The Life of Moses, J. Stuart Blackton, Vitagraph, US, 1909-10, 13 mins.
Perhaps the most unusual story behind the films being shown at last month's Ancient World in Silent Cinema event was these two films, which had been mixed together as if to form one film. The films on display at the event were all taken from one particular collection (the name of which I somehow failed to write down) which was apparently brought together by a teacher in a seminary in Switzerland. Those using Bible films to teach the Bible today can see the idea goes back a long way. Anyway, it appears that the original collector spliced these incidents together from two rather incomplete films, to give a fairly full account of Moses's life. I've listed the events below first with those episodes taken from the 1905 French film in the lighter text, and those from Blackton's 1909-10 US film in the darker text. I've also included biblical references.
Baby Moses on the Nile - (Ex 2:1-9)Unfortunately, writing these films up has taken me longer than I anticipated (I still blame East Midlands trains), and so the details of these two films are beginning to fail me, but here are a few observations based on what I wrote at the time and the odd memory that is yet to desert me.
Israelite Slaves - (Ex 1:11-14)
Moses kills an Egyptian - (Ex 2:11-14)
Moses flees - (Ex 2:15)
Moses meets Jethro & his Daughters - (Ex 2:16-22)
Burning Bush - (Ex 3:1-4:17)
Burning Bush - (Ex 3:1-4:17)
Return to Egypt - (Ex 4:18-23; 27-31)
Before Pharaoh - (Ex 12:31-42)
Parting of the Red Sea - (Ex 14)
Manna from Heaven - (Ex 16)
Water from the Rock - (Ex 17:1-7)
Giving of the Ten Commandments - (Ex 20)
Radiant Face of Moses - (Ex 34:29-35)
When Moses is portrayed as a young man his complexion is surprisingly dark. There's little attempt to fill in his backstory - as opposed to the two or so hour DeMille devoted to this part of Moses' life not covered by the Hebrew Bible - we see some Israelite slaves in the pits making bricks, and of the three silent Moses films this is the one that goes into the most detail with different shots detailing different steps in the process. It's an almost documentary-esque sequence which we snap out of once Moses enters the frame. Two Israelites have been having a heated discussion when an Egyptian attempts to restore order. Moses kills the Egyptian but rather than thanking him, the two Israelites continue their quarrel pausing only to tell others what Moses has done.
Moses fears the worst and not giving Pharaoh a chance to hear of it, he goes to the house of Miriam and Aaron and flees. Moses is clearly already familiar with the two of them, and they help him in his flight. Moses arrives in Midian in time to save Jethro's daughters, and then encounters the burning bush in the next scene. What's interesting about the sequence of events presented here is how closely it corresponds to the biblical account. The bulrushes scene is obviously from a different film from the rest of the Exodus 2 material, but it sticks fairly closely to the events as they are presented with little embellishment.
Special effects were still fairly basic in this period, but it's interesting to see how quickly they develop. Some of the early Pathé films really did make the most of the medium here - consider, for instance, the walking on water and ascension scenes from Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. The only episode here to appear in both films is the burning bush and we see two contrasting special effect techniques. The later film here is shown first. The bush seems to have been actually set on fire, but before the scene ends the fire has gone out. The other scene, shot perhaps 5 years earlier in 1905 uses a less realistic technique - air blown streamers flying up from the vent they are ties to in the floor. The streamers technique feels more primitive, much more the kind of thing one would expect to see in a play in the theatre (at least before pyrotechnics were invented). It's quite a development in five years, though viewing it over a century later the streamers do give it an otherworldly feel that the realism of the Blackton film perhaps lacks.
The plagues are largely omitted: there's two brief scenes back in Egypt (from the US film) before we return to the earlier movie to witness the parting of the Red Sea. Given this is such an early film, it's very cleverly done (although it emphasises just how impressive DeMille's efforts were less than 20 years later). My memory is a little sketchy at this point so perhaps anyone else who saw this film could confirm or deny what follows. There's a mid shot of Moses and some Hebrews, with some "sea" in the foreground. Moses prays/ commands and this water seems to move and drain away (it's perhaps shot on an actual beach as a wave goes out. There's then a cut to a body of water which jostles about and retreats. This looks like it could have been something shot in reverse.
Special effects abound in the next scene as we see manna fall from heaven like snowflakes, followed swiftly by Moses striking a rock to bring forth water. At a guess I'd say this was the same set as the earlier burning bush scene, certainly the low-ish camera angles and the backdrop are very similar.
The last scene, again from the earlier film, is of the giving of the Ten Commandments. Moses is met on Mount Sinai by some angels who give him the stone tablets. By this stage Moses's hair has turned white and he has a halo. Once he descends a little the halo is replaced by two rays from his head after Exodus 34:29-35. It's an interesting halfway house between the "horned" face of Jerome's Vulgate translation, and the now more widely accepted "radiant" face. The horned Moses, as portrayed in Michaelangelo's famous sculpture above, was usually thought to have two horns, and here he is given two rays that come out of his head initially as if they were horns.
The BFI database doesn't include a synopsis for this film, but does list some alternative titles, one of which is Moses and the Exodus from Egypt for which Campbell and Pitts give the following summary:
Moses and the Exodus from EgyptThe later film actually appears to be a collection of shorter films released individually between 1909 and 1910. Again the BFI offers few details. Whilst they list each entry separately, the only details are the names of the company (Vitagraph) and director (J. Stuart Blackton). It lists the following four episodes:
1907, France, Pathé, 478 feet B/W
Another short film in Pathé's series of Biblical movies, this outing was perhaps the first flicker to tell the story of Moses. Included in this lost silent were the scenes of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and the falling of the manna from heaven.
I. PERSECUTION OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL BY THE EGYPTIANSCampbell and Pitts give this a much more significant write up, naming five episodes and giving release dates. The titles match, and the final episode is called The Promised Land
II. FORTY YEARS IN THE LAND OF MIDIAN
III. PLAGUES OF EGYPT AND THE DELIVERANCE OF THE HEBREWS
IV. THE VICTORY OF ISRAEL
THE LIFE OF MOSESIncidentally, J. Stuart Blackton was also the director of a number of other Bible films including Salome (1908), Saul and David from 1909, and Jephthah's Daughter; A Biblical Tragedy (1909) which was one of those that was originally due to be shown at the UCL event, but had to be cut for reasons of time.
1909-1910, Vitagraph, 5 reels, B/W.
Director: J. Stuart Blackton
Screenplay: Rev. Madison C. Peters
CAST: William Humphrey, Charles Kent, Julia Arthur, Earle Williams, Edith Story.
Vitagraph released THE LIFE OF MOSES in five parts beginning December 11, 1909 and culminating February 19, 1910. The whole film told the story of Moses and how he led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
The portions of the film and their release dates are:
Part One: "The Life of Moses" (December 11, 1909).
Part Two: "Forty Years in the Land of Midian" (December 31, 1909).
Part Three: "Plagues of Egypt and the Deliverance of the Hebrews" (February 5, 1910).
Part Four: "The Victory of Israel" (February 12, 1910)
Part Five: "The Promised Land" (February 19, 1910)
The first of a supposed series of Biblical pictures from Vitagraph, THE LIFE OF MOSES
Showed such happenings as the pillar of fire, the parting of the Red Sea and the giving of The Ten Commandments. The Moving Picture World called it "a picture that is deserving of the greatest praise and commendations as a whole"