Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The King of Kings (1927)


     Today’s film is one that most of you probably have not seen. It is a silent film by the great filmmaking pioneer Cecil B. DeMille, known mostly for his grandiose Technicolor epics like “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “The Ten Commandments.” But my favorite film of his is a slightly less grandiose film from 1927, one of his many Biblical epics that especially struck me as powerful when I saw it for the first time. And I thought that it was only fitting that as we approach Easter Sunday, that we reflect on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is DeMille’s “The King of Kings.”

     I won’t go too far into the plot of this film, because most of you reading this probably know the story about which it is based—even though what we read in the Bible and the way it is presented on-screen is structured quite differently at some points. The title character (Jesus, of course) is played by H.B. Warner, who most of you probably know as Mr. Gower from “It’s a Wonderful Life”. But twenty years before that role, Warner was a big silent-film star, and here he plays the character of Jesus in a performance that, in my opinion, stands out as one of the greatest performances of Christ ever filmed. One characteristic of silent films was exaggerated acting, using dramatic gestures and facial expressions to convey emotion rather than dialogue. Warner’s Jesus, however, never feels exaggerated—in fact, it’s one of the greatest examples of subtle acting prior to “talking pictures” that I’ve ever seen.

     The film also has a unique portrayal of Mary Magdalene (Dorothy Cumming), which is probably accurate but certainly not as simple as many Christians today would probably think of her. The film opens with her at a great pagan feast, wondering where her friend Judas Iscariot is. It turns out that he is now a follower of Christ, as she goes to confront him about skipping out on the party and instead runs into Christ. She is immediately humbled by his presence, and rightfully so—Warner is filmed in a way that a certain glow is constantly around his head, a beautiful image that baffles me as to how they could have pulled it off in 1927. 

     Jesus then proceeds to cure Mary Magdalene of her demons, and this sequence is incredibly profound. In Luke 8:2, it is recorded that Jesus had healed her of seven demons. I think most translations call them “seven demons”, but the film’s translation (the titles of dialogue most of the time come directly from Scripture) identifies these demons as the “Seven Deadly Sins”. And in another scene that makes me wonder how they did it, seven creatures dressed in black that represent the Seven Deadly Sins are superimposed on the struggling Mary Magdalene, who eventually falls to the ground, free of her demons.

     Jesus is thus praised by his followers, including those who want to make him a king. As we read in the Scriptures, Jesus goes to the temple courts and turns the tables of the merchants (again, in very subtle acting that makes me believe this is the truest portrayal of Jesus in any film), and when he is almost attacked by a mob trying to make him king, he mysteriously flees. Eventually, he is indeed arrested, tried, and crucified, as many watch in satisfaction and in mourning—including a young boy named Luke, whose leg was healed previously by Jesus. And yeah, the way the film portrays it, the boy seems to be that Luke from Scripture, though I guess it’s still up for interpretation.

     But then, in a glorious scene, the black-and-white film briefly turns to color (a very early form of Technicolor, apparently) on what we now know as Easter Sunday, as Jesus rises from the grave and sees Mary Magdalene and his followers. And of course, Christ ascends to Heaven at the end of the film, and it serves as a beautiful ending to what must have been one of the earliest successes in film of portraying the life of Jesus. Again, I’m sorry for summarizing this pretty quickly, but I encourage you to go see this movie for yourself if you can, because it truly is amazing—or, better yet, read the Gospels!

     To wrap up, though, I want to wish you (probably for the last time) a Happy Easter from me to you. If you happen to be reading this and are unfamiliar with the meaning of this holiday, I just want to tell you from the bottom of my heart what I believe: I was blind, but now I see. (John 9:25b) Even though I grew up in a Christian home, I never fully understood who Jesus was and what He did for me until my teenage years, and that’s when I truly decided to commit my life to Him—and since then, though there have been trials along the way, God has made a path for me that has sincerely blessed me. And I pray that anyone reading this now would recognize Jesus’ sacrifice and remember it today: because of Jesus’ resurrection, we can be too! Hallelujah!

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