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The Criterion Collection presents
The King of Kings (1927)

"Would he but shun the poor, and heal the rich, we could straightway make him King—with me at his right hand!"
- Judas (Joseph Schildkraut)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: December 06, 2004

Stars: H.B. Warner, Dorothy Cumming, Jacqueline Logan, Joseph Schildkraut
Other Stars: Rudolph Schildkraut, Victor Varconi, Henneth Thomson, Ernest Torrance
Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Manufacturer: Sony Digital Pictures Authoring Center
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some violence, suicide)
Run Time: 02h:37m:26s
Release Date: December 07, 2004
UPC: 037429187326
Genre: historical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B+B+ B-

DVD Review

The name Cecil B. DeMille is pretty much synonymous with gigantic biblical epics. Although he had experimented with The Ten Commandments in 1923, that film had toggled back and forth between the past and the present as it presented its parable of modern decadence. Ancient and biblical segments also pop up in such films as Male and Female (1919), but it wasn't until The King of Kings that DeMille went all out and unrepentantly just focused on a biblical subject. The result was acclaimed at the time as one of the greatest pictures ever made.

The lengthy film spends the first half of its running time on the ministry of Jesus (H.B. Warner) and the irritation of Caiaphas (Rudolph Schildkraut), the priests and the scribes at his mission. The second half is devoted to a retelling of the Passion, and DeMille doesn't disappoint in the realm of spectacle. This segment does contain some quite exemplary effects work, the literal cast of thousands, and although the story is very familiar it propels along with decent momentum. There's plenty of respectfulness of the subject matter, but it doesn't get bogged down in tedium.

If the production has a serious fault, it's that DeMille didn't trust his audiences enough; viewers would likely be familiar with the story, and often the dialogue can be made out readily with lip-reading. Consequently numerous intertitles are somewhat superfluous and even annoying. DeMille almost never has Jesus say anything not reported in the gospels, and scrupulously annotates all his intertitles with the scriptural sources.

H.B. Warner does nicely with the difficult lead role, portraying Jesus as resigned and impossibly gentle. The main problem is that he's clearly 20 years too old to be portraying a 33-year-old man. As a result, there's an overuse of soft focus, which combines with the often dazzling light shone on him to make the picture a little murky. The women tend to be a bit weak, with eye-roll-inducing hands to the forehead and other varieties of overacting that really aren't necessary. Victor Varconi makes an excellent, conflicted Pontius Pilate, while Joseph Schildkraut's Judas is marvelous, starting off with pride and ambition and winding up tortured by guilt over his betrayal of Jesus. When the nails are being pounded at the crucifixion, Schildkraut's face reacts as if the nails were being driven into him.

Unlike Mel Gibson's gorefest retelling of the passion, DeMille isn't interested in blood and guts. The scourging is briefly glimpsed, as well as its aftermath, and the horrors of crucifixion are treated rather discreetly (the painful writhing of nearby thief Gestas (cowboy actor Jim Mason) frankly seems a more likely representation of the actuality of the punishment). DeMille does a little fabricating along the way, the most surprising of his additions being the romance between Judas and Maria Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan). The liner notes indicate the derivation of this element is from a German legend, but it will nonetheless come as a shocker to most viewers. Other questionable additions include the introduction of gospel author Mark as a young boy being healed of lameness by Jesus, and the centurions at the grave actually witnessing the resurrection. And if you ever wondered exactly what it was that Jesus wrote in the sand, well, DeMille has a suggestion for you.

Interestingly, DeMille goes to great lengths to avoid the Blood Libel issue. In the apparent interests of preventing anti-Semitic reaction to his picture, he adds a title card at the beginning placing the responsibility on the Romans. During the crucial mob sequence, Caiaphas and the priests are seen paying off disreputable elements to demand Jesus' death, and to top it all off Caiaphas, in a noncanonical moment, begs God to blame him alone, and not the Jewish people, for his crime. It's an admirable gesture of tolerance by DeMille that other lesser filmmakers don't bother with.

While it's not the greatest film ever made, it still manages to impress with its spectacle and its frequently moving moments. On occasion DeMille even injects a little humor into the picture, such as when the soldiers, having seen Peter catch a fish with a coin in its mouth so that Jesus' taxes can be paid, attempt the same stunt themselves.

The film premiered in 1927 as a roadshow attraction, with Technicolor footage in two segments (the opening with Mary Magdalene's orgies, and the resurrection) and a live musical accompaniment. The next year the film was trimmed down by over half an hour for general theatrical release, and a synchronized musical score was added. Criterion presents both cuts of the film on two discs. The general release version omits such familiar bits as Peter's denial, and the roadshow version is much the preferable film.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The roadshow version includes the two-strip Technicolor footage, from UCLA's print. The beginning of the film looks absolutely great; the resurrection footage unfortunately suffers from some decomposition on the green strip, resulting in pink flickers throughout. On the whole, this restoration looks excellent, with only the occasional speckle and the expected flicker to mar the viewing experience. The greyscale in the black-and-white segments is very broad and black levels are quite good. The theatrical print is a re-release print bearing the 1955 copyright renewal, not an original. But it's in just as good condition as the roadshow print (no doubt there was some mixing and matching in the restoration process). Intertitles are thoughtfully windowboxed.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Mono(music only)yes
DS 2.0(music only)yes

Audio Transfer Review: The roadshow version offers the choice of either a synthesized orchestral score by prolific composer Donald Sorin, or complete silence, apparently so you can supply your own score. The Sorin score sounds pretty good, and only on occasion does it badly betray its keyboard origins. A small chorus helps supplement it on two occasions, as does a violin solo.

The theatrical version allows one to switch between the synchronized score by Hugo Riesenfeld (Sunrise, among many others). There's some hiss and crackle on this 1.0 mono track, which seems to have had some substantial noise reduction done on it; any more and it would have seriously compromised the sound, I expect. The alternate track is an organ improvisatioin by Timothy Tikker. It's performed on a church organ, rather than a theater organ, but it's nonetheless also a fitting score and provides a somewhat different viewing experience. It and the Sosin score are quite clean and noise-free, with excellent range and surround effects.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
2 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:18m:12s

Extra Extras:
  1. Opening night documents, souvenir program and pressbook
  2. Still galleries
  3. Sketches and production designs
  4. Articles regarding the scores
Extras Review: Criterion supplies a wide variety of materials in support of the feature. A 40-page booklet gives some in-depth essays as well as an article from 1927 by DeMille himself on religious instruction through the means of film. The opening night premiere was a gala event (it marked the dedication of Grauman's Chinese Theatre), and ads, stills, congratulatory telegrams from DeMille to his studio, a souvenir program and other ephemera from the occasion are reproduced onscreen. The same goes for the pressbook discussing exploitation of the picture as well as the blessings of various clergy upon the picture, a typical DeMille publicity stunt.

The second disc includes a pair of period trailers, one of which has no footage from the film at all and the other of which amusingly sells it as nonstop spectacle. A 13m:30s segment of behind-the-scenes footage (alas, unlabeled, so we're seldom sure what we're seeing) is supplemented by 15 stills and production and costume designs by noted artist Dan Sayre Groesbeck. Thirty-two photo portraits of cast members by W.M. Mortensen are included, as are bios for Sorin, Riesenfeld and Tikker, notes on the organ and an article by Riesenfeld on the evolution of music in motion pictures. The chaptering is a shade thin, but the layer change is completely invisible.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Whether you'd like the roadshow or general release cut, Criterion has a film for you. An excellent restoration and very nice transfer, and some decent extras make this a recommended package for any fan of silent or religious films.


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