Thinking over "King David" (selected theaters), which has so much that is solidly fine to recommend it, yet so much that is puzzling as well, brought to mind a few of critic Dwight Macdonald's crisp rules for success for biblical films.
(1) Use the original script.
(2) Avoid well-known performers, especially in small parts. (Stumbling into John Wayne, Sal Mineo, Ed Wynn and, in particular, Shelley Winters in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" provided Macdonald with shock enough to suspend disbelief for quite some time.)
(3) (crudely paraphrased) Don't let the production sink into Ye Olden Times, or let the actors think they're picturesque.
(4) Keep it small.
By following rules 1, 3 and 4, Australian director Bruce Beresford has made "King David" the most fascinating portrait of this harsh and brutal period that we've yet had on the screen. It's light-years away from the canny tawdriness of DeMille, more convincing in its details than Pasolini (although both Beresford and Pasolini used Italy for their rugged locations). For the first time in memory you can believe that this was the way these men and women in the Bible looked, dressed, worked, ate, slept, spoke or made war.
Beresford, with screenwriters Andrew Birkin and James Costigan, treats those Sunday School big moments (David and Goliath and David Danced Before the Lord) as though they were real occurrences in the lives of exceptional men. And they have made the background to these events crystal clear. That's a major plus right there.
As usual, Beresford's staging of action is exceptional: Goliath, who in the past has grown as out-of-proportion as a rumor in a game of Telephone, is a right big Philistine--but he's not a mountain on sandals. Young David (the very fine Ian Sears) takes him on primarily because of the challenge to the honor of the Israelites--"There is no God in Israel!" It's a cry which no one in the outnumbered army of Saul, the king jealous of young David, will answer.
David alone believes the words of the Prophet Samuel, brought only the night before the battle: "The Lord may have abandoned Saul, but he will not forsake his people Israel." Also--this one act of hand-to-hand combat will substitute for the killing of hundreds in battle.
Beresford's staging of this combat, and of so many more scenes that usually come crusted with the barnacles of accepted biblical behavior, is vigorous, fresh and fine.
It is in a variation of critic Macdonald's Rule 2 where things begin to fray at the edges. Not in terms of the small parts--Beresford has filled his auxiliary roles with arresting faces of men who are (mostly) new to us, actors who convey an intelligence behind their eyes. (The most well known among them, Edward Woodward, who was Breaker Morant, is almost unrecognizable as an increasingly mad King Saul.) It's a sound idea that lets us meet these myriad kinsmen, kings and combatants as distinct characters.
No, the problem comes as Richard Gere joins this cast of classically trained, mostly British and Australian actors. Gere is physically perfect as David, tanned and bearded, with a wild mane of hair tamed here and there into small braids, and his performance is by no means an embarrassment. He gives authority and a certain tortured spirituality to the role of the reluctant shepherd-chosen-king in the early sequences. It's later that Gere's awkward phrasing in period speech hampers him in matching his moments of profound emotion with his scenes of action. And King David's later life is nothing if not one profound emotion after another.
But at the very core of things is the question of why Beresford made "King David." If it was to tell an amazing series of stories, he has more than succeeded. David's exploits; his problems with Saul, once his father-in-law and Israel's king, but primarily David's jealous, vengeful pursuer; David's wives and his honor-destroying yearning for Bathsheba (Alice Krige), and the matter of David's son, Absalom and the boy's banishment and his fate after that--all these are extraordinary bits of history, extraordinarily well told, thanks to Beresford and his writers.
But if "King David" is also about the torment of a man who wants nothing more profoundly than the chance to see his God, then we're missing a great deal. It is also an epic film which slides onto the screen and then slips away again, with an over-the-shoulder "And David ruled over his people for 40 years," leaving us astonished that it has ended so precipitously. And still we don't know if the Lord ever uncovered His face to David, or if He didn't, why not?
Best, I suppose, to be thankful for what we get: brilliant period re-creation, with special mention to Ken Adam's production design; to Donald McAlpine's photography, both intimate and epic; to John Mollo's intelligent and careful costume design, augmented by exceptional hair and makeup under Daphne Martin and Stuart Freeborn, respectively.