The Story of David (1976)

Back to the Bible, this time way back long before the New Testament, to “The Story of David.”  All I’ll say up front is that the story of David initially seems to be ripe for miniseries treatment, but without a budget, it’s bound to fail and that second act of David’s life is a total snooze.

Though the movie starts with shepherd David (Timothy Bottoms) playing a lyre and singing, “The Story of David” is not a musical.  His head covered in golden ringlets, a pre-historic Shirley Temple, David is interrupted from a quiet day of tending sheep to kill a wildcat.

King Saul (Anthony Quayle, who would pretty much devote the rest of his career to sword and sandal miniseries) goes to visit Samuel (Mark Dignam).  The heavily-bearded prophet makes Saul work for his attention, having the king sit on a common stone until he’s good and ready to talk to him from his throne-like rock as yet another way to knock down the king’s ego.  It seems that Samuel told him 20 years ago he was king, but now he’s started speaking against Saul.  Samuel takes the stance that, “it was the voice of the Lord,” but Saul reminds Samuel he’s the one who anointed him with kingly oils.  “Let there be peace between us or Israel will be destroyed,” Saul says in exasperation.  When a piece of clothing rips, Samuel sees that as proof that the kingdom is about to be torn from Saul.

David returns to his brothers, who mock him because David wants to fight the Philistines in open combat.  They have iron swords that the Israelis do not have, so it’s not an easy fight.  To quiet his brothers down, David belts out another tune.

Meanwhile, Saul is despondent, wearing a simple cloth and showing a lot of leg.  His cousin Abner (Brian Blessed) tries to cheer him up and remind him of all he’s done, and these two veteran hams do their best to out-bad-act each other.  Abner brings David to Saul to lighten his mood with more of his chipper singing, except this time, David can only muster a ballad, which seems most unhelpful.  I suppose the back-up instruments and endlessly unrhymed lyrics are heaven-sent, because David goes on and on and on.  After what seems an eternity of lute-playing, David even falling asleep doing it, Saul notices him and asks his name, before joining the sing-a-long himself, with a harvesting song that David picks up pretty quickly.  “Never let an old man pour oil on your head,” Saul recommends, lamenting the fact that he was once a happy farmer and now an unhappy king.

David is given a job with Saul, which he describes to his brothers as such scintillating tasks as counting spears and tying on armor.  He’s also on call when Saul feels bad, his playing chasing away “the evil spirit.”  If this weren’t innocent old 1976, one might raise an eyebrow here.  The miniseries, a religious piece, no less, was just a child, no hidden meanings.

Every day, blustering Goliath (Tony Tarruella) comes to the foot of the army camp and taunts Saul.  He certainly doesn’t seem like a giant, merely a man with a incredibly large hat.  Saul’s son Jonathan (Oded Teomi) wants to fight him, but Saul will not allow it.  Frankly, he’s afraid to send anyone to a certain death, but David begs for a chance.  “He’s a giant, a warrior…what would you do, David, wrap your lyre strings around him?” Saul asks?  David brings up that big cat he killed in the first scene, but Saul just jokes, “you will sing him to death.”  Abner is all for a fight, since if David is killed, “it’s just a boy…what do we risk?”  The Old Testament folk just never learn!  Dare Yahweh to step in and help his people and he won’t hesitate.  Timothy Bottoms looks as harmless as a day-old puppy, but this isn’t called “The Story of Goliath,” now is it?

David sums it up for Saul: “I can kill Goliath and the army will believe that Yahweh is strong.”  See!  It’s not about the puny boy, it’s a lesson in faith.  “If he kills me, I’m on a shepherd,” David says (aping Abner), in our first example of thick Jewish guilt (hey, it made me the man I am today, I’m not knocking it).  “Who will play for me?” Saul whines, but David and Abner (and of course, the unseen hand of God), finally wear him down.

So, Goliath makes his daily rounds, laughing when he sees David scamp down the hillside.  “You come with a spear, Philistine, but I come with the name of the Lord of the hosts, Yahweh,” David whispers as he readies his slingshot.  Goliath throws his spear, which David avoids and then spins his slingshot with the same sound effects that readied Wonder Woman, smacking Goliath between the eyes with a rock.  It looks more likely to knock off his fake beard than anything, but it immobilizes Goliath and David can cut his head off, yelling proudly to Saul in a rather bloodthirsty manner.

It must be a few years later, because David has acquired a (really bad fake) beard.  He’s now the main war planner, but no one can argue with success, especially when there are cheering extras and montage footage (cheaply, in both cases).  There is even a song about him that all of the peasants (and their children) know.  “All he lacks now is the kingdom,” Abner clucks, though naturally David lacks any notion of a coup.  After all, he’s still just a simple musician, writing an impromptu ditty faster than Irving Berlin, though Saul is jealous of the song of the people praising David.

Then there’s the matter of Michal (Irit Ben Zur), Saul’s daughter who has a crush on David.  She and Jonathan double team Saul into letting them marry (even though David is incredibly asexual), but Saul insists that David bring him Philistine foreskin “as a dowry.”  Another cheap montage, another few extras, and it’s wedding time!  This time, we get all-out production number, with dancers doing something between the hora and the Electric Slide.  Getting down to wedding night business, Michal asks David “to play the lyre for me,” but he claims, “I have forgotten how,” though in the next scene, he’s once again playing for his father-in-law, who can’t get the peasant song out of his head, throws a spear at David (which misses by a mile) and goes kind of mad.

David has to scale the walls and leave down so jealous Saul doesn’t kill him.  He forgets to take any food or water, and can’t seem to find anywhere to stop (let’s pause here to wonder how a man so brilliant in a land as small as New Jersey can’t find a friendly drink of water, but that’s a question for Biblical scholars, not miniseries viewers), so the buzzards circle above him as he trips his way around the craggy rocks and weeds of the land.  Where does he stagger to?  Samuel’s outdoor palace, where he’s treated very well by Samuel’s gang.  “I have waited for you, David,” Samuel says, which even David finds odd.  Samuel is anoints him with oil (David was passed out, thus not having a chance to stop the anointing, as Saul warned him).  David doesn’t want the job, claiming loyalty to Saul.  “His son is my brother, his daughter is my wife, Saul is a king, Saul, Saul, Saul is king,” David yells, afraid.

Let’s not beat around a non-burning bush: David is pretty good at manipulation, despite all those curls and the great PR.  When Jonathan comes to see him, to bring him back to Saul, David isn’t stupid, he tells Jonathan to find out first if Saul “still wants my blood.”  Jonathan turns this into a needlessly complex plan, which David worries is a trap.  Lousy liar Jonathan tells Saul David is in Bethlehem visiting his own father, causing Saul to go on a grand rant, insisting on David’s death.  What actor doesn’t love a mad scene, so Tony Quayle goes full Lear on us.

Jonathan’s needlessly complex plan has David so sad he cries fake glycerin tears to hear that Saul wants him dead, so Jonathan cheers him up slitting each of their wrists and mingling their blood (it had to be the wrist?), making them “one,” so that David is also heir to the throne.  Mighty generous of Jonathan, isn’t it?  Michal hasn’t lifted a finger for her own husband.

After scamming bread from an all-too-trusting temple priest, David starts to build a force to overcome Saul.  This is a new side of David and even his brothers don’t know what to make of it.  However, just at that moment, a man in mourning comes along, saying Saul has razed the temple and the whole city around it for the priest’s generosity to David (who, remember, wasn’t completely honest, and does feel a bit of guilt over it).  Thus, war against Saul is now okay.

David develops quite an edge, though always making sure to take the moral high ground.  When a local refuses to give him and his now 600 men food, David loses it.  Okay, first of all, who can feed 600 men?  Anyway, David breaks a jug and scowls that he’s rid the area of Philistines, yet this man is not grateful, so he’s allowed to kill the man’s family, “man, child, ram and goat.”  No mention of women, but by all means, slaughter the goats.  It’s a good thing I mentioned women, because Abigail (Ahuva Yuval) shows up in the next scene, telling David she had been away when David’s men were denied food, and she’s here with hundreds of loaves of bread to make up for it.  She begs for her husband’s life and to be David’s “handmaiden,” always an undefined Biblical term.

When word comes that Samuel has died, David is urged to go after Saul, but he refuses.  “How long are you going to let him hunt you like a partridge?” he’s asked.  Apparently, things aren’t that bad, because Saul has never found the completely obvious lair where David and his men are holed up avoiding battle. Saul uses tactics like starving locals to ferret out the location, but none of it seems to work.  So, why not strike at Saul?  “Should I start a war among the tribes?  Should I have the blood of Israel on my hands?  Saul was my father!” David roars.  “I am not a rebel against Saul,” he says over and over, though Joab (Norman Rodway) keeps urging him to battle with flowery taunts.  What David does agree to is slipping into the enemy camp (where everyone is luckily sleeping at the same time) to participate in an elaborate pantomime with Joab, who manages to overact even in silence.

The reason for this odd raid is so David can stand on a mountain the next day and yell to Abner that he slept as they stole a water jug from beside Saul.  Abner orders the men to rush up and kill David, but Saul stops them, leaving David to ask why he’s pursued.  Wait, Saul just stopped you from instant death!  David cries (without tears) as he bemoans the loss of Israel for no reason.  He turns his rage from Yahweh to Saul, throwing a spear near him and then darting off into the mountains again.  The endless cat-and-mouse (discussed, but not shown) between Saul and David is getting mighty old.

Sometime later, as David languishes in the pleasures of Philistia, he is offered the chance to participate in the “destruction of Saul,” by one of the local kings, as they are all gathering to conquer Saul and want David and his men to be their “bodyguards.”  “If you know me, Lord,” David says, “you know what I’ll do,” which apparently doesn’t necessary mean he’ll join (it takes Joab to play the dunce and bring that out).  David’s poker face notwithstanding, the other Philistine kings don’t trust that a Hebrew will be loyal to them against Saul (getting one mad scene after another), so David’s liege caves and tells David to take his men and not participate in the fight (which he wasn’t going to do anyway).

Jonathan sneaks a visit to David, asking if he really would have fought against his own people and David doesn’t answer.  He also tells David that even Saul thinks he should be king, though now David gets all modest.  Of course, knowing this new fact makes it hard for David to sit by and watch a war that is certain to decimate Saul and company.

We don’t see the battle, but we see the Philistines picking through the dead Hebrew bodies afterward, including Jonathan’s.  Alas, even Saul is killed, causing David to bathe in dust once again as he wails in sadness.  Timothy Bottoms is a downright awful crier.  Luckily for the story, David is not responsible for killing Saul and has a clear pathway to becoming king, though he gives a lofty speech about the fallen mighty before Joab proclaims him such.  He stands atop a mountain, arms spread wide, obviously ready for that job, thus bringing the first portion of the movie to a sweeping close.

David may feel himself secure in his kingship, but not everyone sees that.  Saul has another son in the north and Abner follows him.  Abner and Joab meet to discuss the situation and Joab reminds Abner that Samuel anointed David just like he did Saul.  However, that history lesson is lost on Abner, who clucks, “you anoint an onion with oil before you eat it, that doesn’t make it king.”  They do a lot of chattering about the past six years as their massive armies of six or seven each start getting antsy.  There’s a bit of a tussle and Abner kills Joab’s brother, which isn’t going to sit well with Joab in the long run.

In six years, David has matured into Keith Michell, but the change of actors doesn’t mean we lose the ringlets or the inability to construct a hummable tune.  In fact, Keith’s David starts with a song and though he’s a better singer than he predecessor, the songs are no less annoying.  Fawned over by women with children they are trying to remind him should be his heir, he is brought news that Abner has switched sides and wants to be part of David’s retinue.  David and his chief advisor Jehosephat (who does, I assure you, no jumping, and is played by veteran Barry Morse).  David is willing to talk to Abner, but only if he brings him Michal (now Susan Hampshire) his one-time wife whom Saul had taken from him during their years of quarrel.  Michal has been married for years to another man and gained something of a spine.  Abner tempts her with being the wife of a king, but she says, “I’m already the daughter of a king,” so Abner has to physically take her from her poor sad husband.

Abner is treated to a hearty meal and a particularly gloomy ballad from David before getting down to business.  There is some bargaining to be done, namely that for Abner’s switching of sides, he wants to be the official War Chief, a position help by Joab.  Joab is furious that Abner is even at the palace, yet again launching into a spitting bit of overacting as David strums his lyre and tells his aide that here needs Abner’s help.  So, Joab sets a trap for Abner.  The latter is killed and David is furious because Joab didn’t think through the murder, knowing everyone will blame David.  “David’s name will stink in the land of Israel,” he tells idiotic Joab.  Joab offers up his own life, but only half meaning it since he claims he put David on the throne.  The two yell and howl for a while, but David ends with an ultimatum: “follow Abner’s body or follow Abner” and Joab goes along with the funeral procession.  Then David gets downright ugly, denouncing Joab in public as the murderer and washing his hands of the whole affair.  Not heroic actions, I would say.

That’s not the last of Joab, of course.  He remembers that David said whoever could get Jerusalem for him would be War Chief, so he does just that, with no more than a handful of men and another of those fake war montages.  Singing and dancing, looking like the understudies at the Bath Touring Light Opera Company, David and his followers enter Jerusalem.  He’s vain, but not a snappy enough dresser to realize his underwear can be seen through his white cloth and no one needs to see that.  Lest you think me overly harsh, here’s what Michal has to say of the whole day’s events: “I saw you there jumping before the people like a slave girl.  Is that honor?  Uncovering yourself before the women, robes flapping and showing your root and you looked like a priest of Sodom.  My father was not a king like that.  Saul was a man!”  David pins her down and tells her that Yahweh has made him king, even over Saul, and he intends to have what he feels he is owed.  It’s only his pride that wants Michal, who tells David he has “no heart.”  She finally wins her freedom from Jerusalem by reminding him that a royal child of theirs could take over just like he did with Saul.  “Go,” he tells her, “as the wife of a king, but you will have no sons.”  Uh oh.

So, David goes to sit before the Ark of the Covenant and sing.  What else would you expect him to do?  Well, he does stop long enough to beg Yahweh for some dialogue, but, let’s face it, David enjoys doing all the talking.  Keith Michell sure doesn’t mind having a solo scene for his rapidly declining acting choices (usually a terrific actor, he’s miscast and decides just to get through it).  By the end of the scene, he’s prostrate on the floor begging for his house to go on forever (just like the scene).

This is followed by a downright bizarre scene where David goes to the scribes writing his history (aka The Bible) and begs them to liven it up so that it’s not just all that boring begetting.  Wait, so David is now a book editor?  “Write down their sin, their stubbornness, their weakness, for that makes them men.”  In other words, sex sells.

Into the boredom of kingly days slips (finally) Bathsheba, played by our redoubtable Jane Seymour, here present at the dawn of the miniseries.  In her first scene, she gets naked and goes for a dip as David watches from above.  She is so young and so beautiful, how can he not be captivated?  Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah (Terrence Hardiman), a recent convert to Judaism.  That’s a problem, because David REALLY wants her, to the point of sleepless nights.

Bathsheba is finally brought to the palace in the middle of the night to find David (you guessed it) playing with his lyre.  “I am your servant, Lord, your handmaiden,” is her first line in the whole movie!  That’s not much of a conquest, now is it?  Obviously, it’s too late for even Jane Seymour to save this elongated dreariness, but she brings a much-need spark.  Bathsheba is bit difficult, asking David bluntly if he knows it’s her when he’s “buried” in her hair or does he think of his other women?  She fastens him with a solid lock when she announces she’s pregnant.  “I am a mighty ram, a bull,” says the aging king, running around the deck.  “Rejoice, you carry the child of David,” he commands, but she’s worried that it’s “adultery, proven” and she will be stoned to death for it.  David won’t come under any heat, only a mere woman.  Even David can’t save her from the law, especially since he’s in a precarious position with the priests and taxmen and such.  David can’t change when Bathsheba got pregnant, but he can alter documents to say Uriah was present when Bathsheba became pregnant.

There is perhaps only one moment in the entire second half of “Story of David” that is utterly hysterical. Bathsheba slips into David’s bedroom in the middle of the night to tell him “that fool” husband of hers is sleeping in outside with his soldiers while “I lie naked on my bed covered in oil of myrrh.”  The camera switches to David’s face, and the look there is like a teenage boy discovering Playboy.  We don’t see his erection only because the camera doesn’t travel down that far.  You see, Uriah invokes a law that says no man at war can touch a woman, but David says that law isn’t for real anymore.  But Uriah, a convert, is more strict with the laws than David, so this is going to take more work than David anticipated.  So, he gets Uriah drunk and sends him to Bathsheba.  That seems to work, but at the last minute, he invokes the name of Yahweh and stays outside.  Rats, foiled again!

Davis has to go even lower to get himself out of the world’s first sitcom plot.  He has Abner post Uriah to a certain-death mission, where of course he’s killed.  It’s taken way more than 26 minutes, but eventually we will wrap this up and then add the laugh track.

Cue the shiva scene.  Every old lady in a 20 mile radius of the shooting location is dragged in, given a black outfit and asked to shriek loudly while Jane slips out of the room to meet David.  Then she has to bite the bullet, or the whip, or whatever, as she goes into labor.

Prophet Nathan (David Collings) arrives as Jane is delivering.  He’s there to blow the whole goony plot, but in typical prophet dialogue, he goes on and on in a way no one can understand (except, of course, the guilty).  Nathan finally speaks for real and accuses David and warns him, “a sword will never depart from your house…I will raise up evil against you from your own house!”  Swell party guest, where is he playing next, an Egyptian funeral?  Actually, David fesses up, but it’s too late, Yahweh is already way too angry.  “You will not die, but the child that is born to you will surely die,” Nathan warns.  Well, at least he’s got Bathsheba, who notes, “we can have another son,” as he dissolves into tears.

And indeed they do, to add to his coterie of sons by dozens of yelping women who want their son to get the kingdom.  We even meet the ones named with the letter A.  There aren’t enough extras for the rest.  Only one of his wives, the only one without a son, isn’t angling and she tells him once he’s gone, there will be nothing but bloodshed until one son emerges triumphant.  Such pessimism!  Three thousand years later, my great aunts sounded just like all these gloomy prophets and harrying wives.

There is only one way for King David to solve any problem and it’s to grab the lyre and sing again.  His beard is gray, and poor Joab has to listen to yet another ballad before bringing up the evil doings of one son.  David forgives him the dirty deeds because “he has my blood” and “am I without sin?”  There’s incest and rape and fratricide and all of the other giant sins tucked into the end of the miniseries.  Frankly, they should have their own movie because it’s way too late to care about new characters.  The only interesting part is when the mothers go all Alexis-and-Crystal on each other in a big gang fight (minus the pools and ponds).  David breaks it up, but I think he’s a little happy to delay doing so as the first man in history who might just enjoy ladies mud wrestling had someone thought of it.  We go through the story of Absalom in roughly ten minutes (killing, coming back, reconciling, yearning to become king in his father’s place, one of the Bible’s baddest apples).  Ancient David forms a plan and leaves the even more ancient Jehosephat to lead Absalom into a trap, all the time complaining, “why cannot my son love me” since he’s blood and David loved Saul without the blood connection.  Yeah, let’s not bring Saul up because that’s a very murky episode and David still isn’t completely in the clear on that one!

However, has an answer, basically, “I told you so.”  Helpful, Joab, thanks.  David is forced to flee into the mountains where he sits and watches a shepherd play music.  Joab shows up with the good news that Absalom has taken all of David’s concubines, but Absalom is playing right into David’s plan.  It’s only now that David chooses to remember Nathan’s warning.  No one else thought of it until all these years later?  It seems pretty damn obvious.  The same poor extras do one last battle and Absalom has one awfully unlucky death scene (thanks to a downed tree limb and then Joab’s rage).  David goes into one of The Bibles best mad scenes, now giving Keith Michell the chance to play Lear (there’s a lot of this version) and he plays it to the back of the balcony.

David gets so old that even Bathsheba turns matronly (gray coloring and some padding can’t dim our Jane’s beauty).  “Do you remember, Lord, when I was young?” she asks David, flirting so she can beg favors for her son, just like all the other wives, though David is still in the midst of madness and has a barely tentative grasp on reality.  Ultimately, he decrees that his son Solomon will be king and then tells the actor playing Solomon (who has no lines) to kill Joab before one last flowery speech.  No, alas, there is not a deathbed song.  I know, we are all disappointed.  But, we don’t need a finale.  We understand the whole fable of “sins of the fathers,” as it’s laid on awfully thick.  The miniseries is not a format for preaching.  It’s way too heavy-handed.

I’m not quite sure why it took two actors to play David, since Parts 1 and 2 are only off by six years.  Timothy Bottoms is awful and Keith Michell much better, so couldn’t they have just given Keith a few more wigs and some Vaseline lenses for the first half?  Other than Michal, no other character is played by two people.  Hell, Abner doesn’t even age!  Anyway, the robust story of the young David works well enough here (even if those songs should have been cut in Boston), but the story of the older David isn’t remotely as interesting.  However, this is a 1976 miniseries, a serious take on a religious text.  In a decade, The Bible would be forgotten as a basis for the miniseries in favor of tawdry Southern tales and hero-worshipping World War II stories.  As low-rent as “The Story of David” may be, it’s inherent sweetness gives on a feeling of nostalgia when one sees what happened in the next 20 years.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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