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Saturday Night Cinema: David and Bathsheba (1951)

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is the 20th Century Fox epic, David and Bathsheba, starring two Hollywood heavyweights, as a star vehicle for Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. It is a great love story given lavish Hollywood Biblical treatment, but “awash with juice, thanks to the force supplied by the three leads.” Darryl F. Zanuck, then Fox’s production chief,  personally handled the reins on this drama. Hollywood doesn’t make movies like these — too many historical hot-button truths that would upset the antisemitic left that they serve.

This is a big picture in every respect. The reign of King David projects the Old Testament in broad sweeps, depicting the obligation of David (Gregory Peck) to his subjects while at the same time spotlighting his frailties, namely his relationship with the beauteous Bathsheba (Susan Hayward). He is shown forsaking his first wife (of his harem) for Bathsheba, and pin-pointed is the stoning of an adultress for the same crime – her faithlessness while her husband was off to the wars with the Ammonites.

King David (Gregory Peck), much beloved by his subjects and a war hero of long standing, falls victim to the sins of the flesh when he falls in love with Bathsheba (Susan Hayward), the wife of Uriah (Kieron Moore), one of David’s most trusted soldiers. His downfall begins when David orders Uriah into a suicidal battle, knowing that this will clear the way for his relationship with Bathsheba. His infatuation leads him to neglect his kingdom and his people, and invokes the wrath of God. Only after his land has been devastated by God’s hand does David offer atonement.

THE SCREEN: A BIBLICAL TALE IS UNFOLDED; ‘David and Bathsheba,’

Starring Gregory Peck and Susan Haymard, at the Rivoli Raymond Massey and Kieron Moore in Secondary Roles in Zanuck Production

AUG. 15, 1951

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Twentieth Century-Fox, faced by as complex and human a figure as any in Old Testament annals, cannot be censured for concentrating on one facet of the myriad aspects of the reign of David in adapting a 3,000-year-old saga to the screen. For “David and Bathsheba,” which was unveiled to the public last night at the newly-reopened Rivoli, is a reverential and sometimes majestic treatment of chronicles that have lived three millenia.That it avoids to a great extent the pagentry and overwhelmingly concocted spectacles of some Biblical productions which have emanated from Hollywood is apparent from the start. But that is a matter of taste.

In concerning itself with an ageless romance, “David and Bathsheba” admirably achieves its goal.Scholars may find interpolations not in keeping with the simple and beautiful words set down in the Second Book of Samuel. But “David and Bathsheba,” which often is prolix and measured in its movement, does reveal one great trial in the life of its soldier-poet-king hero. And in this fusion of Old Testament and Technicolor that test of the man is given forceful characterization.Philip Dunne, who wrote the script; Henry King, the director, and Darryl F. Zanuck, Fox’s production chief who personally handled the reins on this drama, have not completely ignored the fullness of David’s career.

Faced with a record that included a forty-year reign, they have—occasionally only by inference—illustrated the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant at the gates of Jerusalem, the battle against the Ammorites outside of Rabbah, Saul’s bloody defeat at the Mount of Gilboa (by inference) and the storied slaying of Goliath by the youthful David.But these are footnotes to the basic business at hand. David, as pictured here, is the mature king sure of his domain and people and outspokenly aloof from his wives, especially Michal, Saul’s daughter. And he is portrayed without whitewash as an obvious adulterer coveting Uriah the Hittite’s wife, Bathsheba. He also is a brooding monarch beset by his awe of the Mosaic law but one who is ready to shoulder the guilt and direst of fates for his love.

There is no attempt made—to the credit of all concerned—to make David a titan without faults. He is human enough to want to run away with Bathsheba when the populace led by the Prophet Nathan accuses him of adultery and its resulting disastrous effect on Israel’s economy. And his mate is depicted as being aware of her guilt in the matter too. She confesses—and this, among other things, may cause debate from learned sources—that she had, in her wily woman’s way, a great role in enticing her lover.In endowing David with the graces and shortcomings of a mortal, Mr. Dunne and company have made him an angry ruler but one who has never lost his zeal for his God or the Law of Moses. Ready to send Uriah the Hittite into “the hottest forefront of battle” in the knowledge that his loved one’s husband thus will be killed, he is man enough to admit the horrible thought and deed. In his recital of the Twenty-third Psalm he is a lonely but truly pious man speaking his heart. And since God is his “Shepherd,” he is also ready to test His wrath and save his people from privation by sacrificing himself to the divine power of the Ark.

Without a convincing David, as has been noted, this combination of romance and religion would have been merely a two-hour dissertation no more exciting than a lantern-slide lecture. However, in Gregory Peck’s delineation the producers have an authoritative performance. He is a man filled with anguish at the death of Jonathan and of Saul. He is a King willing to forego his regal rights for his love and he is the frail vessel who movingly confesses his sins but one who also is strong enough to exclaim, “lift Thine hand from Thy people who suffer for my crimes.”Unfortunately, however, the rest of the cast is entirely overshadowed by this role. Bathsheba, as portrayed by Susan Hayward, is a Titian-tressed charmer who seems closer to Hollywood than to the arid Jerusalem of the Bible.

Raymond Massey, as the bearded Prophet Nathan, is little more than a voice of doom in the wilderness. Kieron Moore, as Uriah; Jayne Meadows, as the vengeful Michal, and James Robertson Justice, as David’s aide, Abishai, merely make casual, brief appearances.Having been mounted artistically, an age-old tale now takes on colorful dimensions. For all of its verbosity and occasional slickness and sensuality, “David and Bathsheba” makes its point with feeling and respect.

DAVID AND BATHSHEBA, written for the screen by Philip Dunne; directed by Henry King; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck for Twentieth Century-Fox. At the Rivoli.
David . . . . . Gregory Peck
Bathsheba . . . . . Susan Hayward
The Prophet Nathan . . . . . Raymond Massey
Uriah the Hittite . . . . . Kieron Moore
Abishai . . . . . James Robertson Justice
Michal . . . . . Jayne Meadows
Ira . . . . . John SuttonJoab . . . . . Dennis Hoey
Goliath . . . . . Walter Talun
Adultress . . . . . Paula Morgan
King Saul . . . . . Francis X. Bushman
Jonathan . . . . . Teddy Infuhr
David (as a boy) . . . . . Leo Pessin
Specialty Dancer . . . . . Gwyneth Verdon
Absolom . . . . . Gilbert Barnett
Amnon . . . . . Allan Stone
Old Shepherd . . . . . Lumsden Hare
Egyptian Ambassador . . . . . George Zucco
Samuel . . . . . Paul Newlan
Jesse . . . . . Holmes Herbert
Priest . . . . . John Burton

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