David And Bathsheba (1951)

HENRY KING

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5USA, 1951Screenplay by Cinematography by Produced by Music by Production Design by , Costume Design by Film Editing by Academy Awards 1951

Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward in David and Bathsheba.

King David, played in some pretty modern-looking collars by Gregory Peck, takes a quiet walk on the terrace outside his rooms and sees a beautiful woman taking a nighttime bath. Immediately smitten with her, the leader of Israel finds out that she is the wife of one of his highest-ranking soldiers and invites her to his home to get a better look. Bathsheba, played by Susan Hayward, responds favourably to his advances, letting him know that she would be happy to not only have an affair with him but to be his good friend as well. They spend halcyon days in each other’s arms, sharing confidences as well as embraces, but trouble is never far from lovers who think they can escape the rules of a limited world: she gets pregnant, and he has a wife (Jayne Meadows) who will do whatever she can to ruin their relationship. Taken from a story in the Biblical book of Samuel, this film fleshes out the tale of the man now estranged from his relationship with God who, as a child, brought glory to himself and his people with his devotion, rising from the obscurity of a goat-farming family to become king of a nation that only recently decided to have a ruler. David commits a great moral sin by putting Bathsheba’s husband in the front line of battle, hoping to get him killed in order to marry her himself, and in doing so, the people believe he has also brought great danger to their lives thanks to indulging his lust. With Israel being plunged into famine, the crowds look for a way to appease their terrible deity, following the pronouncements of a venerated prophet (Raymond Massey) who points his stick at the immoral woman who is responsible for it all; David, however, begins to wonder if it is truly God who is responding to what is happening or if he is allowing himself to be manipulated by an ambitious mortal. Made to cash in on the success of Solomon and Sheba the year before, this modest Biblical epic is not the widescreen extravaganza that movies set in this period would be in the years to come, it takes place mostly in dark, shadowy rooms and spends a great deal of its time contemplating ethics and morality. It’s an intelligent movie, and the attempt to make the main characters soulmates as well as lovers is pulled off successfully, but nothing good you can say about it makes it easy to sit through:  the chemistry between Peck and Hayward is good-natured but not exciting, and the material doesn’t seem to inspire either of them to great heights.  While the screenplay has a lot of Red Scare criticism woven firmly but quietly into its main structure, particularly in the way that it questions someone’s right to interpret big morals, the actors have nothing sly on their mind and the drama plays out slow and soppy. None of the period details are convincing, Hayward in particular looks like a nightclub singer, but they are lovely, playing across a muted colour palette that is accentuated by some beautifully designated shadows and ornate sets.

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