Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical silent masterpiece The King of Kings, until now available in home video only in DeMille’s shortened 112-minute 1928 cut, is now available in a new restored DVD edition from Criterion that includes both the original 155-minute 1927 “roadshow” version and the shorter general release version.
The newly restored 1927 version includes nearly three-quarters of an hour of footage cut from the 1928 version, including a scene in which Jesus casts out an evil spirit that Judas had tried but failed to exorcise, and a sequence conflating the question of paying taxes to Caesar with the episode regarding the temple tax, which Jesus miraculously provides for himself and Peter by sending Peter to the sea to catch a fish with a denarius in its mouth. (This episode is glossed in the film with a hilarious coda in which a pair of Roman centurions, astonished to see Peter find the coin in the fish’s mouth, set to fishing themselves, squinting into the mouths of their catches and shaking them to see if they have any coins in their bellies!)
Not everything about the 1927 version is preferrable to the shorter cut, though. Although both versions present the Resurrection sequence in rare two-strip Technicolor, the longer version undermines the unique glory of this event by using the same Technicolor process in the ostentatious opening sequence, which in the shorter version is in black and white, allowing the Resurrection to stand apart from the rest of the film. In either version this opening sequence finds DeMille at his most self-indulgent, giving full rein to his weakness for opulent spectacle and sexed-up costume drama, with a decadent revel presided over by an insolently sensual, half-naked Mary Magdalene, presented as a courtesan and lover of Judas Iscariot.
Yet as Mary Magdalene herself, once in Jesus’ presence, is immediately humbled and chastened, so DeMille abandons his predilection for sex and excess as soon as he turns from his apocryphal prologue to the gospel events. The introduction of Jesus himself (H. B. Warner), dramatically revealed from the point of view of a blind boy for whom Jesus’ face in a halo of light is the first image he ever sees, is both spiritually moving and cinematically powerful. This revelation is followed by an even more striking sequence in which Jesus expels seven demons from Mary Magdalene, here identified with the seven deadly sins.
In the title role, H. B. Warner (whom DeMille would again direct in a supporting role in the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments) exudes quiet dignity and compassion, though already in his early fifties he seems a bit mature for the role. (As critic Peter T. Chattaway notes, Warner was over 20 years senior to the actress portraying his Blessed Mother!) Warner’s interpretation of the cleansing of the temple surely makes for the most sedate and composed such sequence ever filmed, and is one of a number of moments that might have been enhanced by a performance with more energy and vitality.
On the other hand, Warner also brings flashes of humor and humanity (for example, in the scene in which a young girl brings Jesus a doll with a broken leg to “heal”) lacking in many other interpretations of the Savior. (After making The King of Kings, Warner found himself typecast in refined roles, though as Mr. Gower the pharmacist in It’s a Wonderful Life he did get to play a drunken bum in the alternate-reality sequence.)
The incident in which DeMille conflates the the Roman tax controversy with the temple tax episode is typical of the film’s approach, which as Mike Hertenstein of Flickerings.com points out is more thematic in organization than determined by the canonical chronology. Thus, the episode in which the crowd moves to acclaim Jesus king by force is precipitated, not by the miracle of the loaves and fishes (John 6), but at the time of the triumphal entry, which in turn is set after the cleansing of the temple rather than before.
DeMille seems to have been a semi-practicing Episcopalian, and the sensibility at work in The King of Kings is a kind of ecumenical–traditional piety, Protestant by default (with intertitles largely borrowed from the King James Bible), though deeply reverential in its depiction of the Virgin Mary (Dorothy Cumming) and the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, in which we see Peter (Ernest Torrence, Peter Pan) devoutly clutch the chalice of the Sacred Blood to his breast while Judas uncomfortably crumbles the host and lets the pieces drop to the table.
The King of Kings also shows an active concern regarding antisemitism; the film repeatedly reminds us that the high priest Caiaphas who sought Jesus’ blood was an appointee of the Roman empire and thus not representative of his people, and even goes so far as to depict Caiaphas plead before God, after the dramatic earthquake that follows the crucifixion, to spare the people as he alone is guilty.
This nuanced approach to the issue of Jewish culpability in Jesus’ death is even more emphatic in the longer 1927 version, in which attempts by Jewish leaders to rouse the people to cry for Jesus’ blood are clearly seen meeting with resistance (one man indignantly protests, “Ye cannot bribe me, a Jew, to cry for the blood of an innocent brother!”). Seen decades later in the aftermath of the Passion controversy, these touches of nuance are even more striking, and one regrets all the more the lack of such nuance in Gibson’s monumental but flawed film.
The longer version also includes a number of shorter moments cut from individual scenes, including an extended moment in the resurrection sequence in which Jesus greets his mother amid a flight of doves before appearing to Mary Magdalene, and — appropriately for a “longer” version — a line from the “long ending” of Mark’s gospel about Jesus’ followers performing signs and handling deadly snakes without harm.
As the art of cinema rapidly evolved in the early decades of the silent era, filmmakers produced at least one important retelling of the Gospel story per decade: the primitive but remarkably effective 1905 French production The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ; the much more advanced 1912 American film From the Manger to the Cross; and finally The King of Kings, representing the mature sophistication of the end of the silent era.
It would be decades before the sound era produced anything remotely comparable, and certainly most Hollywood efforts — the 1961 King of Kings; The Greatest Story Ever Told — fall far short of these silent classics. Even the made-for-TV “Jesus of Nazareth”, probably still the best English-language life-of-Christ film, has notable weaknesses, especially its characterization of Judas and the limpness of its treatment of the Resurrection.
In a genre that deserves the best that artists can offer but is too often plagued by mediocrity, DeMille’s flawed but powerful The King of Kings remains one of Hollywood’s most remarkable achievements.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.