UNTENDER MERCIES

O'Brien, Tom

Screen UNTENDER MERCIES KING DAVID FROM THE OUTBACK AUSTRALIAN Director Bruce Beresford has made two fine films: Breaker Morant (1980) and Tender Mercies (1983). As a result, it's difficult to...

...Shortly after, when Gere discusses building the temple, Beresford lets him talk as if he's opening a new line of men's fashions at Bloomingdale's...
...Alice Krige (the Jewish runner's actress girlfriend in Chariots ofFire)is also on hand, but since Scripture is short on women's roles, she only gets to flare Commonweal: 278 her nostrils a bit as Bathsheba...
...Once inside, Samuel reprimands Saul and points to the king of the Amalekites, abject in chains on the floor before him...
...As screenwriter Andrew Birkin points out, all die older movies "stopped short at what happened when the Israelities got to the promised land.'' What Beresford and Paramount have provided, albeit unevenly, is a historically accurate, sometimes terrifying vision of bloodthirsty righteousness...
...King David places this pogrom in context: everyone else behaves roughly, and there are some scenes of "epic adventure" (as in Conan the Barbarian) that make one value the comfort and relative safety of the theater of a modern city...
...As a result, it's difficult to believe he could have made the clunker, King David, or could not have, with tighter direction of performance or better editing, spared us some of its worst scenes...
...But he fails to bring to life the spiritual presence of David, one of the most exuberant, lyrical, and troubled souls in biblical history...
...It's traditional that Hollywood has periodic crazes for "art" directors and tries to swallow them whole...
...Beresford has attempted to film a literal, non-propagandistic version of The Book of Samuel, First Chronicles, and First and Second Kings, and he at times achieves scenes of grim, stolid grandeur...
...Although King,David tells some harsh truths, the film never examines what the Scripture was about...
...A second mistake weakens the spiritual content of the film: Beresford tries to tell too much, and thus weakens whatever moral focus King David might have had...
...the earnestness is all put-on, the gestures all off-key...
...Apparently, the same story holds for King David, conceived by the studio as a modern, less sentimental version of the biblical films of the fifties, then farmed out to the Australian Beresford...
...Beresford's upset of expectations in this scene provides a perversely marvelous touch...
...In this light, the start of King David might be its' 'high'' point...
...But then Beresford never stops the action long enough for these impressions to deepen...
...After Saul's victory over the Amalekites, we observe Samuel storming into his council room, angrily rebuking a guard in his path with the claim that God's law is more important than the king's...
...Will this be the fate of the Australian new wave of the late seventies...
...Periodically, one of the judges is able to convey a sense of strangeness, of special possession, and of time lapsed, between then and now, in human perceptions of the divine...
...Of greatest note is Jack Klaff, a South African with a bit role in Star Wars.but extensive theater experience, who makes Jonathan, Saul's son and David's friend, the sympathetic center of their rivalry...
...Unfortunately, someone lost courage and forced the choice of Gere for the lead...
...Though responsible for the sham Beverly Hills Cop and Friday the 13th, Part V, Paramount has also tried to innovate more than usual within the Hollywood system...
...His lead in Breaker Morant, Edward Woodward, ably plays King Saul, a tragic mix of need, pride, and wrath...
...No doubt Paramount and producer Martin Elf and, also of An Officer and a Gentleman, demanded that Beresford use Gere as a device to lure the young American movie market...
...Beckett, A Man for All Seasons), at first we feel sure that Samuel will judge Saul by our standards...
...The judges Samuel (Dennis Quilley) and Nathan (Niall Buggy) are stony enough, but they lack aura...
...Its treatment of Scripture-thumping fundamentalism and cold blooded slaughter of Hittites, Moabites, and anyone else in "the land between the Lebanon and Egypt'' provides one of the most astringent satires on theocratic butchery since Candide...
...Instead, Beresford presents Gere as a naked ape in a diaper doing the twist...
...What they got in hulk they lost in soul...
...For the maker of Tender Mercies a sensitive, understated presentation of spiritual rebirth King David is astonishingly external and shallow...
...Even as King David, Gere attains some dignity in moments of grief over the death of Absalom and guilt over the murder of Uriah...
...But it's here that director Beresford springs his surprise...
...These scenes, unfortunately, renew an old cliche: they are worth seeing for their badness...
...At the end of King David, Beresford attaches a totally unnecessary and cursory wrap-up that spoils the film's one spiritual theme: David's hope of seeing God before he dies...
...I not only object to the half-truth of Beresford's treatment, but also to its lack of imaginative depth...
...Gere is not incapable...
...Major credit for undertaking the film, and perhaps major blame as well, goes to Paramount studios...
...Unlike a De Mille extravaganza, this syncretisticKmg David is no white hats vs...
...Instead, we get the first of many holy decapitations in the film...
...When a director dies," Grierson wrote of von Sternberg, "he becomes a photographer.'' TOM O'BRIEN 3 May 1985: 279...
...black hats vision of sacred history...
...Why their God was thought so special what vision, for example, possessed the judges is never suggested as a possible reason for his jealousy and their ardor...
...Ironically, such treatment of the Bible will make King David least popular among moral majoritarians and staunch supporters of Israeli territorial claims...
...the rest of the cast includes English and Commonwealth actors, with long and extensive stage and film credits, who are able to give the archaic diction of the screenplay convincing authenticity and cadence...
...Samuel is angry that Saul is imposing a treaty on the captive king, and considering mercy for the king's wives, trembling outside in a courtyard...
...When David (Richard Gere) celebrates his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, we expect a gleeful, acrobatic dance...
...Paramount is also responsible for Witness, a somewhat-above-average cops-and-robbers thriller, for which it hired Australian Peter Weir...
...They claim not to have made a religious film, but an "adventure epic," and, to a small degree, perhaps they have succeeded...
...Once the English documentary master John Grierson observed this happening to Josef von Sternberg (the German maverick captured by Paramount in the 1930s...
...It's stunning that Beresford allows his art to be so compromised...
...The studio's publicity claims Beresford suggested it, but since Gere starred in the previous Paramount hit, An Officer and a Gentleman, and since Beresford mostly has "empire" connections evident in the choice of the other actors, it is difficult to believe the official studio line...
...When Samuel chooses David as once and future king, by juggling from magic stones, he might as well be playing Obi-wan Kenobe...
...The disaster of King David is all the more notable considering the real talent of nearly everyone involved...
...It is no time for laughter, but that's exactly what the postscript style and Gere's see-through aging as David at deathbed evokes...
...Nevertheless, King David also makes a special point (through a short speech of the Philistine king) that it is the Israelites alone who insist on not tolerating other gods...
...Without much ado, Samuel seizes a sword and lops off the king's head...
...Last fall it released two well-meant dramas of contemporary American life, First Born andFalling in Love...
...At face value, the film is somewhat anti-religious, at times provocatively so...
...Because the scene resembles so many others where churchmen reprimand statesmen for their lack of compassion (cf...
...Samuel then proceeds, naturally,to demand death for all the Amalekites, the first of many zealous exhortations for genocide against the native inhabitants of the promised land...
...provide him a role with plenty of narcissism-and self-obsession, and he shines...
...Both Beresford and his fellow-Australian Weir must beware of the temptations proffered by Paramount: forced casting and gigantic scope might dilute the integrity of their whole vision...

Vol. 112 • May 1985 • No. 9


 
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