Monday, April 6, 2020

Movie Review: "The King of Kings" (1927)

The King of Kings

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Screenplay: Jeannie Macpherson

Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley, F.J. Westerberg

Starring: H.B. Warner as Jesus

Production company: Pathé Exchange

Country: United States

Initial release: April 19, 1927

Run Time: 155 minutes

Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings is the first truly Hollywood blockbuster film about Jesus, and it is both epic and spectacular. Following DeMille's other spectacular biblical film, The Ten Commandments, in 1923, and before his epic story of the persecution of the early Christians, The Sign of the Cross, in 1932, The King of Kings, released in 1927, premiered at the grand opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in its original 155-minute cut, though it was widely released with the 112-minute cut. I have not seen the latter, but just finished the longer cut version, and all I can say is that this is perhaps one of the best film versions of the life of Jesus, if not the very best of them.

This film was based on a screenplay by Jeannie MacPherson, and filmed in black and white, but the the scene of the Resurrection is in a glorious color. Before this film, movies about Jesus were based on the old Jesus Play's, very episodic, moving from one scene to the next. This film tries to be more organic, with a narrative style that would later characterize films about Jesus. It is not always successful in this, but there is a valiant effort being made. This film primarily reflects DeMille's reverence for Jesus. His father, who died when DeMille was a boy, had been a candidate for ordination in the Episcopal Church and regularly read Bible stories to his children in the evenings However, DeMille, while having a reverence for Jesus, was also a flamboyant filmmaker and his name was synonymous with showmanship and spectacle.

The actor who plays Jesus in the film, Henry B. Warner, with his "carved Jewish profile," is presented by the showman DeMille with a kind of mystical star aura. Warner was forty-nine years old in this film, making him the oldest actor to ever play Jesus, and by contract he was not allowed to be seen in public during the making of the film, and once in make-up and costume, he was "transported in a closed car and wore a black veil when leaving the set ... and had to eat alone in a tent while on location." This was probably done in response to the Jesus of Intolerance, who would frequently leave set and drive down the streets of Hollywood in his Jesus make-up and outfit. H.B. Warner gives an impeccable performance, is very charismatic, and both convincingly human and convincingly divine. Some however may consider the performance to be too static and formal, portrayed as one who is almost ghostly in other-worldliness, a Hallmark-card type of Jesus. It is worthy noting that prior to this movie, Jesus was rarely seen on film in any significant way. Here you see close-up shots of Jesus' face, bringing a whole new realism to the life of Jesus ever portrayed on film or in the theater.

DeMille also had as an advisor on the film the Jesuit priest, Daniel A. Lord, and in addition held daily prayers during production led by representatives of various religious groups, including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. He also had Mass celebrated on the set every morning by Fr. Lord, insisting that it was "like a constant benediction on our work." And at DeMille's behest, the entire cast paused for silent prayer after the shooting of the crucifixion scene in the Hollywood studio on Christmas Eve, 1926 (DeMille later recalled this moment as one of the highlights of his life). Thus, The King of Kings is at once spectacular and deeply reverent, just the way DeMille wanted. It reflects American religious piety in the early 20th century. The King of Kings was very successful all around the world, except in Poland where it was banned, and was so widely seen, and occasionally shown on television into the 1970's, that another major film version of Christ's life was not produced until the similarly titled King of Kings in 1961. In his 1959 autobiography, published after his death, DeMille claimed that more people had been told the story of Jesus through his film than any other medium except the Bible itself.

Despite the odor of sanctity around the set and production, DeMille began his Jesus-epic with a thoroughly extra-biblical episode at the lavish pleasure palace of the high-living and scantily-clad Mary Magdalene, played by the beautiful Jacqueline Logan. When Mary Magdalene discoveres that one of her lovers, Judas Iscariot, has forsaken her to follow a certain preacher from Nazareth, she leaves the party-in-progress, hops on her chariot, and rides off to gain him back. When she finally meets Jesus, there follows one of the most dramatic and frightening and in my opinion greatest scenes in Jesus-film history. The scene depicts the seven ghostly deadly sins reluctantly being exorcised from her body, by the use of simple double exposures. Up to this point, this is the high point in the film. After this dramatic and unusual opening, with its sexual lustiness, which DeMille knew would draw people into the story, the film begins its conventional and reverential treatment of the incidents of Jesus' life.

Despite the original cut being more than two and a half hours long, there are many important scenes from the life of Jesus not shown. The first time we see Jesus in the film, he is an adult who has already begun his ministry. He heals a blind child, and the first thing the child sees is the gentle face of Jesus, and this is the first encounter the audience has with Jesus as well, as if its saying that we are all in blindness until we are healed by Jesus. Despite this dramatic introduction, which is well done, there is nothing about the nativity or early years of Jesus in this film. John the Baptist is never portrayed, thus there is no Baptism scene. This is a "Magdalene to Resurrection" epic. The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness scene is transported in this film to Palm Sunday, in an attempt to weave together the storyline of how Judas wanted Jesus to be an earthly Messiah and King, but Jesus resists this and teaches that his Kingdom is not of this world. With the Mary Magdalene story, the Judas story features prominently in this film, as well as the story of a child who would grow up to be Mark the Evangelist. One of the most interesting choices of the film was during the Resurrection scene, when Mary the Mother of Jesus is the first to see him risen, according to an ancient tradition, and after this Jesus shows himself to Mary Magdalene.

As other Jesus films before this one, women play a prominent role, probably because a woman wrote the screenplay, but unlike other films before this, children are used to set the tone for the film after the extravagance of Mary Magdalene scenes. Also, sometimes the film seems too formal, especially in its use of the King James Bible with its "Thou" and "Thee". The Virgin Mary in the film is well portrayed, but she often resembles a Catholic nun. A weak point of the film is that Peter is presented as a perfect disciple, contrary to Judas, but in doing so it leaves out his denial of Jesus, seemingly to protect his image or at least over-emphasize the betrayal of Judas. Also, with DeMille being a man of spectacle, he avoids miracles of Jesus that defy the laws of nature, like walking on water, feeding of the 5,000, and the stilling of storms. For its large budget, at least one of these should have been included. Much can be praised however in its soundtrack and sound-effects.

This film was widely acclaimed when it was first released. The only criticism seemed to come from atheists and Jews. To the former DeMille responded with his next film The Godless Girl (1929) - a story about a high school atheist club and the eventual redemption of the young woman of the title. As for the Jews, DeMille responded in 1928 by changing some scenes in the movie and titles as well as adding a forward to calm their negative response.

A lot more can be said about this film, especially if you put it in the context of post-World War I 1920's America and its conflict between a new conservatism as well as a new movement of sexual liberation especially for women. This film seems to satisfy both sides of the coin. DeMille often presented this conflict of immorality and morality in his films, mainly to draw in a wide range of audiences. Even in a moral film, DeMille will put in there an orgy for spectacle and to show over-indulgence. But he is very careful to never go too far and lose sight of the moral of the story.

Out of a score of 1 to 10, since it is surely one of the best, I give The King of Kings a 9.1.

I should also add that I had to see this film on YouTube, because it doesn't seem to be streaming anywhere, which is unfortunate. I hope to one day see this film on the big screen, where it deserves to be seen. A good version can be seen here.