DVD Review HTF REVIEW: The King of Kings (Criterion Collection)

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Michael Elliott, Dec 16, 2004.

  1. Michael Elliott

    Michael Elliott Lead Actor

    Jul 11, 2003
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    Real Name:
    Michael Elliott

    The King of Kings (Criterion Collection)


    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1927/1931
    Rated: NR
    Film Length: 155/112 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: Standard (4:3)
    Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo x2/DD Mono
    Subtitles: None
    Retail Price: $39.95

    The legendary Cecil B. DeMille started making feature films in 1914 with The Squaw Man and ended his career with 1956's The Ten Commandments, which was a remake of his 1923 version. In between those years DeMille became known as the biggest showman Hollywood has ever produced and in large part, DeMille helped build Paramount Studios into what it is today. The debate between who’s the father of film, DeMille or D.W. Griffith could go on for ages but nearly four decades after his death, DeMille has stood the test of time just like the very subject matters he touched.

    In the Spring of 1926 DeMille was still on top of the world due in large part to the huge money brought in by The Ten Commandments but the director wasn’t happy there. DeMille wanted to make a film that would make just as much money, reach just as many people and do stuff no other film up to that point had tried. Originally DeMille was going to do a film about Noah but Warner Brothers beat him to that so the story of Jesus Christ was decided on and nearly two years later The King of Kings would appear as the most lavished epic ever brought to the screen. Estimates put the budget over two-million dollars, which was an outrageous price for 1927 but it paid off when the film broke all box office records and best of all, seventy-seven years later the film is still considered one of the greatest ever made dealing with religion.

    It’s interesting that Mel Gibson was originally going to show The Passion of the Christ without any subtitles because he felt the story spoke loudly enough and that audience members would know the story well enough so words weren’t really needed. With The King of Kings being a silent film the silence really adds to the story but on the other hand, unlike Gibson it’s very apparent that DeMille wasn’t quite sure whether the audience would know the story good enough and that leads to the film’s one weak spot. The film probably would have lost a good twenty-minutes if it weren’t for all the intertitles, which become quite annoying because it’s easy to read the lips of what the actors are saying. Even with that one flaw DeMille created one of the greatest tellings of the story of Jesus.

    The first hour and half deals with Jesus (H.B. Warner) as he walks the Earth with his disciples where he cures the blind and helps the cripple to walk. The second hour then turns to the crucifixion and eventual resurrection and with each passing frame you can tell this is a film being made by someone very passionate about the subject matter. The great lengths DeMille went through to create this film have become somewhat legendary. The director would have ministers bless the film each day before filming and even made his actors sign papers swearing they wouldn’t get into any trouble to where the audiences might not believe them in their part.

    I find it quite odd to bash a religious film for not staying true to the source material because no movie ever has and I’m sure one never will. DeMille adds some interesting changes including having Mark be a young boy who is cured by Jesus but the most infamous change is the romance between Judas and Maria Magdalene. According to the liner notes, this so-called romance was a German legend but why DeMille decided to use it is anyone’s guess. DeMille also said that the Jews were the most unfairly treated in the Bible and to avoid any anti-Semitic controversy, it’s made quite clear that Rome was behind the deeds of that certain day.

    As I said earlier, The King of Kings is epic in scale but DeMille thankfully never goes over the top and remembers that the story is the most important thing to make a movie work. Each and every frame is told in such loving care that it doesn’t take any time for the film to transfer you back and make it seem as if you’re actually there witnessing these events on your own. The lavished sets and thousands of extras also add a great deal of realism to the story and W.B. Warner, while a bit too old for the role, delivers a remarkable performance where he tells every feeling of Jesus with a simple look or body gesture.

    The film is also quite moving especially the scenes with Jesus working with a group of sick people. DeMille usually slows the pace down so that we can see the love these sick people felt for Jesus and that clearly jumps right off the screen. DeMille also makes sure to show Jesus as a mythical character who can work wonders and most importantly, the film allows Jesus to be seen as someone who knows what love is and knows his mission in life. When Jesus is working these wonders the director usually has a light shining on him, which would come off as camp but once again DeMille knew how far to push this and the effect works quite nicely. Another wonderful thing is that DeMille allows some humor to be thrown in with the off-screen violence. The best example of this is the guards getting ready to put the crown of thorns on Jesus but they keep hurting their hands trying to make it. Another wonderful scene has a little girl asking Jesus to heal her doll, which has had a leg broken off.

    Perhaps this was the showman side of DeMille coming into play but the director decided to film the resurrection with Technicolor. In the 1927 “Premier” version, Technicolor is also used at the very beginning of the film but soon fades to black and white when Jesus is introduced. The resurrection sequence with the use of color perfectly brings the detail of a life returning back to the Earth. It’s rather hard to put it into words but when the B&W fades and the color comes shining through, with this little experiment DeMille is able to create some wonderful emotions and get his point across very quietly.

    There have been dozens of religious movies since The King of Kings (including a remake) but I feel this one here is a film that would appeal to everyone no matter what their personal beliefs are. This is classic DeMille, which shows his talent at storytelling as well as his showmanship of delivering a spectacle like no other.

    1927 “Premeir” version/1928 “General Release” version

    When the film premiered originally it ran 155-minutes but was cut down to 112-minutes for its general release, which is the version most commonly seen since 1928. For many this will be their first chance at seeing the uncut version and while I didn’t compare the two scene for scene, I think it’s a safe bet telling people to opt for the uncut version. The major differences that I could tell are alls somewhat minor and don’t effect the movie but the scenes do draw out the characters and give a bit more detail into the events. There’s a scene where Peter catches a fish with a gold piece in its mouth that is missing from the shorter version and the three times he betrays Jesus is also cut. Other noticeable changes is the fact that the film is edited differently and some title cards have been changed. I’d recommend watching the shorter version second just to see how things had to be changed in order to have a storyline flow while missing forty some minutes of film.

    VIDEO---Both film are presented in their Standard (1.33:1) ratio, which of course is the right way to view these. Two 35mm archival prints, one from George Eastman House and one from the Cecil B. DeMille estate, were used in order to create this new transfer, which looks very good, although it doesn’t quite reach the level from Criterion’s Haxan. Having said that, I compared this new transfer to one I recorded off TCM about a year ago and there’s no question that this DVD offers a huge improvement off what was shown there. I’m not sure where the TCM print came from but comparing the two there’s no question a lot of work was done here.

    The most obvious thing is that all kinds of dirt, scratches and debris has been removed making the film a lot more pleasant on the eyes. Another thing that was obviously better here are when the intertitles are onscreen. During all of these DeMille has a very white background with grayish hues and often times there are figures in the background. On the TCM print, these scenes have so much dirt that it’s rather hard to make out what we’re actually seeing but on the Criterion disc these images are a lot more clear. Some of the intertitles are framed at around 1.19:1 and according to the DVD notes, this was done so that all the words could appear on the screen. These intertitles are in remarkable visual shape with the contrast in the background just right so that nothing is every difficult to read.

    Back to the picture quality, the B&W image is remarkable looking due in large part to how free the print is of any damage. While there are still going to be a few speckles, overall there really isn’t anything to complain about. The shadow detail is also very impressive since lighting was a big key to any DeMille film. Many of the scenes take place at night and the black levels are right on the mark. The other issue comes with the Technicolor scenes, which open and close the movie. The opening Technicolor scenes look incredible with very rich and detailed colors. My jaw hit the floor when these scenes first appeared and what really caught my eye was how lovely and detailed all the red colors were. The resurrection Technicolor doesn’t fair quite as well due to some bleeding in the colors but this is the best Criterion could do with the scenes.

    The General Release version doesn’t look quite as good but it’s still better than what aired on TCM a while back. The B&W image isn’t nearly as sharp and the detail isn’t all there due to some soft scenes, which are clearly better in the longer cut. Another thing to note is that when the film was re-released, a soundtrack was added, which meant part of the left frame had to be cut off. I’m not sure how noticeable this would be to the common eye or those who haven’t seen the longer version but after viewing the longer version it’s quite apparent that part of the frame is missing.

    AUDIO---This here is where it’s going to get a bit tricky. The Premier version features a new Dolby Digital Stereo track by composer Donald Sosin, which sound remarkably well without any hiss, scratches or other issues but this here is to be expected. I’ve been watching a lot of silent films recently and one issue that has began to bother me is the added sound effects, which are now being used in these new tracks. This new track does a wonderful job at bringing the film to life and Sosin hits the right notes at each turn especially during the more emotional scenes. I’m sure everyone will feel differently on this issue but personally I wish these added sound effects would be left out. The added effects aren’t too intrusive here but still, I could have lived without them. The most noticeable aspect of this are a few scenes where coins hit the ground and we hear the sound effect of this. Another moment is where a group of people are screaming from a crowd and we can actually hear some of their screams.

    The General Release version features a new Dolby Digital Stereo track by composer Timothy J. Tikker as well as the original track by Hugo Riesenfeld, which is presented as Dolby Digital Mono. There’s no question that the new track has the better range and also benefits from the lack of any scratches or pops. The Mono score is a bit too quiet and features some background hiss but I actually preferred this to the other new tracks.

    EXTRAS---Disc 1 starts off with a second called “Opening Night”, which features newspaper clippings, stills from the premier and telegrams that DeMille sent to his cast and crew after the showing. For some reason I was unable to use my zoom button, which meant it was impossible to read some of this stuff, which was a shame. Some of the telegrams are a lot easier to read but the newspaper clips are so far away that you can’t really make out what they’re saying. Also included is the original program, which contains some beautiful photos but once again, the articles, some written by the screenwriter, are so small that it’s impossible to read them. The film’s press release is also included but the same fate as others happens here. The most interesting extra here is various telegrams from different religious parties talking about their thoughts on the film. A silent theatrical trailer is also included. Disc 2 features the best extra and that’s behind the scenes footage of DeMille directing the cast members. This here was shot for promotional reasons and runs just over thirteen minutes and this footage is in remarkable shape. Some production stills and sketches round off the extras. Some shots of DeMille with D.W. Griffith are also on hand for those interested. Finally there’s a 40-page booklet, which features articles by Peter Matthews, Robert S. Birchard, Grace Kingsley and a section from Cecil B. DeMille’s autobiography.

    OVERALL---This was a blind buy for me, which is something I’m always nervous about doing with a high retail price but it was quite worth it. I think the film is good enough to recommend to anyone no matter what their personal beliefs are and I’m sure those who hate silent films could still enjoy this one. If you’re already a fan of the film then Criterion once again hits a home run and delivers a remarkable package. The best thing is getting both versions of the film with the uncut one looking better than ever. The extras are also nice if a bit frustrating due to the wording size but this is still highly recommended.

    Release Date: Out Now
  2. ZackR

    ZackR Supporting Actor

    Jan 27, 2003
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    Saw this at Best Buy the other day and will most definitely be picking it up. Waiting for a couple gft cards I have coming. [​IMG] Thanks so much for the excellent review! [​IMG]
  3. BrianP

    BrianP Supporting Actor

    Dec 8, 1999
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    This was a blind buy for me as well but I haven't had a chance to watch my copy since getting it a day before release from Amazon. I just have too many other unwatched DVDs delaying my opportunity to view it but hopefully I will get to it before the end of the year. However it looks like another great release from Criterion.
  4. Mario Gauci

    Mario Gauci Cinematographer

    Jan 8, 2005
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    Though I’ve had it ever since its release, for obvious reasons I decided to watch THE KING OF KINGS (1927) over the Easter period. Apart from CARMEN (1915), this was the only De Mille film I’ve seen from the Silent era and, given the subject matter, I kind of expected an uneasy mix of ostentatious production values and heavy-handed sermonizing. While I got that in spades, resulting in my failing to keep a straight face virtually throughout the entire film[​IMG], it was however counterbalanced by a surprisingly efficient pace (for a 2½-hour Silent picture about over-familiar events, I didn’t find it draggy at all) and quite a few impressive individual sequences:

    •the first view of Jesus as a blind girl regains her sight
    •the cleansing of Mary Magdalene from the 7 deadly sins
    •a surprisingly tender and humorous touch as a little girl naively asks Jesus the “Miracle Maker” to mend her broken doll
    •the ever-ambitious (and sorely misguided) Judas attempting to cast the devil out of a possessed child
    •the tax-paying sequence when Christ asks Peter to catch a fish – found to be carrying a gold coin in its mouth – followed, amusingly, by the Romans themselves casting hooks in the river hoping to make a similar catch!
    •Christ leaning on a piece of wood and being distressed when realizing that it’s a concealed cross, an omen of his own imminent fate
    •the stoning of the adulteress with Christ exposing her accusers’ own failings by writing them down on the ground (I had always wondered just what he was supposed to be scribbling, and this here explanation is most satisfactory methinks[​IMG])
    •the Devil’s temptation of Christ (though it takes place in the temple rather than the desert)
    •the spectacular earthquake sequence following the Crucifixion, in which even the tree on which Judas hangs himself is engulfed
    •the resurrection sequence, and especially the final dissolve from Christ being surrounded by the Apostles to his ascent over a modern-city skyline

    Naturally, I preferred the “Roadshow” edition to the shorter “General Release” version which omits several of my favorite sequences and even changes them around a few times. However, I was disappointed that the latter also featured very brief scenes which were missing from the longer cut (the picking of olives prior to the “Suffer little children” sequence, Caiaphas taking the blame for Christ’s death before Pilate washes his hands, Jesus being offered a ‘drink’ by the Romans as he is being prepared for the Crucifixion) – though these admittedly add very little to the proceedings, I would have preferred an uncut version of the film to two vaguely different ones! The extras were mainly text-based and kind of light for a Criterion 2-Disc Set (I skipped their typically bulky booklet for now, as going through them is always a time-consuming task!) though, of course, still quite interesting in themselves.

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