King David [DVD]
Director : Bruce Beresford
Screenplay : Andrew Birkin & James Costigan
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1985
Stars : Richard Gere (David), Tomas Milian (Akiss), Edward Woodward (Saul), Alice Krige (Bathsheba), Denis Quilley (Samuel), Niall Buggy (Nathan), Hurd Hatfield (Ahimelech), Jack Klaff (Jonathan), John Castle (Abner), Tim Woodward (Joab)
In the spring of 1985, when Bruce Beresford’s ponderous King David flopped as mightily as Goliath taking a rock in the forehead, it had been a long time since anyone had attempted to mount a serious Biblical epic. Not since the days of Cecil B. DeMille’s overwrought, pious Technicolor epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) had a studio lavished so much money and seriousness on an Old Testament story (not surprisingly, Paramount was behind both films). Of course, when DeMille was making his films, Hollywood was a different place, and a bearded Charlton Heston as Moses and high production values could guarantee a blockbuster. In the mid-1980s, Richard Gere, then best known for sexy bad-boy roles in films like American Gigolo (1980) and An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), as the Israelite warrior king just couldn’t bring ’em in.
Like many before them, screenwriters Andrew Birkin and James Costigan had quite a job on their hands condensing the story of David into a coherent two-hour movie. In the Bible, David’s story takes up the books of I & II Samuel, as well as part of I Kings, and its extensive list of supporting characters and massive amounts of political upheaval would prove difficult to maintain (it’s no small wonder that producers finally figured out that the TV miniseries is the best place to re-enact the Bible on-screen). The fact that they chose to tell the entirety of David’s story, from his being anointed king of Israel as a young shepherd boy to his dying days after a 40-year reign as king, didn’t make things any easier.
Narratively, King David is essentially split into two parts. The first part deals with David’s (Richard Gere) rivalry with King Saul (Edward Woodward), the man he is to replace. The second part then follows David’s reign as king, focusing primarily on his relationship with Bathsheba (Alice Krige) and his desire to build a massive temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Saying that the film is split in two parts would seem to suggest equal emphasis on both, but the narrative is decidedly weighted toward the first part of David’s life, while his reign as king feels oddly truncated and not very satisfying, especially since this is the point at which David’s conflicting duality as both sinner and servant to God comes fully into play.
Anyone familiar with Bible stories will recognize that King David plays all the greatest hits, including David’s facing down the Philistine champion Goliath, his sparing Saul’s life after sneaking into his camp and stealing his sword, and, of course, his selfish desire for Bathsheba and his willingness to conspire to have her husband killed in order to have her. All of this is set against impressive and authentic production design set in the cragged, grassy hills of Italy, which give the film a colorful palette and rough texture; its visuals are its best asset.
Clearly, director Bruce Beresford was aiming at a sense of authenticity, which is why he didn’t back down from the sex and violence that is inherent to the story. Within the film’s opening moments, the prophet Samuel (Denis Quilley) kills a enemy king and holds his disembodied head aloft, which is not the first decapitation to occur. The battle scenes, of which there are several, are grand in scale and are the only moments when the film feels fully alive. Despite quite a bit of nudity for a PG-13 film, the film’s sexuality never takes hold, though, particularly David’s obsession with Bathsheba, perhaps because so little screen time is given over to it (in 1951, Henry King made an entire film about just that part of David’s life).
When he directed King David, Bruce Beresford was being heralded as one the great new filmmaking talents to emerge out of Australia. He had directed the well-received Breaker Morant (1980), a military drama about the Boer War, and, in his first Hollywood film, directed Robert Duvall to an Oscar in Tender Mercies (1983). That combination of being able to deal with both large-scale historical material and intimate relationships seemed to make him an ideal choice to helm King David, but he never seemed to get his footing in the Biblical epic. The screen is filled with hundreds of people and enormous sets, but it has no energy. Too many of the characters look alike, and they intone their awkward dialogue with such honor and subtlety that it almost lulls you to sleep. It is the very definition of going through the motions with no passion.
Many have blamed the casting of Richard Gere for the film’s failure, perhaps because he is an easy target, but his performance is really quite good, despite his clearly out-of-place vocal cadences (everyone else in the film speaks in British accents). The scene in which he strips down to a loincloth and dances through the streets of Jerusalem after becoming king has been sneered at for years as a high point for camp and a low point for Gere, but it really isn’t nearly as bad as it’s been made out to be, especially given its historical veracity. The failure of King David has much more to do with its ponderous pace, stilted dialogue, and choppy narrative. The bad dance sequence was just the final straw that broke this camel’s back.
|King David DVD|
|Audio|| English Dolby 2.0 Surround |
French Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Distributor||Paramount Home Video|
|Release Date||November 18, 2003|
|King David is presented for the first time on home video in its original ’Scope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in a new anamorphic transfer. The image looks clean and strong throughout, although it appears just a tad soft. Colors are good, which really brings out the depth in the film’s two great assets: excellent production design and beautiful cinematography. A few of the darker scenes appear a tad grainy, but otherwise the image is pleasantly smooth and filmlike.|
|The original Dolby two-channel surround soundtrack is the only option available, and it sounds pretty good. The surround channels are used quite frequently to create an ambient environment, particularly when the wind is swirling or when voices echo.|
|No supplements are included.|
©2003 James Kendrick