Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Cecil B. DeMille could well get the credit for forming the dominant vision of Jesus Christ for the
20th century. His pious, dignified and serene Son of God in the silent The King of
Kings has been the template ever since. DeMille found the commercial grove for turning
religion into boxoffice - his 1927 epic features plenty of his overstaged hoopla yet maintains
a respectful dignity for its subject. This is the Messiah we were all brought up
on - for many Christians, watching Criterion's painstakingly restored DVD is like seeing the forgotten
original version of our own beliefs.
This 2-disc set has both the complete 1927 premiere version (155 minutes) and the generally circulated 112
minute cutdown; various chapters and miracles were rearranged for the digest version.
Much of the film's authority derives from DeMille's overall restraint. As personified by the staid,
calm H.B. Warner (later the haggard Mr. Gower of It's a Wonderful Life), Jesus is an almost
static character, always the key element in careful tableaux. Many scenes depict him in a reverent haze.
Careful double exposures with gauzy light patterns create holy portraits that match to perfection
images memorized from Sunday school. Our first sight of Jesus is from point of view of a blind woman as
Jesus restores her sight - he materializes out of a grey blur, framed in a soft halo.
The King of Kings has its dated aspects. Most of the intertitles are straight quotes from
scripture, reducing Jesus' travails to series of blackout sketches topped with text bites. In dramatic
terms, it's as mechanical as a slide show.
DeMille dispenses with most of his Barnum-like hoopla after the first act. Mary Magdelene kisses a tiger
to make her Roman consort jealous, and exits on a chariot pulled by zebras to find out what kind of crazy
carpenter is monopolizing her boyfriend Judas'es time. As soon as she catches sight of Jesus, Magdelene
is exorcised of the seven deadly sins and becomes the subservient and chaste woman God wants her to be.
Adding spectacle to the finish is a tacky, overproduced cataclysm on Calvary hill. The ground opens up
and swallows various witnesses to the crucifixion, including the newly-hung Judas (Joseph Schildkraut).
The implication is that they've been swallowed up by Hell.
The later Nicholas Ray and George Stevens epics downplayed some of the miracles but here they all occur
bluntly on camera, complete with doubting witnesses converted on the spot. Whereas Ray's 1961 King
of Kings presented the healings as potential rumors or matters of faith, DeMille just shows Jesus
healing people left and right. He even pauses to heal someone while hauling his cross uphill.
It's easy to become cynical about a Hollywood filmmaker raking in millions from a film exploiting
religious beliefs, but The King of Kings has sufficient integrity to stand proudly. It's
far more sincere than DeMille's later biblical travesties.
One controversy does remain from the original release. Although in published interviews DeMille tried to
shift the blame for the crucifixion to the Romans, the movie presents the Jewish temple officials as the
clear-cut villains, conspiring against Jesus and maliciously framing him as a rebel against Rome.
Among the cast are a young Sally Rand, the famous fan dancer, directors Rex Ingram and Sidney
Franklin, and as one of Mary Magdalene's charioteers, Noble Johnson.
Both transfers in Criterion's two-disc set of The King of Kings are handsomely restored and
accompanied by carefully chosen music. The Technicolor sequences show some deterioration but retain
their original glow. The 1928 recut has the original score by Hugo Reisenfield and a new organ
composition by Timothy J. Tikker; the longer 1927 version has a new score by Donald Sosin.
Criterion producer Kate Elmore has arranged a set of excellent essays. Robert H. Birchard provides
production background details from his new biography of Cecil B. DeMille. The director enforced elaborate
safeguards on his set to insure that his actors behaved and were treated like
the holy personages they were impersonating. Peter Matthews' accompanying essay distills DeMille's
formula for marketing Jesus to the masses: everything in the stories is presented
literally, especially the miracles.
There are a surprising number of extras considering the film's age. Text images include photos,
ads and correspondence from the film's premiere, when it opened Grauman's Chinese
in Hollywood. A trailer and a gallery of costume sketches and photos are on the second disc, along
with a formal portrait gallery. Even more interesting is some behind the scenes footage of the filming.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The King of Kings rates:
Supplements: Behind-the-scenes footage, cast portraits, production and costume sketches,
program and press book, booklet featuring a 1927 essay by DeMille, an excerpt from Robert S. Birchard's
Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood,
production notes, and a new essay by film critic Peter Matthews.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 24, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson