Vastly Overrated on Every Level
Probably tomorrow, we'll get to a second movie which used some of the same sets, and in December, we did the last. The walls of Jerusalem became the gates through which the titular King Kong appeared, and when they'd been standing around the studios for over a decade and were arguably a hazard, they were covered in fake storefronts and such then set on fire to represent the Burning of Atlanta. DeMille was a big fan of the spectacle, and this movie was no exception. It has less skin than a lot of his other Biblical efforts--he tended to use the dignity of religious pictures, with the understanding that they were strong and moral, as an excuse to show sin in great detail. Mary Magdalene spends the beginning of the movie dressed in a distinctly skanky manner, but that really appears to be it. No one bathing in a tub of milk. No dances of any kind. Decadence seems limited to just kind of lolling around. But it's spectacle!
The story is familiar to most of the world, though bits of it should be confusing to anyone who's actually read the Gospels. You see, we start at a decadent dinner, where Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan), here apparently closer to a high-class call girl even than the flawed portrayal of her as a prostitute or adulteress, is angry because Judas Iscariot (Joseph Schildkraut) isn't in attendance. Instead, he's off gallivanting about with some itinerant preacher called Jesus (H. B. Warner). He is doing this because he thinks Jesus will become king and raise Judas to a position of power. Mary Magdalene believes her powers of seduction will return Judas to her side, even though she's told that the preacher's magic is strong enough so that he can even raise the dead. She goes in all of her slutty glory to confront Jesus, and he banishes the Seven Deadly Sins from her. She then ceases to matter for much of the story, which wanders back and forth over the Gospels from then on out.
And I mean the faithfulness, if you will, to Scriptural sources is terrible. Leaving aside what I'm quite certain are mistranslations in the title cards, such as that those were demons, the cards give us the book, chapter, and verse in the corner. This means that anyone paying attention doesn't really have to know the Bible very well to recognize that the temptation by Satan (Alan Brooks) doesn't actually take place after Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem in triumph. We leap back and forth, with some verses repeated, according to what fits the intended storyline best, without regard to the traditional sequence of events. DeMille went out of his way to get the approval of various religious figures, but I can't imagine why they gave it. Moral it may be, but a good portrayal of the acts in the Gospels it is not. To the point that it's actively confusing in places.
Which is not helped by the casting of Warner as Jesus. He was about fifty at the time, nearly twenty years older than Jesus was supposed to have been, and he looks it. He's almost like Grandpa Jesus, which is probably not the look DeMille was going for. His original choice was 29, but he died before filming began. (The second choice was J. B. Warner, not related, though H. B.'s family took him in and therefore they are believed by many to have been brothers.) His Virgin Mary (Dorothy Cumming) was about the age his Jesus should have been. (You might remember Jesus as Mr. Gower of Bedford Falls.) The Apostles all sort of blend together, though it's nice that the WASP-y one was Judas. There are certain traditions wherein Judas looks more stereotypically Jewish than any of the others; in this film, that honour goes to Ernest Torrance as Peter. The others, I couldn't describe on a dare, though there is a Roman soldier whose outfit was later borrowed and reshaped in the breastplate for Lucy Lawless to wear.
There's a lot of use of soft focus and strategic lighting, which serves to emphasize the holiness of Jesus but also brings to mind tricks used to make Lucille Ball look young enough to play Mame Dennis when she manifestly wasn't. It's as though DeMille thought his Jesus was so old that you'd forget that's who he was if his divinity wasn't apparent every minute. (Normally, I capitalize the pronoun, there, as is technically correct. For a movie, it seems sacrilegious.) He doesn't use such tricks with his Virgin Mary, which is almost a shame, because it would help you remember which one she is. Still, it all gets dreadfully heavy-handed in places. As is traditional in the screen Jesus, he kind of stands around with his eyes cast upward, looking otherworldly in a vacuous way. The division of Jesus between Man and God has been an issue of theological debate for nearly two thousand years now, but filmmakers seem to prefer the divine. It's an easy way to separate Jesus from the sinners around him, I guess.