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THE KING OF KINGS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  H. B. Warner, Jacqueline Logan, Dorothy Cumming, Joseph Schildkraut
Director:  Cecil B. DeMille
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono; Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  112 Minutes (1928), 155 Minutes (1927)
Release Date:  December 7, 2004

“Truly this man was the Son of God.”Mark 15:39

Film ***1/2

Cecil B. DeMille made his mark as one of cinema’s most prolific showmen early on his career.  Though his name would later become synonymous with the big scale Technicolor Biblical epics of the 50s, it was during the 20s that he honed his skill and indulged his lavish sense of style and scale to the works of the Holy Texts.  Long before Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea under his direction, he had successfully tried the trick in the 1920s, and long before many of his contemporaries were bringing the story of Jesus of Nazareth to the big screen, DeMille had beaten them to the punch with The King of Kings.

It was a true DeMille religious spectacle in that it was really half DeMille and half religion making the film what it was.  The director became recognized early on for both a staunch faithfulness to scriptures and a desire to embellish the texts with a stylistic flourish.  Many of the film’s title cards are direct quotes from the Gospels with book, chapter and verse cited.  At the same time, more than a few of the movie’s sequences are nowhere to be found in the Bible.

Case in point:  the movie opens with Mary Magdalene (Logan) running a decadent house of pleasure that might just as well be a half hour outside of Las Vegas as in Jerusalem.  Her men are bawdy and happy, but she is glum.  She is the lover of Judas Iscariot (Schildkraut), who has not been by in far too long.  Is it a woman keeping him away?  No…as it turns out, it’s a man; Judas has become a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth (Warner), a carpenter turned minister who has been reputed for teaching the most marvelous new things and performing miracles.  In a jealous huff, Magdalene sets off to confront the one called Jesus.

We are introduced to Him working miracles in the temple.  His disciples are all there, including Judas, who has designs on seeing his Master work His powers in such a way as to become a great King over Israel and send the Romans packing.  Magdalene, who came in pride, is brought down by the temple priests, who want to stone her for her immorality.  In a stunning sequence, Jesus admonishes them to let the one without sin cast the first stone.  As man after man approaches, Jesus writes in the sand, and the Hebrew words turn to English before our eyes, revealing the sins of the approachers.

Jesus is seen as reverent and dutiful Son of God, preacher, teacher, and healer.  Big scenes are spiced up with smaller ones…one of my favorites was a little girl who asks Jesus to heal her doll’s broken leg.  Jesus looks quite bemused, and not wanting to waste the power of God, fixes the girl’s toy the old fashioned way.

All of this cumulates in the Passion sequence, where angry Pharisees turn Jesus over to Pilate for his ultimate scourging, crowning with thorns and crucifixion.  Though this silent epic doesn’t come close to the brutality of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the overall treatment is still effective, particularly in the final hour when all of nature seems to scream in agony with the death of Christ.  The spectacular sequence includes earthquakes, lightning, the ground opening up and swallowing people whole, and of course, the temple veil being rent.

But the death of Jesus wasn’t the end of the story by a long shot…His resurrection is chronicled in early experimental two strip Technicolor, which makes the whole screen seem to come alive with His glory, as Magdalene shouts to the world, “He is risen…HE IS RISEN!”

Criterion’s new double disc offering gives film fans two versions of the movie…the standard 1928 issue, which clocks in at 112 minutes, and the very rarely seen 1927 premiere edition, which runs at 155 minutes.  The latter was cut shortly after it opened the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, and features the opening scene in Magdalene’s place in color, as well as window-boxed title screens.  A few extra scenes from the Gospel are still intact, including Judas’ failure to heal as his Master could, Peter’s denial of his Lord, and others. 

H. B. Warner offers a solid, solemn portrayal of the Christ…though he seems quite a bit older than the part called for, his performance still anchored the emotional heart of the picture.  But typically, the real star of a Cecil B. DeMille picture is DeMille himself, and here, he is at his cunning best as a ringmaster who delights in the wide-eyed stares of his audience as he lavishes one big scene after another upon them.

The King of Kings is part Bible, part Hollywood, but all entertainment, and stands as a striking testament to the scale and lasting potency of the best of silent film spectacles.

Video ***

Given the state of film preservation in the early years of cinema, no surviving silent film is going to look new.  However, Criterion does a better job at restoration and digital presentation than most; they were the right company to bring this near 80 year old classic to DVD.  The black and white images are fairly clean despite some unavoidable aging artifacts, and the two strip Technicolor sequences shine despite some scratches and spots on the print.  I doubt this movie will ever look better than it does here, and silent film buffs should be quite enthused with the results.

Audio *** (new scores), ** (original score)

Two versions of the movie, three scores to choose from.  The longer cut features brand new original music by Donald Sosin, which is the best sounding of the three.  It’s full, orchestral and dynamic, but possibly a bit too modern sounding for the silent film purist.

The second disc offers a choice of the original score by Hugo Riesenfeld and a new organ score by Timothy J. Tikker.  The former is the best choice; the music and synchronized sound effects work perfectly with the viewing, even if the aged audio shows some minor signs of wear and tear (light pops, background noise during quieter stretches, etc.).  The latter is somber and moody, like a church service, and was recorded on an era-authentic pipe organ.

Features ***

The first disc, in addition to the longer cut of the film, contains a collection of extras related to the film’s premiere.  Original photos, newspaper ads, and telegrams about the movie and the opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre are here, as well as the original press book and illustrated program.  You can also read the blessings of the clergy as sought by DeMille as the film commenced production, plus a couple of trailers touting the film’s success on Broadway (they are on the first disc, not the second as the box states).

The second disc has the standard cut of the film, plus about 13 minutes of rare behind-the-scenes footage of DeMille and crew at work on the movie.  Galleries of costume and design sketches plus production photographs round out the extras.  In addition, there is an excellent booklet with essays, production notes and photos.

Summary:

The King of Kings is early Biblical spectacle at its very best, as told by the man who would build his career on the backs of such works.  Kudos to Criterion for making both the standard theatrical versions and the little-seen longer premiere editions available to fans on one terrific double disc set.

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