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Review - The King of Kings (1927) (Criterion DVD-2005)
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The King of Kings (DVD-2005)

Criterion Collection

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski

 

The new Criterion Collection special edition two disc DVD set of Cecil B. De Mille’s biblical epic of the life of Jesus, The King of Kings is a truly remarkable DVD release.  Mention the title The King of Kings to the literate cinema-goer and it is apt to stir up memories of Miklos Rozsa’s majestic theme.

 

But that was music from the 1961 film version of King of Kings—which starred Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus and which was directed by Nicholas Ray.  That film has merit in its own right.  But even more notable is the film on this Criterion DVD release, the original Cecil B. De Mille 1927 The King of Kings which is among the most famous films of the silent era and one of the greatest of De Mille’s career.

 

While the conventions of silent cinema provide a challenge to many modern cinema-goers, a number of the celebrated films from that era have endured all the way to our present time and continue to enthrall discerning modern day audiences with near undiminished power.  The Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera is one.  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is another.  And there are many more.  When a silent film classic is properly restored, properly presented and issued on DVD with the right supplements and extras, the experience created for the viewer is akin to going back in time and seeing the film through the eyes and emotions of the original audience.  It makes for an unforgettable viewing experience.

 

Such is the case with the Criterion edition of The King of Kings.  The two disc set provides not one, but two versions of the film:  the original uncut road-show version of 1927, and also the shorter re-cut, and re-edited version of 1928.  Both versions were approved by De Mille himself, in the same way that Peter Jackson released a theatrical cut and an extended version of the Lord of the Rings.

 

Like Lord of the Rings, the uncut version of The King of Kings is some 42 minutes longer than the shorter version.  Both versions are powerful and effective with dramatic special effects and even two-strip Technicolor sequences.  One small but interesting difference between the two versions involves the scene of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead.  In the longer cut, a halo or aura emanates from Jesus during the application of divine power in awakening Lazarus.  In the shorter version, the halo and light is absent.

 

The shorter version was the general release version and has the added attraction of the original film score composed by the great Hugo Riesenfeld.  De Mille had this score added to all the re-cut film prints.  Now that it  has been cleaned up and digitally mastered, that brilliant original score sounds astonishingly good even today, and it is another element that takes you all the way back to the late 1920s  to experience the scenes with their original impact.  The score also includes excerpts of music by Wagner, Handel, Tchaikovsky and Berlioz.  And, if you wish, you can watch the two versions of the film with a choice of two different scores which have also been provided on the DVD, one orchestral, and one played on the organ, which were recently recorded. These are fine scores as well.

 

The controversial Cecil B. De Mille was one of the important figures in early cinema.  Like D. W. Griffith, he was praised as an innovator and he helped establish Hollywood as the center of world cinema.  He was quite a showman and a master of spectacle.  But his films were often justly criticized as excessive, vulgar or schlocky.  But, boy, he could tell a superb story, and he enjoyed both career longevity and wide audience popularity. If his last film, the epic 1956 film The Ten Commandments seems as stilted and stagy as a silent film, it somehow manages to work in that way that only De Mille could achieve. Its spectacular pageantry and vivid storytelling continue to draw huge annual television audiences to this day. 

 

The De Mille touch at its best is clearly evident in The King of Kings.  Its simple, sincere approach, archetypes and striking compositions have an uplifting effect.  The casting of veteran actor H. B Warner to portray Christ was a wise choice.  Warner was 50 years old at the time, but his age and ability add both gravity and a gentleness to the portrayal of Jesus.

 

Extras on the disc include extensive behind the scenes footage of the filming (something unheard of for a film of that time).  There is also footage of D.W. Griffith visiting the set.  Production photos, costume sketches, rare scene artwork, film trailers, advertisements, the original press book, and premier information round out the extras.  A gorgeous forty page booklet is also included with the set which contains striking photographs and essays by De Mille and film historians and critics.  It makes for an elegant bonus.  And the glorious film transfers of the two versions of the film speak for themselves. 

 

The Criterion Collection’s spectacular new DVD set of Cecil B. De Mille’s The King of Kings fully lives up to Criterion’s established high standards.  It makes a wonderful addition to any film library and furthers Criterion’s mission to provide important films within the framework of the best possible viewing experience.

 

 

2005 Dennis Kwiatkowski

 

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