First of all, apologies for how long it’s been. I’ve seen lots of movies, some old and a few new, but have been too busy with other activities. I hope this gets me back in the groove!
So I stepped back into my time machine and went back nearly a century to finally see what many believe is the ultimate film about Jesus Christ, the 1927 The King of Kings. Of course, there was the 1961 version starring Jeffrey Hunter, sometimes referred to as “I Was a Teenage Jesus” (in mock reference to Hunter’s youth and teen idol status and to 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf). And there was 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, featuring John Wayne as the centurion speaking the famous “Surely this man was the Son of God” line in his inimitable style.
Both those more modern films were respectful toward their main character, but none quite had the worshipful veneration of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent classic. And of course none had the strange dichotomy of a real DeMille classic—that rare combination of lush sensuality and a genuine holy reverence toward the religious. The film opens with a rather raucous soiree hosted by Mary Magdalene, here a party girl rather than a prostitute. Historical accuracy has already taken a hit with this scene, and receives another one rather quickly when we find that she has been “dating” Judas, and doesn’t like the idea of “a carpenter” stealing her man and his loyalties. So of course she hops in her zebra-driven chariot and rides off to confront Jesus. All this is in lovely two-strip Technicolor, a technology that highlighted red and green (blue had to wait eight more years to make an appearance), but which was stunning compared to most black-and-white films of the time. Once MM heads off to Jesus, the film reverts to black-and-white until the Resurrection.
There are some inaccuracies Biblically (as with Peter’s restoration), and the film dates itself terribly by having normal conversation be in King James English. Also, Jesus (H.B. Warner) is 50 years old (but admittedly looks younger), and Mary (Dorothy Cumming) is 18 years younger than the man who is supposed to be her son. But aside from these minor weaknesses, the film is powerful, inspiring, and a glimpse into the classic Protestant view of Jesus as viewed from the late 1800’s. The film skips the Nativity and all of Jesus’ pre-ministry life, and gains from the concentration on the later days.
DeMille generally directs with sensitivity when needed and sweep when it’s called for. By sticking close to a thoughtful Jesus always slightly set apart from the world around him, the film achieves a lovely and occasionally glorious portrait of a miracle worker, teacher, lover of children, and finally, a willing sacrifice. Looking at it through modern eyes, the slower pace of a silent film, as well as the absence of the spoken word and any natural sound, tends to keep the King of Kings at a slight remove from the everyday. Yet Warner’s performance and the general “ripped from the Bible story” approach makes this man familiar and relatable. The cinematography from J. Peverell Marley (whom DeMille used nearly 30 years later for The Ten Commandments) is stunning for its time. Yes, the Technicolor is a visual if temporary delight, but so is the way Jesus glows with a holy light, something that could have been nearly laughable but instead is soft and respectful. DeMille’s use of special effects is occasionally subtle (a word rarely associated with DeMille), and even when dramatic, as with the deliverance of Mary Magdalene from seven demons, is strong and effective.
The film uses the references in the Bible when it is directly representing a Biblical story, a feature that is helpful in locking down the various events in the Scriptures, and which sets those stories apart from the much more mundane (and often silly) plot point and scenes that were added.
Warner, best known to modern audiences as the pharmacist Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life, and to film nerds like myself as one of the “waxworks” that William Holden refers to in Sunset Boulevard, is a little long in the tooth here to play a 33-year-old. But he exudes a gentleness and strength, as well as a maturity, that works for the film. The special effects help a bit, but he has a presence that works well with the image of Jesus held by most American Protestants. Audiences used to The Passion of the Christ will find a great timidity in how Jesus is tortured and eventually crucified. But De Mille handles all this with a surprising delicacy and artistry. There is a lot we don’t see directly, and Jesus’ body is hardly wounded compared with modern film, but we more than get the idea.
This film was the standard story of Jesus and his death until the sixties, and some would rightly argue until Mel Gibson’s film. For most viewers today, the film would come off as corny and terribly slow. But while it is clearly a product of the silent era, with the acting styles and pace that go along with that, there is a reverence toward the subject and the Subject that is unparalleled. It’s the holiest and most respectful of religious time capsules.