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  Echoing the Word May 2013  
  Vol. 12 No. 2, 2013 The Psalms Movies  

King David (1985)
Jan Epstein

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In the Hebrew Scriptures King David is traditionally associated with the writing of the Psalms (Tehillim in Hebrew), a word derived from the Greek word psalmos, meaning “a song sung to harp music”, which in turn comes from the root word psallein “to pluck”. Thus by a single word is conjured up one of the most loved characters in all Jewish history.

King David is best remembered as the shepherd boy, the eighth son of Jesse, who by playing his harp calmed the troubled soul of King Saul, before killing Goliath and becoming the second king of Israel. But as recounted in 1 and 2 Samuel and Chronicles, David was a man of many parts, a personality of almost Shakespearian depth and complexity, whose story is a timeless tale of love and loyalty, sin and redemption.

Several films have been made about David, the most famous being the Hollywood epic David and Bathsheba, directed by Henry King in 1951, starring Gregory Peck as David and Susan Haywood as Bathsheba. 

There is much to like about this film. Gregory Peck’s liberal persona in many ways supports our image of David as a flawed but noble and humane man whose fall from grace (adultery and murder) is more appealing and understandable to us than the unbending orthodoxy of the prophet Nathan (Raymond Massey), representative of an avenging God.

But there is more to the story of David than this. David was the son of Jesse, out of whose house, according to the Abrahamic traditions, the Messiah is to come. It is thus a story underpinned by love: that of God for humanity and our love for one another, in the sense that human love in its most noble form comes from the “knitting of souls”, as was the case of David and Saul’s son, Jonathan (1 Sam 18:1-5).

This “knitting of souls”, of man to man and humanity to God, is very much at the heart of Australian director Bruce Beresford’s King David (1985), which is a thoughtful, well-acted cinematic recreation of the life of David, that probes the surface of its major characters: David, Saul, Jonathan, David’s first wife Michal, Bathsheba, the prophets Samuel and Nathan, and Ahimelech the priest of Nob; while staying true to scriptural sources, including the Psalms.

King David begins with the humiliation of King Saul by the prophet Samuel, who, after publicly berating Saul for not obeying God and utterly destroying all the Amalekites for their abominable practices (Exod 17:16, Deut 25:19), cuts off the head of the Amalekite king with one blow.

This blow, justified but shocking, when exacted by the hand of a prophet, marks the downfall of Saul and his house, and paves the way for Samuel’s secret anointing of David from the house of Jesse as Israel’s future king. It sets the seal, too, on Saul’s long running jealousy of the shepherd boy, who calms Saul’s troubled soul with his harp and wins battles for him against his enemies (“Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” 1 Sam 18:7), while at the same time threatening Saul’s throne and the succession of his sons.

King David combines the several narrative threads of Samuel with great skill, most particularly in the powerful scene when David, on the run from Saul and his army, steals the king’s sword from under the noses of his guards while Saul and his men sleep, as proof of his continuing loyalty and love.

Also well done is the scene where David, accompanied by the child Absalom, makes a compact with the Philistine king, Achish, for sanctuary in the city of Gath. This is followed by the crossing into Philistine territory of David and his army of supporters, against the will of the prophet Nathan, who argues that David is casting himself and his followers into exile from God. To which David replies, in effect, that God is everywhere; a lesson learned by the Israelites in Egypt and later as exiles in Babylon, where the notion of a universal God can be said to have truly taken root.

Most prominent in Beresford’s King David, however, is the portrayal of David (played by Richard Gere), as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14), and nowhere is this shown more eloquently than in scenes or dialogue derived directly from the Psalms.

These include Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”, David singing the opening verses to a tormented Saul in his tent; Psalm 22, “Why have you forsaken me?”, Saul raging to God after his defeat on the battlefield, which is an interesting take on the line; Psalm 92, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord”, sung by the priests of Nob while being slaughtered by Saul’s henchman; and Psalm 69 "Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck", spoken in voice-over after the death of David’s first-born.

Effective too, and spoken in voice-over while the Israelites battle the Philistines at Mt Gilboa, is David’s lament at the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Sam 1:19-27); which for beauty of expression and generosity of spirit, must rank as one of the world’s greatest elegies.

Beresford’s King David was not well received when it was first released in 1985, and the director himself is inclined to disown it. But for those seeking intelligent insight into King David and his times, and the power of his story that reaches down to our own times, this film is very worthwhile viewing.

In the film’s prologue, Samuel is shown as being anti-monarchist, in line with prophetic mistrust at the making of golden calves: “When our tribes clamoured for a king saying, make us like other nations, I answered: we are not like other nations. The Lord of hosts is both our God and king.” Then Samuel, lifting the Amalekite king’s head by the hair, says: “Here is a king you can see, your king of flesh and blood.”

Thus all kings are mortal and fallible, even David. Yet despite this, and the punishment for his failings (the death of both his and Bathsheba’s first-born son and the rebellious, hot-headed Absalom), David fulfilled his mission by uniting the tribes into one kingdom, and becoming for the ages an exemplar of loyalty, love and devotion to both God and man.




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