Video Virgil: Nice Beards, Great Bathrobes
Speaking of film in the classroom, here’s a sleeper: "King David" (1985, directed by Bruce Beresford). To show this to students before reading I and II Samuel would be a mistake, because unlike the Scripture, the film is not about the problem of monarchy itself.
Americans may have rejected kings in political life, but we yearn for them in fantasy - consider "The Lion King." By contrast, I and II Samuel tell of the Israelites yearning for a king so they can be like other tribes, and of the Lord anointing a bad one, Saul, to teach them why they should not crave an earthly ruler other than his prophets. The twist, of course, is that David comes along, and through one of the Hebrew Bible’s great human-divine wrestling matches convinces the Lord that monarchy can work (at least for a while).
"King David" reduces this capacious theme to a psychological battle between Saul (Edward Woodward), the test-dummy king who succumbs to envy and paranoia, and David (Richard Gere), the golden-boy upstart who can do no wrong. And when David does do wrong, seducing Bathsheba and then arranging to have her husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle, the film smooths things over by making Uriah a sexually dysfunctional wife beater. As any astute college student will immediately notice, this makes Nathan the prophet look kind of silly rebuking David with a parable about a shepherd who loses his beloved pet lamb to the greed of a rich man. As I recall, the shepherd in the parable did not go in for lamb abuse.
OK, in this respect "King David" is just another "beards and bathrobes" flick that takes what is deep, tortured, gnarly, and puzzling in the Bible and reduces it to facile melodrama. But in its defense I will say that "King David" does get a lot of things right - indeed, more than most examples of the genre. And because the acting, production design, and (especially) music are generally excellent, the film provides certain pleasures well known to avid readers who are also movie lovers: the pleasures of allusion, of illustration, and (not least, as demonstrated above) of correction!
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