Friday, December 25, 2015

Film Review: King of Kings

"King of Kings"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

[Note: This review is in response to the 112 minute version of this film. There is a longer version, 155 minutes, also available on a Criterion DVD]

On this day believers celebrate the birth of their lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Of course, the meaning of Christmas is so often forgotten due to the secular symbols liberals celebrate and the commercialization of this religious holiday. Liberals celebrate Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer as the retailers and corporations force parents to go out and buy toys and other expensive gifts for fear their children will be shunned and outcast by their fellow second graders and doomed to a life of shame.

But we should not allow liberals / secularist to make us forget Christmas is a religious holiday. So, on this day I felt it appropriate to discuss Cecil B. DeMille's silent religious epic "King of Kings" (1927), the story which follows the last weeks of the life of Jesus as a reminder of the man we are celebrating on this day.

To some Mr. DeMille is a bombastic figure in the history of cinema. He was something of a showman. A man who is best known by today's audiences (assuming there are individuals that watch the movies directed by Mr. DeMille) for religious epics and "modern day" morality pieces. He is often credited as being, financially, the most successful filmmaker of the silent era. Mr. DeMille's movies were not always respected by the critics (sheep) but they were hits with audiences.

A devoted conservative Republican, Mr. DeMille made movies which showcased the downfall of society. He warned audiences the life they are leading, one full of jazz, sex and alcohol, was unholy. American values were falling and like the once great Roman Empire, America too would collapse. A wonderful example of this would be "Manslaughter" (1922).

Mr. DeMille though was criticized as being a hypocrite however, crusading that sex was too much a part of people's lives, yet, his movies had sexual images, while he address the issue of falling morals. Mr. DeMille may have been one of the first filmmakers to realize "sex sells". We haven't advanced from the concept in today's modern world.

I mention this because Mr. DeMille's reputation proceeds him. As a personality Mr. DeMille is as strongly identified with his movies as Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese are with theirs. However, watching Mr. DeMille's adaptation of this story, I was not struck by images of sex and / or heavy moral preaching. One has to expect some preaching in a movie depicting the life and times of Jesus Christ but "King of Kings" doesn't come across as preachy.

That however was one of the aspects of the movie which I did not enjoy. "King of Kings", plot wise, is rather straight forward. Yes, the movie has grandiose sets and plenty of extras in the frame, all staples of Mr. DeMille's work, but plot wise there is not much of a driving force. The audience goes along from one event to the other without much, if any, explanation of who is who and what their motivate is. The audience watching "King of Kings" may already know who is who because they are believers and have read the bible, go to church every Sunday and / or have seen other religious movies, but it would not be because "King of Kings" explains anything.

But I did enjoy "King of Kings" if for no other reason than it is a good story. It is difficult not to be moved by the story of Jesus and his crucifixion. I have yet to see a movie which tells this story that has not touched me in some small way.

"King of Kings" is kind of a crash course in the life of Jesus. Viewers get to see many of the famous moments in Jesus' life. We see Jesus heal the lame and blind. We see the Last Supper depicted. We see Judas betray Jesus for 30 coins of silver. And we see the crucifixion. The title cards used quote scripture with chapter and verse credited.

Strangely what is missing are moments showing the birth of Christ and we don't see Peter deny Jesus three times. The role of the Virgin Mary is rather small as is the role of Joseph.

However there is much to enjoy watching "King of Kings". Even though I feel the movie is rather straight forward with its plot there is also something I like about it. It strips everything bare. This is not a glamorous telling of the life of Jesus. There is something innocent in Mr. DeMille's presentation of Jesus.

H.B. Warner plays Jesus as a man with no reluctance about what he is meant to do, die for the sins of mankind. Contradict that with what Martin Scorsese did in "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988). There is not much focus on the passion as there was in Mel Gibson's masterpiece "The Passion of the Christ" (2004) or anything near that level of violence.

Instead one almost believes Mr. DeMille feels he is giving us an accurate portrayal of Jesus. Much mysticism is created in the early moments of the movie concerning who is Jesus. We follow a blind girl (she walks around with her eyes closed, bumping into things) as she asks someone to lead her to Jesus, so she may be cured. The viewer is then expected to ask themselves, where is Jesus? What does he look like?

The young girl is presented before Jesus, whom the audience still has not scene. Slowly her sight is restored. Soon an image appears in focus to the audience. It is the face of Jesus. There is a lot of over-the-top dramatics in this sequence with broad acting by the young girl yet Mr. DeMille wants the audience to believe we have witnessed a miracle. "King of Kings" isn't playing any false notes. Everything is done with a great deal of sincerity.

Besides Mr. Warner, the only other actor given a real opportunity to standout in the cast is Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene, who is presented as a temptress of men. She is upset her lover, Judas, has followed a carpenter, with some other men. Mary wants to find Judas and lure him back to her while also confronting Jesus.

When the two characters met Mary is overcome by Jesus. His Holy Spirit is no match for her evil ways. All seven deadly sins escape her body and from that moment she will lead a good life.

At the same time though the movie does give audiences the sense of a spectacle they would associate with seeing a movie directed by Mr. DeMille. While there may not be anything as memorable as the parting of the seas as in "The Ten Commandments (1923) however there is a sequence when we see the temple in Jerusalem destroyed, which may match it, if not in "awe" than in its technical capabilities.

"King of Kings" was remade by the filmmaker Nicholas Ray, perhaps best known for directing James Dean in "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955) in 1961 and starred Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus. Movie fans may actually be more familiar with this version as it is played on television more often especially at Christmas and Easter than Mr. DeMille's version. Lets face it, most people don't want to watch a silent movie anyway.

Mr. DeMille's "King of Kings" is a fine example of the silent era epic and a good example of the spectacle Mr. DeMille was up to. The movie doesn't need to be watched during Christmas time. Like any good movie it may be enjoyed at any time of the year. However, it is especially important audiences watch the movie around Christmas time so we may all remember what we are truly celebrating.

Merry Christmas!