King of Kings, The (1927): DeMille’s Silent Biblical Epic, Starring H.B. Warner

Cecil B. DeMille directed The King of Kings, an impressive silent biblical epic, starring H.B. Warner, focusing on the last weeks of Jesus before his crucifixion.

The opening and resurrection scenes are in two-color Technicolor.

The film is the second in DeMille’s biblical trilogy, preceded by The Ten Commandments (1923) and followed by The Sign of the Cross (1932).

Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a wild courtesan, entertaining men around her. Upon learning that Judas is with a carpenter she rides out on her chariot to get him back.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a beautiful and saintly woman, serving as mother to her son’s followers.

The first sight of Jesus, surrounded by halo, is through the eyes of a little girl, whom he heals.

Judas reveals to Mary that he is only staying with Jesus, hoping to become a high official after Jesus becomes the king of kings. Jesus casts the Seven Deadly Sins out of Mary Magdalene in an exposure sequence.

When one girl asks if he can heal broken legs, Jesus says yes, and she gives him a legless doll. Jesus smiles and repairs the doll.

The crucifixion is foreshadowed when Jesus, having helped a poor family, wanders through the father’s carpentry shop. As a carpenter’s son, he helps carve a piece of wood. When a sheet covering the object is removed, it appears to be a cross towering over Jesus.

Jesus renounces all claims of being an Earthly king. Caiaphas the High Priest is also angry at Judas for having led people to a man whom he sees as false prophet. Meanwhile, Jesus drives away Satan, who had offered him an Earthly kingdom, and he protects an adulterous woman.

The words he draws in the sand are the sins the accusers themselves committed. Judas, desperate to save himself from Caiaphas, agrees to turn over Jesus.

At the Last Supper, Jesus distributes the bread and wine saying they are his body and blood. Judas puts the cup to his lips but refuses to drink; he tears off a piece of bread but lets it drop to the ground.

Mary confronts her son and tells him to flee from danger, but he replies that it must be done for the salvation of all peoples. Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane where he is captured by the Roman soldiers and betrayed by Judas. Judas’ life is saved, but, upon seeing that Jesus is going to be killed, he is horrified. Judas takes a rope that the Romans had used to bind Jesus’ wrists and runs off. Jesus is beaten and then presented by Pontius Pilate to the crowd. Mary Magdalene speaks for him but Caiaphas bribes the crowd to shout against Jesus.

Jesus is taken away to be crucified, pausings on the Via Dolorosa to heal some cripples, despite weakened condition. Jesus is crucified and his enemies throw insults at him.

When Jesus dies, however, a great earthquake comes up. The tree where Judas had hanged himself, with the rope used to bind Jesus’s wrists, is swallowed up amidst gouts of hellfire. The sky turns black, lightning strikes, the wind blows. The people who had mocked Jesus run in terror, and the veil covering the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple is torn.

The tumult ends when Mary asks God to forgive the world for the death of their son. The chaos ends and the Sun shines. Jesus is taken down from the cross and is buried. On the third day, he rises from the dead as promised.

To emphasize the resurrection, this scene from an otherwise black and white film is shot in color. Jesus tells the Apostles to spread his message to the world, “I am with you always.”

The scene then shifts to a modern city, showing that Jesus still watches over his followers.

The last reel is particularly impressive with its soft lighting, and Jesus surrounded with a big hallo.

Several of the film’s intertitles are quotes from Scripture, with chapter and verse accompanying.

H. B. Warner as Jesus
Dorothy Cumming as Mary, the mother of Jesus
Ernest Torrence as Peter
Joseph Schildkraut as Judas Iscariot
Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene
Rudolph Schildkraut as Caiaphas
Victor Varconi as Pontius Pilate
William Boyd as Simon of Cyrene
Micky Moore as Mark
James Dime as a Roman soldier


I am grateful to TCM for showing this silent on December 2, 2019.