• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, April 15, 2019

    An Introduction to The King of Kings

    Last week I had the pleasure of introducing Lobster films' new restoration of The King of Kings (1927) at its UK premieré in Bristol Cathedral, courtesy of South West Silents. As it was only a short intro, I thought I'd post it here to supplement my other posts and my podcast on the film.


    Whenever I come to these kinds of events I'm always intrigued as to what specifically attracts people to them. Are we film fans? People of faith? Both? Have we come because of our love of music? Or for something else? It's kind of ambiguity that cuts to the heart of Cecil B DeMille. He could oil up Charlton Heston, put him in chains and tell you that that was Moses, or begin his film about Christ with a woman in a gold coil bra stroking her pet leopard.

    It's easy to deride DeMille's mix of titillation and piety, or see them as being cynical, but for him the combination was very real. As Fritzi Kramer puts it:

    DeMille is an almost perfect split between his flamboyant actress mother and his bookish lay minister father... DeMille's religious beliefs were not exactly in the mainstream but they were from the heart. The conflict between faith and trash was very real for him. He loved both.
    Indeed DeMille was critical of those who proposed more staid portrayals of the Gospels, arguing that "they must have read them through the stained glass telescope which centuries of tradition and form have put between us and the men and women of flesh and blood who lived and wrote the Bible."

    We tend to think of cinema's silent era as time of beginnings, but in fact by 1927 when The Kings of Kings was released it had been around for quite some time. The first Jesus films came out in 1897, meaning they had been making them for 30 years by the time The King of Kings came along. It was DeMille's 51st film, and incredibly whilst today his name is synonymous with the biblical epic, at this point in time he was known mainly for melodramas and westerns. Only one of his previous 50 films had been biblical.

    The film itself was written by one of DeMille's most trusted collaborators, Jeanie MacPherson. In contrast with the majority of Jesus films both before, and, indeed, after, it starts neither with Jesus birth, nor his baptism, nor even at the beginning of Holy Week, but instead it begins as Jesus' ministry is already in full flow. In that sense it's different from any of the Gospels, or the earliest creedal confessions found about him in Paul. As a whole the film blends elements of all four gospels together citing each in the various subtitles, though often wildly out of context. It opens quoting its role in the Great Commission from Matthew's Gospel, focuses its portrayal of Jesus as the healer of Luke's Gospel, whilst its lighting emphasises John's "Light of the World" and it depicts a young boy called Mark, with the implication that it is he who will go on to write the earliest gospel. Our first sighting of Jesus is a famous shot which I won't spoil for those of you who don't know it, but is paired with its opposite at the end of DeMille's Samson and Delilah 22 years later.

    Another DeMille regular was H.B. Warner who played Jesus here, Mr Gower in It's a Wonderful Life. At 51 he remains the oldest actor to play the lead in a mainstream Jesus film, considerably older than the traditional 33. To us he seems a bit paternal but at the time he was hugely more human and approachable than the film Jesuses that had gone before. DeMille insisted Warner remained in character the entire time he was on set, he knew the damage that bad publicity could do to the film.

    The film did cause some controversy, though not for Warner's hardened drinking. Various Jewish organisations were concerned about potential anti-Semitism, for many of the same objections to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. If it's tempting to dismiss such criticisms out of hand then I think it's worth remembering that the two previous mainstream Jesus films released before DeMille's were both from Germany. The Jews were demonised and squarely blamed for Jesus' death. It's sobering to remember that just as people today picture Jesus as Robert Powell or James Caviezel, the German people in the 20s, 30s and 40s pictured those films when they thought of the gospels. Those anti-Semitic movies contributed to a cultural seachange that led to the Holocaust. After some discussion DeMille made changes and avoided most of those pit falls.

    As a filmmaker DeMille doesn't get the credit he is perhaps due. He reproduces 300 paintings in the film going to huge lengths to perfect the lighting. The shot of the sandstorm as Jesus dies was technically immensely difficult. We'll be able to appreciate the intricacies of the design on the massive sets and the picture is full of memorable images, the expressionistic approach to the miracles. And the experimental use of two-strip Technicolor.

    The film was so successful at the box office that screenings continued for years, well into the sound era. Missionaries took it with them abroad leaving a delighted DeMille to claim that "more people have been told the story of Jesus of Nazareth through The King of Kings than through any other single work, except the Bible itself"

    And what about us? It's easy to dismiss the film for its soft-focus piety or moments of over-the-topness, but it's also a chance to see things in a new light. For theologians it's a chance to let the left brain and right brain to work together, for Christians it’s a chance to view the gospels from someone else's perspectives and notice things that might never have occurred to us on our own. For film fans a chance to reconsider the work or the motives of one of the most pivotal characters in the silent film era. And It's a chance for all of us to look back 90 years, to be enraptured, to be entertained, and to connect to those who have gone before us, and their faith, fears, hopes and dreams of a better world.

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