In 63 B.C. the Roman Empire invaded Judea and after a long siege captured the capital city of Jersualem, leading to many years of totalitarian rule over the Jewish population when many of the locals died due to their conquerors' savagery. Before long, Herod (Grégoire Aslan) had been placed as King, but took his orders from Rome though considered himself the most important man in the land, so when, during the census he imposed, news reached him that a supposed new King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem, he ordered the death of any baby boys in the area. But one escaped...
It's forgotten now, but King of Kings, now thought of as one of the most reverent treatments of the Christ story, was once considered very controversial, receiving poor reviews and public criticism in some quarters, leading its powerful producer Samuel Bronston to demand reshoots to make it more piety-friendly; he even added a sober narration written by Ray Bradbury and delivered by the voiceover man's voiceover man of the day, Orson Welles. The perceived problem here was down to its director, Nicholas Ray, whose previous efforts were considered edgy and, in his own word, "hip", and he approached the Biblical tale in the same way.
Watching it now, you'd be hard pressed to find much edgy about it, but Ray evidently regarded this biography as one of a revolutionary, and set his context by bringing the contemporary of Christ, Barabbas (Harry Guardino), the man best known for being the freedom fighter here (he was a simple criminal in the text) who the crowd chose to release over Jesus, and offering him far more screen time than he ever had enjoyed before. The idea was to contrast the two styles of these folk heroes, with Christ the man of mediation, peace and sermonising, and Barabbas the counterpart who thought force and might was the only way to throw off the shackles of the Romans and their corrupting influence on his land.
Famously at the time, the man chosen to play Jesus was Jeffrey Hunter, a handsome performer who nevertheless never quite got the breaks he probably deserved, though nobody really came out of this film much better than they had before. He led it to be dubbed "I Was a Teenage Jesus" by the critics due to his youthful countenance, although he was by all rights exactly the right age to be playing the Christian saviour, but it wasn't as good a role as it might have first appeared. Indeed, Hunter came across as straitjacketed by having to speak in stoic, measured tones throughout, though his best scene came not with the finale, but with the Sermon on the Mount, which builds up a lot of talk to a moving recital of The Lord's Prayer that for a brief time shows what Hunter could have done if he had been given a better opportunity.
Actually, for long stretches it seems as if Ray was less interested in the Messiah and more in the other, more colourful characters, with Barabbas a fiery presence and Robert Ryan's John the Baptist as curious and charismatic a figure here as he was in the scripture. The two Herods (Frank Thring played the successor) are entertaining in a boo-hiss manner, although it was Brigid Bazlen's perverse Salome who captures a lot of the attention though sadly did nothing for the actress's shortlived career. The supernatural elements to the Testaments were downplayed, to the extent that Ray and his screenwriter Philip Yordan looked almost embarrassed as if they wished to get back to the political stuff, and Miklos Rosza's heavenly choir overemphasised what they wished to remain subtle, but the theme of the contest between violent reactions to persecution and the pacifist response that is viewed as more noble by Christ's followers was strong enough to make you wish for a film that favoured passion over careful, thoughtful holiness.