I was a little apprehensive when I heard that Criterion was going to
release the 2 ½ hour original version of King of Kings.
I had known and appreciated the shorter road show version for years, and
I wasn't sure if adding a half an hour to the movie would actually improve
it. Longer isn't always better, and I could see an extra half hour
causing the film to drag in places. I needn't have worried.
Cecil B. DeMille's epic is better with the missing footage restored.
The great thing about this new Criterion release is that it offers you
both versions, the 155-minute version of the film as it was shown on its
premier, and the 112-minute edit that DeMille created for general release.
Cecil B. DeMille was an amazing individual. A great showman and
ardent self promoter, he is often cited as the main man responsible with
making Hollywood the movie capital that it is today. He was a founding
member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and one of the
first aristocrates of Hollywood. He was also a man of contradictions.
Publically a pious man who crafted religious epics, privately he carried
on long term affairs with two women while staying married to his wife.
He was much loved by the public and hated by many in Hollywood. But
when all is said and done about this man, he had the ability to make very
One of DeMille's defining characteristics was that he was a natural
born showman. He had the uncanny ability to know just what the public
wanted and he gave it to them. But he was careful not to overdo it.
To much spectacle can easily turn into something campy, and DeMille knew
just where that line was. He was an expert at getting his name in
front of the public, and the names of his pictures too. Never did
he use his talents for promotion more fully than on The King of Kings.
He started the production by having a group of ministers each bless the
production, and invited reporters to cover the event too. The film
was premiered at the Grand Opening of Grauman's Chinese Theater, an event
that drew legions of reporters, and thousands of people. It was one
of the biggest Hollywood premiers up to that time.
DeMille once said "Give me any two pages of the Bible and I'll give
you a picture." For this picture he used significantly more than
two pages, and created more than just a picture, he crafted an epic.
The film is the story of the last weeks of Jesus' life. It
follows Jesus' as he cure the blind and makes the lame walk again, shows
the last supper, and finally the crucifiction and resurrection.
It is told in a reverent but still entertaining fashion. Most, but
not all, of the intertitles are actual quotes from the Bible, with the
passage noted. DeMille was careful to make his movie entertaining,
without straying too much from the source material, though he does stray
a bit for the sake of making the movie a little more intriguing.
This film is filled with spectacles and grandeur. There is a chariot
pulled by zebras, lavish sets and the proverbial cast of thousands.
The Technicolor sections (especially the resurrection) and video effects
make the film visually interesting too. But the masterful part of
the DeMille's production is that he doesn't turn the story of Christ into
a special effects spectacle...he keeps the story reverent and tasteful.
From the simple mending of a child's toy, to the raising of Lazarus, DeMille
is able to make Christ both majestic and humble.
The King of Kings is a good film even if you aren't a Christian.
DeMille's direction and framing of shots is quite accomplished. Many
of the scenes are touching for the sheer drama of it, even if you don't
follow or believe in the deeper significance. The blind boy searching
the crowd for Jesus pulles at the heartstrings, and the exorcizing of the
seven deadly sins from Mary Magdalen is exciting.
The acting is very good too. H.B. Warner, though looking a little
too old for Jesus, gave a masterful performance. He was understated
and subtle which fit the role perfectly. The scene where he is at
a woodworker's shop is a good example. Being a carpenter, he picks
up a tool and works aimlessly on a large wooden pole that is sticking out
of a barn. The serene look on his face tells you that in some ways
he misses the simpler life of a tradesman. After the tax collector's
leave, it is revealed that the pole is actually part of a cross that the
woodworker was building for the Romans. Jesus is startled at the
image, but he doesn't recoil in horror or throw his hands in the air in
despair, he merely looks unsettled. Warner plays the entire
movie like this, acting with his face and body position rather that with
broad gestures. This toned down acting really makes the film.
As was mentioned earlier, there are two versions of this film included
with this set: the 155-minute premier version, and a 112-minute edit that
was intended for wide distribution. The shorter version is the film
that has been released in the past, and the one that most people are familiar
with. It holds up very well by itself and is a good film. I
preferred the longer version though. I thought the extra scenes,
none of them very major, did a good job of expanding and explaining the
characters. The aforementioned scene with Jesus at the carpenter's
shop is one such added scene that improves the quality of the film as a
whole. There was also an extra color scene in the original version.
The introduction of Mary Magdalen is in two strip Technicolor where
it is presenting in B&W in the 1931 release.
There are three audio tracks that accompany this film. The original
cut has a newly recorded score by Donald Sosin. Sosin did the accompaniment
to Kino's release of Nosferatu, and he does an equally splendid
job with this soundtrack. The music fits the scenes and enhances the mood,
and the sound effects that he includes (coins dropping for example) are
not intrusive. The 1931 version come with the original soundtrack
Hugo Riesenfeld, and a new score played by Timothy J. Tikker. I thought
both of these were good, and preferred Tikker's just a bit more.
Though the Riesenfeld score had a bit of background noise and not much
dynamic range, the tracks all sounded excellent. It should be noted
that the new recordings are presented in stereo, not in 5.1 as it has been
listed on many web sites. The original 1931 audio track is in mono.
This film looks wonderful. Cecil B. DeMille had the foresight
to keep all of his films in a refrigerated warehouse, and because of that
the deterioration that has ravaged most silent films has left his movies
mostly untouched. There is some decomposition at the beginning of
the Technicolor resurrection scene, but a majority of the rest of the film
looks excellent. There is very little in the way of print damage,
and the level of detail is excellent. The 155-minute version of the
film was definitely superior to the 112-minute edit. Though there
was some grain in bothe versions, the shorter film was softer, and had
inferior contrast. The blacks were much stronger in the longer version
of the film also. The general release version of the film also has
a framing issue. When it was rereleased in 1931, the film had a soundtrack
added to it. To make room for the audio track on the film, the left
side of the frame had to be sacrificed. The upshot is that when someone
is supposed to be in the center of the frame, they appear slightly to the
left. This doesn't hurt the film terribly, but it is noticeable after
you watch the original version of the film.
The two strip Technicolor from the original version
(left) is eyecatching, but the black and white scene (right) has more detail.
There are a good selection of extras included with this set.
The King of Kings premiered at the grand opening of Grauman's
Chinese Theater on May 18th, 1927. The Opening Night section
includes a selection of newspaper ads, photographs and a telegram from
Cecil B. DeMille to the cast that he sent following the premier.
The original program is included on the first disc, along with the press
book. One the first day of shooting, DeMille invited various members
of the clergy to give their blessing to the film. There is a transcription
of DeMilles introduction and their remarks.
There is also a trailer for the movie.
There is a 13½-minute reel of behind the scenes shots that were
taken for the purpose of publicizing the film. This is silent, without
accompaniment, and looked very good. I was expecting the image
quality to be poor, but it wasn't. An interesting peek into at a
DeMille production in full swing.
There is also a gallery of production stills, a selection of sketches
that Dan Sayre did for the film, and a some portrait photographs that W.
M. Mortensen took of the cast.
A true epic film, the King of Kings looks fabulous in this new Criterion
edition. Including both edits of the film and a good selection of
extras, this is a wonderful release. If was surprised to find that
the longer version of the film plays better than the 112-minute version
that most people are familiar with. The extra scenes add a lot to
the story. A wonderful film, you don't have to be a devout Christian
to enjoy the film, it is a work of art. Highly Recommended.