David and Bathsheba (1951)
“For this woman… he broke God’s own commandment!”
Director: Henry King
Cast: Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Raymond Massey
Synopsis: After King David sees the beautiful Bathsheba bathing from the palace roof, he enters into an adulterous affair which has tragic consequences for his family and Israel.
As biblical epics go, Henry King’s David and Bathsheba is fairly small-scale. The bloated widescreen sagas of Cecil B. DeMille contained casts of thousands, state-of-the-art special effects and nearly three-hour running times. Clocking in at a more manageable 116 minutes, David and Bathsheba has no major battle scenes, a cast of hundreds rather than thousands, few special effects to speak of, and is filmed in the Academy standard ratio of 1.37:1. What it does have is sumptuous cinematography from Leon Shamroy and a literate – if ever so slightly dull at times – script from Philip Dunne.
The story reads more like something from an episode of some cheap daytime soap than the bible. The opulent palace of King David (Gregory Peck) overlooks the home of Uriah the Hittite (Kieron Moore) and his voluptuous wife Bathsheba (Susan Hayward). Uriah’s a bit of an odd fish, preferring life on the battlefields to spending time with his succulent wife, so she takes to bathing in her garden, knowing she is in full view of the king. Naturally, it isn’t long before David has summoned her to his palace for dinner, and in equally short time is breaking that troublesome commandment about your neighbour’s wife. Soon, Bathsheba is with child, and after failing to manipulate Uriah into spending just one night with his wife so that she can claim he is the father, David orders that Uriah be sent into battle without support from his comrades, thus ensuring his death. The only trouble is, David has a seer (Raymond Massey) who’s on talking terms with the Big Man, upstairs and it’s not long before all manner of hardship is raining down not only on David but his people.
The first twenty minutes of David and Bathsheba has to be some of the dreariest pieces of film submitted to the screen. Acres of exposition, voiced by David and his bitter wife Michal (Jayne Meadows) fills the audience in on the back story that it needs to know, but surely Hollywood was capable of coming up with a more absorbing way of bringing us up to speed. Thankfully, once David and Bathsheba being doing the dirty on Uriah, things start motoring along, pulling the audience into the court intrigue that envelopes David and sows the seeds of his possible downfall.
The sumptuous photography of Shamroy is a constant point of beauty; a golden hue casts soft light on Peck’s chiselled features while emphasising the blackness of the shadows that hint at the darkness within him. Hayward also looks gorgeous, her deep red hair like ruffled velvet under the camera’s caressing gaze. So while the pace of the story might vary there is also something on the screen for us to marvel at.
(Reviewed 23rd May 2012)