2 Cinematic Icons for Holy Week

Screen depictions of Christ that provoke prayer are well worth seeing.

L to R: ‘Golgotha’ (1935) and ‘The King of Kings’ (1927)
L to R: ‘Golgotha’ (1935) and ‘The King of Kings’ (1927) (photo: Public domain)

From different times, and from opposite sides of the Atlantic, there are two films that a good viewing for Holy Week: one from Hollywood, The King of Kings (1927), and one French, Golgotha (1935). 

Both films depict the events of Holy Week. They do so reverently but never simply as worthy exposition. Instead, viewers are treated to a dynamic cinematic recounting of the central events of our faith. 

The King of Kings was the work of Cecil B. DeMille. His name is synonymous with big-budget Hollywood epics, often based upon biblical themes. In those biblical-themed movies, however, it could be argued that his use of Holy Scripture was often subjugated to unscriptural melodramatic subplots. 

The opening scenes in The King of Kings would seem to confirm this. In this silent film, we are told via surtitles that Mary Magdalene is one of Herod’s courtesans. When she is informed that her boyfriend Judas Iscariot has left the court and has been seen wandering the countryside with an itinerant carpenter, she sets out in a chariot pulled by zebras to find her former beau. 

If this does not make the heart sink, then the next scene would. We are shown a young boy who is crippled and searching for Our Lord. He asks the crowd where he can find Jesus and is shown a doorway. He emerges soon after from that door, shaking his leg and jumping around in front of the crowd: He is cured. What is more, we are told by surtitle that this is St. Mark, who will one day write the Gospel. 

Judging from these opening scenes, The King of Kings should be a sentimental, sensationalist and unscriptural retelling of the Gospel. However, the film then dramatically changes gear, with Our Lord very much front and center. So good is H.B. Warner’s performance as the Christ that it is hard to sum it up, not so much acting as conveying a holy presence on screen. 

Warner is especially good at conveying the magnetic amiability of Christ experienced by all, especially children. In fact, the scenes with children, which could so easily have lapsed into cloying sentimentality, have a sweetness about them that touches the heart. Perhaps that is the essence of Warner’s performance: It touches the heart. Almost 100 years on, his remains a genuinely moving portrayal of Our Lord. 

DeMille’s directorial touches are assured throughout. The film opens with the public life of Our Lord but moves quickly to where the real drama lies, namely, Holy Week. That change is signaled when Christ, in a carpenter’s yard, is seen touching a piece of wood, reminiscing about his former life. Then it becomes apparent that the wood he caresses is a wooden cross. 

Judas Iscariot, played by Joseph Schildkraut, is a central figure in the drama. The scene of the Last Supper is particularly memorable in showing Judas’ cunning in not partaking of the Eucharist. The traitor’s final end is as dramatic and as terrifying as it should be. In fact, all the New Testament figures are memorable: Our Lady, Peter, Pilate; there is even a cameo of the devil tempting Christ. 

By the end, the young Mark’s inclusion in the plot and friendship with St. Peter, something rooted in tradition, seems apt. Our Lady is portrayed reverently throughout, with some memorable moments, such as when Judas encounters her as he leaves the Upper Room on his way to betray Our Lord, or when the Risen Christ meets his mother. 

There is one jarring note, however. It comes when, after the Last Supper, Jesus leaves the Upper Room just prior to heading to Gethsemane. As he does so, Mary embraces him and then wonders, in a surtitle, if it would not be better if he returned to Nazareth. Unscriptural and unhelpful, this brief episode is the only time the film strikes a wrong theological note. It is a shame because most of the surtitles are scriptural verses that have been arranged thoughtfully so as both to aid the story on screen as well as show the audience the deeper reality of what is taking place.  

The King of Kings ending is particularly noteworthy. Unlike the rest of the film’s monochrome, the Resurrection is shown in glorious Technicolor. Bathed in these new colors, we see the joy of Our Lady, of the disciples and indeed of the Risen Lord. The final scene is accompanied by the words “Lo, I am with you always” superimposed upon a picture of the Risen Christ now blessing the world. That world, however, is no longer first-century Palestine but 20th-century America, replete with cars and factories. 

The film proved a great success upon release in that world, with audiences and critics alike. In the years following, that final image of benediction would be much needed, as the next year the Wall Street Crash ushered in the Great Depression. 

It was on the opposite side of the Atlantic, in the midst of that Great Depression, that another film on the events of Holy Week was to appear. 

Golgotha (English title: Behold the Man) was the work of Julien Duvivier. If DeMille brought Hollywood to the Scriptures, then Duvivier applied to the Gospel all the technique and artistry of current fashions in French filmmaking. As a result, in Golgotha we have a character-driven, moodily lit, starkly told tale of the final days of the Man of Sorrows. 

From the opening, Duvivier, rather than simply filming Our Lord’s actions, skillfully positions the camera to record Christ’s impact on the other characters — Our Lady, Herod, Caiaphas, Pilate, Peter and Judas — all caught up in the drama of Holy Week. It is in their motivations and reactions that aspects of Christ’s sufferings are revealed to us.  

Whereas so many biblical epics are overblown in length and spectacle, Golgotha is finely tuned to its 90-minute length. With no time for sentimentality, this is still a film that has a great deal of flair in its telling of the Gospel narrative and in the process loses none of the story’s inherent drama. The affecting imagery of the Passion, in particular, left one wondering if the director had been influenced by photographic negatives of the Turin Shroud, not least that the holes of the nails are in the wrists of the Risen Christ.  

Watched today, Golgotha forms an obvious parallel with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Both films dwell exclusively on the events of Holy Week; both films have a certain cinematic style to the recounting of a story that might be considered predictable by audiences; and both films appear to have faith. Gibson is a Catholic; Duvivier made films on religious subjects that were not just respectful but illuminating. In Golgotha, it shows.  

The King of Kings and Golgotha are the cinematic equivalent of icons. Both are well worth watching; both remain in the mind long after viewing. During Holy Week they can help the viewer better pray the passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord.