David and Bathsheba
KL Studio Classics
1951 / Color / 1:37 flat Academy / 116 min. / Street Date January 10, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Raymond Massey, Kieron Moore, James Robertson Justice, Jayne Meadows, George Zucco, Francis X. Bushman, Gwen Verdon
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: George Davis, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor: Barbara McLean
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Written by: Philip Dunne
Produced by: Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by Henry King
Right in the middle of WW2, 20th Fox struck religious pay dirt with two respectful religion-themed movies, one about a miracle and another about the hard life of a priest. Each created a new Hollywood star. Five years later there began a regular Hollywood Bible War. In 1949 Cecil B. DeMille released his first Biblical epic in Technicolor, Samson and Delilah, throwing violence, sex and hammy acting at the screen in even measure. MGM bounced back with a tremendous production of Quo Vadis that likewise also served up religious homilies while reveling in photogenic pagan excess. But over at Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck put two of his biggest stars into a thoughtful retelling of the story of King David and Bathsheba, with a literate script by Philip Dunne. The completed movie David and Bathsheba retains the moral and spiritual problems of the original tale, respectfully and intelligently addressing its contradictory ideas.
For once, the elaboration of a Bible narrative is pitched at a level higher than a tent meeting. King David (Gregory Peck) falls in love with Bathsheba (Susan Hayward), the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah (Kieron Moore). He carries on with her in secret, abetted by his personal assistant Abishai (James Robertson Justice). When Bathsheba becomes ‘with child’ after Uriah has been distant for months, David fears that she will be stoned as an adulteress, a common occurrence under Jewish law. He conspires to have Uriah killed in battle. The prophet Nathan (Raymond Massey) brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem but leaves it at the gate because he is convinced that something’s not right in the city: some unforgivable ‘sin’ from within the walls is responsible for a crippling drought. Nathan soon discovers that the sin lies with David himself.
David and Bathsheba still holds up as a fine Bible picture. It presents great Bible characters as flesh and blood people with all-too contemporary problems. King David is a devout believer troubled by his inability to fill the shoes of his predecessor, Saul. He’s constantly reminded by his vindictive wife Michal (Jayne Meadows — yes, that Jane Meadows) that he began as a lowly shepherd. On opposing walls of David’s living quarters are Saul’s spear and his old shepherd’s harp, a pair of incompatible symbols that frequently comment on the drama.
David is in a very modern tight spot. He’s sworn to uphold God’s law as administered by the humorless prophet Nathan. Jerusalem reveres David for killing Goliath, but that was many years before. His present popularity vacillates depending on how the harvest fares — almost like a Pagan ruler, David is held directly responsible for the weather, which depends on God’s favor. He can’t hide behind memories of his days as a shepherd, as even the old soldier he meets among the flocks (tellingly missing one hand) says that nobody could replace Saul.
God’s influence is everywhere in David and Bathsheba, even if the script leaves squirming room for interpreters that wish to downplay Biblical miracles. Was the soldier who died after touching the Ark killed by God’s will, or did his anxiety bring on a heart attack? As a royal duty, but also perhaps to cement his good standing with his people, David recovers the Holy Ark of the Covenant and brings it to Jerusalem. Yet Nathan keeps it outside the walls, pending more intuitive signs that the city is in God’s good graces.
David has fallen far short of God’s grace, seeing as how he’s carrying on a torrid adulterous affair with the wife of one of his Army officers. David and Bathsheba exchange modern rationalizations about not being loved by their spouses, but they both know exactly what they’re doing. The flesh is weak, and their affair makes David doubt himself further even as he’s sorely needed to be the spiritual leader of his people. This is what happens when God’s law and civil law are one and the same.
David eventually abuses his power for his personal gratification, putting his entire kingdom in jeopardy. No single element defines the problem. The alluring Bathsheba wants a more fulfilling life, but she’s not innocent: in hopes of igniting an affair, she purposely bathed where David could see her from his balcony. For this she may be stoned at the gates of the city, as are common women caught in adulterous acts. David is pinned from all sides. Nathan won’t let him free of his responsibility to come clean of his sins, and his wife and own ambitious son are all too eager to see him fall from power. David has the physical ability to silence his accusers, and he desperately wants to save Bathsheba’s life, but he cannot do that and preserve his kingdom as well. Frankly, the legend of Camelot sounds like a retelling of D&B, with a twist, in a knights & damsels context.
David and Bathsheba presents this intriguing story with a maximum of good taste. The royal affair is not glamorized. It starts out as a political problem for David and slowly creeps into every corner of his self-image. The script doesn’t try to hide the fact that David is both a devout believer and a practical ruler; he doesn’t necessarily believe in miracles. He looks for possible non-miraculous reasons why the soldier died instantly upon accidentally touching the Ark. When he turns his back on Nathan ad puts his faith in a direct appeal to God, he’s sincerely reaching for forgiveness.
The script makes a strong distinction between kingly prerogatives and God’s law. Normally we’d expect the King of an ancient land to exercise the right of life and death among his people. That’s not the case here; we’re told that Israel has had kings for fewer than fifty years, and that David’s every royal move is watched by the Orthodox tribesmen. David compounds his sins by attempting to cover them up, an effort that fails. The Bible certainly understands human nature: famous men in high office have indeed led their nations honorably, only to be brought down by relatively insignificant indiscretions — often directly related to their sex lives. The conclusion asks us to determine exactly what kind of miracle saves David. Do he and Bathsheba simply sidestep their punishment via a timely rainstorm, or does God really hold out a special mercy and forgiveness for powerful and important mortals?
The group of squabbling churchmen convened to approve the Coen Bros.’ Hail, Caesar! would probably give David & Bathsheba an A+ rating. I don’t think I’ve seen a Biblical story given this much serious thought, as to the issues of power versus moral right, and the duties of leadership versus the privileges. Philip Dunne’s script goes beyond the problems of OldTestament sin and the wrath of adultery — David and Bathsheba know they are breaking commandments, and David has the extra burden of feeling unworthy of his office. The movie shows them watching a woman stoned to death for doing the same thing Bathsheba has done — and doesn’t wrap things up with easy answers. The show consistently engages on an adult level.
Gregory Peck is excellent in a tough role; Biblical characters rarely come off in multi-dimensions. The actor’s natural integrity causes friction with David’s wandering, guilty love life, all of which is suggested in good taste. Susan Hayward is less effective and her part less appealing. Bathsheba is capable of both lust and remorse, but not a whole lot in between. Whenever there’s a problem, she has a tendency to unload her share of the burden onto David’s shoulders. We can’t help but think of the poor woman stoned at the city gate; rule number one for surviving the downside of adultery would seem to be to pick a politically powerful sex partner. David and Bathsheba isn’t a film, or a story, about female empowerment.
Raymond Massey is firm and restrained as Nathan. Young Kieron Moore as Uriah might as well hang a sign on his back reading Please Kill Me. James Robertson Justice plays David’s discreet aide; unlike Land of the Pharaohs, we’re denied the pleasure of hearing Justice pronounce the word ‘Pyramid.’ The beloved Jayne Meadows, sadly, is a one-note harpy of an ex-wife. Hebrew kings could apparently amass a string of wives, but divorce hadn’t been invented. George Zucco is an Egyptian ambassador fresh out of Mummies (that would complicate the story, surely enough). The sultry court dancer that gets David’s blood up is none other than our favorite Gwen Verdon (Damn Yankees). See? David was motivated to sin by an oversexed entertainment, so remember to always blame the arts for sin and social corruption. I mean, really, even in 1951 and this non- DeMille Bible movie, the sex angle remained important to the marketing. Bathsheba’s temptation of David with her outdoor bath isn’t all seen in long shots.
One other connection… modern filmgoers will probably think of David & Bathsheba as having another title: Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Prequel. When talking about the Ark, Nathan says that it was fashioned by God himself, and that it is protected with thunderbolts. Fox’s design for the Ark of the Covenant has shown up often enough before, but the gleaming prop in Spielberg’s movie is a dead ringer for Darryl Zanuck’s holy steamer trunk. And a beautiful piece of studio construction it is, too.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of David and Bathsheba is a surprisingly good encoding of this Technicolor production. Only the most marketable older features merit a full restoration from Technicolor elements, and it’s our luck that this disc was remastered from a good older composite film element. Most scenes look just fine, rich and interestingly colored. Only some opticals are grainy and only a few matte paintings look a little light, along with the title sequence.
Under Fred Sersen the Fox effects department made use of some really sophisticated tricks – ‘lost arts’ of photochemical-optical manipulation. When the Ark arrives at the gate of Jerusalem we see a panning shot to the gate that includes some distant buildings that normally we think would be a matte painting. But as I say, it’s a moving camera shot. Is it a matte trick, or a perspective trick with a large cut-out painted flat atop the Jerusalem wall set? Whichever it is, it fools me.
A trailer, teaser and TV spot appear to hail from a late 1950s reissue. All of them feature David’s encounter with Goliath, seen only as a flashback in the movie and obviously included to provide an action scene. Once in 3000 Years is a remnant of a making-of featurette that cuts off just as we’re getting into a little dramatization of Peck and Hayward being assigned the picture and meeting director Henry King. It sells the movie as a class product, seriously adapting the Bible story in a way that churchgoers would approve. Something’s off with the encoding of this clip, as the motion has a serious chatter problem.
A string of Gregory Peck trailers rounds things off. The trailer for On the Beach is still a stunner; I didn’t see it for almost five years, but at age eight I remember the ads being very, very frightening… just with the music.
I’m pretty sure I saw David and Bathsheba in its late- 1950s reissue… I don’t know how they handled the widescreen issue with this squarish Academy-ratio picture. But the reissue poster (above right) is a hoot. Clearly modeled on the success of Embassy’s Hercules, David has become a muscleman-warrior. The original art has been enhanced to show the sexiest images, plus a selection of billing-in-a-box ‘See!’ moments: “SEE: The most tempestuous and forbidden of the world’s great loves… flaming across 3000 years!”
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
David and Bathsheba Blu-ray rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers, TV spot, featurette fragment Once in 3000 Years
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 11, 2016
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson