A decadent, devout Passion Play

Released 19 April 1927, The King of Kings is one of Cecil B. DeMille’s great Biblical epics. While he was a devout Christian, he also loved his decadence, and brought the two together in some very interesting ways. How many other directors would impart moral lessons alongside orgies, pet leopards, and parties where everything is made of candy?

The immense cast includes H.B. Warner as Jesus, Dorothy Cumming as Mary, the awesome character actor Ernest Torrence as Peter, Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene, Joseph Schildkraut as Judas, child actor Micky Moore as Mark, Victor Varconi as Pontius Pilate, and an uncredited Ayn Rand.

When it comes to such a well-known story, an original angle is key. It helps the story to stand out from all the other versions. DeMille did this quite well, not only in his trademark decadent touches, but also in how he handled the religious material.

Mary Magdalene is at a very hedonistic party which includes a pet monkey and leopard. When one of her boytoys sits in Judas’s chair, she pushes him out. This guy points out that Judas hasn’t come around for a few days, and Mary Magdalene thinks Judas must be with another woman.

Upon being told he’s hanging out with a band of beggars led by a carpenter, she hops on her zebra-drawn chariot (because why not?) and goes to find him.

We then shift to a large crowd outside of Jesus’s house, as people wait in line to get healed. One of the crowd is a little blind girl, who gives one of the film’s most touching performances. The future Gospel writer Mark runs across her, and takes her to a window. Our first sight of Jesus is through her eyes.

Shortly after this healing, Mary Magdalene arrives to confront Judas, whose ulterior motive in befriending Jesus is the possibility of being promoted to a high official. Before she can have it out with Judas, however, Jesus casts the Seven Deadly Sins out of her in a multiple-exposure sequence.

It’s fair to assume just about everyone is familiar with the Biblical account of Jesus’s ministry and life, so the rest of this review will focus on my own thoughts, and the things which make this film unique.

Some people feel H.B. Warner, in his early fifties, was far too old to play a convincing Jesus, though others feel his fatherly appearance is perfect for the role. It all depends on your perspective. As a student of world religions, I love how every culture depicts holy figures in their own image, in a way they can relate to. It’s the same person and message, only a little bit different than the one we’re used to seeing.

I absolutely love Ernest Torrence as Peter! He usually played heavies (villains), so this is quite a delightful departure from his usual forte. His Peter is such a sweet, big lug, just perfect for the role.

Torrence is on the far right in the group embrace

I also love the scenes of Jesus with children. Besides the blind girl, another sweet, lovely scene is with a child who tells Jesus Mark says he can heal broken legs, then presents a doll whose leg has fallen off. Jesus obligingly mends the doll.

That is such a believable child thing to do, or for anyone who has a soft spot for stuffed animals and dolls. Many adults send their precious old friends to doll and teddybear hospitals.

Almost all of the intertitles are from the Bible, with the book, chapter, and verse noted. They’re also rendered in Elizabethan English, which can be kind of distracting to the modern audience. These people spoke Aramaic, not any form of English! I tend to translate Elizabethan English in my head.

Nitpicker I am, I cringed to notice a typo in one intertitle, “sieze” instead of “seize.”

The above still comes from a scene where a woman is accused of adultery and Jesus famously challenges the crowd, “Let he who is among you without sin cast the first stone.” He proceeds to write various sins (in Hebrew) in sand that spilled out of a broken jug.

The mob scatters as their sins are revealed, until the last guy thanks God he’s not like other men. Then his sin is revealed as adultery, and he too leaves.

In a scene in the 155-minute grand première version (versus the 112-minute general release), Jesus steps into the carpentry shop of a couple whose son he just cast the Devil out of. Some of his disciples, including Peter, are fishing during this time. The piece of wood Jesus is working on is covered on top by a cloth, and it’s later revealed to be a cross.

Joseph Schildkraut is excellent as Judas. His body language conveys how conflicted and torn-up he is about his betrayal.

A dove flies onto the empty Last Supper table, which was apparently unplanned.

The Resurrection scene is in two-strip Technicolor, though not that vibrant.

Both versions are good, though the longer original adds so much extra depth. It makes it seem like the general release is missing lots of chapters! I highly recommend this film, to people of all faiths.

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5 comments on “A decadent, devout Passion Play

  1. Lisa says:

    I need to watch this movie – thanks for the review!!

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      This post actually went up before it was finished! I thought I’d scheduled it for Monday, but it accidentally went up on Sunday. The complete post will go up tomorrow morning.

      Like

  2. cleemckenzie says:

    This post was quite well done. I read it and thought it was a film I’d like to see. The one thing that always puzzles me about the depiction of Jesus is his ethnicity. I keep looking for a representation of a man born in the Middle East and I keep finding an Anglo-Saxon with blue eyes and blond hair.

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      It’s definitely hard to find Western depictions that show someone with a darker complexion and features. People native to the Middle East, without any European genes, certainly don’t look like the conventional Western image of Jesus.

      Like

  3. I’ve never actually heard of this film. It sounds like a creative and entertaining take on a story that’s been told a gazillion times.

    Like

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