Sunday, April 8, 2012

The King of Kings (1927): A Review

*Author's note.  This review is of the 155-premiere version of The King of Kings, which may differ from the 112-general release version.

The Gospel According to DeMille...

The Bible makes for a great source of film. Even those who do not believe the Scriptures are the Word of God (or who don't believe IN God), have some knowledge of the stories within the Old and New Testament.

Therefore, if someone were to make a film based on any part of the Bible (starting from the Book of Genesis and Exodus through the reigns of Kings David and Solomon on down through the Life of Christ and up to the Book of Revelation) it would be easy for audiences to follow the stories without too much exposition, something that an adaptation of the Bhagavad Gita or even the Koran into film would need. A story as central to millions of lives as that of Jesus Christ would need a filmmaker with the ability to create powerful imagery on an epic scale.

Fortunately, we had one Cecil B. DeMille at the ready.  The King of Kings gets the full DeMille treatment: it's big, it's lavish, it mixes sin and salvation, the story of Our Lord and Savior, God in human form...with a little sex in it.  The King of Kings is the blending of the sacred and salacious, the pious and profane, the divine and the decadent.  The film, despite nearly a hundred years, still has some powerful moments and despite its length moves amazingly fast. 

While The King of Kings (with story by Jeanie Macpherson) uses the Gospels and New Testament letters for the story, it also adds extra elements that are un-Scriptural.  In fact, The King of King BEGINS with an extra-Scriptural story.   Mary of Magdala (Jacqueline Logan), the famed courtesan, is holding Court among her admirers.  As she 'entertains', she learns what has happened to her favorite lover, one Judas Iscariot (Joseph Schildkraut).  He has joined a group of wandering disciples led by a carpenter from Nazareth.  Obviously, no man has greater power than our Mary Magdalene, so it's off to get Judas back.  When she finds her estranged lover, she find him with Jesus of Nazareth (H.B. Warner), who has come to heal the sick, raise the dead, and bring salvation for all mankind.

Mary doesn't care about that, and truth be told, neither does Judas.  Instead, he sees Jesus as a future earthly king, and himself as his right hand man.  After Jesus has healed a young future-Gospel writer Mark (Micky Moore) and brought sight to a blind girl, Mary Magdalene confronts both Judas and Christ, but Jesus is too strong for her, and seven demons are expelled from the harlot, who now is a repentant woman.

Jesus continues on his mission, much to the displeasure of the Pharisees.  Christ confronts the hypocrisies in the Temple, withstands the temptations of Satan, and leads the Disciples in the Passover Seder that will be known as the Last Supper.  Judas, by now disillusioned about how Jesus will not be King, sells out the Master for 30 pieces of silver.  Jesus is arrested, scourged, and crucified, while Judas, overwhelmed with agony about what he's done, hangs himself.  Finally, Christ rises from the dead, comforts the Apostles, and we end The King of Kings with Christ above all the world.

The King of Kings is nothing if not a spectacle, but despite the years the film still has an amazing visual splendor that overwhelms the audience.  Some of the sequences are thoroughly thrilling and innovative.  DeMille, for example, holds back the introduction of Christ for as long as possible, and when we finally come across the Messiah, it is by giving us the point of view of the blind child He has healed.  It's a beautifully filmed sequence.  Some of his other scenes, such as when Mary Magdalene's seven demons are exorcised, as still amazing to watch, creating that mixture of sinister beings besieging a tortured soul. 

One other scene I would point to show showcase DeMille's greatness is the Temple sequence (which is a very long section of the film).  We go from the massive crowds about to stone a woman caught in adultery through Judas' failed efforts to crown Christ right down to Satan appearing behind Jesus to tempt Him with all the kingdoms of the world.  In the first part, DeMille shows us what he imagines Christ to have written down on the sand (the Gospels never say exactly what Christ wrote).  The brilliance of DeMille showed that Christ was writing out the sins of those ready to stone the adulteress, a powerful moment to emphasize the sin in every man.  The crowds about to crown Jesus are in the DeMille tradition of being large, but they fill the screen to where everything else (even the Savior of Mankind) is overwhelmed.  The final part where Satan tempts Christ has the appropriate hint of menace from the Dark Overlord against the purity of the Light of the World.

The King of Kings also has tender moments.  One of the most light-hearted is when a group of children come up to Jesus.  At first, Judas sends them away, but Christ tells him to "suffer the children to come up to me" (almost all the intertitles in The King of Kings quote Scripture, with the chapter and verse accompanying them).  One of the children asks Christ if he can heal broken bodies.  Responding yes, the little girl promptly brings out her doll and asks Him to heal his broken leg.  A slightly embarrassed Christ looks at it, and manages to fix it. 

DeMille also could break your heart with the smallest thing.  The Last Supper is beautiful and sad, particularly Peter's reaction to holding, drinking, and passing the cup which Jesus has said was His Blood.  When Christ is first seen carrying his Cross, we get a ground-level view, seeing only the foot of the Cross being dragged, along with the bystanders both for and against Him along the Via Dolorosa. 

At the Crucifixion, we see a mother at the cross, but it is not Mary.  Instead, it's the old mother of one of the thieves crucified alongside Christ (the one who asked Him to remember him in Paradise).  Seeing the agony of another mother about to lose her child and her treatment by the Roman soldiers will bring if not full tears a sense of agony and sorrow to the viewer's eye.

I digress to say that The King of Kings disproves the idea that Cecil B. DeMille was incapable of directing intimate scenes. 

However, if anything The King of Kings is highly respectful and reverential to the story of Jesus Christ.  There are strong signs that the story was treated with great care so as to not cause offense among believers.  DeMille controlled the lighting brilliantly, showing the Holy Grail glow powerfully as a dove descends upon the sacred vessel.  The scene where Lazarus is resurrected is also lit beautifully, making the scene look almost like a tableau brought powerfully to life.

The sequence where Christ breathes His last and the earth trembles violently is still, nearly a hundred years later, amazing in its power and sheer spectacular nature.  A careful study will show that it is not really the Earth coming apart (and it is highly reminiscent of the earth splitting open near the end of DeMille's remake of The Ten Commandments), but it still is so overwhelming that the viewer becomes thoroughly captured by its force.

The King of Kings also benefits from an opening and closing that has early Technicolor, making the first (the sight of Mary Magdalene's Court) and the second (the Resurrection) even more decadent and powerful respectfully. 

The performances are also excellent.  Schildkraut's Judas starts out as a dandy not interest in the power of Redemption but in earthly power, but when he realizes what he has done, the mixture of horror and crazed agony is a brilliant turn.  Similarly, Logan's Mary Magdalene shifts from wanton slut to redeemed follower (dare I say, Disciple) of the Christ.  Even in smaller roles, Ernest Torrence's Peter shows how the Apostle was both a man who was both a rustic fisherman and a devoted yet flawed friend of Jesus. 

It is Warner that brings a mixed emotion in his portrayal of Christ.  It would be correct to say that Warner played Jesus as a man of many sorrows, and as someone who is God in the flesh.  However, apart from the scene with the children Warner's Jesus came off as forever forlorn, sad, pained.  Yes, Christ is God (if one is Christian) but while we see the Divine in Jesus, we do not see much of the human in Jesus.  I don't know whether it's because there is that tendency to portray Jesus as an almost remote figure (in few films about Jesus is He seen as a man with even a modicum of humor or even humanity--the miniseries Jesus with Jeremy Sisto as Christ a rare exception) precisely because His divinity is at the heart of Christianity or a desire to place an emphasis precisely on that divinity rather than His humanity.  It is a remarkably respectful portrayal of Jesus (one that haunted Warner for the rest of his career) but it has, at least for me, the effect of making Christ a distant figure, one worthy of worship but not of an intimate relationship.

I would also say that The King of Kings is respectful of Judaism and Jewish people.  When the crowds are being whipped up to ask for Barabbas rather than Jesus, one of the crowd says he will not accept a bribe because it is against Jewish law to do so.  Caiaphas at the end asks that God's wrath be visited upon him and not upon the Jewish nation.  The King of Kings is not whipping up anti-Semitic feelings, but instead asks us to recognize the Jewish nature of Jesus (whom I always tell people was among other things, a nice Jewish boy).

The King of Kings is the kind of epic spectacle that Cecil B. DeMille will always be associated with (and sometimes damned for).   As a film (silent or otherwise) The King of Kings still has an extraordinary power to move and overwhelm the audience, both in its reverence and in its decadence.  The King of Kings is a film worthy of the story of Christ. 


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