Bright Lights Film Journal

Easter 2014, Part Un: A Tale of Two Kings: DeMille’s Silent Classic on DVD — in Both Versions

For many of us, cinema long ago replaced religion, but why not combine the two by celebrating Easter with a reading of Gordon Thomas’s study of King of Kings, part “un” of our “deux”-part tribute to one of Christianity’s wildest holidays.

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Faith meets flamboyance in DeMille’s Jesus epic, beautifully restored

As released on DVD in December 2004 as a two-disc special edition by the Criterion Collection, there’s lots to admire in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 film, The King of Kings: its energy, its range of terrific performances, and, really, just its considerable beauty as a superbly crafted silent film. DeMille scores big here, if only by avoiding the long-winded static qualities of later films like his final effort, the 1956 Ten Commandments, not to mention the sheer miserable blandness of so many of the religious spectacles of the ’50s and ’60s that couldn’t boast the advantage of his never-waning showmanship.

DeMille must have known he was taking risks with this venture. For starters, the title character is divine and human, the theology surrounding and explaining this phenomenon being knotty enough without trying to fit it in with the exigencies of coherent drama. Then, two intertwining questions: what should He look like and who should play Him. This should’ve been a casting call on the order of that for Scarlett O’Hara, but in typical DeMille fashion, the director knew what he wanted and found it in H. B. Warner.

As Jesus, Warner is coifed to the nines. Along with an understated beard, the hair is longish in proper Jesus fashion but swept back expertly, holding as firm as that of any ’70s news anchor. The hair keeps its poise — and Breckian iridescence — throughout His ministry, several large-scale miracles, and most of the Passion, getting mussed a bit only via the scourging and the placement of the Crown of Thorns. It’s silly to start carping over actors’ hairdos — especially ones from an 87-year-old silent film — but here you seem to have something of a hierarchy of grooming going on. A lesser but pretty good haircut and one robust but decently trimmed beard for Simon Peter the Rock (Ernest Torrance), and a standard romantic lead hairdo for Judas Iscariot the Betrayer (Joseph Schildkraut), reveal their status within the movie — that is, close, but not equal to, the Christ, who stands ramrod straight and radiantly scrubbed throughout.

DeMille constructs most of his drama in and around these three males, with the important addition of a snarling schemer of a villain, the high priest Caiaphas (Rudolph Schildkraut). Minus Peter and Judas, the rest of the disciples, who mostly mutter and mill around anxious and undifferentiated in the background, are comparatively a scruffy bunch, but one or two of them, to a modern audience exposed to Jesus films by Pasolini and Scorsese, might have made a more interesting Christ than the tucked-in, supremely non-Semitic Warner. Women are scarce in this picture, with the two Marys being the standouts. Mother Mary (Dorothy Cumming) remains wimpled and demure throughout, but then we have the Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan), who opens the picture as a spectacularly draped whore with something other than Jesus on her mind.

Entertaining her clientele in palatial digs but missing her favorite customer, Judas Iscariot, Mary Magdalene is rich, confident, over-the-top coutured, and extremely pretty; she reminds me of Anne Baxter’s Nefretiri in the 1956 Ten Commandments: she wants her man but he’s lost to a higher calling (apparently, anyway). Logan is sexy and exciting in the part, yet, unlike Baxter in Commandments, she gives it all up — the whoring, the zebra-driven chariot, the makeup, the curly wig, and Judas, too — no argument — to the same higher calling. After undergoing a flamboyant exorcism of the seven deadly sins, she becomes as uninteresting as the rest of the female cast for the duration of the show.

DeMille’s movies are always at their best when the engine driving them is sex, and having the Magdalene and Judas as lovers is a juicy invention (DeMille defensively claims he got it from a German myth). So why throw it out in the first ten minutes? Easy: DeMille has to get down to business. The Jesus business.

With the Magdalene tamed and bad boy Judas on a kind of probation, DeMille has had his fun; he knows the rest of film cannot be a drama, per se, or even a very good melodrama, but a pageant of preordained events otherwise known as the Life, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord. No doubt the director has faced down a level of audience expectation that would dwarf that of a rabid legion of Lord of the Rings fans. Yet within these restraints, DeMille actually does very well, heating up incipient frozen tableaux with vivid image making and sophisticated art direction. Luckily, the crucifixion proves an excellent special effects opportunity. And DeMille finds his melodrama where he can.

In this regard, Judas becomes a major player. Already suspect because of his dalliance with a courtesan, Iscariot blossoms into Judas the Ambitious, a self-involved overachiever dreaming of a militant Jesus leading an overthrow of Rome, with him (Iscariot) at his right side pulling in loot and power. (Interestingly, freeing the Jews from the Roman occupation is exactly the kind of secular, activist aim that some modern scholars have claimed for the historical Jesus.)

During the miracles that make up the first half of the film, Judas (right) can be charmingly befuddled. In his best scene, while waiting for Jesus to show up, he attempts to cure a demented (retarded?) child; he passes his hand over him in the exact manner of the Master, but it’s a no go. There’s a lighthearted feel: the other disciples are bemused by his efforts (there he goes again), and even Judas is exasperated only fleetingly, like he’s trying to fix a busted radio and can’t — but only because Jesus has access to better parts. When, in a later episode, Jesus is preternaturally spooked to discover a woodworker making crosses for the Romans, he turns to stare at Judas meaningfully, the idea being, of course, that someday I’m going to be hanging on one of these because you betrayed me. With all the intensity in Jesus’ gaze, Judas jumps a little and then shrugs, with an expression on his face of, “What? What did I do?” It’s a subtly comic moment.

We know things will go bad for Judas during the Passion, of course, but his descent into ignominy and suicide makes good dramatic sense because from the start he’s well drawn as a flawed character (and very well played by Schildkraut). When he attempts, and fails, to crown Jesus as king (after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem), it’s easy to see his joy turning to dumbfounded disappointment while Jesus simply vanishes during the busy turmoil of all the big Hosannas. Judas is numb and clueless during the Last Supper, but Schildkraut makes the most of his pathetic backpedaling in front of Caiaphas and his henchmen (where he tries to return the silver and get absolution for his sins). It’s the most emotionally rending scene in the film. Suddenly Judas is horrifically awake and fully aware of what he’s done and what these actions mean. Caiaphas’ dismissive “What is that to us? See thou to that” hurls Iscariot into the loneliest pit on earth. As he passes, Caiaphas barely glances at the tormented sinner, and why should he? He’s merely squashed a bug.

Warner, too, has a few good scenes in the first half before the actor’s face solidifies into its single, messianic expression, a kind of mournful, almost pouting unease (as if that squab at the marriage at Cana with all the honey and raisins still isn’t sitting well). He’s the Man of Constant Sorrow, for sure, with the emphasis on constant. Still, Warner seems a good, conscientious performer saddled with an impossible part that is doomed to be over-directed by DeMille, to put it mildly. He’s at his best in the early scenes where he’s allowed to relax a bit before his destiny as Savior catches up with him.

Here DeMille emphasizes Jesus’ faith healing (along with a very effective and rather scary raising of the dead Lazarus), and Warner projects something tender and protective in his dealings with children; when a little girl asks him to mend a broken doll, he looks to his disciples helplessly then repairs the doll’s broken leg anyway, smiling gratefully to himself and the girl as if wishing every healing were this simple. It’s all so nicely underplayed you can imagine Jesus thinking at this point, You see? — not everything has to be such a big deal. The aforementioned scene in the woodworker’s shop also gives a glimpse of a human Jesus. Before he realizes that the large beam of wood leaning against the wall is a cross and a harbinger of his martyrdom, Jesus caresses it lovingly, evoking his carpenter’s past; impulsively grabbing a planer from the bench, he begins to work the wood with gusto.

Warner brings a quiet dignity to the temple scene, where, grabbing a leather strop to wreak havoc with the moneylenders, he gets swiftly but calmly to work; and all goes well later, too, with a startlingly original visualization of Satan tempting Jesus. Once Satan gets behind Him, however, Christ picks up a lamb and suddenly we’re in a bad Sunday school painting heading for Gethsemane, where Warner’s performance begins to get boxed-in by the succession of Passion play big events.

Even here, DeMille never allows the pace to slacken or conversely to grow choppy or desultory. He emphasizes and often elaborates those events of the Passion that are best for the flow of his movie, but Jesus, a shiny cutout in soft focus, seems reduced by the cataclysmic proceedings. His scenes with Pontius Pilate are a highlight, due in no small part to the detailed, nuanced work from Victor Varconi as Pilate. DeMille gives Varconi plenty of room to project a character moving through a range of feeling. Here is some screen acting that belies the notion that silent film performances were all hammy overblown gesture and eye-rolling left over from nineteenth-century stage melodrama.

Although Pilate’s wife is a Believer, the governor’s encounter with Jesus does not convert him. But Jesus knocks the cynicism out of Pilate and ultimately bewilders and moves him. In between, he’s thoughtful and empathetic toward Christ, and Varconi (right, with Warner) is a wonder at showing us this process. When the crowd chants for the release of Barabbas, Pilate becomes totally disarmed and moves away in sadness. Pilate’s existential struggle (“What is truth?”) makes him sympathetic even in the Bible, but in DeMille’s film, it has the odd effect of making Pilate’s plight at least more interesting and understandable than Jesus’, if not downright more moving.

A similar shift in sympathies occurs in the 1956 Ten Commandments when God hits Egypt land with His series of plagues. As Rameses, Yul Brynner, clearly a better actor than Charlton Heston who plays Moses, must ultimately face the death of his own firstborn during the original Passover. After Moses comes down from the mountain, he’s transformed, alright: he’s turned into a pontificating bore, a one-note stentorian mouthpiece for the God of Vengeance. Implacable in front of Rameses’ overwhelming grief, Heston’s behavior is insufferable. Secretly, you side with the Egyptian, and it’s confusing. You’re supposed to be rooting for the Hebrews.

In King of Kings, you’re supposed to be there for the Hebrews, too, but there’s the rub, especially for DeMille and scenarist Jeanie Macpherson. A sympathetic Pilate had already been written into the story, it’s in the Bible; it’s meant to deflect the blame for Christ’s death from the Romans and cast it, more or less subtly, onto the Jews. Reinforced and put front and center by three centuries of Oberammergau Passion plays, it’s the old Christ-killing problem faced most recently by Mel Gibson in his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, centering most pointedly on the cry that goes up from the crowd, “His blood be upon us and our children.”

Where Gibson appears to revel in the controversy, DeMille wants to deflect it from the start. Wisely, he leaves out The Curse (a story circulates that he was pressured to do so). Before the action begins, he places a title card assuring the audience that the Jews were under the heel of the Romans at the time and were in no way responsible for events depicted. Fine so far. Then he crafts Jewish high priest Caiaphas into the main villain of the piece, a device that actually does harken back to 19th-century melodrama. This acts to simplify the issue of Jewish guilt, but it doesn’t do away with it.

Grasping, scheming, and oiling his way across the screen, Rudolph Schildkraut seems to be channeling Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter from 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life. (The resemblance is so strong I can almost see Caiaphas siding up to Jesus during the Ecce Homo scene and whispering, ala Potter to George Bailey, “You once called me a warped frustrated old man. What are you, Jesus, if not a warped frustrated young man!” That’s showing, I guess, the Christ subtext of the Capra movie, which features, in the small role of the town’s druggist, H. B. Warner himself.)

DeMille makes the whole Passion go down because of the money: Jesus is disturbing the flow of revenue into the temple, so Caiaphas wants him dead. Importantly, DeMille pictures Caiaphas fretting over his cash flow in front of some very large Stars of David, and then there’s that little money-lending venue the priest has got going at the temple. Unwittingly or not, DeMille is pushing some old-style Jewish caricature here.

Pure and simple, it’s only the high priest’s machinations that lead to Christ’s death. I can hear DeMille screaming at this point, just like Gibson has: “But it’s in the Bible!” Still, it conflicts with the proclamation at this film’s beginning, that even the high priests were stooges of Rome. DeMille’s Romans couldn’t care less about the little Jesus movement, especially Pilate — who can’t stand the sight of the priest, thinks Jesus is rather admirable, and worries about what effect all this hullabaloo will have on his high-strung wife. Pilate summarily dumps all the responsibility onto Caiaphas, who has gleefully asked for it.

Maybe DeMille hopes his good intentions will come out in the wash later. When Jesus yields his spirit during the crucifixion and the earth splits open with a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon, Caiaphas realizes he’s miscalculated and starts to feel real bad. In naked terror he scurries back to the temple, where a thunderbolt from Yahweh rends the sanctuary’s curtain right down the middle. At which point, the high priest not only confesses and asks for forgiveness but pleads with the Almighty to remove all blame from the Jewish people and focus it squarely on himself, as if the All-Knowing couldn’t sort this matter out for Himself. It’s a matter of too little too late, with Caiaphas providing a rather uncomfortable Jewish stereotype all along.

An astonishing two-strip Technicolor Easter follows the storm surrounding Jesus’ death, and it would’ve been a good place to end the film. The colors are very pretty, but with the damage suffered by the film’s surviving elements (at one point, bands of bright orange surround the central image, a sign of a light leak during processing, perhaps?), everything looks like an old, badly printed religious comic book, yet somehow all the better for it, and evocative besides. For me there’s a ripple of disturbed memory from my Lutheran boyhood. Jesus emerges from the tomb within an egg of hazy pink light redolent of sunshiny Easters in church when a stained glass window struck by the sun might bathe some of us young sinners in the primary hues of saving grace.

DeMille’s Resurrection has all that dreaminess of adolescent religious belief, and it’s unrepentantly sincere. Too bad the director couldn’t sustain this tone through to the finish, where DeMille’s piety becomes self-congratulatory and dull. The final scene, in black-and-white, has Jesus appearing to his disciples and the two Marys in their locked quarters. Jesus’ farewells are touching, especially when he hugs his mother and she responds by lightly patting him on the back. “Son of Man, Son of God — whatever — you’re still my boy,” she seems to be thinking. Once He’s ready for departure, the room goes black and the Christ, flat as a kite, sails into eternity — but not before hovering bathetically over a modern city’s skyline to give the audience His blessing. Then, suddenly, poof, He’s gone.

He should have ascended in color.

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Few would ever tag King of Kings a great or innovative film, but that fact didn’t deter Criterion from giving it the company’s customary stellar treatment, which is generous even to a fault. Packing both the 1927 roadshow version and the 1928 general release across two discs certainly won’t encourage many impulse buys.

At 155 minutes, the 1927 issue (on disc one) has all the advantages, including a slighter better-looking transfer. Criterion touts the 1927 transfer as complete, especially with the inclusion of a couple of two-strip Technicolor sequences that exist only as black-and-white in the 1928 elements. For his general release version, DeMille made hefty cuts to bring the running time down to 112 minutes. Other than details snipped here and there, these cuts involve the wholesale elimination of some scenes in the first half of the film, such as the curing of the demented child and the recruitment of the disciple Matthew, scenes that contain some of the best of Warner’s performance. The 1928 audience also missed out on the deepening of the Judas character, along with the wonderfully staged staring contest between Judas and Christ in the carpenter’s shop (discussed above). As there are virtually no longueurs in the 1927 film, you can’t say the 1928 cuts improve the flow of the narrative.

This is not to say that the 1928 film (on disc two) plays badly. DeMille’s cuts are very skillfully done, retaining the essence of the original just fine. Criterion’s presentation of the general-release version shares the excellent gray scale and deep blacks of the 1927 issue, but at times its transfer can appear a little soft.

Criterion allows the 1928 version an edge solely in its choice of two musical scores. One of them, the original underscore by Hugo Riesenfeld written specifically for this release is surprisingly vivid, given the vintage of this recording being virtually from the dawn of movie soundtracks. In 1928, electronic recording itself was only three years old, the premiere of The Jazz Singer just the previous year. As cleaned up by Criterion, Riesenfeld’s orchestral score sounds professional and well crafted, and it’s a valuable feature of this set, inasmuch as it provides an authentic equivalent of what the 1928 movie audience experienced. But to the modern ear the music is disadvantaged by the recording’s primitive sonics and limited dynamic range.

The second choice for 1928 is a newly composed score by Timothy Tikker, who also performs it on the organ. Tikker’s work sounds largely improvisational, with much of it in (quasi?) Near Eastern modalities or low-register, minor-key meanderings that break into brighter diatonic passages when the imagery or situation demands it. Many sequences call forth vaguely familiar — and Protestant, I think — hymn tunes from Tikker, and he’s extremely skillful at adapting them for maximum effect. One particularly affecting moment in his score underlines the scene where Jesus fixes a child’s wooden doll. Played in a woodwind register, Tikker’s gentle, somewhat sentimental Anglican accompaniment is very touching. Criterion’s recording of Tikker’s playing is robust and realistic, especially in the bass.

There is only one score for the 1927 roadshow version, a newly composed one by Donald Sosin, and I wish I could be more enthusiastic about it. Sosin attempts to draw a full-bodied orchestral score from a keyboard and the results are thin and unconvincing. Synthesizers seem especially inadequate in producing the sound of massed strings, and Sosin uses a lot of that effect here, causing the ear to tire quickly.

Another misstep is some vocal writing, even though it is performed by real voices: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is underscored by a choral setting of a passage from Luke that in the film appears on a title card. Sosin’s banal treatment is not too far off from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Hey-sanna, Ho-sanna routine from Jesus Christ Superstar.

Sosin’s oft-repeated main theme, a short lyrical tune with upward spiritual aspirations, often goes saccharine on him, a quality of DeMille’s story that need not be reinforced. Yet throughout — and this is a big plus — Sosin is able to punctuate the action effectively with his score, often heightening the anguished, high-strung quality of the imagery with graceful musical gesture. A second viewing of the 1927 film has me liking Sosin’s efforts better.

Spread out over the two discs, Criterion’s package offers a number of special features. The most engaging of these is a collection of vintage, behind-the-scenes footage, which was shot for publicity purposes as the film was made. The mint condition of this candid footage is astonishing — who’s been taking care of it all these years? DeMille himself appears in much of it, directing, conferring with scenarist Jeanie MacPherson, and greeting visitors, among whom are a jolly Douglas Fairbanks and an imposing and dapper D.W. Griffith, suited up in a style that appears to be at least ten years out of fashion.

Other features include a stills gallery, costume sketches by Dan Sayre Groesbeck, portraits of the cast by W. M. Mortense, opening-night artifacts (newspaper clippings, photos, and congratulatory telegrams from DeMille), scans of the original program booklet and press book, transcripts of various blessings from the clergy (including a rabbi), and vintage trailers.

Criterion’s own accompanying, 33-page booklet is a real treat this time, not mimicking the original program booklet, but giving the feel of an old souvenir program anyway, complete with pages yellowed with age along the edges. Included therein is a chapter from Robert S. Birchard’s new book, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, an article on DeMille by Peter Matthews, and a reprint of a 1927 article from Picture Play reporting on the filming of King of Kings. Last is an essay by DeMille himself. Peppered throughout the text (formatted in staid Times Roman font) is an array of nicely reproduced stills from the film.

Note: This review appeared previously, in a slightly different form, in issue 51 of Bright Lights Film Journal, February 2006.