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The King of Kings

The King of Kings(1927)

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Cecil B. DeMille could well get the credit for forming the dominant vision of Jesus Christ for the 20th century. His pious, dignified and serene Son of God in the silent The King of Kings has been the template ever since. DeMille found the commercial grove for turning religion into box office gold - his 1927 epic features plenty of his over-staged hoopla yet maintains a respectful dignity for its subject. This is the Messiah we were all brought up on - for many Christians, watching Criterion's painstakingly restored DVD is like seeing the forgotten original version of our own beliefs.

This 2-disc set has both the complete 1927 premiere version (155 minutes) and the generally circulated 112-minute cut-down; various chapters and miracles were rearranged for the digest version.

Much of the film's authority derives from DeMille's overall restraint. As personified by the staid, calm H.B. Warner (later the haggard Mr. Gower of It's a Wonderful Life), Jesus is an almost static character, always the key element in careful tableaux. Many scenes depict him in a reverent haze. Careful double exposures with gauzy light patterns create holy portraits that match to perfection images memorized from Sunday school. Our first sight of Jesus is from point of view of a blind woman as Jesus restores her sight - he materializes out of a gray blur, framed in a soft halo.

The King of Kings has its dated aspects. Most of the intertitles are straight quotes from scripture, reducing Jesus' travails to series of blackout sketches topped with text bites. In dramatic terms, it's as mechanical as a slide show.

DeMille dispenses with most of his Barnum-like hoopla after the first act. Mary Magdelene kisses a tiger to make her Roman consort jealous, and exits on a chariot pulled by zebras to find out what kind of crazy carpenter is monopolizing her boyfriend Judas's time. As soon as she catches sight of Jesus, Magdalene is exorcised of the seven deadly sins and becomes the subservient and chaste woman God wants her to be. Adding spectacle to the finish is a tacky and overproduced cataclysm on Calvary hill. The ground opens up and swallows various witnesses to the crucifixion, including the newly hung Judas (Joseph Schildkraut). The implication is that they've been swallowed up by Hell.

The later Nicholas Ray and George Stevens epics downplayed some of the miracles but here they all occur bluntly on camera, complete with doubting witnesses converted on the spot. Whereas Ray's 1961 King of Kings presented the healings as potential rumors or matters of faith, DeMille just shows Jesus healing people left and right. He even pauses to heal someone while hauling his cross uphill.

It's easy to become cynical about a Hollywood filmmaker raking in millions from a film exploiting religious beliefs, but The King of Kings has sufficient integrity to stand proudly. It's far more sincere than DeMille's later biblical travesties.

One controversy does remain from the original release. Although in published interviews DeMille tried to shift the blame for the crucifixion to the Romans, the movie presents the Jewish temple officials as the clear-cut villains, conspiring against Jesus and maliciously framing him as a rebel against Rome.

Among the cast are a young Sally Rand, the famous fan dancer, directors Rex Ingram and Sidney Franklin, and as one of Mary Magdalene's charioteers, Noble Johnson.

Both transfers in Criterion's two-disc set of The King of Kings are handsomely restored and accompanied by carefully chosen music. The Technicolor sequences show some deterioration but retain their original glow. The 1928 recut has the original score by Hugo Reisenfield and a new organ composition by Timothy J. Tikker; the longer 1927 version has a new score by Donald Sosin.

Criterion producer Kate Elmore has arranged a set of excellent essays. Robert H. Birchard provides production background details from his new biography of Cecil B. DeMille. The director enforced elaborate safeguards on his set to insure that his actors behaved and were treated like the holy personages they were impersonating. Peter Matthews' accompanying essay distills DeMille's formula for marketing Jesus to the masses: everything in the stories is presented literally, especially the miracles.

There are a surprising number of extras considering the film's age. Text images include photos, ads and correspondence from the film's premiere, when it opened Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood. A trailer and a gallery of costume sketches and photos are on the second disc, along with a formal portrait gallery. Even more interesting is some behind the scenes footage of the filming.

For more information about The King of Kings, visit Criterion Collection. To order The King of Kings, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson