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The King of Kings: The Criterion Collection

It's The Passion of Cecil B. DeMille! One can inveigh against the people's maestro all they like for his unabashed obviousness, which permeates every single frame of The King of Kings (1927), but there's no taking away his knack for cleanly and, at times, quite elegantly telling a story. For evidence of this one need look no further than the picture's introduction of Jesus Christ (H.B. Warner), which is tantalizingly held back so that the audience might greet his visage as the first image ever glimpsed by a blind girl granted sight by the Savior himself. They too see anew, and are saved. It's a moment of ridiculous but undeniably moving pomp, heralded by streaming rays of heavenly light and a dramatic flourish of overwrought strings from the soundtrack. Audiences are undeniably more sophisticated today, but imagine how this moment must've played for moviegoers in the late 1920s. Conversions must have been plentiful — call it popcorn proselytization. To what extent DeMille was spreading the Good News based on his own religious convictions rather than as a reaction to the hue and cry of moralists outraged by what they perceived as the prurient decadence of Hollywood films would be impossible to determine; DeMille so adroitly shifted from believer to huckster that both personalities are hopelessly blurred. What's inarguable is that The King of Kings is a pandering panegyric brimming with ham-fisted foreshadowing and insufferable piety that somehow remains involving in spite of its many infuriating overindulgences. Sticking mostly to the various Gospel texts for its subtitles, DeMille begins his New Testament epic with Mary Magdalene's salvation and ends with Christ's resurrection. In between, all goes according to Scripture, and often lumberingly so. After the vibrant, two-strip Technicolor opening (appropriately gaudy given its setting in the house of Magdalene) and the generally economical introductions to the disciples, the film plods a bit as Caiaphas and his cronies plot against Jesus, hoping to trip him up by violating the Sabbath or shirking his civic duty. The problem with The King of Kings isn't one of familiarity but of pacing — and, to be fair, that's probably at least partially owing to DeMille's then-correct sense of his audience's attention span. Nowadays, it's tedious to endure several seconds of pained reactions, as is so often the case with Peter (Ernest Torrence), or to sit through protracted set-ups to long-anticipated moments of significance, like Judas's betrayal with a kiss. Though this might've played better in the '20s and '30s, it still seems a sin of overt reverence to pad these sequences out to such extremes. Worse, DeMille's usually unerring sense of showmanship is often absent, rendering forgettable such pivotal moments such as the resurrection of Lazarus or the Last Supper. But DeMille certainly pours on the spectacle when it counts, wrapping up the tale with an extra-jammed crucifixion set-piece that wraps up with the wrath of God laying eye-popping waste to a studio soundstage. They can't make 'em like that anymore. DeMille also returns to gorgeous Technicolor for Jesus's miraculous resurrection, but only to switch back to boring old black-and-white for the epilogue — a strange miscalculation for the maestro. One of his most lavish productions, this is hardly DeMille at his best, but there's still enough opulence to hold one's interest. The Criterion Collection presents The King of Kings in a two-disc set with a beautiful full-screen transfer (1.33:1) and brand-new Dolby Digital 1.0 score composed by Donald Sosin. The general release version is on Disc Two, which boasts two scores: a new one by organist Timothy J. Tikker as well as the original by composer Hugo Riesenfeld. Extras include stills, newspaper ads and telegrams from the picture's 1927 opening night, text of the original souvenir program, the press book, blessings from clergy of various denominations secured by DeMille, two trailers, behind-the-scenes footage (13 min.), sketch and portrait galleries, and a 40-page booklet with essays by critic Peter Matthews, DeMille biographer Robert S. Birchard, and DeMille himself. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks



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