Defying the Laws of God and Man
DIRECTED BY HENRY KING/1951
STREET DATE: JANUARY 10, 2017/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
“The Story of the All-Conquering Lion of Judah and the Woman for Whom He broke God’s Own Commandment” roars the contemporary tagline. Directed by Henry King, director of one of my personal favorite silent films, Tol’able David, I approached this movie with no previous exposure to this film. What would a biblical epic created five years before Cecil B. De Mille’s remake of The Ten Commandments tell a modern audience?
Borrowing not only from the story in Scripture of David and Bathsheba but elements echoing the life of Christ, Philip Dunne’s adaptation of the biblical story is a rich tapestry into which one is drawn and maintained for the much of its 116 minutes. Admittedly, many audiences will no doubt find this loose interpretation of events to be a liability. For me, it was an asset: Christianity in many times and places tend to present Jesus as a Davidic figure. The device of recasting events from Christ’s life into the life of David, therefore, makes points both poetic and theological which stand squarely in the Christian tradition. Director Henry King would’ve been no stranger to such stories and interpretations.
The film opens with the troops being away at battle. King David is with them and even meets the dashing commander Uriah—the husband of his future love-interest. Upon returning to Jerusalem, David is confronted by an embittered Michal—his wife and King Saul’s daughter. Michal is dissatisfied with the way their marriage has played out, but David rebuffs her, insisting that they are older, sadder, and wiser now. This loveless state paves the way for the dissatisfied David to fall in love with the alluring Bathsheba who bathes in full view of the king—and with full knowledge that she’s showing off.
Interestingly, the emotional energy of the film seems to be less about the external events of the film and more about the heart of David
Uriah is painted as a haughty, self-righteous figure. When quizzed by David if Uriah would stone a woman who had committed adultery, Uriah’s answer is an unequivocal, unflinching “yes”—even if the adulteress is his wife who seems to be to him more a trophy than anything.
Susan Hayward is a lovely actress, but the lines she is given only let her become moderately believable. As I watched the film a second time with two girl friends of mine, Hayward uttered a line to the effect of, “Women always want to know everything about their man.” The visual reaction of these 21st century girls to such an absurd line were priceless. The way I explained it in the moment may be helpful to a modern audience: “These lines aren’t what women think; they’re written by men and are what men think.”
Gregory Peck is very American in this film. The unflappable cowboy of the Ancient Near East, David talks about wanting to be known repeatedly in the film but seems unwilling or incapable of being vulnerable with anyone except God. To him, Michal is a nuisance and Bathsheba a toy with which he is infatuated, but God is the only one he is open with in the film.
Toward the end of the film is an extended flash-back sequence which recounts events from David’s life. This can seem as if the action of the film is slowed considerably at what seems to be the climax of the film: the angry mob is demanding that Bathsheba be dragged from the palace and stoned as an adulteress. Interestingly, the emotional energy of the film seems to be less about the external events of the film and more about the heart of David—the heart of David loving and serving his God without the distrust and agnosticism which the long years of rule have imposed upon him. Bathsheba is almost a McGuffin to David: one which Henry King uses to make a broader point about David’s downfall being more about his hard heart than about the sexual allure of David’s plaything.
The monaural audio immediately got my attention. The violins are clear and the percussion crisp, but the audio suffers a bit from over-processing. This is probably due in part to the elimination of hiss on the original track, but the restoration is, to my ears, harmful to the music. The audio is, however, well-balanced between orchestra and dialogue and defects in the music are minimal.
Visually, the calligraphy of the opening titles is beautiful and the colors are beautifully rendered on the disc. The technicolor is extremely clean with perfect registration. Cinematograher Leon Shamroy and the restoration colorist on this project certainly knew what they were doing, as scenes are clearly lit without being overly bright, especially in interior shots. It is certainly no surprise that it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography (Color) and Best Art Direction (Color).
Special features played with a certain amount of jerkiness, presumably from inferior original elements, since the film itself had no jerk at all. Each feature is charming, but not all are connected directly with the film itself. As an aside, the ones which are connected to the feature are interesting to watch and compare to a similar trailer in the new film Hail, Caesar!