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