The King of Kings [DVD]
Director : Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay : Jeanie Macpherson
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1927
Stars : H.B. Warner (Jesus), Dorothy Cumming (Mary), Ernest Torrence (Peter), Joseph Schildkraut (Judas Iscariot), Jacqueline Logan (Mary Magdalene), Rudolph Schildkraut (Caiaphas), James Neill (James), Joseph Striker (John), Robert Edeson (Matthew), Sidney D'Albrook (Thomas), David Imboden (Andrew), Charles Belcher (Philip), Clayton Packard (Bartholomew), Robert Ellsworth (Simon), Charles Requa (James The Lesser), John T. Prince (Thaddeus)
Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings wasn’t the first screen treatment of Jesus Christ--in fact, cinema pioneer Louis Lumière filmed La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ) in 1898--but it was certainly the most spectacular of its era. DeMille, ever the populist showman, was intent on telling “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in grand fashion, as only he could. Having tackled The Ten Commandments in 1923 to great box office success, he saw that a reverent, but cinematically exciting treatment of Christ’s story could be a smash hit.
Along with D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille was one of the great pioneers of American silent films, although by the late 1920s it was already clear that he had become mired in an outdated cinematic style, which was most evident in his later films, particularly his opulently kitschy 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments. While foreign innovators like Sergei Eisenstein and Carl Theodor Dreyer were exploring the connections between cinema’s psychological dimensions and the aesthetics of editing and camera movement, DeMille was happy staging opulent pageantry in front his static camera, essentially continuing the idea that motion pictures were little more than postcards with movement.
And that is precisely what The King of Kings is. Anyone who has ever seen those pious religious postcards that portray the life of Christ in the broad strokes of simple pastoral beauty will immediately recognize the source of DeMille’s vision. It is very much a film of its time, and audiences reacted to it with great emotion and spirituality, something that is difficult to do today. The reverence of The King of Kings is less to Biblical fidelity than it is to a particularly strand of the Christian imaginary, one that wants everything clean, neat, and wholesome, from the morals to the characters’ beards. This is the same imagination that insists on Jesus, a Middle Eastern carpenter, being almost feminine in his blonde hair/blue eye beauty.
Interestingly enough, though, DeMille picked H.B. Warner, a fairly unattractive actor who was almost two decades too old, to portray Jesus. Warner, a 40-year veteran of the stage and screen, was a consummate professional, and he excelled at exuding a simple sense of divinity that required virtually no acting. Instead, for the duration of the film Warner maintains an almost unchanging look of passivity; it’s not a look that derives from weakness, but from the sense of already knowing what’s going to happen. Because Warner didn’t do much to convey Jesus’ essence, DeMille chose to depict Christ’s divinity--and he is fully divine here, with barely a speck of any messy humanness--through cinematic tricks, particularly a holy glow that always sets Jesus apart from everyone else around him. It’s so tasteful it’s tasteless.
The production of The King of Kings is one of the most discussed of the silent era, particularly because of DeMille’s having numerous clergy members bless the production before the cameras rolled on the first day and his supposed insistence that his actors sign contracts that they wouldn’t engage in any “un-Christian” behavior during the film’s production. DeMille was intent on not running into controversy, and all of these tactics are classic preemptive measures that tackle criticism before it can even be leveled. DeMille had been in Hollywood long enough to know that the film industry was viewed by much of the public as a den of sin (particularly after a string of scandals in the early 1920s), and he was determined not to fall into that gaping maw.
Of course, that didn’t mean that he didn’t inject a little salaciousness into the film. After all, this is Cecil B. DeMille, the man whose bread and butter was making films about moral transgression (particularly adultery) that justified themselves by punishing said transgressions at the end. The old saying was “Three reels of sin, one reel of redemption,” and no one did it better than DeMille. Since he was dealing with the life of Christ, he had to curb his tendencies a bit, but there is no other way to explain the film’s opening sequence, which introduces us to Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) at what is described in the film’s souvenir program as a “brilliant banquet,” but is clearly a thinly veiled orgy. Magdalene, whose swirling metallic brass bra suggests more skin than it covers, is referred to in the souvenir program as a “witty, beautiful hostess,” but it’s as clear to us now as it probably was to audiences in 1927 that she’s a seductive harlot, an ancient rendition of the 1920s’ “New Woman” who was so threatening to patriarchal piety. DeMille’s twin obsessions with sin and redemption are perfectly encapsulated in the film’s use of the newly designed two-strip Technicolor process. The only two scenes in the film that use color are the opening scene at Magdalene’s “banquet” (the sin) and at the end when Christ is resurrected (the redemption).
DeMille also loved spectacle, and he gives us a heavy dose of it in the aftermath of Christ’s death on the cross, when the earth splits open, lightning strikes from the darkened sky, and the veil in the Temple is torn in two. The entire sequence is an amazing display of technical prowess, and the special effects hold up surprisingly well nearly 80 years later. The crucifixion sequence also affords DeMille one of his more emotional displays, as he crosscuts between Christ on the cross and his betrayer, Judas (Joseph Schildkraut), hanging himself in despair. It makes one wish that DeMille had been more daring in using cinematic techniques to heighten the film’s impact, rather than assuming that his massive sets and pastoral compositions would do it all for him.
|The King of Kings Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||December 7, 2004|
|The King of Kings is presented in two complete versions: the 155-minute roadshow version that premiered in 1927 and the shorter 112-minute version that was used in general release in 1928 and thereafter. The inclusion of the 155-minute version is something of a milestone, as it was thought to have been lost. The high-definition transfer for that version was made from the best elements of two surviving 35mm archival prints from the George Eastman House and the Cecil B. DeMille estate. For the two color sequences, a newly created 35mm internegative from UCLA’s original two-strip Technicolor nitrate print was used. The high-definition transfer for the 112-minute version was made from a 35mm fine-grain positive, while the color sequences were taken from a 35mm interpositive. Both transfers were then digitally cleaned up using the MTI Digital Restoration System, and both look incredibly good, especially considering their age. The black-and-white sequences look the best, as they are very clean and well-detailed, with good black levels and a wide range of grays. The color sequences, despite attempts at restoration, have not fared as well, but they are still some of the best-looking examples of early two-strip color I’ve ever seen on DVD. The color gets particularly unstable during the resurrection sequence, where there has been some significant red bleeding on the edges. Of the two versions, I would recommend watching the 155-minute version, not only because it is the version DeMille originally premiered, but also because there is some slight cropping on the 112-minute version to make room for an optical soundtrack used for the general release.|
|Each film boasts its own musical score that was specifically commissioned for this DVD release. The 155-minute version was scored by noted silent film composer Donald Slosin, and the 112-minute version was scored by Timothy J. Tikker. You also have the option of watching the shorter version with the original 1928 score by Hugo Risenfeld, which is presented in monaural. The two new scores are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround, and both sound very good (the Criterion web site mistakenly lists these as being 5.1-channel mixes, but they’re not).|
|While the Criterion laser disc edition of The King of Kings was a bare-bones affair, they have gone back to the archives and brought out a wealth of supplementary material to situate the film historically in the context of its initial release in 1927. The first disc starts out with a section titled “Opening Night” that includes newspaper ads, stills, and telegrams from the film’s fabled premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. This is followed by the entirety of the original purple-and-gold souvenir program sold at the premiere and the film’s press book (then referred to as a “Showmen’s Service Book”). Following that is an exhaustive transcription of all the blessings given by various clergy members (Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, and even the head of a local Buddhist sect) on the first day of shooting. There are 10 blessings along with opening and closing remarks from DeMille. The first disc concludes with two silent trailers. |
The supplements on the second disc focus more on the film’s production. They open with 13 minutes of clips of silent behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew on the set originally used for publicity purposes (it includes footage of priests saying Mass on the set). The production footage is followed by a gallery of rare publicity stills, virtually every one of which features DeMille, which is a pretty good indication of who the real star of the show was. The next stills gallery contains numerous production and costume sketches by Dan Sayre Groesbeck. Finally, there is a galley of photographic portraits of the film’s cast by noted celebrity photographer W.M. Mortensen, the best of which are of unnamed extras.
There is also a 40-page insert booklet that features a reprint of a 1927 essay by DeMille, an excerpt about the film’s production from Robert S. Birchard’s new book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, production notes, and a particularly lucid new essay by film scholar Peter Matthews.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 The Criterion Collection