The King of Kings (1927) is a silent film directed by Cecil B. DeMille. It is a religious movie about the last weeks of Jesus before his crucifixion. H. B. Warner starred as Jesus. One of the last sequences of the movie, the Resurrection, is in Technicolor. We see Mary Magdalene, here portrayed as a wild courtesan, entertain many men around her. Upon learning that Judas is with a carpenter she rides out on her chariot drawn by zebras to get him back. Peter is introduced as the Giant apostle, and we see the future gospel writer Mark as a child who is healed by Jesus. The Virgin Mary is shown as a beautiful and saintly woman who is a mother to all her son's followers. Our first sight of Jesus is through the eyesight of a little girl, whom He heals. He is surrounded by a halo. Mary Magdelene arrives afterwards and talks to Judas, who reveals that he is only staying with Jesus in hopes of being made a king after Jesus becomes the king of kings. Jesus casts the Seven Deadly Sins out of Mary Magdalene in a multiple exposure sequence. Jesus is also shown resurrecting Lazarus and healing the little children.
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.