Why, after all these years, a biblical epic? The answer, according to "King David," seems to be a thinly disguised Leninist plot to discredit the Good Book forever. The movie seems to have been made by Goliath after he got conked with the stone.
Saul, king of Israel (Edward Woodward), has cut a deal with a captured Amalekite king, which is when his tsuris begins. According to the law of God (as told by the Book of Paramount), you're not supposed to bargain with infidels, you're supposed to kill them. The prophet Samuel (Denis Quilley) lops off the captive's head, holds it aloft, and informs Saul that he's fallen forever from God's grace.
Saul continues to rule, but Samuel heads to Bethlehem, where he anoints a shepherd boy, David (Ian Sears), as the next king of Israel. Called upon to play the lute for Saul, David finds himself among the troops challenged by the Philistine Goliath. He picks up the gauntlet, deals death with a slingshot, and, in adulthood, becomes a great warrior hero (Richard Gere).
The rest follows pretty much the way you learned it in Sunday school. You can imagine any number of ways to tell the story, and any number of directors: as stylized myth (Sam Raimi, perhaps, or George Miller); as the political reality behind the received word (Sidney Lumet); or as self-parody (Ken Russell). Director Bruce Beresford wanders through all three. "King David" bulges with scenes of graphic violence -- it's littered with impaled torsos, slit throats and heads lost to hatchets. The strategy is to return us to the undigested, magical immediacy the myths once had, but Beresford doesn't follow it up.
"King David" is as plodding and airless as a camel ride through the Negev. Except for its vibrant, exciting battle scenes, the movie has no visual style -- it's a tedious seesaw between long master shots and unedifying close-ups. The script (by Andrew Birkin and James Costigan) has the slow, reverential feel of a bad PBS mini-series -- it's one of those movies where people address each other as "milord." It doesn't help that all the actors talk with tony English accents that belie the rawness of Beresford's violence.
One of the English accents belongs, incongruously, to Gere, who here graduates from being just plain bad to the status of camp pleasure. In his big scenes, Gere actually seems to implode on the screen; he not only fails in adding emotion, but he drags whatever emotion was inherent in the scene down with him. And there's a hilarious sequence where the recently crowned David sheds his gown and, clothed only in a sort of diaper, boogies through Jerusalem like a meshugge ape. His David is a cipher whom only a vengeful God would sit on the throne of Israel.
Woodward, a wizened actor with mischievous eyes, leads a cast of supporting actors who are uniformly fine, but lack the charisma to carry a movie so blighted with flat writing (after David beds Michal (Cherie Lunghi), his first wife, she asks, "Did I please you, milord?" which is how they used to say "Was it good for you, too?"). David may have been "a lamp unto his people," but sometimes it is better to hide a lamp under a bushel.
King David, at area theaters, is rated R, and contains nudity and graphic violence.