The earliest film of those shown at the Ancient World in Cinema event was Samson et Dalila (Samson and Delilah) from 1902. Strangely it was also one of the few shown on the day for which I've been able to find any sort of production image.
Given its age, it's no surprise that this is also one of the shortest of the films shown. Indeed the film starts when the story of Samson is almost over. Delilah has already extracted Samson's secret from him; all that now remains is for her to out it to the test. Putting aside from the other incidents in Samson's life, and looking solely at the Samson and Delilah story, it seems to me that the dramatic interest in the tale is about the conflict between the two, which climaxes when Samson finally reveals his secret. So it's strange that this film begins its version of events immediately after this point.
Samson isn't really shaved here, in fact when he awakes he still has rather more hair and beard than is typical today, but I guess something more convincing may have been more difficult to pull off at such an early stage in proceedings (though an "O Brother Where Art Thou-type beard-on-a-string would probably have bee acceptable in 1902.
There follows Samson's arrest and imprisonment tied to a millstone, but it's the temple scene that's really interesting. Firstly because Samson's appearance is preceeded by a troupe of dancing girls giving a fairly lengthy performance. Given the very short total running time of the film, this sequence takes a very large proportion of it. One wonders how this came to be. Of course, what's interesting is that such deviations would become a staple part of the biblical epic genre. You don't have to think for too long before numerous descendants of this sequence - scantily clad girls dancing for the benefit of the viewer, if not the plot - spring easily to mind. And introducing non-biblical episodes into the story, sometimes at the expense of great chunks of a film's runtime, has gone on to become the norm, rather than an exception as it was in the time of these films.
The downside of this portracted sequence, at least from the point of view the story is meant to be understood from, is that it gives us a degree of sympathy for the girls whose performance is rewarded by being crushed by not-particularly heavy looking cinema stand-in stones. That contrasts with Samson who we've had little time to get acquainted with. The moments we do have do this quite well - his despair at finding his hair cut, the forlorn figure operating the mill and his thoughts (And prayers) moments before brining the roof down on the Philistine temple.
The biggest surprise, however, is Samson's ascent to Heaven, portrayed in a style very familiar to those conversant with Zecca's The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. Given that that film was compiled over a number of years, it's hard to know which scene came first. There are plenty of other Pathé trademarks as well, such as the hand coloured film and the distinctive cotuming.
The film is the first to be mentioned in "The Bible on Film" (as the Old Testament section comes before the New). Campbell and Pitts have this to say:
SAMSON AND DELILAHThere's a slight discrepancy in the film's stated length which is somewhere between Campbell and Pitts's 15 minues and the BFI's 3. The BFI archive has little more to say although they may be behind this synopsis on the UCL website:
1903, France, Pathé, 15 minutes B/W
Director: Ferdinand Zecca
Perhaps the first film version of the story of mighty Samson, from the Book of Judges, whose physical strength could not keep him from falling under the spell of the beautiful, but evil, Delilah.
Delilah cuts off Samson's locks. Bereft of his strength, he turns a millstone in prison. Brought back, the shackled Samson tears away the pillars of the temple where he has been publicly humiliated, causing it to crash down in pieces. Samson's triumphant spirit, accompanied by angels, rises out of the ruins.And there's also an entry (in French) from the Pathé database.