The King of Kings
Streaming Service: YouTube (Public Domain)
USCCB Rating: NR
MPAA Rating: NR
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Written by Jeannie Macpherson
Starring Jacqueline Logan, Joseph Schildkraut, and H.B. Warner
Although there had been a few previous attempts, the 1927 silent epic The King of Kings is the first truly great movie about Jesus Christ, and few have surpassed it since. It is the template that shaped and informed all subsequent films about the life of Christ. On the one hand, it established many of the tropes now interpreted as “traditional” Biblical storytelling patterns such as elaborate sets, overly dramatic acting, and special effects. Yet watching it ninety years after its release, The King of Kings is remarkably fresh, offering new insights into familiar characters while not being too obsessive about getting every detail right. It is a prime example of a movie that provides both great entertainment and spiritual nourishment.
It’s difficult, of course, to summarize the life of Christ into a two-hour narrative, so it is best to focus on one aspect of his ministry rather than attempting the whole thing at once. The King of Kings begins outside Jesus’ immediate circle with Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) hearing rumors about him, including that her former lover is now his follower. The Temple leaders, including Caiaphas (Rudolph Schildkraut), are also worried about his effect on the people. When Jesus (H.B. Warner) is introduced, it is through the miraculous healing of a blind child, with Mary’s intercession no less. The child begins to see light slowly until Christ’s face is revealed. Thus, the first time she sees Jesus is also the first time the audience does. Just as Christ heals the girl, Christ offers to heals us. Despite many other miracles, the Pharisees and Sadducees are not impressed and begin to plot his demise. Roughly half the film is spent on Christ’s miracles and some of his teachings, while the other half focuses on the Paschal Mystery.
One of the benefits The King of Kings has over its successors is the visual style. At the time it was necessary element of the silent period, but it forced DeMille to become creative in how he presented the story. Everything is intensely expressive. Actors use exaggerated facial expressions and gestures. There is frequent use of title cards, which show Christ’s words as direct quotations from the King James’s Bible in a formal font. While most of the scenes are in black and white, a select few are in color, especially the Resurrection. These techniques give weight to the medium. It is understood that this is not just any other movie but truly the greatest story ever told.
Despite its formality the film is sophisticated in its perspective, and even humorous at times. Consider the story of the woman caught in adultery. The evangelist John states that Jesus “wrote in the sand” while the crowd decides whether to kill the woman, yet never specifies what he was writing. DeMille shows that Jesus was writing their sins in the sand, and one by one they exit until only one scribe is left. He proudly raises his stone and quotes another passage, “I thank thee God that I am not like other men.” Yet before he can bring his rock down on her hand, he stops and sees what Jesus wrote: “ADULTERER.” A look of terror comes over him, and he sulks away. Jesus smiles knowingly, then comforts the woman. The story is told with wit while unanswered details are imagined in compelling ways.
Another aspect that adds to the narrative is the “hidden life” of supporting characters. It is implied that Judas and Mary Magdalene had been lovers, and Mary seeks out Jesus to win back her man. The gospel writer Mark is portrayed as a disabled child who was healed by Christ and becomes a close follower. When Caiaphas sees the thunder and earthquake caused by the crucifixion, he runs into the Temple and begs God to have mercy on the people. “Don’t punish them,” he pleads. “This was all my fault.” It’s a nice little touch to relieve the story of any anti-Semitic possibilities. Lastly, there is Jesus himself. Tall, muscular, and attractive, it would be easy to dismiss Warner’s performance of being too pious, yet he also demonstrates profound kindness and gentleness.
It is this “humility as strength” aspect that so many find vexing. The title The Kings of Kings conjures up images of glory and majesty. Yet, Jesus deliberately avoids any discussion of politics, instead proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven. This distresses many in his inner circle—especially Judas, who insists Jesus overthrow their Roman occupiers. His thoughts are of the times, not of eternity. Jesus desires to save souls, who will outlive any temporal power and earthy kingdom. This is an important lesson, especially for Catholics throughout the world, who often find themselves scorned and ostracized in their respective countries.
The purpose, I think, of any dramatization of the Gospel is two-fold. First, to bring the story of salvation to those who have not yet heard the good news. Second, to illuminate certain aspects that Christians may not have previously considered. Thus, every great Jesus movie contains some Biblical fanfiction—what the Church Fathers called Apocrypha. Stimulating the imagination makes the story real. Even St. John admitted that if everything Jesus did was recorded “even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” I supposed home video would be a good way to save space!
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