Friday, March 30, 2018

Movie Review: The King of Kings (1927)

The King of Kings (1927) directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Cecil B. DeMille is the king of classic epics. His color, talkie version of The Ten Commandments (yeah, he also made a black and white, silent version thirty-three years earlier) was a staple of Easter viewing when I was a kid. He also made a biopic of Jesus Christ called The King of Kings thirty-four years before the color, talkie version by some other director. How was DeMille's take on the gospel narratives?

The production values are classic DeMille. In addition to the lavish sets and costumes, two sequences are shot in color--the opening sequence showing the opulent lifestyle of Mary Magdalene and the resurrection sequence near the end of the film. Jesus is often depicted as shining or glowing, which is a bit cheesy to me. Other special effects are amazing, like the casting out of the seven demons from Mary Magdalene and the earthquake at the end of the crucifixion scene. The acting is typical of the silent era with the occasional affected melodramatic pose. H. B. Warner's performance as Jesus is a bit too detached and otherworldly for my tastes but is a choice I understand even if I don't find it inspiring.

The story is mostly faithful to the Scriptures, even using quotes for the dialogue/title cards with chapter and verse cited. The movie is intentionally reverent and an early title card notes Jesus's call to His disciples to spread the news of His life, a mission which this film also wants to serve. The movie's focus is solely on Jesus's public life (so no nativity sequence, alas). Some artistic and narrative liberties are taken. Events are put together in logical rather than chronological sets--when Jesus has to pay the tax (and he has Peter go fishing for a fish that just happens to have a coin in its mouth!) is joined with a pharisee questioning whether it is proper to pay the taxes. The scene concludes with Jesus calling Matthew the tax collector to be an apostle. The biggest creative licenses are Mary Magdalene as a wealthy and independent courtesan who becomes a follower of Jesus and the evangelist Mark being a child whom Christ cures and who follows the Savior throughout the movie. High Priest Caiaphas prays in the temple after the crucifixion that the crime of killing Jesus only be blamed on him and not the Jewish people, mollifying his villainous behavior earlier. These choices are interesting and certainly inoffensive to Christian sensibilities.

The pace of the movie is slow but not boring. I watched the premiere cut that played at Grumman's Chinese theater in 1927 which is 155 minutes long. The Criterion Collection DVD includes that version and the 112 minute general release version of the film.


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