The King of Kings (1927)

When did I last watch this? Mid-90s? Early 90s? Surely not within the last decade, anyway. At any rate, my introduction to the film was in my early days of exploring the wonderful world of cinema, courtesy of Bondi’s finest Hollywood House Video; it took me quite a while to fully appreciate how piss-poor their products really were, but in fairness to them their KoK actually used a not bad print of the film with the 1928 Riesenfeld score. Still, the Criterion disc obviously beats that by virtue of containing the original long (157 minutes) version of the film, meaning I’ve literally never seen nearly a third of it until now…

Anyway, as Easter is upon us once again I decided to mark the occasion with a Jesus film (even though I’m not exactly a subscriber to Jesus’ newsletter), and though I could’ve waited until Saturday night for Ch.7 to unroll The Passion of the Christ, I preferred to sit down with a film I could respect instead of uncle Mel’s bit of ghoulish nonsense. Uncle Cecil’s film did the trick for me; it’s an intriguing mix, cos it can’t avoid offering up a solid serving of spectacle and vulgarity. It’s a 1920s Hollywood blockbuster and it acts accordingly; as a DeMille film it probably couldn’t do much else (“Harness my zebras!” indeed. Still, let us settle for being thankful that he didn’t try combining the Biblical stuff with a modern story like he did with the 1923 Ten Commandments, and that he eventually cut down the not exactly Biblical Judas-Mary Magdalene romance too). And yet at the same time, it’s sincere.  It’s old-school Jesus; it reaches for classic iconography in its visuals and there’s none of the Jesus-as-human-being type of  business The Last Temptation of Christ offers. I imagine that H.B. Warner’s particular presentation of Jesus is how many people at that time would’ve envisaged him, and he really does make a perfect centre for the film; it’s a top performance which seems to rein in the film’s potential excesses and gives dignity to proceedings (in a way that, say, Charlton Heston didn’t quite manage as Moses three decades later), convincing even though Warner was not only several years older than Jesus but also older than the actress playing the virgin Mary. (Also I really liked Ernest Torrance as Peter, probably the best of the secondary roles.) The whole thing adds up to one of the best films of its time.

This review makes an interesting point regarding the film’s handling of the anti-Semitic aspect of the whole Jesus story, which was such a sore point in the run-up to the release of Jesus Christ Splatterstar. In the end I think the issue was overstated in that case (I don’t think the film made any converts to anti-Semitism), but it’s hard to avoid the Biblical quote even so. Still, DeMille’s solution, presenting Caiaphas as the sole true instigator of the opposition to Jesus and absolves the Jews en masse, is a nice one, and in this context it’s interesting that Caiaphas is played here by Rudolph Schildkraut, father of Joseph Schildkraut who plays Judas, as both of them equally betray Jesus; the latter for frustrating his own ambition, and the former in the interests of maintaining his religious power.

I quite like Jesus. I’m pretty iffy about his putative dad, but I’m not bothered by the son; he—or at least the historical personage upon whom centuries of legend have accrued—really is one of history’s great tragic figures, stamped out by the institutional religious authority of his own, and let down by the institutional religious authority his own followers eventually blossomed into. I particularly like this Jesus. He heals the sick, raises the dead, casts out sins, resists Satan, and still takes the time to mend children’s toys. I don’t know if this film spurred a Christian revival like Gibson’s film seemed to do (how much coverage thereof was about people finding their faith reaffirmed by that frankly nasty piece of work?), but I’d understand if it did. Like I said, I don’t subscribe to the belief system myself, but I can more easily accept other people following Jesus after seeing this film than I can people doing the same thing after seeing Passion. And hopefully DeMille wouldn’t feel too bad about not converting me with his film, cos after all the Bible itself never did it either, just as reading the Koran never made me a Muslim, reading Anton Lavey didn’t make me a Satanist, and reading Stephen Hawking never made me a nuclear physicist.

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