Featuring the opening and resurrection scenes 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).
We see Mary Magdalene, here portrayed as a wild courtesan, entertain many men around her. Upon learning that Judas is with a carpenter she rides out on her chariot drawn by zebras to get him back. Peter is introduced as the Giant apostle, and we see the future gospel writer Mark as a child who is healed by Jesus. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is shown as a beautiful and saintly woman who is a mother to all her son's followers. Our first sight of Jesus is through the eyesight of a little girl, whom he heals. He is surrounded by a halo. Mary Magdelene arrives afterwards and talks to Judas, who reveals that he is only staying with Jesus in hopes of being made a high official after Jesus becomes the king of kings. Jesus casts the Seven Deadly Sins out of Mary Magdalene in a multiple exposure sequence.
Jesus is also shown resurrecting Lazarus and healing the little children. Some humor is derived when one girl asks if he can heal broken legs, and, when he says yes, 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, and, himself a carpenter's son, he briefly helps carve a piece of wood. When a sheet covering the object is removed, it is revealed to be a cross towering over Jesus.
Jesus and his apostles enter Jerusalem, where Judas incites the people and rallies them to proclaim Jesus King of the Jews. Jesus, however, 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 a false prophet. Meanwhile, Jesus drives away Satan, who had offered him an Earthly kingdom, and he protects a woman caught in adultery. The words he draws in the sand are revealed to be the sins the accusers themselves committed.
Judas, desperate to save himself from Caiaphas, agrees to turn over Jesus. Noticeably at the Last Supper, when Jesus distributes the bread and wine saying that they are his body and blood, Judas refuses to eat. 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. Towards the end, Mary confronts her son and tells him to flee from the danger that is coming. Jesus replies that it must be done for the salvation of all peoples. They leave the room but the camera focuses on the table upon which a dove alights for a moment.
Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane where he is soon captured by the Roman soldiers and betrayed by Judas. Judas' life is saved, but, upon seeing that Jesus is going to be killed as a result, 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 pleads for the life of her son and Mary Magdalene speaks for him but Caiaphas bribes the crowd to shout against Jesus.
Jesus is taken away to be crucified, though he pauses on the Via Dolorosa to heal a group of cripples in an alley, despite his weakened condition. Jesus is crucified and his enemies throw insults at him. (One woman even anachronistically eats popcorn and smiles with glee at Jesus' crucifixion.) When Jesus does die, 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 in two.
The tumult ends when Mary looks up at heaven and 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 importance of the resurrection, this scene from an otherwise black and white film is shot in color. Jesus goes to the Apostles and tells them to spread his message to the world. He tells them "I am with you always" as the scene shifts to a modern city to show that Jesus still watches over his followers.
Many of the film's intertitles are quotes (or paraphrases) from Scripture, often 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
Cast notesSally Rand was an extra in the film, years before becoming notorious for her "fan dance" at the 1933 World's Fair.
Writer Ayn Rand (no relation to Sally Rand) also was an extra in the film, and met her future husband Frank O'Connor on set.
Micky Moore was the last surviving cast member at his death in 2013.
A giant gate built for this film was later used in the 1933 film King Kong, and was among the sets torched for the "burning of Atlanta" in Gone with the Wind (1939). Other sets and costumes were re-used for the 1965 Elvis Presley film, Harum Scarum.
The King of Kings was the first movie that premiered at the noted Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, California on May 18, 1927. The film was screened there again on May 24, 1977 to commemorate the theater's 50th anniversary.
The movie has two Technicolor sequences, the beginning and the resurrection scene, which use the two-strip process invented by Herbert Kalmus.
In 2006, the American Film Institute nominated this film for AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers. And in 2008, AFI nominated this film for its Top 10 Epic Films list.
In 1928, actress Valeska Surratt and scholar Mirza Ahmad Sohrab sued DeMille for stealing the scenario for The King of Kings from them. The case went to trial in February 1930 but eventually was settled without additional publicity. Surratt, who had left films to return to the stage in 1917, appeared to be unofficially blacklisted after the suit.