For this woman… he broke God’s own commandment!
If you’ve ever wondered what a ’50s Hollywood version of Game of Thrones would look like, David and Bathsheba provides a pretty good approximation. Yes, it’s a Bible movie, and it ends on a note of inspirational religious bombast. But before that inevitably pious climax, you’re treated to a solid 100 minutes or so of back-stabbing, sex, violence and supernatural horror. The Old Testament doesn’t mess around, man.
Once upon a time, King David (Gregory Peck, The Guns of Navarone) was a man of deep faith and conviction, devoting his life to doing the will of the Lord. Alas, the power that comes with being King of Israel seems to have gone to his head, and he no longer seems particularly interested in what God thinks of him (he seems to have become more or less agnostic, casually scoffing at the suggestion that God is paying any attention to his actions).
One day, David spots a beautiful woman named Bathsheba (Susan Hayward, I’ll Cry Tomorrow) taking a bath (given that the film was made in 1951, the scene does not focus on Bathsheba’s nude body, but on David’s raised eyebrow). He inquires about her, and learns that she is married to Uriah… who just so happens to be one of David’s finest soldiers. This revelation doesn’t stop David from inviting Bathsheba to his chamber: he’s the king, and he gets what he wants (though in order to make himself feel that he still has a bit of moral high ground, he offers a monologue explaining that he prides himself in his refusal to rape women).
Bathsheba consents to be with David, but insists that she’s not interested in a one-night stand: he must take her as his lover. David eagerly agrees, and we are treated to montages of the happy couple rolling around in a field and talking about how much they desire each other. Inevitably, complications arise: Bathsheba gets pregnant (not even the king had access to birth control in those days), and the fact that she hasn’t slept with Uriah in some time is bound to make him suspicious. Worse, the punishment for adultery is death (only for the woman, though, because patriarchy). How far is David willing to go in order to protect Bathsheba and cover up his misdeeds? (Spoiler alert: pretty damn far.)
The excuse of being a Bible movie gives David and Bathsheba a license to go to some awfully dark places: it’s hard to imagine many other studio movies made in the early ’50s permitting the existence of a lead character as morally bankrupt as David. Peck’s performance is an effectively nasty piece of work, and he manages to sell the many scenes in which David broods and thinks evil thoughts while ominous music swirls on the soundtrack. David’s pretense of decency somehow makes him seem even more sinister: in one sequence, David self-righteously lectures Uriah – who he is thinking of murdering – on the importance of considering the feelings of women.
Bathsheba gets short-changed by the film – there are lengthy stretches where the movie abandons her in favor of focusing on David’s inner conflict – but Hayward does what she can with the role. She has some good moments (particularly the scenes in which she addresses her own inner conflicts directly), but the film just doesn’t seem interested enough in what motivates her to go along with David’s schemes (the fact that she desires him nearly as much as he desires her is supposed to be sufficient explanation, I suppose).
Still, the movie proves surprisingly gripping. Director Henry King manages to find an impressive balance between portentous pageantry and efficient storytelling, maintaining a medium pace that gives you plenty of time to soak in the scenery without ever letting things become dull. In a fairly ingenious stroke, King and screenwriter Philip Dunne juice up the least interesting section of the movie – David’s inevitable attempt to patch things over with God (which climaxes with – I kid you not – a bombastic choir singing The Lord’s Prayer) – by inserting a flashback sequence detailing David’s fight against Goliath. Bible movies made in this era tend to make a big show of how serious and respectful they’re being to the text (the opening credits feature the words “Dr. C.C. McCown – Biblical Technical Adviser”), but are even more respectful of The Gospel According to Zanuck: “There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic.”
David and Bathsheba (Blu-ray) offers a handsome 1080p/full frame transfer. The moody-yet-vivid color palette really pops, and detail is fairly strong throughout. There are a handful of scratches, flecks and other bits of damage, but nothing too prominent or distracting. Black levels are impressively rich and inky, too. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track gets a little wobbly on occasion – the music doesn’t always sound as clean as it might have – but dialogue is generally clear and the mix gets the job done. Supplements are limited to a four-minute vintage featurette and some trailers/TV spots.
David and Bathsheba doesn’t reach the heights of the best films of its genre, but it’s an intriguing piece of Biblical soap opera. Worth a look.