Cecil B. DeMille
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 26 December 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
The Bible is a veritable bottomless well of material to which Hollywood turns whenever it wants to feel good about itself. Nothing makes people appreciate the movies like a good, old-fashioned Jesus picture. From the 1897 film of the famous Oberammergau Passion to 2004’s blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, reverent, epic tales of the Lamb of God have been almost guaranteed crowd-pleasers and money-makers. Every so often, some rabble-rouser will make a movie that attempts to tweak the familiar story. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which portrayed Jesus’ struggle with his human nature, met with immense resistance from religious groups and a resulting washout at the box office. Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal, an attempt to translate the Gospels to a contemporary time frame, was critically hailed but was talked about more than it was seen. When it comes to Jesus, apparently, American audiences know the story and want it parroted back to them from the screen with no digressions, thank you very much. That’s why, over more than a century, the only modulations in films depicting Jesus have been the color of his hair and the bloodiness of his beatings.
The golden age for traditional Jesus movies has to be the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s, which produced George Steven’s severely earnest The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben-Hur (in which J.C. makes little more than a cameo), The Robe (more famous now for being the first Cinemascope film than for anything that happens within that great frame), Barabbas (a Dino De Laurentis production), and Nicholas Ray’s version of King of Kings (with Jeffrey Hunter as the prettiest Jesus ever). This glut of piety petered out and met with a backlash in the 1970s when Jesus popped up in everything from hippie musicals (Godspell and Jesus Christ, Superstar) to vulgar comedies (Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and History of the World, Part I). The silent era, however, was just as rife with mangers and crosses as this later period.
In 1926, in a bid to prove to Americans that cinema had more to offer than floozies and murderers, the great showman Cecil B. DeMille, still basking in the holy afterglow of 1923’s The Ten Commandments, re-teamed with screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson to mount a massive production of the last days of Jesus. DeMille and his backers poured piles of money into a picture that, with DeMille as producer and director, was bound to reap it all back. DeMille’s stated ambition was “to give the peoples of the modern world the same opportunity to see the wondrous life-drama of Jesus as was given to the citizens of Judea nineteen hundred years ago.” To make sure the film would pass muster among religious groups (as well as appeal to the broadest possible audience, no doubt), DeMille consulted with members of the clergy (Christian and Jewish) and asked them to make favorable statements (or blessings) concerning the film. Mel Gibson used this same tactic with his film, The Passion of the Christ, only he apparently went all the way up to the Pope. However, just as Gibson’s epic ended up pissing off a lot of Jews, so did DeMille’s. B’nai B’rith deemed it to be full of “malicious and scurrilous caricatures of the Jew,” and the London Jewish Chronicle called it “the lie of lies.”
There are only so many apologies one can make, however, before one has to step up and assert that prominent members of the Jewish clergy did have something to do with the execution of the man called Jesus, and DeMille seems to have done the best he could. A title card appears before the start of the film that contains DeMille’s personal message reminding the audience that the Jews were under the complete subjection of Rome and DeMille has Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest of Judea, take total blame for the Crucifixion and ask God for forgiveness and for mercy on the Jewish people. At the same time, that does not rescue DeMille from portraying Caiaphas as outrageously wicked and surrounded by a lot of guys with hooked noses and big sacks of gold coins. These complaints aside (they are covered with extraordinary historical detail by Felicia Herman in the Fall 2000 issue of The Velvet Light Trap), The King of Kings was seen by millions of people and made a lot of money. The film played in New York for thirty-four weeks, in Los Angeles for twenty-four weeks, and toured the rest of the country and the world for years afterward.
If DeMille made a few changes to the Biblical particulars in order to smooth ruffled religious feathers, he made dozens of changes in order to boost the entertainment value of the film. Most of these occur in the beginning of the film, which opens (in lurid two-color Technicolor) on the sumptuous lair of Mary of Magdala. Dressed in little more than spangles and a pair of slippers, mugging and posing for her guests, and shouting commands such as “harness my zebras,” you might be forgiven for thinking you were about to take part in a rollicking romp through the life of the Christ. One half-expects Mary to break into a Charleston. The atmosphere quickly becomes less redolent of perfume once Mary sets off to find her wayward lover, Judas, and Jesus (played by a long-in-the-tooth H.B. Warner) comes on screen, the film reverting to a statelier black-and-white palette. Warner, decrepit as he appears, lends a quiet dignity to the film that is transfixing. This self-possessing majesty is just enough to compensate for the bits of low comedy that spring up such as when the little blind boy (who we know is blind because he stumbles around with his eyes closed and his arms outstretched) mistakes the back end of a donkey for a helpful passerby.
It would be disingenuous of me to recommend any religious-themed film for purposes other than entertainment. The movies provide many riches, but religious instruction should probably not be one of them. They may provide endorsement of faith (and all accounts of the reception of The Passion of the Christ seem to indicate that it does so quite well), but to regard a film of the life of Jesus, no matter how accurate it may be to the Gospels (which actually contradict each other in spots) as anything other than an enjoyable Sunday school diversion would be foolhardy.