King of Kings (1961) – an Easter film with a Star Trek connection

I’m not a religious person, and thus Easter has never been an especially important time of year for me. As a kid, Easter meant two weeks off school and chocolate eggs. And as an adult, Easter means a long weekend… and chocolate eggs. That’s about all. But as someone who grew up in England and was frog-marched into church with other schoolkids – back in the days when every school was bound to the local church – I gained a passing familiarity with the holiday. Because I don’t enjoy hot weather, late spring and summer are my least-favourite times of year! Easter, as the event which signals the beginning of that time of year, has always felt at least a little unwelcome as a result, even if the abundance of chocolate serves as a suitable bribe.

But enough about my weather preferences! It’s Easter, and aside from chocolate, Easter means one thing: Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, of this even non-Christians widely agree. Sometime between AD 30 and AD 40, Jesus was executed by Roman authorities in the province of Judea, and his resurrection three days later is what Christians celebrate at Easter. Jesus’ life and death have been depicted countless times in art and entertainment, and this time I thought it could be interesting to briefly look at a mid-century example: the 1961 film King of Kings.

The film’s opening title.

The title of this article promised you a Star Trek connection – since the Star Trek franchise is one of my biggest fandoms and a subject I write about often here on the website! The lead role in King of Kings is, naturally, the character of Jesus. In this case, Jesus is played by Jeffrey Hunter – better-known to Trekkies as Captain Christopher Pike, the original captain of the USS Enterprise.

Hunter’s life was tragically cut short, and he died aged only 42 following a fall that may have been caused by a stroke. Though he’s well-remembered today for his single Star Trek appearance – even more so since footage of him was incorporated into Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery – he was a prolific actor in the 1950s and ’60s, appearing in films like Fourteen Hours alongside Grace Kelly, and The Searchers with John Wayne. He also appeared in a number of television roles, including in big ’60s shows like The FBI and Daniel Boone.

Jeffrey Hunter (1926-1969)
Photo Credit: jeffreyhunter.net

If you’re familiar with Star Trek’s early production history, you’ll recall that Hunter declined to reprise his role as Pike for the show’s second pilot, opting to focus on cinema instead. By the time The Menagerie was made – the two-part episode which reused most of the footage from the show’s first pilot – Hunter was unavailable, leading to the character of Pike being recast and creating the iconic disfigured, wheelchair-bound look.

But all of that is incidental! King of Kings was released in 1961, four years before Hunter would meet Gene Roddenberry and agree to work on Star Trek. The film received mediocre reviews, but was considered a box office success for film studio MGM. And having seen it for myself a few years ago, it was certainly an interesting experience!

Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in King of Kings.

This was my first time seeing Jeffrey Hunter outside of The Cage – at least, that I’m aware of. Though he’s slightly younger and sports both Jesus’ typical long hair and beard he is recognisable in the role, and that was certainly something neat to see.

The film itself is typical mid-century fare. As I think I’ve explained on more than one occasion, the early 1960s is about as far back as I’m willing to go for most films and television shows, simply because the quality of practically every aspect of production declines more and more the further back in time a film or series was made. Early cinema holds an interest from an academic point of view – the way techniques were developed, how different genres came into being, how technologies were first pioneered, and so on – but I find that actual entertainment value, and my ability to get lost in a production really cannot survive the wooden sets – and wooden acting – of early cinema!

A Roman scene in King of Kings.

King of Kings falls into this trap at points, with some sets and backdrops being pretty obviously fake, and the general acting style being in line with other projects of its era. But it’s perfectly watchable despite those shortcomings.

The film aimed to be an “epic,” recreating the magic of earlier Biblical epic films like 1956’s The Ten Commandments, and of course Ben-Hur, which was released in 1959. Even the film’s poster imitates Ben-Hur’s visual style. I don’t know if I’m the right person to compare these films for you; all are roughly equal in terms of being watchable for me, with similar drawbacks that I find with films from this time period. What we can say, though, is that King of Kings is probably less well-remembered than the other two, with Ben-Hur in particular being widely considered a classic.

Hunter as Jesus of Nazareth at the film’s climax.

The story of Jesus’ life and death has been recreated in cinema on a number of occasions. The 1912 film From the Manger to the Cross is the earliest one I could find, and in the century since there have been countless others. One of the best-known in recent years is Mel Gibson’s epic The Passion of the Christ, which is a pretty gory and harrowing watch in parts – deliberately so. And who could forget Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a parody of the Bible story?

King of Kings fits somewhere in the middle, the kind of film I’d never choose to watch but for the combination of its Star Trek connection and the holiday we’re celebrating today. It’s a curiosity rather than something I could recommend for pure enjoyment, but if you’ve seen other, better-known depictions of the life and times of Jesus, King of Kings might’ve slipped under the radar. It’s worth a look if that’s the case!

Even for non-Christians, the basic message Jesus of Nazareth preached is worth listening to. Being kind and treating others with respect is something we can all aspire to, especially in today’s politically divided, pandemic-riddled world. King of Kings, like many Bible films, hammers that message home in what is, at times, a ham-fisted way. But the message itself is still worth paying attention to, and for one day a year, we can take a moment to appreciate that.

King of Kings is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, and may also be available to stream depending on location. King of Kings was directed by Nicholas Ray and may be the copyright of Metro-Goldwin-Mayer and/or MGM Holdings. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.