We are told that colonialism is greedy, violent, exploitive, and wrong. And I completely agree; I am more anti-imperialism than most.
For some reason, Hollywood isn’t helping. There are countless anti-racism movies. But very few anti-colonialism films. “Gandhi” maybe … but that’s more about how Gandhi outsmarted the British rather than showing why British colonial rule was so awful.
Unexpectedly, “King of Kings” is the anti-imperialism film that I had been waiting for.
“King of Kings” wasn’t a massive mainstream hit like “The Ten Commandments” or “Ben Hur.” But it’s a stronger film and a more intellectually ambitious one.
The story does not begin with a star over Bethlehem and a magical manger. It starts in 63BC, with Roman general Pompey violently conquering Judea.
The locals were defeated but never pacified. The Romans had a perfectly reasonable policy of respecting the customs of the peoples they ruled over as long as the locals showed a basic respect to Roman authority and Roman gods.
The monotheists of Judea never accepted the deal and fomented dissent, unrest, and rebellion from day one. This is the problem with colonialism: even the most tolerant colonial masters end up being oppressive imperialists.
Roman governor Pontius Pilate is portrayed as a sensible, level-headed nobleman doing a difficult, thankless job. He has no hate toward the locals, but he has no time for their superstitions, either. When an underling is reading a laundry list of Jesus of Nazareth’s miracles, Pilate stops him cold. “These did not happen. There are no such things as miracles. Only fools who believe them.”
Screenwriter Philip Yordan creates a fictional Roman officer named Lucius. Lucius is stuck between his Roman heritage and his gut feeling that Jesus really is someone worth listening to. It’s an awkward position that imperialism has put him in.
Barabbas is a bit player in the Gospels, but he’s a Che Guevara-style revolutionary in “King of Kings.” The film shows us that his anger at the Romans is justified, but his bloodthirsty guerilla tactics are self-defeating. Only Jesus’s non-violent message can triumph.
I’m guessing that Mel Gibson does not care for this movie. In contrast to “The Passion of the Christ,” “King of Kings” is subtly but aggressively pro-Jew.
If there is a villain in this story, it is vain idiot King Herod. The narrator (Orson Welles) informs us that Herod was ethnically Arab. But it is never explicitly mentioned that he was raised Jewish.
The troubling scene in the Book of Matthew where the hateful Jewish crowd chooses to release Barabbas and send Jesus to his death happens offscreen. “King of Kings” can be described as a NON-Passion Play.
Actually, that’s the only problem with this otherwise engrossing film: the acting is dry, humorless, and dispassionate.
The only person who is having any fun is Herod’s deliciously feisty stepdaughter Salome. 16-year-old Brigid Bazlen didn’t get the memo that this was supposed to be a serious, solemn movie. She’s a spoiled colonialist child. She wants John the Baptist’s head on a platter and she’s going to have a great time making it happen.
“King of Kings” is better and more sophisticated than I was expecting. It’s an earnest pro-Jesus movie. And a compelling and convincing anti-imperialism film.
At least this imperialism story has a happy ending in the (very) long run. You can oppress people, but you can’t suppress their great ideas. Three hundred years after the Romans killed Jesus, The Roman Empire was officially Christian.