Fans of The Passion of the Christ will find The King of Kings a surprisingly familiar tale. Not just that it’s about, you know, Jesus and all: Gibson lifted everything from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 blockbuster, from casting a mega hottie as reformed prostitute Mary Magdalene (here she barely wears any clothes) to its over-the-top religiousness that steadfastly sets this film as an icon of the Christian faith.
Whether you’re religious or not, King of Kings is a monumental technical achievement of its era. Most notable are its impressive cinematography, ghostly special effects which must have been shocking in its day, and the appearance of an early form of color in two of its scenes — a ‘two-strip’ Technicolor predecessor that remains one of few uses of color in a silent film.
The story is straight from the Gospel, from the introduction of Mary Magdalene through the crucifixion and resurrection. All the pieces are here: the 30 pieces of silver and the trials of Pontius Pilate. There’s minimal attempt at editorializing any of this, save for the introductory scenes. In fact, most of the intertitle cards are simply quotes from the Bible instead of original dialogue.
Criterion has fixed up the film for a DVD release, here offering two versions — the 1927 original cut (155 minutes, screened at the grand opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood) and the version that most people saw in 1928 (112 minutes). (You might keep the volume down: Donald Sosin’s new score (on the 1927 version) is a bit jarring, featuring some sound effects and a Gospel choir during some of its scenes.)
Behind the scenes footage of DeMille on the set and various archival sketches and stills round out the video extras, with a 40-page booklet featuring an old essay from DeMille himself are included for those who need something more to read.