King of Kings

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 29, 2015

In addition to the Sunday School film, religious expression in the American commercial cinema of the 1920s came primarily in large and luxurious packages. Drawing upon Italian spectacles produced in the early 19-teens, and building on the innovation and ambition of filmmakers like D.W. Griffith and Thomas Ince, these big pictures set spiritual searching in a reassuring past tense, combining homilies with eye-popping and at least slightly ironic grandeur. Today these largely unseen pictures have a slightly dubious reputation, partly because of their even more compromised, usually quite boring 1950s descendants. The fact is, though, that beyond the interesting and clearly paradoxical juxtapositions of sermons and sensuality—de Mille!—there is much to recommend these films.

King of Kings is surely the best of these, and it continues to stand as one of the finest cinematic biographies of the Saviour. Cecil B. de Mille’s reputation for saucy staging seems justified by the film’s opening, as Mary Magdalene (in her usual sectarian role of courtesan) introduces us to the fallen world that Jesus will come to redeem. But from the artfully withheld and then thrillingly direct introduction of the protagonist, something more sincere and reverent and uplifting begins to take place. The familiar episodes are staged and executed with intelligence, taste and conviction. Though far older than the character he plays, H.B. Warner is luminous as Jesus, affectingly combining restraint and dignity with strength and kindliness.

Viewers will be drawn to different illustrations—the casting out of demons, the coin in the fish’s mouth, the raising of Lazarus; the electrifying sequence of the woman caught in adultery, the extraordinarily tender “suffer the children” section, the subtle grandeur of the temple clearing. They may also wonder about the score—this compilation of familiar hymn tunes is original to the film, and typical of the openness and accessibility to which it aspires. Sophisticates may be put off, but on its own completely valid terms (and not the ones we might wish to impose upon it), the film works wonderfully. And when the Passion and the Crucifixion come, with their blood and thunder, horror and hope, we might come to understand the paradox of these oft-derided, wonderful ‘20s’ epics. Their materialism, their hints at the carnal relate to the difficulty and even the impossibility of transmitting holiness in settings where the medium is dedicated solely to profit. More poignantly, is this not the dilemma of any pilgrim making his trembling way through temptation as he seeks the sacred?