion sequences inevitably generate some emotional intensity, but that is hardly a credit to the movie. Quite apart from the story’s inherent power, Ray and company lean heavily on Miklós Rózsa’s music to work the tear ducts and goose bumps. The score sounds suspiciously like Rózsa’s music for Ben Hur, but at least it holds together the wreckage of Ray’s elaborately inept direction. (I can hear his auteurist boosters clucking already, “But that is the point, it is supposed to look inept…”) What these apologists fail to explain is why an “auteur” like Ray supposedly rises above the limitations of his production circumstances in one case, and fails to do so in another. Then again, to admit failure would be to suggest values beyond Hollywood’s three-ring circus. That is verboten in the politics of film criticism.