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October 01, 2010

David and Bathsheba

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Henry King - 1951
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

I could understand why Henry King may have taken the job of directing this film. If one acknowledges that the auteur theory can apply to a director who may not have originated the film, the thematic elements connect David and Bathsheba to King's other films. As noted previously, in The White Sister and Song of Bernadette, the main characters, both woman, set aside earthly desires to devote themselves to religious commitment. David and Bathsheba arguably flips that around to be primarily about a man who knowingly breaks with his religious commitments in favor of matters of the heart.

Thematic concerns aside, David and Bathsheba is not one of King's better films, even though it is one of his better known films. Part of the problem, at least for me is watching a movie set in biblical times with actors who don't look the part. How Darryl Zanuck came to the conclusion that Gregory Peck "looked biblical" is beyond me. I never was able to buy Peck as the journalist passing for Jewish in Gentleman's Agreement. What did strike me as interesting was Peck's phrasing in reciting "The Lord's Prayer", especially in the context of someone who was hardly living what could could be described as a righteous life.

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I'm not sure if Bathsheba looked anything like Susan Hayward. On the other hand, Rule Number One of my imaginary Michael Powell book of film theory states that Technicolor was invented to film redheaded women. And who's going to argue with gorgeous close ups of Hayward, almost painterly as lit by cinematographer Leon Shamroy. The film is strongest when it is just Peck and Hayward on the screen, less so when it aims to be more epic. Not very convincing on a historical level, but entertaining to watch just the same is an uncredited Gwen Verdon performing an Egyptian inspired, but very contemporary hoochie coochie dance.

Andrew Sarris consigned Henry King to "Subjects for Further Research" in his American Cinema. I haven't read the one English language critical study on King, but the scarcity of online material indicates that King is still ripe for further investigation. Hampering this is that there are only a couple of his silent films readily available to view, and even a substantial number of King's films made since 1930 are unavailable. Even with 20th Century-Fox celebrating the 75th anniversary of when Darryl Zanuck took over the studio founded by William Fox, no new DVDs are issued of the work from the director who spent the longest time with the studio. Perhaps there is not enough interest to make the availability commercially viable, yet in terms of the history of a studio, Henry King should be given the same consideration as John Ford. One would hope that King's films with Will Rogers, especially the first film version of State Fair be released. A more ideal situation would package King's nostalgic look back at America past, Margie, I'd Climb the Highest Mountain and Wait 'Til the Sun Shines, Nellie, among other films. Somehow, the name of Rock Hudson isn't enough to coax Universal to release of DVD of This Earth is Mine, Henry King's sole venture outside his home studio, late in his career. Henry King's last few films are uneven - certainly The Sun Also Rises suffers from having a great cast, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn and Ava Gardner, all too old for their respective roles. My one attempt at watching Tender is the Night had me giving after half an hour, watching a wide screen film in a pan-and-scan version. Seeing the older films on DVD for my first time still gave me the sense that Henry King was being unfairly judged on the basis of a handful of later films. Considering the number of films he made, and the lack of critical writing, Henry King is an example of the need for greater film scholarship regarding American cinema beyond the more familiar and conventionally regarded filmmakers.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 1, 2010 07:38 AM