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March 17, 1985|RODERICK MANN

Tucked away in some corner of the Directors' Guild building there's probably a long-forgotten list of Golden Rules. And one of them is sure to read: Touch not biblical epics or ye shall be smitten down by the legions of critics.

Many a good director has tripped over his talent trying to breathe life into a sand-and-spear epic. It's not easy. For there is something so utterly improbable about a famous Hollywood star strutting the landscape in a leather miniskirt and uttering lines like "Come hither."

Despite this, the genre continues to attract film makers. And the latest to try his hand is the tousled Australian film maker Bruce Beresford, whose stock--after movies like "Breaker Morant" and "Tender Mercies"--is very high indeed.

Following the critical successes of those two films, Beresford could have had his pick of a dozen contemporary projects. Instead he chose to flip back through the pages of history and come to a stop around 1000 BC at the time of King David.

Even DeMille resisted the urge to tackle the saga of David, and most people's knowledge of the soldier king goes little further than the story of how he zapped mighty Goliath with a slingshot. Beresford thought he could improve on that and so, armed with $24 million from Paramount, off he went to London and Rome to make the movie.

And now here he was, sitting in his suite at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, pale and red-eyed from lack of sleep, sipping a drink and trying to drum up confidence to face a special showing of the film that night at the studio. ("King David" opens March 29.)

Already he had heard that some cuts might be demanded--one, reportedly, being a shot of David cutting off Goliath's head which, without its customary mooring, rolls away.

But he was trying not to think of any of that.

"I'm numb," he said "But I'm always like this before one of my films opens. It's a time of total torment for me."

Beresford is a highly likable man, full of good humor and easy laughter. But his nervousness, this night, was showing.

So why attempt a biblical venture?

"To try and do one well. I've always loved epics--'Ben Hur,' 'El Cid,' movies like that. But they were always made with such reverence, those films. I wanted to change all that. I wanted to make a biblical movie in which people spoke as they do in normal conversation. Of course, it's not easy. Try saying 'Absalom, my son, my son' as if the line isn't in a glass case. Richard (Gere) as David has to do that.

"I must be careful what I say. After all, I don't know if I've succeeded or not. Perhaps some critics are going to say: If he'd make it more like a DeMille film, it would have worked better. But I do think it's realistic, this movie."

Before embarking on the project Beresford was adamant that he did not want a lot of British actors declaiming their lines in resonant voices. But he wound up with a lot of British actors anyway.

"But I did keep on at them about keeping down the way they delivered their lines," he said. "One actor resisted me hard. But after he'd seen a preview of the movie in London he came up and said: 'Now I see you were right.' "

Beresford admits he was impressed by the professionalism of his British actors.

"They were always prepared, they always knew their lines and they were always flexible. To them it was just a job to be done. If one of them had to play a prophet, he didn't feel the need to go off and sit on a hillside for six months. He just turned up and played a prophet. It made a nice change from some American actors--not Richard Gere, by the way--who carry what they're doing to absurd lengths. But then so many of them here are treated like medieval lords, it must be difficult for them."

Beresford has never made a secret of his dislike of the film caste system here. He was genuinely surprised when Robert Duvall, his "Tender Mercies" star and an actor he admires greatly, did not fraternize on the set.

"In Australia," he told people at the time, "when you're through shooting, all the actors and crew go off for a drink. There's no social division as there is here. I'm surprised because film is such a collaborative effort. Actors look as good as they do because of the skills of the people around them on the set."

But Beresford got along well with Gere.

Only the weather, it seems, gave Beresford problems. It was terrible.

"Normally if you're making an ordinary movie and the weather turns bad you say: Oh well, we'll shoot tomorrow. But if you've got 2,000 extras there and suddenly it starts snowing--as it did with us--it's useless saying: I can't shoot in this. You've got to because you can't get the people back again."

When he was finally through with the movie, Beresford went back to his native Sydney for his first visit in four years.

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