Saturday, May 9, 2020

G-d Week: In the spring of the year, when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.


Directed by Henry King
Written by Philip Dunne

Spoiler alert: well, the next one we're doing is Solomon and Sheba, so...

It's not a criticism—more of an observation—but David and Bathsheba might assume more Biblical literacy (and more Biblical investment) than any other Bible movie of its era.  It took me a little by surprise: one of the nice things about 1950s Bible movies is how self-contained they manage to be in spite of being small parts of a sprawling narrative; they tend to not require much more Biblical knowledge than just a general awareness that 1)3000 years ago, there were Israelites, and 2)for reasons that don't stand up to much objective scrutiny, we care about them more than, e.g., the Tyrians.  Now, fair is fair: this film's audience would have known exactly who David Ben Yishai was.  Hence there really is a certain confident efficiency to the way that David and Bathsheba simply picks up with David (Gregory Peck) long after he's secured his throne—in the throes of his mid-life crisis, no less—and expects you to feel something when it obliquely references the wasteland of his past.  I even almost admire the way it thinks it can get away with pushing its enormous but unseen slab of backstory into its narrative negative space, while still using it to inform its present-tense story.  In fact, it's eminently possible that for someone who has more Biblical investment, it does get away with it.  Maybe the ideal viewer of David and Bathsheba even gets a little choked up when, for example, David remembers his childhood friend Jonathan at Gilboa.

But it's really quite hard to say: I was never confused, and while it takes a stab at dramatizing David's old wounds in occasionally-artful ways, it never quite seems to actually find the huge, messy emotions that it keeps excitedly pointing at.  It comes off feeling incomplete.

If you'll excuse a little pride, this turns out to have been a pretty accurate read.  It's obviously no surprise that David and Bathsheba began life at 20th Century Fox as a galvanic response to the success of Paramount's Samson and Delilah, and that upon seeing his rival's box office returns, producer Darryl F. Zanuck immediately tasked a screenwriter with crafting a Bible picture to call his own.  But Philip Dunne came back to Zanuck with a treatment of the life of David from the Book of Samuel—like, the whole life of David—which Dunne estimated would run about four hours.  Zanuck, justifiably not yet aware that a four hour Bible movie would've been totally fine, told Dunne to narrow it down, way the fuck down, possibly in those words.  Dunne did, but perhaps without sufficiently compensating for the fact that he'd zeroed in on just 20% of his original story.

But I ought to like it much more than I do, for there are many fine tales about old lions struggling with age and regret and horniness that only gesture at their lions' backstory; and, here, the first half of the Book of Samuel is sufficiently implied that I can't imagine not "getting it."  Hence I'm back to square one.  The problem with David and Bathsheba is probably less that Dunne narrowed the scope of the story to just one thing—typically best practice for a biopic!—than it is simply that David and Bathsheba isn't very good at that one thing.  It likely wouldn't have been much better doing the whole thing.

The one thing it deals with, then, is how David, King of Israel and Judah, fell ass-backwards into a noir plot one night, when David spied from atop his palace the lady Bathsheba (Susan Hayward).   Overtaken by desire, he sends for her, and though she informs him that he might know her husband, Uriah (Kieron Moore), this does not dissuade him.  For her part, Bathsheba is pleased that it doesn't.  Soon, David's treating his mistress as he might one of his wives, and not long afterwards they start to get real careless, whereupon Bathsheba tells him the news: she's pregnant.  Aware of the penalty for adultery under the law, David schemes to trick Uriah into thinking he's knocked up his own wife.  Unfortunately, the warrior is too damned dedicated to his purity, leaving David with only even more distasteful measures if he wants to protect his wished-for bride.  And even that might not save them, for David and Bathsheba have been careless in many ways (it's actually a bit ridiculous how open a secret it is), and a drought has fallen upon the land, and this has brought the unwanted attention of the prophet Nathan (Raymond Massey) to David's doorstep.  This is not to even mention the open sedition of his sons, or the awkward way the Ark of the Covenant, brought from Shiloh at David's command, is still just sitting in its tabernacle outside the gates of David's city, evidently quite unwilling to be brought inside Jerusalem's walls.

It has the right elements: we get a sense of how David has tired of his responsibilities right off the bat, when he goes out on a night reconaissance alongside the brave Uriah, risking his personal safety on a lark just to feel something; we likewise get a sense of his alienating family life from the way his sons quarrel and the way his first wife, Michal (Jayne Meadows), daughter of Saul, berates him for not visiting her, even though she agrees that they haven't loved each other in years.  (As for how Abigail, Ahinoam, Avital, Eglah, Haggith, and Maachah feel, they're only ever referenced in a single line, so who knows?  In fairness, whatever tenderness we're supposed to glean from David's relationship with Bathsheba probably comes off better if we pretend she's not just no. 8 in an ongoing series.)

Anyway, this rooftop-peeping-turned-mutually-enjoyable-tryst is at least credible as yet another attempt by the depressed king to get his groove back, though it's hard to say if it worked: even in the midst of banging Bathsheba out in the countryside near Gilboa, David's haunted by doubts as to his legitimacy, and by the fact that, anointed or no, the monarchy is his because Saul and Jonathan ate it in battle against the Philistines, and—with director Henry King eager to steal from his own playbook on Twelve O'Clock High—David even imagines he can hear the clang of swords and shouts of battle that attended their deaths.  Meanwhile, David (with the assent of the film itself) is outright appalled by the law of Moses when it comes to adultery, and he's confused by the pitilessness of his God, manifested most acutely when a helpful soldier touches the Ark of the Covenant to keep it from falling, and is struck dead regardless of his good intentions.

And David's intentions are at least ambivalent—I was barely exaggerating by calling it a "noir plot," but this is where I think David and Bathsheba starts to cheat, stacking the deck so hard against Uriah that I doubt any viewer has ever had second thoughts about David setting him up to die.  Uriah is no man, he's a Mosaic robot.  Insufferable even before David starts asking him some suspiciously hypothetical questions about his wife stepping out, Uriah emotionlessly agrees that, yes, it would indeed be best, hypothetically-speaking, if her body were pummeled with small rocks until it died.  Hence it's maybe a little overdetermined to keep you on David's side in the matter, though, you know, the whole point is that David has earned God's wrath.  David and Bathsheba even surrenders the possibilities of Uriah as an object upon whom murderous plans can be enacted, killing him offscreen.  Basically, David and Bathsheba, with its automatically-compelling premise, exploits as little of it as possible.

Not that it's been perfect so far, anyhow, and a lot of that is down to King, whom I'm pretty sure I don't like as a director—his most enduring work is the worst musical of the 1950s, Carousel—though he evidently enjoyed working with Peck, whom I don't always like as an actor, though at least Peck could be channeled toward useful ends.  Twelve O'Clock High might be strikingly dull for a movie about strategic bombing, but at least it deploys Peck's stiff-necked rigidity and schoolmarmish demeanor in the service of a stiff-necked, rigid, schoolmarmish general; that Twelve O'Clock High decided that this was our hero is, I suppose, its own business, and Peck's persona works for that role.  As a lustful, corrupt monarch trying to nurse his insecurities in the bosom of a foxy redhead?  Less so, though bless them, actor and director alike try to find the soul of their king: David's brokenness comes off far more pronounced in Peck's performance than whatever qualities actually attract Bathsheba to him, qualities that Hayward is also never quite adept enough to get us to believe in by way of implication, either.  It's never outright embarrassing, as Samson and Delilah was, but it's no romance for the ages, despite at least somewhat needing to be.  Furthermore, given this is David we're talking about, author of the Psalms, it may have been better to cast a David with a prettier voice, or maybe even treat them as (God forbid) actual Hebrew songs.  Peck's still pretty bitchy even when reciting Psalm 23 as spoken word poetry.

It has strong points nevertheless: it's a mostly handsome movie, with cinematographer Leon Shamroy doing his thing—with lots of burnt orange Technicolor sunset lighting and latticed shadows, it compares favorably with, for example, Shamroy's work on Leave Her To Heaven.  (Not that he escapes a minor humiliation: David and Bathsheba has one of the most blatant cinematographic mistakes I've ever seen, when the sun appears to rise on David at Gilboa via the flipping of a lightswitch.)  Meanwhile, the art direction by Lyle Wheeler and company works well with Shamroy's photography; David's palace is a grand (and surprisingly-plausible) space; their interpretation of Israel's one acceptable graven image, the Ark of the Covenant, is fantastic, and King and Shamroy frame its tabernacle with a great deal of gratifying, expressionistic mystery.  King's shortcomings as a director (would you believe there are a whole lot of stilted conversation scenes in this Bible epic?) are somewhat thrown into relief when he actually does try, like when he holds on a close-up of Peck's shadowed face at Gilboa, or when he tracks the camera through Nathan's threatening mob as David goes to confront his God.

In fact, David and Bathsheba picks up generally after the murder of Uriah—it's where the cinematography gets the most shadowy and evocative, it's where Peck's sadsack performance finds the most purchase, it's where Hayward finds something beyond "consent to sex" in Bathsheba, and it's where the movie comes closest to a thesis, which is expressed as an explicit discomfort with Iron Age barbarism, and the need for a God of mercy rather than law alone (which, of course, comes up often in the Tanakh, not to even mention the Talmud).

Still, if it gets better as it goes along, you're also constantly aware that it's never the best possible version of itself, either.  It also fucks up its landing fairly badly, for David's prostration before his implacable God winds up intercut with scenes from his childhood.  You can sort-of see the phantom of a purpose here—the purpose is the same as Citizen Kane's, but then, that's certainly appropriate. But when it comes to how it actually presents the reverb-voiced Goliath (Walter Talun), it not only feels like it came out of a different, stupider Bible movie, it also feels like a grating failure of nerve—like somebody blinked and refused to allow David and Bathsheba to end without circling back to the Famous Duel, which it roughly shoves into a place that has no need of it.  I don't know if this is actually the difference between the "good" David and Bathsheba and the mediocre one we got; but I know it made up my mind.

Score: 5/10

Reviews in this series:
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)
Samson and Delilah (1949) (שופטים/Judges)
The Story of Ruth (1960) (רות/Ruth)
David and Bathsheba (1951) (שְׁמוּאֵל/Samuel)
Solomon and Sheba (1959) (מלכים/Kings)
Esther and the King (1960) (אֶסְתֵּר/Esther)
The Prodigal (1955) (Λουκᾶν/Luke)
Salome (1953) (Ματθαῖον καί Μᾶρκον/Matthew and Mark)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) (Ἰωάννην/John)
The Robe (1953) (Ρωμαιους/Romans)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) (Κορινθίους/Corinthians)
Barabbas (1962) (Ἑβραίους/Hebrews)
Quo Vadis (1951) (Αποκάλυψις/Revelation)! Ben-Hur (1959)


  1. Awesome series! Hoping you get to Exodus: Gods and Kings.

    1. Thanks! I had thirteen, with a more contemporary bonus, already picked out, but, hey, I am always eager to add to the Ridley Scott reviews.

  2. Actually, Catherine Hardwicke's The Nativity Story is probably more deserving of excavation.

    1. On its face, it looks kinda interesting.

      I half want to do The Tree or Life or A Serious Man, inasmuch as the 1949-1966 corridor is lacking an adaptation of the Book of Job.