#266 The King of Kings
1927 // USA // Cecil B. DeMille
Criterion Collection (LINK)
The King of Kings, literally known as Jesus of Nazareth, is one of the numerous film adaptions of the New Testament ever been made in Hollywood, and certainly will continue in production as long as the number of Christian audience (and the amount of money) is hard to be dismissed business-wise. The life of Jesus, often cited as “the greatest story ever told” in particular to the crucifixion and his following resurrection, is a well-known story in the western countries or any country that celebrates Christmas and Easter.
First and foremost, The King of Kings is an effective storytelling. As far as I remember from my past Bible reading, the film follows closely to the major events related to Jesus in the Gospels, perhaps not accounting for the love-relationship between Judas and Mary Magdalene as established in the film. Exact same verses appears as the inter-title cards, conveying an impression of authority’s approval as the materialization of God in motion picture could only please some but not all religious groups, perhaps Mr. DeMille and his production crew once faced the same situation as Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar! (2016) did while persuading every religious figures to give their blessing to the studio’s new “Jesus” production?
H.B. Warner plays the titular role in a modest and introverted performance, the internal struggle of acknowledging the forthcoming pain and death is nonetheless minimalistic, in contrast to the controversial imaginary scene of Jesus marrying and having children in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). The holiness of the son of God is mainly established by cinematic techniques. The face of Jesus is first visualized when a blind child opens his eyes with restored eyesight, in which light overcomes darkness and Jesus appears from an aurora to a fully formed human body, a hard-to-be-missed metaphor to the mechanism of movie camera. Multiple exposure was used in the sequence where the Seven Deadly Sins of Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) being cast out by Jesus in ghostly forms.
Yet the money shots of the entire films are the epic sense of scope with hundreds of extras and the spectacular effect of earthquake and thunderstorm while Jesus dies in crucifixion. All these are awe-inspiring perhaps in 1927, coincidentally the year which the first full-length feature sound film hit the theater and the far superior epic film Abel Gance’s Napoléon epitomized the genre. Ninety years since then have gone, could the contemporary audience still be amazed by The King of Kings beyond its religious commitment?
It’s impossible to judge a “religion” film objectively, and I not intend to. I believe films, like other forms of arts, should be viewed subjectively. Just as I believe Cecil B. DeMille and his fellow colleagues have been carrying a faithful heart while making this film. But it doesn’t change the fact the majority of time i felt disinterested, excluding the character Judas (Joseph Schildkraut) which I find his depiction as an antagonist richly humanized and emphatic. Technicality aside, the film has a straight-forward narrative that could feel tedious even if you only have a sheer knowledge of Jesus. It is a perfect two-and-a-half-hour Sunday school lesson that struck great commercial success at its time, but could not endure unlike Jesus’s love.