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Chris Hicks: 'King of Kings' Blu-ray outshines 'Greatest Story Ever Told'

Published: Thursday, April 21 2011 3:10 p.m. MDT

Jesus (H. B. Warner) embraces the young Mark (Mickey Moore) with two apostles in "King of Kings."

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Jesus Christ has been portrayed on film more than 300 times, if you include images seen in movie characters' visions and hallucinations, as well as less-than-reverent depictions, according to the Internet Movie Database.

Despite such digressions, however, many of these movies are indeed biographical, if only nominally biblical, ranging from the rock operas "Godspell" (1973) and "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973) to Martin Scorsese's controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) and Mel Gibson's hugely successful but no less notorious "The Passion of the Christ" (2004).

The story as played out in movies, however, goes back to some of the earliest pictures ever made, adapted passion plays filmed in both France and the United States during the late 1800s.

One such early effort was mounted by Thomas Edison's company, "The Passion Play of Oberammergau" (1898), which has been cited by historians as both the first narrative feature film and the first to divide the backstage jobs of director and producer. And as there were no movie theaters yet, it was shown primarily in churches around the country.

Certain scenes from Jesus' ministry as recorded in the Bible are also in D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916) and the 1925 version of "Ben-Hur."

But it is the life of Jesus as depicted in Cecil B. DeMille's silent epic "The King of Kings" (1927) that is responsible for setting the pattern of reverent treatment (some would argue too reverent) that Hollywood adhered to for decades after, leading to a pinnacle of sorts in the 1960s.

At this pinnacle, two stand out — the 1961 "King of Kings," starring Jeffrey Hunter, and Max von Sydow's 1965 interpretation in "The Greatest Story Ever Told." And on this Easter weekend, since both films are in video stores with new Blu-ray upgrades, perhaps it's time to take a closer, 21st century look at them.

Both "King of Kings" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" are full-blown studio epics of the kind they just don't make anymore; big-budget pictures shot on far-flung locations, each boasting lavish sets and costumes, along with a cast of thousands, back when that meant real people, not a cast of computer-generated images.

They also included big-name movie stars, familiar faces (to '60s audiences) filling familiar biblical roles — a marketing ploy that backfired for both films.

Critics and audiences alike complained about "King of Kings" using Hunter, a handsome, popular matinee idol, in the lead role, and veteran tough-guy Robert Ryan in his 50s as John the Baptist. And "The Greatest Story Ever Told" was even more widely criticized for its use of marquee names in distracting cameos. Oh, look, there's Sidney Poitier helping Jesus carry the cross. Is that John Wayne as a centurion?

Today, however, except for those who are baby boomers or older, it probably doesn't matter. None of the actors will be recognized by young people unless they are among those rare kids whose parents raised them on Turner Classic Movies.

Of course, to enjoy biblical movies, it's also necessary to put aside any strong feelings we may have about story elements that diverge from the sacred text. I remember seeing "The Greatest Story Ever Told" with my family when I was in high school, and as Judas commits suicide by throwing himself into a pit of fire, I leaned over to my dad and whispered, "Didn't Judas hang himself?" (And let's not even get into the fact that the actors who play Jesus in both films have blue eyes.)

Hey, they're Hollywood movies. And no one in Hollywood will ever be accused of letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

So, with that mountain of caveats, how do they fare today?

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