High school was the first time I really began to explore different kinds of movies. Strangely, the best thing that could have happened to me was moving to a town where there were no comic book stores, because it forced me to find other things to occupy my time. This meant listening to a lot more music, the discovery of more high-minded literature, and scouring the cable listings and video stores for classic and cult-type movies. This included trying silent films for the first time. I distinctly remember a Christmas watching the original Ben-Hur on TNT, back when it was what TCM has now become. Not only was I impressed by the storytelling skill level, but I was shocked by the scope of the filmmaking. Some of the panoramic shots looked more impressive to me than I thought even contemporary movies were capable of.
I've always loved that Ben-Hur, so much so that I've never been compelled to watch the Charlton Heston remake. I have a similar love of Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings. This 1927 epic is an ambitious retelling of the adult years of Jesus Christ (whereas Ben-Hur begins with his birth). Though the story is ridiculously familiar to someone like me who grew up in churches and Bible schools, DeMille manages to bring the old tale to a rather new medium in such a way that rejuvenates it. Or maybe it's just that the story is so well structured, it continues to have power over each new generation because the solidity of the frame is so undeniable. DeMille and his writers (Jeanie Macpherson is listed as "story and continuity," but I'm guessing there was more) manage to spot the plot conventions in the Gospels, including motifs and foreshadowing that drives home the inevitability of Christ's fate and his resignation that there must be sacrifice.
Most Biblical films fall short of the mark. They tend to be overly pious, straining toward something classical and even Shakespearian, adhering to that strange old idea that somehow anywhere that wasn't America at any time but right now, people spoke the Queen's English. This renders much of the dialogue silly and forced. Of course, there are other, more extreme directions, such as Mel Gibson's gore-filled expression of an unbending, S&M Catholic faith or the irreverent and blasphemous examinations of Luis Bunuel or Pier Paolo Pasolini. The classical model is usually not satisfying as serious cinema, whereas Gibson is just a bad filmmaker and the other guys aren't really going to satisfy that spiritual itch.
DeMille manages to avoid these pitfalls--though, I suppose we have to call a spade a spade and say it may really only be by the good fortune of his having tackled the material prior to the arrival of sound. The pantomime of The King of Kings, aided by a new score by Donald Sosin* and intertitles taken directly from the Bible, emphasizes the pageantry in such a way that it removes all but the majesty of the material. That it's all gesture, all image, somehow makes it feel more like a holy relic than a piece of popular entertainment. (Not that it doesn't entertain. DeMille is still a showman, and I am sure it's no coincidence that the film opens in the home of a very sexy Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan). Not to mention that he used color film for those scenes.)
The King of Kings is meant to feel as if the reality of the life of Jesus is being illuminated. In a brilliant stroke, the first ten minutes or so go by without us seeing the main figure at all. He is talked about, both in tones of awe and bitter scorn, creating anticipation for the religious leader's ultimate revelation--which comes when Jesus cures a blind child. The first thing the child sees is the healer, and that is the first time we see him, too. He appears gentle and caring, actually one of the few moments of real peace we see from Jesus. The way H.B. Warner plays him, the savior is a serene personage, but he often looks disappointed, as if even though he knows that events must transpire the way they do, it still saddens him that none of his followers rise to the challenge and change the course of events. He looks like he wants to shake his head when Peter (Ernest Torrence) denies him three times on the night of Jesus' arrest, even though Jesus told him he would. (Three is an important number. When the Pharisees threaten to destroy the temple, Jesus says he will raise it again in three days, a reference to his own coming resurrection. After all, his body is the metaphorical temple of Christianity.) He is always aware of what awaits him, and he accepts it with a kind of grim recognition of duty.
As I suggested, rather than letting scripture put him in a chokehold, DeMille finds interesting ways to flesh out the recorded events and make them more dramatic. For instance, having the merchant spill salt (or is it flour?) in the temple when Jesus is protecting the adulteress (Viola Louise) gives the director the tool by which Jesus exposes the misdeeds of her accusers, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." He writes their hidden sins in the salt in Hebrew, and then as the accused look at what he has written, the words turn into English. This is partially for our benefit, so American audiences can read what has been written; however, wouldn't it have been easier just to start in English? Again, DeMille's choice is to make it a revelation. The story is unfolding for us for the very first time.
The true revelation, though, is how breathtaking this early filmmaking often is. The sets are vast, not looking like any Hollywood construction. The ocean shores where the tax collectors confront Jesus, the tomb of Lazarus, the great courtyard of people who come to hear what Pontius Pilate (Victor Varconi) will decree, the open and barren Calvary location--these are grand scenes, as overpowering as anything Peter Jackson would make on the computer today. Likewise, DeMille employs an impressive facility for early special effects. The casting out of the seven deadly sins from Mary Magdalene, God's wrath at the crucifixion, the ever-present glow around Jesus--they are done convincingly and effectively, making us wonder how they did it in a way the big budget digital effects we've grown accustomed to can no longer inspire.
I know it's been argued that the Bible is the first novel, providing a blueprint for future generations when it comes to telling complex, time-spanning stories. That Shakespearian feeling Hollywood often strived for with their posh vocal intonations is more apropos in the case of The King of Kings, which certainly has poetic motifs worthy of the Bard. (Note how the blood Christ sweats while praying at Gethsemane is recalled by the blood dripping from the crown of thorns.) Judas (Joseph Schildkraut) as a persistent and jealous schemer is not too distant a cousin of Othello's Iago, and the empty figurehead Pontius Pilate could have been just as ineffective in stopping a couple of star-crossed lovers and their families from killing each other. It's DeMille's masterstroke, maintaining the reverence while ratcheting up the gothic plot machinations. He is somehow less pompous while still seeming more spiritually important.
Regardless of your faith, The King of Kings is both a hallmark of silent cinema and just a good movie. It can be watched as a reassurance of one's belief, or just as the story of a man who dared to rebel in defense of what he knew was right, both about himself and humanity at large. I'm in awe of the artistry of the film, and it's become a regular holiday spin in my home.
* Sosin provides the score for the longer version, which runs 155 minutes. The second disc in this collection features the more common 1928 cut, which is 112 minutes. For that, we get two scoring options, a new piece by organist Timothy J. Tikker or the vintage score by Hugo Riesenfeld.