Program Notes: King David (1985)
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Well, at least King David (1985) isn’t silly.
Credit director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies) and writers Andrew Birkin and James Costigan for trying to tell a Bible story without all the sword-and-sandal silliness that so often afflicts the genre.
They approach the story of David and Saul in much the same manner that Pier Paolo Pasolini handled the New Testament in his celebrated The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), taking a sort of cinéma vérité approach and presenting the source material with unbiased matter-of-factness.
Of course, good intentions do not automatically signal a good movie. King David has some real strengths, particularly its archaeological authenticity and the splendid cinematography of Donald McAlpine.
But it also has one big hurdle to overcome: the casting of (then) pretty boy Richard Gere as the sling-wielding shepherd, David.
You can see Beresford’s dilemma. He was able to cast most of the minor roles with unknowns. But he needed a bankable star for his David.
Trouble is, Gere is a doggedly realistic actor, unsuited for the kind of stylized approach required by this sort of venture. And then there’s the problem that most of the actors are British and deliver their dialogue in King James English, while Gere is blandly Middle American.
Even more troublesome is the unwillingness of the filmmakers to interpret the material. As in a fairy tale or myth, Old Testament characters tend to lack the subtleties of personality that add up to psychological realism.
Happily, one major member of the King David cast overcomes all this. Edward Woodward, the star of Beresford’s early Australian film Breaker Morant and of the popular TV show The Equalizer, somehow transcends the simplistic approach exhibited elsewhere in this enterprise.
His tormented king of the Hebrews is far more interesting than the devout David (not just in this film but on the pages of the Bible as well). Woodward delivers a haunting performance of a powerful man in the grip of madness that gives the first two-thirds of King David a solid center.
Unfortunately, Saul throws himself upon his sword, and after that the viewer may consider following suit.
For lovers of action King David offers several battles, a year’s worth of beheadings, and a big portion of mayhem, with swords and spears making wicked thud/thunk noises as limbs are lopped from torsos.
Other films in the series “Tinseltown Testament”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- July 2: The Nativity Story (2006) Rated PG
- July 9: Samson and Delilah (1949) Not Rated
- July 16: The Prince of Egypt (1998) Rated PG
- July 23: King David (1985) Rated PG-13
- July 30: The Sign of the Cross (1932) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.