"King of Kings" (Warner/Blu-ray, PG-13, $19.98) holds up best. Hunter — best known in 1961 for having co-starred with John Wayne in "The Searchers" and Fess Parker in "The Great Locomotive Chase" (but now perhaps more famous for his lead role in the original "Star Trek" pilot) — gives a sincere, understated performance, one that plays well against some of the more flamboyant actors around him.
A surprisingly prominent subplot plays up the activities of Barabbas (Harry Guardino), making him a friend of Judas (Rip Torn) and a politically polarizing rabble-rouser, which is contrasted with Jesus' ministry. It doesn't always work; there are times when everything gives way to sword-and-sandal action cliches. But it does reinforce Jesus as an outsider who rejects the status quo — which is also in keeping with themes that dominate the oeuvre of the film's director, Nicholas Ray ("Rebel Without a Cause").
The location scenery (filmed in Spain) is shown to great advantage in this edition, which has been remastered with care so that the sharp Technicolor imagery really stands out, as does the sound for Miklos Rosza's excellent score, all of which demonstrates what Blu-ray can do at its best.
"The Greatest Story Ever Told" (MGM/Blu-ray, G, $19.99) is slow and deliberate, meant to inspire contemplation as much as entertain. But that's not a bad thing. And there are some nicely re-created Bible-inspired moments.
As for Swedish actor von Sydow as Jesus, much has been made of his physique, which to many makes the character appear weak, even frail. But von Sydow is a terrific actor (best known at the time for his many appearances in Ingmar Bergman's stolid, bleak Swedish films), and his performance is strong, making up for whatever his physical appearance may lack.
This one has a local angle, of course, having been filmed partly in Utah, with Moab filling in for Bethlehem and the Sermon on the Mount delivered in Canyonlands, with areas of Kanab and Lake Powell also put to good use. But the Blu-ray here is a bit disappointing. Not that it doesn't look good; it does. But it isn't really much better than the DVD (although the sound, especially that memorable, moving Alfred Newman score, is very good).
Let's face it: Playing Jesus in a movie is a fool's errand. No actor can possibly appeal to the entire audience. Every Christian audience member has in his or her mind a unique image of what he should look like. Even a mere sidelong glance at classical paintings revered by millions reveals the Savior in myriad ways. No two of them quite alike.
If you're thinking about purchasing one of these Blu-ray choices, "King of Kings" is your best bet. And for those who already have a copy of "The Greatest Story Ever Told," the Blu-ray may be an unnecessary expense.
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