14 March 2008 | Michael_Elliott
King of Kings, The (1927)
**** (out of 4)
It's interesting that Mel Gibson was originally going to show The Passion of the Christ without any subtitles because he felt the story spoke loudly enough and that audience members would know the story well enough so words weren't really needed. With The King of Kings being a silent film the silence really adds to the story but on the other hand, unlike Gibson it's very apparent that DeMille wasn't quite sure whether the audience would know the story good enough and that leads to the film's one weak spot. The film probably would have lost a good twenty-minutes if it weren't for all the intertitles, which become quite annoying because it's easy to read the lips of what the actors are saying. Even with that one flaw DeMille created one of the greatest tellings of the story of Jesus.
The first hour and half deals with Jesus (H.B. Warner) as he walks the Earth with his disciples where he cures the blind and helps the cripple to walk. The second hour then turns to the crucifixion and eventual resurrection and with each passing frame you can tell this is a film being made by someone very passionate about the subject matter. The great lengths DeMille went through to create this film have become somewhat legendary. The director would have ministers bless the film each day before filming and even made his actors sign papers swearing they wouldn't get into any trouble to where the audiences might not believe them in their part.
I find it quite odd to bash a religious film for not staying true to the source material because no movie ever has and I'm sure one never will. DeMille adds some interesting changes including having Mark be a young boy who is cured by Jesus but the most infamous change is the romance between Judas and Maria Magdalene. According to the liner notes, this so-called romance was a German legend but why DeMille decided to use it is anyone's guess. DeMille also said that the Jews were the most unfairly treated in the Bible and to avoid any anti-Semitic controversy, it's made quite clear that Rome was behind the deeds of that certain day.
As I said earlier, The King of Kings is epic in scale but DeMille thankfully never goes over the top and remembers that the story is the most important thing to make a movie work. Each and every frame is told in such loving care that it doesn't take any time for the film to transfer you back and make it seem as if you're actually there witnessing these events on your own. The lavished sets and thousands of extras also add a great deal of realism to the story and W.B. Warner, while a bit too old for the role, delivers a remarkable performance where he tells every feeling of Jesus with a simple look or body gesture.
The film is also quite moving especially the scenes with Jesus working with a group of sick people. DeMille usually slows the pace down so that we can see the love these sick people felt for Jesus and that clearly jumps right off the screen. DeMille also makes sure to show Jesus as a mythical character who can work wonders and most importantly, the film allows Jesus to be seen as someone who knows what love is and knows his mission in life.
When Jesus is working these wonders the director usually has a light shining on him, which would come off as camp but once again DeMille knew how far to push this and the effect works quite nicely. Another wonderful thing is that DeMille allows some humor to be thrown in with the off-screen violence. The best example of this is the guards getting ready to put the crown of thorns on Jesus but they keep hurting their hands trying to make it.
Another wonderful scene has a little girl asking Jesus to heal her doll, which has had a leg broken off.
Perhaps this was the showman side of DeMille coming into play but the director decided to film the resurrection with Technicolor. In the 1927 "Premier" version, Technicolor is also used at the very beginning of the film but soon fades to black and white when Jesus is introduced. The resurrection sequence with the use of color perfectly brings the detail of a life returning back to the Earth. It's rather hard to put it into words but when the B&W fades and the color comes shining through, with this little experiment DeMille is able to create some wonderful emotions and get his point across very quietly.
There have been dozens of religious movies since The King of Kings (including a remake) but I feel this one here is a film that would appeal to everyone no matter what their personal beliefs are. This is classic DeMille, which shows his talent at storytelling as well as his showmanship of delivering a spectacle like no other.