• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2016

    Blade Af Satans Bog (1921)


    Carl Theodor Dreyer is rightly revered as a filmmaker of some repute, whose bold and uncompromising films, such as Ordet (1954) and La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) offer and austere, yet beautiful, exploration of human passions kept in check.

    Sadly there's only a little evidence of the Dreyer's impressive future in Blad Af Satans Bog [Leaves from Satan's Book] (1921) an unexciting rip off of Intolerance (Griffith, 1916). Four stories from different historical periods illustrate an oddly complicated punishment regime that the Lord has meted out on Satan where he must tempt humanity even though it pushes him further and further from grace.

    Whilst it's the first period - set just prior to Jesus' death - that is of most interest here, surprisingly it's the obscure love story from the margins of the First World War that proves to be the decisive moment in the relationship between God, Satan and humanity. Perhaps Dreyer would come to rue his optimism here that in the Great War humanity had reached its lowest point and was, at last, beginning an upward trajectory.

    Certainly Dreyer wished to revisit his handling of the Jesus material. Much has been written of Dreyer's attempts in later years to make a film called Jesus of Nazareth that would cast a Jewish actor as the Son of Man and presumably attempt to undo some of the more worrisome anti-Semitic aspects of his original adaption of the Gospels.

    Common to all four stories is Satan taking on human form and seeking to influence those around him to betray their souls. Yet whilst Satan has some success influencing the persecution of an inquisition-era Spanish astrologer and the execution of Marie Antoinette it's in the first section where is able to not only trick Judas, but also to persuade Caiaphas to incite a riot. As with so many Jesus films of this era the Jewish people are portrayed as wizened and grasping in contrast to the noble-looking Romans.

    That said, one of the film's most surprising turns is that the episode truncates before Jesus ever encounters Pilate, shortly after Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane. Indeed only three episodes from the gospels feature - the anointing at the house of Simon the Leper, the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsemane. The focus here is far more on Judas and his emotions than on his master. The film opens with Jesus being anointed and Judas is clearly disappointed with the path Jesus is taking. Satan appears and sympathises with his disillusionment eventually lulling Judas into his trap and leaving him at the moment his remorse begins to hit home (though notably before he takes his own life).

    The footage of Jesus, however, is more distant and remote. Jesus is often shot from low down and close to the top of the frame. He is constantly peering upwards as if through his brow. The scene of the Last Supper is visually striking, but also rather stiff and unimaginative. If by the end of the section Judas is disappointed with the course events have taken is hard to understand what it was that compelled him to follow Jesus in the first place.

    In making his Jesus story the only episode of the four that doesn't revolve around a traditional love story Dreyer also imitates Intolerance, but in contrast to Griffith, Dreyer does actually develop his Judean story and offer a subtler, more nuanced portrait of events. There are some notable touches of his future work here as well, not least the number of and prolonged use of close-ups. In particular the close ups of the woman anointing of Jesus, hints at Dreyer's use of extreme and lengthy close-ups of the face of Maria Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. That the later film was just seven years away is surprising - in terms of the development of Dreyer's style it somehow seems far longer.

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    Wednesday, July 20, 2016

    The Canon in the Late Silent Era


    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.

    The latter part of the silent era saw a distinct change from cinema's early days . Perhaps the most significant change was that films gradually moved from short films - originally less than a minute - to epics of three hours long. By the end of the silent era very few films, relatively speaking, were being made that were less than feature length and the available resources were concentrated on a lower number of longer films, the era became more professional and standardised.

    Bible films in this era were no different. The rate of production of films based on the Hebrew Bible, for example dropped from around 6.5 per year prior to the release of Intolerance to 4.5 per year thereafter. There was also a little less diversity. Many of the characters that appeared in the early silent era did not reappear in the latter period - the stories of Athalia, Jael, Ruth, Elisha, Micah, Joshua and Daniel were just some of those that were not remade and overall the range of stories dropped by about a quarter.

    At the same time new episodes did get their first airings. In 1918 the German film Hiob became the first film to tell the story of Job. Four years later another German film, Jeremias (1922) broke new ground with the first film about Jeremiah whilst neighbouring Austria saw the creation of Sodom und Gomorrha, directed by Mikhaly Kertesz. Shortly afterwards Kertesz escaped to Hollywood, changed his name to Michael Curtiz and went on to direct some of classic-era Hollywood's most famous films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942). One of his first films in America however would be the last "silent" Bible film of note, Noah's Ark (1928) which he directed for Warner. The majority of the film was shot as a silent movie, only for a few extra talking scenes to be added as producers rushed to keep up with the latest technological development.

    The other significant change in terms of production was that whereas the early silent era was typified by a handful of directors such as J. Stuart Blackton, Louis Feuillade and Henri Andréani each of whom made a series of Bible films, here most directors only made one film based on scripture. There are obvious exceptions to this like DeMillie and Curtiz/Kertesz who both made a pair of biblical films (DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927); Curtiz/Kertesz' Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Noah's Ark (1929)), but the era of a few dedicated directors continually ploughing the same furrow was over.

    But other changes were also afoot, firstly character development began to improve. The earliest silents had just presented actors as little more than cinematic nativity figurines, but even by the 1910s even the minor characters were beginning to get developed, 1910's L'Exode, for example, invented and developed the Miller and his family to heartbreaking effect. Intolerance really showcased film's ability to develop a series of characters and get audiences to identify with them even when there were many characters across several stories. This tendency quickly followed in films from the Hebrew Bible and began to gain traction in Jesus movies as well such as Robert Wiene's 1923 I.N.R.I. (Crown of Thorns) where the characters of Judas and Magdalene are also developed.

    This tendency to develop the more fringe characters seems to have lent itself to other films developing the same characters and as a result the scenes in which they were prominent began to embed themselves in the canon. For example, even though the gospels never associate Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery from John 8, conflating the two became a common way to boost Magdalene's involvement with the result that this story has a strong position within the New Testament canon.

    There's one more thing that is significant about this era that I've not yet touched on and that is the emergence of the big stories that would embed themselves as a key part of the filmic canon from this point onwards. My comments above touch on the breadth of films that were made during this period, but the height of the different films is also significant. It was, after all, in this era that we began to see the emergence of the big Bible film - those films that involved a significant investment and provided the necessary spectacle that would come to be synonymous with the genre.

    When we look at some of the "biggest" Bible films of the era, and their corresponding stories certain things begin to emerge:

    Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) - Lot
    Samson und Delilah (1922, pictured) - Samson
    The Shepherd King (1923) - David
    The Ten Commandments (1923) - Moses
    The King of Kings (1923) - Jesus
    Noah's Ark (1929) - Noah

    There are two points to note here. Firstly, that all of these films would get a big screen Hollywood remake of sorts in the period between 1949 and 1969. In four cases they used the exact title. The most tenuous claim here is the story of Noah which formed a/the key component of Huston's The Bible (1966). The point could also be made that five of the six stories have also received relatively recent big screen Hollywood adaptations, albeit with a divergence of styles (The Prince of Egypt and Year One for example).

    The other point is the flipside of this, that what might be thought of as important stories which didn't get a major adaption during this era (e.g. Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, Joshua, Gideon, Daniel, Judith) tended to be those that have lacked a subsequent big screen Hollywood adaption. There's a certain amount of cherry picking here - Solomon was covered in 1959, Esther in 1960 and Adam and Eve/Abraham were also part of Huston's The Bible, but generally the trend holds out.

    All of which raises the question of why this was. Was it that knowing these films had been successful in the past allowed producers a certain comfort that these were the stories that would do well? Was it that there was a sense of nostalgia that even the filmmakers felt themselves or, at least, felt their audiences would feel? Or was it that these were the stories most suited to the big screen where the elements of size and spectacle and/or miracle are the most apt to be captured in the big "Hollywood" blockbuster?

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    Monday, July 18, 2016

    INRI [Crown of Thorns] (1923)

    Robert Wiene will, rightly, always be best remembered for his 1920 expressionistic classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but by 1923 with his best work already behind him, Wiene turned his attention to the subject of Jesus. The result was INRI, released in some countries as Crown of Thorns which, whilst not the classic of three years previously, still maintained some interesting shots and the occasional set that wouldn't look out of place in Caligari's tortured imagination. The film was also somewhat innovative for the Jesus in film genre as it was one of the earliest to develop some of the other characters in the story, most notably Judas.

    Sadly no complete copy of this film has survived, and the two prints that do exist contain significantly different material from one another. Reinhold Zwick has penned an excellent essay on INRI and Der Galiläer (1921) in "The Silents of Jesus" (Shepherd, ed.) that includes an appendix detailing the different scenes in each of the two prints. Whilst these prints remain in their archives, a substantial proportion of the one held in the Bundesarchiv/Filmarchiv (Berlin) has found its way onto YouTube. Its subtitles are in Czech and its time-stamp enables you to see where bits of the original have been chopped and there's at least one place where the original footage has been slowed down during their transition to YouTube. Nevertheless, it's this "popular" version that I'll discuss in the remainder of this piece.

    One of the things that's most memorable about both this film and Der Galiläer (1921), at least amongst Bible films, is their use of a sepia tint throughout. Other films had filtered entire scenes before but these two German films, which despite the difference in their given dates were actually circulating in far closer proximity to one another, were the first to use a consistent tint throughout. Here it gives the film the feel of night time, even during the scenes that are set during the day, and evokes some of that Caligari-esque feel. 

    This is further enhanced by the black vignette which softens the edge of the screen giving the impression that we are only seeing part of the action, that the scene exists beyond the edges of the frame. It makes the film seem more naturalistic as does the generally limited use of special effects and the use of light and particularly shadow.

    That said, neither of those points apply to the film's opening scene - a formalised nativity where the stables two walls and a pointed roof fit cleanly and evenly within the frame. After a while a double exposure reveals the star and a host of angels sitting on the roof. Whilst technically the shot is more complicated and executed more professionally than those from the 1905 Life and Passion of Jesus Christ the effect feels very much the same and clearly required the sort of static framing that so typified the very earliest Jesus films.

    However, visually this film owes more to Kalem's From the Manger to the Cross (1912) than it does to the early Pathé films. This becomes particularly apprent in the next scene of the boy Jesus in the temple. The scene is longer here than in the Kalem's film but the appearance of the child actor is incredibly similar as is some of the framing. There's a great high shot in there as well as the previously cosy scene of Jesus talking with the elders is suddenly disrupted by the frantic appearance of Jesus' mother. It quite literally gives a new angle on the cosy scene.

    Perhaps the moment that is most reminiscent of From the Manger is the scene from the house of Mary and Martha. Here we also have a Mary figure who sits cross legged at Jesus' feet. Whilst in the original Jesus faces just away from the camera, here he is facing sideways, but Mary's angle is practically identical and in both scenes she is dressed in black with a black sheet masking her hair and smiling serenely as she listens to Jesus, teaching.

    This is quite a major scene, starting with establishing shots which show a considerable crowd amassing before the shots inside which cover a number of incidents. There are a number if impressively large crowd scenes, even if they are where the a Youtube version most distorts.

    The most notable use of an establishing shot is at the start of the scene where Jesus welcomes the little children which starts when a young girl approaches him as he sits teaching Mary and the rest if the crowd. What's really surprising is a couple of shots of real intimacy. The first comes Jesus caresses the back of the child's neck, pulls her close and even rests his head against hers. Later he tenderly touches the head of another child.

    An even more strikingly intimate moment follows in the scene where a woman enters the frame to anoint Jesus's feet. As the woman slowly approaches Jesus Wiene places the vessel containing the nard in such a position that it draws the eye, even before she has approached Jesus. The action is filmed in close up with a surprising intimacy as the woman first stroke the perfume onto Jesus's feet and then wipes it away with her hair. I'm struggling to remember a film that actually shows both the use of a perfume to wash Jesus' feet and the use of the woman's hair to wipe away the dust/perfume mix. The scene is long and drawn out and perhaps given extra affection by the fact that the actress playing Magdalene and the actor playing Jesus were lovers at the time. (Zwick, p.219)

    The scenes of Jesus ministering are intercut with footage of Pontius Pilate in his house. Pilate is played by Werner Krauss who played the titular Dr Caligari in Wiene's famous film. There's arguably a certain amount of typecasting there, but here Krauss largely plays it straight. His Pilate is the, sadly typical, rational European, who is left somewhat bewildered by the fury felt towards Jesus by the Jewish leaders and their mob. Whilst INRI isn't quite as anti-Semitic as Der Galiläer (1921) it does resort to the same old stereotypes - refined, noble Romans vs irrationally seething, unphotogenic, gaudily-dressed Jews.

    This gulf between the two portrayals is heightened by Wiene's decision to do strange things with his actors' eyes. In some cases it's just make up. Zwick (p.222) talks about how Jesus and Magdalene's eyes "are painted with dark shadows". But in other places characters give wide-eyed stares and at one point Jesus even goes cross-eyed. Zwick (p.222) sees some of this as a drawing "heavily upon the traditional tormented Christ of Gothic art".

    Sadly this doesn't always work as well as, presumably, Wiene intended, and the later scenes lack the impact of some of the earlier ones. Nevertheless, it's an interesting approach and as a whole  it means that the film feels rather different from other Jesus films, both from this era, and the genre as a whole. Whilst it lacks the brilliance of Wiene's Caligari it is nevertheless and interesting film visually with a few striking and indeed memorable images.

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    References to Zwick are taken from:
    Zwick, Reinhold, "Der Galiläer (Express-Film, 1921) and I.N.R.I (Neumann-Film, 1923): The Silence of Jesus in the German Cinema" in Shepherd, David J., (ed.) "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)", Abingdon: Routledge 2016

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    Sunday, July 10, 2016

    The Prodigal (1955)


    This post is my entry to the Sword and Sandal Blogathon hosted by @DebbieVee of the Moon in Gemini blog

    In 1955 would-be makers of epic films faced a dilemma. On the one hand biblical films had suddenly become popular and the studios, desperate to cash in, were trying to make all they could out of the new trend. The new, wider, screens called for more eye-catching images and post-war, the public was ready to move on from film noir's cheap sets and low budgets.

    Yet on the other hand, the depiction of Jesus, the Bible's biggest "star", was very much frowned upon. You could show one or two of his limbs (as The Robe and Salome had done two years previously) or have him speak through a boy and a blinding light (as in 1951's Quo Vadis?), but such approaches were rapidly running out of road.

    MGM's solution to this dilemma was that instead of trying to tell a story around the margins of Jesus' life, was to focus instead on a story that Jesus told - the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus was, after all, famed as a story teller and this would enable MGM to appeal to the market for biblical stories without even needing to show Jesus himself.

    It wasn't the first time the parable had been adapted for the silver screen. Silent portrayals of the story went as far back as Ferdinand Zecca's 1902 version for Pathé and four more adaptations would follow in the next ten years. The parable's short, punchy style was ideally suited to the shorter running times and the imagery of money being wasted on parties and of a loving father running down the road to embrace a wayward son worked well for an art form that was still finding its feet with dialogue.

    But as films got longer it presumably became harder to stretch the material out to cover the relevant length and a sub-genre was, to all intents and purposes, lost. As almost forty five years passed, with those early, French, silents seemingly forgotten, MGM must have been pleased with their novel solution. Not only did they spend roughly the same budget as 20th Century Fox spent on The Robe, their advertising for the film boasted how it was "The Biggest Picture Ever Filmed in Hollywood" and how it cost "A fortune to produce!"1

    Without the possibility of Jesus as a leading man, MGM opted to boost the movie's star power by giving the headline role to its own star, Lana Turner. The move was not without precedent. Two years earlier Columbia had used another star of film noir, Rita Hayworth, to front Salome; similarly taking advantage of the way the genre/change of cultural context enabled them to display their leading ladies in more revealing costumes without the characters losing respectability. However, whereas Hayworth was backed up by Charles Laughton and Stewart Granger, Turner was cast opposite Louis Calhern and the relatively unknown Edmund Purdom. Furthermore, as the prodigal son of the title, it was Purdom who had the greater screen time and around whom the story was based.

    Purdom plays Micah, a Jewish son living in Joppa, who, in the very first scene, clashes with a prominent member of Damascus's pagan religious hierarchy by liberating one of his slaves (James Mitchell's Asham). Returning to Joppa shortly afterwards he instantly falls for Astarte's high priestess, Samarra (Turner). Micah returns home determined to "have" Samarra for himself and persuades his reluctant father to give him a quarter of his wealth.

    Whilst this first part of the story drops in a couple of references from the Bible ("For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb...her feet go down to death" Prov 5:3 and, rather more crassly, "I'm hungry enough to devour a whole fatted calf") it also makes critical changes to the story. Micah's rescue of Asham, for example, establishes his exceptional, high sense of morality if also illustrating his carefree attitude to money. Micah is unlikely to prove his respectful enough to make his father ashamed of him. True enough whilst his father is unhappy initially, he quickly accepts his son's decision and reassures him that he'll love him "no matter what". Nevertheless the loss of much of Micah's part of the fortune is due to him being exploited by one of the money lenders from Damascus, the high priest of Baal (Louise Calhern) and perhaps even his new found love.

    The effect of all this is does rather cheapen the grace which is the heart and soul of the original story. The son is transformed from one seemingly beyond redemption in the original parable, to someone who is basically a good, if naïaut;ve, person who simply happens to hold some different opinions to his father. It's hard to find anything here that would cause a significant rift between father and son, and indeed there isn't.

    From there on things take a turn towards what some see as the ridiculous and others as untrammelled entertainment. It gradually become apparent that Micah is the stereotypical, slightly spoilt, rich, boy; arrogant yet unaware of how he's upsetting people, and clearly having more money than sense. If his behaviour in the opening scene quickly gets his audience on side, such support dissipates scene by scene as the movie progresses, not helped by Purdom's lack of warmth, charisma or chemistry with Turner.

    Incensed by how he has been treated Micah begins to lead a rebellion, but its beset by the kind of problems which increasingly feel like the kind of thing that only a rather desperate screenwriter could come up with. So in relatively short succession we get a sacrificial victim willingly diving into a fire pit, a series of people throwing knives which somehow stick awkwardly into their victim's necks, Micah's mute slave being magically restored to life, an play performed by characters wearing bizarre animal headed costumes and a man wrestling with an actual vulture.

    The last of those moments certainly deserves to be more famous and not as the surprising missing link between DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949) and Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). I struggle to think of more than one or two films where someone tussles with an avian opponent, let alone where he had to choke a full-sized feathered assassin to death using a recently discarded bone. Director Richard Thorpe had been fired by both Esther Williams and the producers of The Wizard of Oz for being unimaginative. One can only imagine that, stung by the criticism, he determined never to guilty of that particular cinematic crime again.

    By the man-vs.-bird's standards, the finale seems rather tame, though it's undoubtedly over the top in its own way. Micah decides to overthrow the leaders of the religions of Baal and Astarte and musters a group of Damascene rebels to help him in his task. They storm Samarra's temple, and throw rocks at her until she dives headlong into the sacrificial fire pit.

    Were it not for its over-the-topness it might have been a more shocking moment. Fifties epics had their fill of stories where a Judeo-Christian women meets, and eventually converts, a pagan man (usually Roman) to her faith. Here the roles are reversed and yet whilst Micah manages to get Samarra to compromise her own faith enough to sleep with him, it is not enough to convert to his Judaism.

    Why did the filmmakers decide not to give Samarra the redemption the rest of the film points towards? Is it just that Micah's own compromised faith is not strong enough to transform her belief? Or might it be that because his faith was Jewish (i.e. not fully Christian) that they decided it was not powerful enough to convert her? Maybe it was that as a sexually impure women they judged her beyond redemption despite the (presumably) sexually experienced male leads of Quo Vadis? and The Robe being reached by the sexual purity of the women they loved? Whatever their reason it rather mutes Micah's overthrow of the oppressive Baalan/Astartean regime and sees him return to his father with his tail between his legs despite what would be, in other biblical epics, a significant victory.

    In some ways this is probably just as well - after all, had Micah ridden home triumphant on the back of the grateful Damascans the "father I have sinned against you and against God" speech might have sounded a little hollow. Yet ultimately the film has two endings, neither of which is really particularly satisfactory: the victory in Damascus is shorn of the triumph over adversity that seeing Samarra rescued (and on the film's terms, converted) would have provided; the shocking forgiveness and redemption of the biblical ending is stunted by the lack of a truly wayward son. Ultimately his father's unconditional acceptance ends up being merely more or less normal behaviour rather than an outrageous and unexpected act of forgiveness by an ever-loving father.

    Growing up in a church home I knew about the prodigal years before I knew what being prodigal actually was. Even today its rare to hear the word in a context unrelated to Jesus' story. And it's hard to escape the feeling that a director like DeMille might have made rather more entertaining and satisfying film out of his lead's infamous prodigality and subsequent repentance than Thorpe does here. Perhaps The Prodigal's biggest failure is that it took the "Son" out of the film's title, but the "Prodigal" out of the actual movie.

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    1 - Motion Picture Herald (Apr-Jun 1955) vol 199, April 2, 1955 p.2. Accessed on 9th July 2016 at https://ia801306.us.archive.org
    /13/items/motionpictureher199quig/motionpictureher199quig.pdf

    Thursday, July 07, 2016

    The Sword and Sandal Blogathon


    I'm pleased to announce that I'm going to be partaking in the Sword and Sandal Blogathon which is taking place from the 8th-10th July 2016. I decided to join in quite a while ago and have been looking forward to taking part in something bigger than my own little corner of the interweb, but I only decided this week what I was going to cover. My decision, ultimatelyl, is to review The Prodigal (1955) a Lana Turner vehicle essentially expanding the Parable of the Prodigal Son into a movie length feature. Keep an eye out over the next few days for my review.

    Also if this sounds like the thing you'd be interested in joining in with then it's not too late (and I think it's very much one of those the-more-the-merrier type affairs). Simply choose your movie and add a comment to Debra Vega's original post announcing the blog-a-thon and then post your relevant review up over the next few days. Many thanks to Debra for hosting this. I'm looking forward to seeing the various reviews.

    Sunday, July 03, 2016

    The Star of Bethlehem (1912)


    Thanhouser's The Star of Bethlehem (dir. Lawrence Marston, 1912) originally ran to three reels, but only around one reel's worth of footage (~1000ft) has survived. Thankfully this is one of the many silent films that the present day Thanhouser has made available to view for free on Vimeo.

    In some ways it's a shame that much of this footage has been lost. Marston and scenario writer took the unusual approach of prefacing the film with material from the Hebrew Bible including footage of Isaiah and Micah. Whilst The Living Bible Series and Rossellini's Il Messia also take a similar approach this is the only time that Micah has ever been depicted on screen as far as I am aware.

    The remaining footage begins in the court of King Herod in the middle of "revelry" (to quote the intertitle card) with the three wise men about to arrive. The opening shot allows the time to soak up the atmosphere of Herod's court before the we move outside where the magi arrive and mange to persuade the guards to grant them an audience with the king. The film's two nicest shots feature here as the wise men walk past a company of guardsmen in one shot and then emerge through the crowd in Herod's court room in the next. In both shots they enter from the back of the shot and work their way towards the front; in the first progressing along the right third of the screen in contrast to the static guards in the leftmost two thirds; in the second entering from deep centre whereby the crowd parts to let them through. Whilst the camera here is static, the depth of focus and composition of these shots is a little ahead of its time particularly in the way that the balance of the composition of the shots only fully works as the image is moving.

    Having been permitted by Herod to seek the child and instructed by him to report back the three head off in pursuit of the star managing to bump into the shepherds just as the angel of the Lord appears. Rather touchingly the mixed group of shepherds and magi team up and head off towards the stable together. It's an unusual move but given the apparent difference in wealth between the two groups the way these barriers are never even an issue rather emphasises the fact that all are equal before God.

    The inside of the stable is tightly composed with a rather ethereal-looking Joseph at the front of the shot. Whilst almost all film Josephs and Jesuses are usually dark-haired, bearded thirty something men, there's a certain something about this Joseph that makes him appear unusually Jesus-like.

    The climax of this shot (and, indeed of this remaining fragment) sees the group hold their pose in adoration whilst a group of super-imposed angels appear at the top of the shot. I don't know where the original film ended, but this seems as perfect an end point as I can imagine, particularly for a film that was originally released on Christmas Eve.

    The Vimeo page for this film includes a good deal of extra detail about the film which I've included below not only for interest but also as occasionally these things disappear from the web after a few years (looking at you BFI archive...)
    The Star of Bethlehem: One reel, released December 24, 1912.
    Biblical tale about the birth of Christ told with a cast of 100's, one reel British version edited from original three reel release.
    Directed by Lawrence Marston. Production supervised by Edwin Thanhouser. Scenario by Lloyd F. Lonergan. Original length three reels (3,000 feet); surviving version edited to one real (1,000 feet)
    Print source: British Film Institute National Film and Television Archive, 15 minutes, 13 seconds.
    Cast: Florence LaBadie (Mary), James Cruze (Micah, Joseph), William Russell (Herod), Harry Benham (Angel Gabriel), Justus D. Barnes (Gaspar, one of the Magi), Charles Horan (Melchior, one of the Magi), Riley Chamberlin (Balthasar, one of the Magi), Harry Marks (scribe), N. S. Woods (scribe), Lawrence Merton (scribe), David H. Thompson (Pharisee, rabbi), Lew Woods (Pharisee, scribe), Joseph Graybill (Roman messenger), Carl LeViness (shepherd), Frank Grimmer (shepherd), Ethyle Cooke; total cast of 200 persons.
    Original music composed and performed by Andrew Crow (thanhouser.org/people/crowa.htm.)
    Thanhouser's ambitious Star of Bethlehem was one of the first steps toward true feature-length films (more than two reels long). It appeared the year before the Italian epic Quo Vadis? was viewed in the U. S., and two years before the first Hollywood feature, The Squaw Man. The original negatives were destroyed in the Thanhouser studio fire just three weeks after its first release.
    Preparation of this epic was one of the last duties of Edwin Thanhouser before leaving the studio that bore his name. He had sold it to Mutual in April of 1912 and continued to work as studio manager until he "retired" in November, 1912, only to return in 1915. Thanhouser's biggest production up to that point in time, the film required a one-month shooting schedule, employed a cast of 200 (including forty principals), and cost a hefty $8,000. Special effects alone took a full week's work.
    Thanhouser studio's flair for sumptuous costumes, crowds of actors, and rich staging is evident in this epic. Some of the larger scenes reportedly were filmed with two or even three cameras shooting from different angles. The ratio of two-and-a-half feet of film exposed per foot of film used is modest by today's standards, but was extravagant for 1912.
    This film is available on DVD from Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, Inc. at thanhouser.org.

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    Saturday, July 02, 2016

    The Canon in the Early Silent Era pt.3


    Please note this post is very much a work in progress and as such a few parts of it need closer fact checking
    In the previous two posts in this series I looked at how the cinema of the early silent era treated the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels. I know want to have a look as to some of the reasons as to why this might be.

    This earliest period of film history was very chaotic, certainly when you compare it to the studio system that dominated in the middle of the twentieth century. Studios were only just being set up and whilst some of the names of those studios remain known to us (such as Pathé and Gaumont), most of the film producers from this era have faded from general consciousness. In many ways this was the wild west (although cinema's move to "the west", to Hollywood, did not begin until the second half of the silent era). The technology was still emerging, and improving at a rapid rate, systems were very much ad hoc, expectations around production values were still fairly low, the star system was still in its infancy and the expectations of what going to see a/some film/s actually entailed was very much still fluid.

    In essence this still forming context meant that making films was still relatively cheap. Films could be less than twenty minutes, shot against the kind of painted sets as seen at the theatre, and without the need to pay stars huge wages. The shortness of many of the individual films meant that exhibitors commonly showed numerous films in an evening's entertainment, meaning there was a demand for a larger number of films. It also meant that the range of filmmakers was relatively diverse and they brought with them their own agendas and interests. So there were the technological pioneers such as the Lumierè brothers, dramatists from theatre backgrounds, magicians such as Georges Meliés and, of particular relevance here, clergy men and evangelists seeking to harness the potential of the new medium for instruction and to spread the gospel.

    Perhaps surprisingly, the period that most matches the hive of filmmaking activity at the start of the 20th century is that start of the 21st century. For much of the intervening period filmmaking became the expensive preserve of the rich or the dedicated. But this earliest period and the current one have found a far more democratized marketplace where production of films is relatively cheap, markets more forgiving and distribution channels more fluid. Religious filmmakers, both then and now, have very much taken advantage of this democracy and both periods are marked both by a relatively high number of religious films and considerable diversity. It's perhaps not coincidental, then, that stories which have not considered particularly worthy of adaption in more professional circles, but are perhaps close to the hearts of religious groups have primarily featured in these two periods. The Book of Daniel is perhaps the most notable example here.

    The result of all the activity in this period meant that the numbers of films made was relatively large and diverse, such that the probability of an obscure story being adapted into a film was relatively high. This pattern is particularly apparent when such stories were aligned to a group's specific interests. Nevertheless one thing that is interesting, not least when viewed from the supposedly enlightened 21st century, is this period's inclusion of episodes that have a more prominent female perspective. So during this period we have the Old Testament narratives of Jael, the Shunamite woman and Athalia; the deuterocanonical stories of Judith and Susanna; and Gospel episodes such as the woman of Samaria, the daughter of Herodias and the almost ever present appearance of Veronica.

    It's commonly assumed that our own era gives women the greatest voice, but there are persuasive arguments in favour of the earliest silent era. Firstly whilst the impact of directors such as Alice Guy Blaché has historically been minimised by film historians, this is starting to reverse and Guy's contribution in particular has been highlighted for the way it developed cinema. Secondly there are various prominent other roles in filmmaking where there was gender parity, in particular script writing and editing. Finally as cinema was then, as now, primarily a financially motivated business the fact that many of the films of the era seemed those more likely to appeal to a female demographic such as those above with a female hero.

    There's a further factor however as to why certain stories ended up being adapted whilst others weren't and that is the religious context in which certain stories were chosen and these films were made. Of course the sheer numbers of people who are part of the Christian faith means that instead of talking about a diverse and wide ranging religious context we are essentially talking about contexts and whilst numerous of Church historians have attempted to summarise and compartmentalise the journey that Christianity has taken, the very fact that these various accounts differ from one another in terms of emphasis and even, at times, perceived fact only further underlines the point.

    Furthermore it is also questionable to what extent an individual, or rather a group of individuals, will adopt the overarching mindset and approach of the majority of those who share their faith living in the same place and time. Given this complexity, and that coming up with a path through these dilemmas is outside of the scope of the present work, I shall just offer a few broad observations on these evolving and diverse contexts.

    The first is to note the shifting locus of filmmaking activity. In the early silent period it was the French film industry that was to the forefront, with Pathé and Gaumont leading the way as well as the work of the Lumières, Guy Blaché and Georges Méliès, though there was also notable activity in Italy, Britain and the US. When it comes to questions of canonicity, then, it's not difficult, then, to understand the adaption trajectory of, say, the deuterocanonical story of Judith. Whilst it's easy to be distracted by the most famous version of the story, D.W. Griffiths' Judith of Bethulia (1914) produced in Protestant America, the remainder of the Judith stories in this era were from Catholic France and Italy. Nor is it surprising, then, that as the European film industry declined during the First World War and took off in America, that this story has largely faded from view. The notable exceptions to this are a brief renaissance in Italy during the "Peplum" revival of their film industry in the 50s and 60s and a flurry of TV films in a number of other Catholic countries in the 70s as TV drama began to gather momentum. This shifting context may also provide part of the reason as to why characters such as Susanna and Veronica also fared well in this era.

    The interwar period cemented this shift in the film industry from Catholic France to Protestant America. The First World War shattered France and the French film industry, the troubled economies of the rest of Europe struggled to recover and the problems were exacerbated by the exodus of filmmaking talent from Europe to America. Michael Curtiz, for example, made Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel) in 1924 before fleeing Nazism and making Noah's Ark for Warner in 1928.

    Whilst American film still predominates today, it's noticeable that the growth of the film industry in other regions has led to new regions making films about stories found in the Bible. For example, Catholic Brasil has produced a number of extended series about biblical characters, such Rei Davi (King David, 2012). Elsewhere a number of films have been made in Islamic countries such as Turkey and Iran, though with more emphasis on the Koranic presentation of these stories than the corresponding biblical versions. This again is a different understanding of Canon, one that Christianity does not identify with and yet which very much impinges on the way the canon has been adapted on screen.

    One final point that is worth noting is the impact of a number of key works related to the Bible that may have had a wide effect. For example, various authors have noted similarities in composition between particular scenes and famous religious paintings. Perhaps the most well-known example is Leonardo's "Last Supper", but other examples abound. However it is difficult to gauge how recognisable these paintings would have been given that they were single works. They are considered hugely influential, and have been widely copied and imitated, but whilst they would be well known by any student of art, many of the early filmmakers were not students of art.

    Nevertheless it's not hard to imagine that these influential images begat more artistic interpretations of the same story which may have led to certain stories becoming more prominent, yet this is not always the case. One of the most famous religious images of all time is Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" yet the Sistine Chapel also contains a considerably larger depiction of Perugino's "Moses Leaving to Egypt" featuring the moment when Moses' son is circumcised after an angel tries to kill Moses (Exodus 4:24-27). This episode has, to the best of my knowledge, never featured in a Moses film despite the proximity of Perugino's image to Michaelangelo's.

    Technology, however, changed all that and so it was the biblical illustrations of James Tissot & Gustave Doré, that may have had a far wider influence as Bibles illustrated with their works proved wildly popular. And this was particularly true of the earliest filmmakers who were working around the same time as his death (1902) and the publication of a collection of his biblical works in 1904. Several of the early filmmakers in this era copied Tissot's compositions, based their sets and costumes on his work and used his name to publicise their work. It's not hard to imagine this may also have extended to their selection of source material. I may expand that final paragraph in a lter post, but for now I want to move on to look at the eras of film production following 1916 and the release of DW Griffith's Intolerance

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    Monday, June 27, 2016

    The Canon in the Early Silent Era pt.2


    In my previous entry in this series I was looking at how the stories from the Hebrew Bible that the earliest filmmakers adapted into the first silent Bible movies. The idea of canonicity naturally leads to thinking about which books of the Bible have been covered and which haven't, but there's also something of a disconnect here because few films have sought to adapt an entire book of the Bible. There are obviously those which adapt a gospel word for word (Luke 1979, Genesis 1979, Matthew 1994, Acts 1996, Gospel of John 2003 and the various entries in the Lumo Project 2014-present) then there are others which haven't gone to this extreme but whose films have been substantive adaptations of a single book (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, some of the Bible Collection films, Moses the Lawgiver to name but a few) but not word for word.

    However, in general terms, complete books of the Bible have not naturally lent themselves to being film scripts. Indeed even those word for word adaptations cannot really be counted here as they are part of a specific project rather than the need to find a good plot for a film. In fact films tend to gravitate more naturally around specific character(s) than specific books. So when we think about canonicity in relation to the biblical narratives it is perhaps more helpful to think about narrative units within the Bible (which may even span the divides between specific books as some films do), rather than individual books, as is usually the basic unit which is discussed in regard to canonicity.

    Which leads onto the Gospels. Aside from the few films intentionally based on a single gospel, most of the films about Jesus have harmonised the available selection of stories from the four (canonical) gospels. A few films have even widened the net here to include incidents from other, non-canonical gospels, such as The Young Messiah's use of the Gospel of Thomas. Again this is because these films tend to be about the lead character of Jesus and then filmmakers tend to pick the particular stories from the gospels which best portray their vision of Jesus. And just as I think we see certain trends in which narratives from the Hebrew Bible get made into films, I think we also see a similarly uneven pattern when it comes to which parts of the Gospels get covered and which don't. Peter T. Chattaway, for example has recently highlighted numerous narratives which "most Jesus films miss"1 suggesting that whilst some parts of the Gospels are not really considered part of any theoretical filmic canon.

    Of course many of the very earliest films were films about Jesus - most commonly about his passion - but even before the start of the 20th century, films depicting the miracles of Jesus, such as Georges Méliès' Le Christ marchant sur les flots (Christ Walking on the Water, 1899), were being released. One complicating factor in trying to discern any patterns in the release of early Jesus films is the way that many of these films were not released as complete units, but were available for exhibitors to pick and choose which parts of the story they wished to display. The situation is further complicated by the fact that many of these collections of tableaux were expanded over time, the "films" being re-released with new tableaux added in, or some of the older footage re-shot, often retaining the same mise-en-scène.

    The most prominent example of this practice is the various films released by Pathé usually known by the title La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ). I've recently read more detail about the various films/releases under this title in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)" (edited by David Shepherd) I'm tempted to go into more detail on the various version, but I think that's something for a later post. Suffice to say for now that it appears that the popular DVD version which is usually dated as being 1902-1905 should in fact be dated to 1907 and that in addition to these two versions there was the original release in 1899 and a final release in 1913.2 With each release the number of available tableaux grew. The original 1899 version "contained sixteen tableaux; a second edition in 1902 contained thirty-two.3 By the time of the 1907 release that number had grown to 37 and this had grown again by the time of the final 1913 version to 43.4

    All of which is a long way of saying that when it comes to looking at the idea of canonicity in relation to Bible films, it makes more sense to base such discussion on the basic unit of each "episode" or incident rather than individual books/gospels. Some of those may only appear very rarely, such as those highlighted by Peter in the link above; others appear far more commonly, such as the crucifixion.

    Returning, then, to the early silent era we discover this is borne out by the films we find from this era. It is difficult to be precise with figures, particularly because many of the films from this era are presumed lost, some of those that remain are related to others from the period, and it is difficult to be certain in many cases whether the version that remains is the original version. Indeed the DVD version of the latest film from this era Christus features a resurrection scene entirely lifted from a different Jesus movie (there's a little bit on that here, including the comments).

    Nevertheless, even treading carefully in light of the above, there are a number of observations that can be drawn. The first and rather unsurprising conclusion is that Jesus' death and birth are very much a part of this "filmic canon". Of the thirty or so films made about Jesus in the early silent era (not counting the six films about Herodias' daughter) around 18 feature the events of Jesus' Passion. The "canonical" status of this part of the story was established early on - of the eight Jesus films made in the 19th century only Georges Méliès' Le Christ marchant sur les flots (Christ Walking on the Water, 1899) was not primarily about Jesus' death.

    The second is that, as a group, episodes from Jesus' ministry appear appear more frequently than the events of Jesus' passion. As mentioned above just over half of the thirty Jesus films depict Jesus' death, but twenty include at least one incident from his ministry (and that is excluding the six films about Herodias' daughter, which could also be considered to be "stories from the ministry of Jesus"). Of those twenty, only nine are films that features both Jesus' ministry and death, the majority of the rest are films made about single incidents.

    A look at these single incidents is instructive in and of itself. The parable of the Prodigal Son was adapted four times. The only other parable to be covered is the Good Samaritan. Then there are the miracles which include the coin in the fish's mouth, the resurrection of Lazarus and the healing of a blind man. Lastly there are more general incidents such as Jesus' encounter with the woman of Samaria.

    The films that featured both Jesus' ministry and his death tended to be longer and include several episodes from his Ministry, many of these would not appear much in the future films about Jesus' Life. The 31 films from the 1903 Lubin series The Passion Play featured episodes such as "Christ and the Disciples Plucking Corn" and "Christ Calling Zaccheus from the Tree". Several films featured Jesus meeting those from outside Judea such as the woman from Samaria (several films) and the healing of the Widow of Nain's son in the earliest remaining Jesus film The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1898).

    Of course we also see other incidents cropping up that would continue to feature in a large number of films such as the woman taken in adultery, the woman who anoints Jesus' feet, the Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the 5000.

    One final point at this stage is that many of these films about Jesus do not include his resurrection. The most obvious example is From the Manger to the Cross as it is the only of the films covering both his life and death not to include these incidents, but also many of the "Passion" only films did not feel the need to include the resurrection. This is interesting as later films which excluded the resurrection were heavily criticised for doing so, even if, like Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) they were a variation of the passion play tradition.


    1 - Chattaway, Peter T., "10 Obscure Gospel Moments Most Jesus Films Miss" 22nd February 2016 in Christianity Today - http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/february-web-only/10-obscure-moments-most-jesus-films-miss.html
    2 - Boillat, Alain and Robert, Valentine. "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05)" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. p. 27
    3 - Boillat, Alain and Robert, Valentine. "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05)" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. p. 27
    4 - Brant, Jo-Ann. "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Pathé-Frères, 1913/14): Pathé’s Inclination to Tell and Maître’s Instinct to Show" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. pp.158-178

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    Saturday, June 18, 2016

    La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (1906) - Scene Guide


    For a long time I've been meaning to sit down and actually watch La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (The Birth, Life and Death of Christ, 1906) and last night I finally did. I'm going to save my proper review until I've done a bit more background reading, not least David Shepherd's Chapter on it in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)". The film, which was directed by Alice Guy Blaché for Gaumont is 1906, is in many ways quite a different film from Pathé's various cuts, though interestingly it also uses intertitle cards to literally give the title of the scene we are about to witness, which makes compiling a scene guide relatively easy. It's been a while since I did one of these so you might want to refresh your memories as to how I use gospel citations in scene guides.

    This is one of those films that's known by several other names as well so for the record it's also known as La naissance, la vie et la mort de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ; La vie et la mort du Christ or simply just La vie du Christ in French or The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ or just The Life of Christ
    Arrival at Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-7)
    Nativity and Arrival of the Magi (Matt 2:1-11)
    The Sleep of Jesus (Extra-biblical episode)
    The Samaritan (John 4:1-42)
    The Miracle of Jairus Daughter (Mark 5:22-43)
    Mary Magdalene Washes the Feet of Jesus (Mark 14:3-9)
    Palm Sunday (Mark 11:1-10)
    The Last Supper (Mark 14:12-25)
    The Olive Garden (Mark 14:32-26)
    The Night Watch (Mark 14:37-42)
    Judas's Betrayal (Mark 14:43-50)
    Jesus before Caiaphas (Mark 14:53-65)
    The Denial of St. Peter (Mark 14:66-72)
    Jesus Before Pontius Pilate (Mark 15:1-15a)
    The Torment (Mark 15:15b-20a)
    Ecce Homo (John 19:5)
    The Bearing of the Cross (Mark 15:20a)
    Jesus Falls for the First Time (Mark 15:21)
    Saint Veronica (Extra-biblical episode)
    Climbing Golgotha (Mark 15:22)
    The Crucifixion (Mark 15:24-32)
    The Agony (Mark 15:33-37)
    Descending from the Cross (Mark 15:46a)
    Committed to the Tomb (Mark 15:46b-47)
    The Resurrection (Matt 28:1-6)
    A Few Notes
    I can't quite remember where I got the version I watched last night from, but it's intertitles were in English, whereas some of the version on YouTube have French intertitles on charming cards complete with pictures of angels. I've kept these in English, which seem to be a pretty good translation.

    In nearly all cases the scene announced by the preceding title card consists of only one shot. There are two exceptions. The first is "Saint Veronica" where the first shot captures the moment Veronica captures Jesus' image on her cloth, and then cuts to a slightly later mid-shot of her alone holding the cloth. The second is "The Resurrection" where the scene starts inside the cave where the tomb is while we see Jesus be resurrected and the guards react in fear. Then we move outside the cave to see the arrival of the woman, and then we are taken back inside the cave where the women witness the empty tomb.

    Interestingly, if you were solely looking at the images in the resurrection scene, one might assume that the soldiers' fear is because they see the resurrected Jesus, but given how the angels work in this film, not least the way they appear and re-appear, it does leave open the interpretation that the soldiers cannot actually see the angels or the resurrected Jesus, they just see the empty tomb. It is only the audience who sees the full picture.

    One of the interesting things about this film is that even though it came to be known as simply The Life of Christ there is relatively little "life" in comparison to the "birth" and "death" scenes which are also included in the full title. Of the 25 scenes, only three ("The Samaritan", "The Miracle of Jairus' Daughter" and "Mary Magdalene Washes the Feet of Jesus") are connected with neither Jesus' birth or passion. The first of these scenes was popular in the early silent era, but for many years was ignored, at least until more recent times.

    What is noticeable about these three scenes is that they are three, relatively rare, episodes of the gospels where the main character, apart from Jesus, is a woman. That, combined with the way that the film includes Veronica and ends on the women finding the empty tomb without the male disciples are among the factors that have led to some to see this as a feminist picture.

    It's noticeable as well how many of these scenes can be traced back to Mark's gospel. Whilst obviously my own citation policy prioritises Mark, it is striking, for example, that all of the incidents leading up to Jesus' death are found in Mark. Obviously the birth scenes are not based on Mark (as Mark starts with the adult Jesus)

    Finally there's a really useful page here with lots of promotional material for the film and Alison McMahan - who has written one of the books about Guy Blaché - has a piece on the film at her own website, where she gets into the relationship between Guy's film and Tissot's work.

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    Tuesday, June 07, 2016

    From Text to Image. What Silent Shakespeare Gets Right and Modern Bible Films Get Wrong


    A common response when I mention silent film versions of Shakespeare is confusion. A look that says "but how would that even work?", usually followed by a question as to how they "do the speeches". And it's not just my friends. I'm really enjoying Daniel Rosenthal's book "100 Shakespeare Films" at the moment, but of the 100 films he discusses, there are only 5 that date from cinema's first 30 years. Yet there were 300 or so films from the silent era that were based on the works of Shakespeare.

    I think part of the reason I notice this is that it's not a question that ever occurred to me, at least not until I started talking to others about it and, I guess, it's an understandable response. Shakespeare is after all known as England's greatest ever writer. And yet, for all the great speeches there are also a host of great images. Shakespeare is not just "To be or not to be", it's also about a man holding his former jester' skull; it's not just about "Now is the winter of our discontent" but also about the hunchbacked king"; "When shall we three meet again"  only comes into fullness when paired with a vision of a dagger and, of course, that damned spot.

    The reason this matters is that film is primarily a visual medium. The best adaptations of Shakespeare, whether silent or otherwise, are those that capture the tone and mood of Shakespeare's words. It's the shot through the staircase from Ophelia below to Hamlet high on the top of the turret in Olivier's Hamlet (1948), or Branagh's bloody, exhausted yet joyously victorious Henry V at the end of Agincourt.

    But this also means that the best film adaptations of Shakespeare, are those that start not in the service of the text, but of the final image. Those where the aim is not to do dutiful service to the Bard, but to create something special for the screen. Shakespeare's plays may be a means to that end, but it just sort of happened that way. It wasn't a drive to make Bill "more accessible", but to make a good film which, on this occasion, as it turns out, happened to mean using Shakespeare.

    The best film I've come across in this respect yet isCharles Kent and J. Stuart Blackton's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1909, pictured) where the focus is clearly Puck who is played by a fairly young girl who flits about the screen with innocence and delight, floating I the air with her lightness of spirit. This isn't about flashness or technical wizardry - it's on a par with decent youth theatre and probably far easier to spot the wires - it's about the lightness of the image. The recent BBC adaptation of "Midsummer" was full of whizzes, wizardry, impressive effects and all the speeches but it didn't touch me anyway near as much as the 1908 version.

    No doubt some will dislike its portrayal of Puck as to being true to the play, but again this isn't necessarily the right question. The quality or importance of a film isn't about the source material it is adapting - that's what reading the book, or watching the play on-stage is for.  What matters is the final film, the images on the screen and whether what is created is of merit on its own terms. The are some pretty torpid adaptations of Shakespeare out there where everyone is dutifully performing so that the audience can undergo the literary equivalent of eating their greens. All very respectful and faithful, but bad, bad cinema.

    All of which got me thinking about another literary pillar often adapted for the big screen - the Bible. like Shakespeare, people say it matters, they want. To be respectful of it and often believe that it'd be good for people to have better appreciation and understanding. The two collections inspire in many a kind of earnestness.

    If anything these tendencies are even greater with the Bible.  And so many people start with the idea of making a film based on the Bible. They're not asking the question, of all the topics available what will enable me to make the best moving visual image I can make, they're starting with a text that they want to get across. And then they're surprised that their project has become such loathèd medicine.

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    For some of the insights in this piece I'm indebted to Bryony Dixon and Judith Buchanan whose recent BBC programmes on silent film adaptations of Shakespeare and been interesting, informative and really enjoyable. (Dixon appeared in BBC Birmingham's "Silent Shakespeare"and Buchanan ib BBC Radio 4's "An Excellent Dumb Discourse". At the time of writing both are available to view online in some regions.

    Saturday, June 04, 2016

    The Canon in the Early Silent Era pt.1


    At the end of last year I started a series looking at how the idea of "canon" relates to the Bible on Film. There's not been much on it recently maybe because I decided that to write on the subject with any authority I needed to do some proper research and produce the fullest list possible of filmed version of the Bible so that I could do some analysis on them. That in itself has become a project in and of itself and I'm hoping to write more about that soon. For now however the logical place from where to continue the series is at the beginining, in that earliest part of the silent period I discussed in the previous post in this series.

    In the period up to the end of 1915 (prior to the release of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance) at least 114 films based on the Hebrew Bible were produced. From a quick glance of these, it seems all the usual suspects are present. Moses, David, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Samson all feature fairly prominently and there are also films about Joseph, Esther, Noah, Solomon and others who have consistently proved popular for filmmakers, preachers and Sunday School teachers alike.

    But it's not long however before other far less usual names start to occur. In 1910, the year when perhaps more biblical films were in cinemas than at any other point in history, Gaumont released the fourth entry in their Les Sept Péchés Capitaux series, La Luxure which told the story of Susanna and the Elders (based on the deuterocanonical story of Susanna - Susanna/Daniel 13). This tale of attempted sexual coercion and false accusation is fairly dark for the period although it's not hard to imagine its message of the importance of female virtue might be something the filmmakers wished to stress.

    The following year Gaumont released Fils de la Sunamite (1911, The Son of the Shunamite) directed by Louis Feuillade. This story, based on an episode from the life of Elisha, has less dramatic potential, but obviously a strong emotional element, and its appeal is based more on miraculous elements than the spectacular. Elisha's only other screen appearances are as a cartoon, from the Animated Stories from the Bible series, Elisha: Man of God (1994), Riding for a Fall, part of the Bugtime Adventures series and the subversive online animation Don't Dis Elisha from Extreme Bible Stories (which I discussed here).

    Just as active in this period were Pathé Frères who released Athalie (1910, dir. Michel Carré) about queen Athaliah, the daughter/sister of King Ahab who seized the Jewish throne after Jehu's revolt (2 Kings 8 & 11). It's a fascinating story that contains more than enough drama to fill the film's 20 or so minutes, but which has, to my knowledge, only been attempted two other times in the entire history of biblical films - two sixties, made for TV, productions from France (1962, dir. Roger Kahane) and Italy (1964, dir. Mario Ferrero). The following year Pathé Frères produced a slightly more familiar Old Testament film - Jaël et Sisera (1911), one of the many biblical films directed by Henri Andréani in this period. This is, as far as I can tell, the only time the events of Judges 4 have found their way onto the screen and it's curious that even in this case, the story's usual leading lady - Deborah - is omitted.

    In some ways it's surprising to find these stories covered at all - across all of film history there are only seven versions of these four stories. After this early silent period when we get these four treatments they were almost never covered again and that the stories are relatively obscure to modern believers and audiences.

    In effect there are three measures:
    1. How many times was the film adapted in this first era of cinema?
    2. How many times was it covered subsequently?
    3. How well known is it to modern believers/audiences?

    These film versions of Athaliah, Elisha, Susanna and Jael/Deborah are notable because whilst they were covered in this early period, even then they might be considered one-offs. Furthermore, they score poorly on the last two measures. Other stories covered in this period however score more prominently in one of the other categories, but still lack a lot of coverage in the modern period.

    One such story is the story of Jephthah. The tragic story of Jephthah's daughter was covered no less than four times in this earliest period (Vitagraph, Gaumont, Pathé and Warner), but has only had one subsequent adaption - Einat Kapach's Bat Yiftach [Jephtah's Daughter] (1996). It is similarly obscure to modern audiences, but this subsequent swerve to obscurity is made more surprising by its popularity within this period. Perhaps this is down the first film performing particularly well at the box office, but there is relatively little evidence to support such an assertion.

    Another story to buck these trends is that of Judith. Arguably the most famous Hebrew Bible film in this era is D.W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (1914), not least because its director was subsequently catapulted into controversy and stardom. However, by the time Griffith's version had arrived there had already been three other films produced about the story (from Italy, 1906; France, 1909, pictured above; and the UK, 1912). But whereas interest in films about Jephthah and his daughter had begun to peter out, Judith films continued to appear, albeit far more rarely than most other stories, and largely in Catholic countries, hence there was one other film in the silent era (dir.Negroni, 1928), at least seven television films from 1959-1969 as well as a few later entries in 1979, 1980 and 2007. More details about these films can be found here.

    Whilst this story remains fairly obscure to modern audiences, particularly to those in Protestant churches/countries, there is one story that is well-known to modern audiences and was popular in the silent era and yet has hardly been adapted in subsequent periods: the stories around Daniel.

    The first films about Daniel were the amongst the very first biblical films, the earliest being two from Pathé in 1905, Le Festin de Balthazar and Daniel dans la fosse aux lions. These were followed up by no less than seven other Daniel films in this earliest period (five of which were from Gaumont). All the more surprising then that following the last of these in 1913, it was not until 1953's Slaves of Babylon before the story was covered again and then another gap of 25 years before the story was covered again in the Greatest Heroes of the Bible series. So it's perhaps surprising that the story has see something of a revival in recent years, mainly due to animated, church-targeted, productions or adaptations of Verdi's opera "Nabucco".

    What is also noticeable about films based on Daniel is the lack of a major production of the Daniel story. Slaves of Babylon is perhaps the highest profile, but even then, the Daniel story is somewhat in the background. Whilst this part of the biblical canon has been covered in film on a number of occasions, none of these have really entered into a (theoretical?) canon of Bible Films.

    In the next parts of this series I'll look at New Testament portrayals in this period and at some of the reasons that might lie behind the findings above.

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    Monday, May 23, 2016

    Prefiguring Jesus in Jeremiah (1998)


    Way back in 2009 I compiled a scene guide for The Bible Collection's 1998 film Jeremiah and concluded a write up of a few additional comments on it by saying:
    I'm going to make a separate post another day to look at the way that the Jeremiah of this film prefigures Jesus, particularly the Jesus from the later film in the same series.
    So I thought it was probably about time I got around to it, particularly as somebody asked me about this the other day.

    I don't think there is a cast iron case for saying that the filmmakers were trying to make the Jeremiah of their film into a "type" of Christ. However, there are a few points of interest where the film makes a few additions/interpretations which move things in that direction and particularly in the direction of the Jesus of the Bible Collection's own, later, film Jesus (dir. Roger Young, 1999).

    This tendency is most pronounced at the start of the film. Early in the film, when Jeremiah is still a child, he goes to the temple and we're led to believe - by his wide eyes if nothing else - that this is his first time in the city itself. There are quite a lot of similarities, between these scenes and those of The Bible Collection's Jesus being left behind at the temple. The visual identification here is quite strong, not least because the both films are shot on the same set, but there are also similarities in the way the two scenes are shot as well. The scenes include shots from behind the groups as they enter through an archway which frames the temple, and point of view and reaction shots as the two boys both take in the sights of the temple for the first time. It can be argued that this is, if not an actual coincidence, then just a result of the nature of the Bible Collection project, but I'm fairly happy with the school of interpretation which takes each film as a visual "text" not limited by authorial intent.

    An additional factor in this scenes is that when Jeremiah enters the temple the shots from his point of view and the accompanying reaction shots convey a mild sense of disgust. It's difficult to pin down what this is due to but it's something that the film expands on when Jeremiah returns to the temple as not only an adult, but significantly as an adult who is now seeing these sights through God's eyes as well as his own. (It's interesting that these later PoV shots, then, become a shot from God's PoV, not just Jeremiah's).

    Before all that however, we have the scene where Jeremiah hears God's call. It's notable how the film very much interprets and embellishes this scene - in the Bible Jeremiah says he's "young" but that could mean a young man and there's no specific mention of him being caught up in a vision. These combine then to mean that rather than Jeremiah being a young adult who hears God's call, that this Jeremiah is someone who knows from a very early age that they are in some way very special, chosen by God and set apart for a particular role. Again this nudges the portrayal of Jeremiah towards that of Jesus and increases the similarities between the brief, corresponding scenes of young boys with a special divine calling on their lives visiting the centre of worship for the first time.

    A while after this the adult Jeremiah revisits the temple and again we get these PoV shots and the suggestion that Jeremiah is unhappy with what he is seeing. As this opening act of the film progresses it becomes clear that there are two things which are disturbing him.

    The first seems to be linked to the slaughtering of the lambs. Whilst this isn't verbally expressed it appears that this is more than mere squeamishness, there seems to be some suggestion that Jeremiah thinks his message, and living faithfully before God, means that this rather unpalatable system is a little defunct.

    Secondly, however, these point-of-view / reaction shots are also very familiar, for those who have watched a good number of Jesus films at least, to the shots that frequently precede Jesus' clearing of the temple. And true enough, a little while after this Jeremiah ventures down some of the side streets in the temple region and there he encounters some kind of market trader who is selling idols. The seller tries to persuade Jeremiah to buy something, but Jeremiah's outrage at this affront to God is palpable. And so he turns over the tables, in a way that is classically reminiscent of all those other turning the table scenes (for example, no-one lays a hand on Jeremiah or confronts him, they all just stand back and let him get one with it). This is the film's clearest attempt to draw parallels between its protagonist and Jesus - there's no corresponding passage to this in Jeremiah, it pure invention, or perhaps I should say borrowing.

    Another such embellishment is the romantic relationship Jeremiah has with one of his near neighbours. The text of Jeremiah does make it clear Jeremiah is not to marry (16:2), but this is a general command of celibacy, there's no indication that this prevented him from marrying a specific woman.

    Whilst the Gospels are silent about Jesus' marital status, in Young's film we find a very similar scenario: Like Jeremiah, Young's Jesus has to reject the woman he looks destined to marry to focus on God's call. This is a not uncommon feature of the Bible Collection series which inserts an extra-biblical love story into several of the biblical narratives which it covers, but the similarity is particularly notable here because in both films the lead character is in love but feels the call on his life in incompatible with this particular romantic relationship.Whilst Jeremiah has things work in a different way (the girl is sold as a slave), at its heart Jeremiah still has to reject the girl because of the call God puts on his life. There are several points of similarity with Jesus (1999) - the relationship appears chaste, but at the stage where an engagement looks on the cards. The girl still lives with her family and both families seem to approve. Then the girl is told it is off suddenly and that this sudden change of course is due to God's call.

    There are several other notable similarities between these two films. Firstly, some of the parental relationships are similar, in the first half of the film there are strong relationships with at least one parent and the protagonists is very much still under their wing. Ultimately, however, the lead's parents don't fully understand their child's call and things transition from the son being at the heart of the family home at the start of the film to almost no connection with parents in the respective films' second halves. The protagonists' fathers disappear in the second act having once been very prominent and close to their son in the first half of the film. The reasons are, of course,  different - Jeremiah's father's suffers an extreme embarrassment whereas Joseph dies in Jesus - but it seems strange that family relationships that are presented as being so close at the start of the films just disappear without a great deal of regret or mention of them in the second part of the film.

    Not unconnected is the similar kind of plot structure the two films share. We start with the protagonist in the family home, there's a brief scene of their childhood, and they look like they are following in the family trade. Then there's a break in those family relationships as God's call on the hero's life starts to come into effect and they leave home. There's a pivotal scene in the wilderness and then their ministry starts, getting up the noses of some, but crucially in both films not all, of the religious and political establishment. Of course, Jeremiah never dies, but there is a scene where he's tied up in a cage in a cruciform pose and hung up high for all the see (and when he's released the camera focusses, briefly, on the damage to his wrists).

    A couple of other things that might have been on my mind when I wrote that comment 7 years ago Firstly in the opening scenes - when all is supposedly well in the tribe of Judah - Jeremiah's family arrives in the temple in the middle of some kind of celebratory procession with lots of palm branches being waved in a very similar fashion to those we tend to see in many depictions of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. There might be something in the text behind that decision, but, if so, I don't recall it.

    Then there's the way that Jeremiah's family are kind of seen as outsiders.At one point Oliver Reed's character asks "Why would God send a prophet from the wilderness when you are surrounded by schooled priests?", but Jeremiah was the son of a priest so this is kind of an odd thing to be added in to the text. Jesus of course was from an unknown family and a backwater town. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"

    Finally there's the presentation of Jeremiah himself. The biblical Jeremiah's suffering is obviously one of his most well-known characteristics, and this is very much to the fore (corresponding to Jesus which doesn't really give much motive for his persecution at the hands of his enemies, but also Jesus as the suffering prophet in general), but other aspects, particularly ones that are quite unlike Jesus (such as chapters 40-49 where Jeremiah prophesies against other nations) are omitted.

    This isn't to say that the filmmakers are seeking to present Jeremiah as a type of Christ, or even that the parallels between the two men, or rather the two portrayals is remarkable, but there are certainly some parallels and some of those go a way beyond what is gleaned from the text itself.
    ======

    Incidentally a previous post on this subject referenced Neil MacQueen'S outline to the film which has since been moved. It is now available (again) at Sunday Software

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    Friday, May 13, 2016

    Interview with 40 Nights's DJ Perry


    I reviewed 40 Nights, the first entry in DJ Perry's The Quest Trilogy, last month and Perry was kind enough to do me an interview to share with you all. Whilst he's clearly motivated by his faith it's good to read a Christian filmmaker discuss his work without feeling he's using God as the key element in a sales pitch.

    BFB: When did you first start dreaming about this project and how did it start to come together?
    The Dream:
    I've always had a natural relationship with God from a very young age. There are so many amazing, breathtaking things in our vast known universe that the idea of God is an easy fit for most to understand. But Jesus? For me I've always been fascinated by Jesus, also realizing that everything we know has been subject to the flaws of memory, translation and additions and deletions meant to serve the human agenda. As a child of five, I recall looking deep into people's eyes who said they KNEW Jesus and I realized that for many, they were just words. It would be like, I KNOW GEORGE WASHINGTON, but they don't. They might know some words he spoke and actions he took but do they KNOW him? Now add a few thousand years or so and Jesus becomes more myth than man. Could a story about the humble beginnings of this man change that? Could people feel like they KNOW Jesus? I've always said, if Jesus came back the medium of film for storytelling (entertain and educate) might be something he would use to spread his message.

    The Process:
    I had played Benjamin in "The Book of Ruth, Journey of Faith" and many remarked on my look, it was reminding people of Jesus. I was also chosen from a 27 country search to play Jesus in a major studio release that put the entire Jesus story in the modern day. I had agreements in place and things looked good for the epic but it went south and was put into turn around. (Studio kill) My studies into the man kept bringing me back to the 40 nights in the wilderness. It was before all the grand stories we all know. I felt the conflict and weight that he must have felt, that sacrifice would bring. The inspiration to actually put the story to the page just came to me. I like to use the story of Noah as an example. If God came and told Noah to build a boat you don't question, you just do. So we built our "40 Nights" boat and just hope it floats. It lacks the mega P&A money for a wide theatrical release but it does play wonderful on the BIG SCREEN. Lightworx Distribution/Randy Maricle was the last piece of the puzzle that made it all come together. They are handling distribution our QUEST TRILOGY.

    BFB: What was the budget for the project and how did you go about getting it together?
    This film and actually all three in the trilogy are made for a modest amount of money. I felt these films NEEDED to be made and not sit in development hell for a decade. I've done much larger films but everyone cast and crew worked for a modest wage. For actors it was scale across the board and people came on board because of the love of the story. Let's just say that everyone who knows the budget is amazed at the end product. We also pride ourselves at staying on schedule and on budget which we continue to do. All the money came from private investors and we often have to turn investors away. I don't want to have more money just to have more money. But all our budgets are coming from private investors who really feel the power in our scripts/stories.

    BFB: I like that there's a bit more steel about this Jesus. Satan says at one point "I like this anger in you Jesus it shows that you are human". How much of this is because essentially what we're seeing is spiritual/internal or will this continue into the other films? Have you had much reaction to that?
    I've had so many people while filming and after viewing our movie shake my hand and tell me how much they appreciate the strong take on Jesus. He has been painted as this character floating through - a victim of circumstance. This is a man who worked with his hands and walked great distances. His intensity was showcased in the temple when he was flipping tables. He is weakened by choice to know what human weakness is. Our film does show Jesus in a stronger light versus many other films. The reaction to the choice has been extremely positive.

    BFB: With you being producer, writer and star I'm really interested in how your working relationship with Jessie Low functioned?
    My relationship with all directors is one of respect. They respect the business of what we are doing and I try to provide as much creative freedom within those lines. I was more hands on in this trilogy since they are all part of a greater vision. The camera work and music are two things that remain true throughout the three films. The directors will all likely be different. Jesse Low directed "40 Nights" and Bret Miller directed "Chasing the Star" and "The Christ Slayer" is TBD.

    BFB: (Was he (Jesse) someone you brought in once the wheels were in motion, or was he there from the earliest stage, did it have to be him, or was he a choice from a few options.
    I interviewed many directors to find the one who shared my approach for the trilogy. The wheels were in motion first as a Collective Development Inc. development project but once Jesse was brought in we spent weeks going over every scene, line and moment. Once we worked through that process he was given a lot of freedom.

    BFB: Where did the lines lie with artistic vision etc? Were there any choices he wanted to make and you weren't sure but deferred to him?
    If the choice did not affect the "business" I tried to defer to him. The producers and our director (Jesse) as a team worked through casting, crew, locations and such. Once I've signed off on the script I like to direct all creative questions towards the director. I also try to protect the subjective and creative "lines" making the choices of our director Larry weight once he is in motion. A few words and phrases, scenes changed and Jesse's visual stylistic choices are all over the film. Jesse Aragon our director of photography also worked great with our overall vision.

    BFB: The experience of going without food and water felt very much more real in your film than the other Jesus films. Is this something that you and the team have much experience of (method-acting? or as part of your faith?)
    I am very method in my approach to acting. That said, I did not truly fast while filming but being in the Yuma desert gives you that real stimulus. I did find myself NOT drinking as often on set to create that thirst in your eyes. I really did travel that harsh place in robe and sandals bleeding daily to get our scenes. This is a good place to bring up one funny question. People have said, I thought Jesus's robe would be longer. I'm sure Jesus has short, medium and long robes and a heavy goat coat for when it was cold. When you ACTUALLY walk through the desert your robe hikes up and anything past the knees will trip you up. You would be tearing the robe off at a certain point to allow free travel. I think that is the result of too many Jesus actors walking around on sets versus in the actual harsh desert. So functional is the word when it comes to robes in the wilderness.

    BFB: 40 days is the first of three films, so what made you decide to do it that way?
    I wanted to participate in some long format story telling with is why Netflix, Amazon, Hulu opening studios is exciting because I think TV series might be in our future. I was also greatly inspired by the Star Wars original trilogy. I love the look and the dramatic impact of the characters. That can be seen in our films. So if you want to see biblical stories told with a Star Wars twist take a watch. You can see the influence in there I'm sure.

    BFB: Which parts of the story are you going to cover in the next two films?
    The next film now in editing is "Chasing the Star" and is about the quest of the magi seeking the newborn Jesus. All three films share topics of sacrifice and the personal quest within them. The last installment entitled "The Christ Slayer," is a beautiful story that combines two events from the bible into a deep and moving conclusion to our trilogy. We're talking with directors and a few actors - many who are seeking us out upon hearing what we're doing.

    BFB: The film everyone will want to compare this with is Ewan McGregor's "Last Days in the Desert". Have you seen it? If so what did you think/If not do you plan to? (I haven't yet). Do you think it helps your film or might reduce your audience? Did Ewan call up for tips?

    I have heard about but I've not seen Ewan McGregor's film. I will likely watch it on Netflix or such when it comes to TV. I think it can only help and I believe the films to be different. As I understand it - their story fictionalizes a side story as Jesus is leaving the desert. I would love to have a beer with Ewan and talk about our shared experiences playing Jesus. Call me Ewan:)

    BFB: Anything else to add?
    I'm proud of the people who worked so hard on this film and hope it will be around for many years. I hope people take away a better understanding of the man and are inspired to be better people overall. I think the film has something for everyone and it doesn't require you to be a Christian to get the message. It challenges us to be better. I will accept that challenge.

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