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One of the cinema's most important religious epics, Cecil B. DeMille's masterwork, The King of Kings (1927), tells the story of Christ's final experiences, from his meeting with Mary Magdalene, to his Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension.
As with so many other films treating the story of Christ, from Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) to Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ (2004), The King of Kings met with controversy in its day. Jewish groups criticized DeMille's film because they said it condemned them as Christ's crucifiers. Others said DeMille simply pandered to his audience's emotions while some called him a Christian propagandist. Upon viewing the film, John Steinbeck was said to have remarked, "saw the picture, loved the book."
In an attempt to honor the material, DeMille had both a Jesuit Priest and several other members of the clergy (including a Rabbi) on hand during filming to ensure that the proper reverence was being paid to the film's subject matter.
DeMille took a particular liking to the representative from the National Catholic Welfare Council, Father Lord, and tried to play upon his obvious interest in Hollywood by offering to teach him the film business. But Lord was not interested in leaving the clergy and reportedly replied that he wouldn't trade his life "for anything in the world."
The film's first day of shooting was honored with prayers offered by representatives of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist and Moslem faiths. Anxious to set the proper ecclesiastical mood, each morning DeMille entered the set to the strains of "Onward, Christian Soldiers!" and spiritual music was continually piped onto the set during the production. Cast members were all given Bibles and asked to call each other by their Biblical names whenever they were on the sound stage. At one point, an impatient DeMille reportedly demanded to know "where in the hell is Judas?" garnering an angry dressing down from the producer.
So concerned was DeMille with paying the proper respect, that the actor who played Christ, H.B. Warner, was required to endure a fair amount of religious deprivation. Warner was told not to speak to anyone on the set except for the director and told not to be seen in public during the production. Such overzealous attention to "how things looked" might have been due to an early experience on The King of Kings set in which a newspaper photographer snapped a shot of H.B. Warner in full Christ garb lounging in a chair while smoking a cigarette and reading the sports pages.
That's not to say that DeMille did not take some artistic license with the material, even inventing a love affair between Judas (Joseph Schildkraut) and Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan). The opening scene of The King of Kings is pure DeMille, featuring Mary Magdalene in her decadent surroundings, first getting the news that Judas has been "seeing" someone else. Dressed in a revealing jewel-studded bra, Mary sets off in a zebra-drawn chariot driven by a brawny hunk, to confront her rival for Judas's attention.
DeMille had already proven his suitability to the Biblical epic with the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, which many predicted would fail but which instead made an enormous profit despite production costs of $2,265,283. DeMille wanted The King of Kings to achieve a similar success and in an early effort to spike its popular appeal, the film was divided into two parts, the first the Christ story and the second a sin-filled modern story to illustrate human ignorance of Christ's message. However, that modern epilogue was eventually abandoned.
It is said that worldwide, some 8 billion people have seen DeMille's film partly due to the Cinema Corporation's policy of loaning the film to civic and religious groups for a small fee to help replace worn prints. Reportedly no week passes without The King of Kings playing in some corner of the world. Missionaries have carried the film all over the world in support of their ministry. The King of Kings was reportedly the first film Eskimos in Point Barrow, Alaska, had ever seen.
The film debuted, to much pomp, at the newly completed Grauman's Chinese Cinema. The King of Kings was reissued in 1931 with the addition of a synchronized musical score.
But The King of Kings was not a success in all regards. The part of Christ was less than a boon to the acting career of its star, H.B. Warner. Because Hollywood tended to see actors as "types," Warner had great difficulty finding a role that matched the dignity of Christ after completing DeMille's film. He later told friends that his career virtually ended with The King of Kings.
Producer/Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Jeanie Macpherson
Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley, Fred Westerberg, Jacob A. Badaracco
Production Design: Mitchell Leisen, Anton Grot
Music: Hugo Riesenfeld, William Axt, Erno Rapee
Cast: H.B. Warner (Jesus Christ), Dorothy Cumming (Mary the Mother), Ernest Torrence (Peter), Joseph Schildkraut (Judas), James Neill (James), Joseph Striker (John), Robert Edeson (Matthew), Sidney D'Albrook (Thomas), David Imboden (Andrew), Charles Belcher (Philip), Clayton Packard (Bartholomew), Robert Ellsworth (Simon), Charles Requa (James, the Lesser), John T. Prince (Thaddeus), Jacqueline Logan (Mary Magdalene), Rudolph Schildkraut (Caiaphas, High Priest of Israel), Sam De Grasse (The Pharisee), Casson Ferguson (The Scribe), Victor Varconi (Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea).
by Felicia Feaster