• 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.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2013

    Judith of Bethulia (1913)

    By the time D.W. Griffith got around to making Judith of Bethulia in 1913 it was already the third film to have been made about the Jewish heroine. An Italian film from 1908, Giuditta e Oloferne, was the first and two years later a French film Judith et Holopherne also covered the story. Yet since Griffith's day the story has been largely ignored.

    It's significant, of course, that the first two treatments were both from Catholic countries where the deuterocanonical books are more widely accepted, but nevertheless Judith's early exit from cinematic history is something of a puzzle. There are still far fewer strong female characters than there should be, but there is gradual increase. Where female leads have starred in action films they have tended to be strongly sexualised, Xena Princess Warrior and Tomb Raider being two notable examples. Judith's story, then, seems like it should be even more of an obvious choice today than it was 100 years ago - not only does it feature a female heroine, but she also uses her sexuality to carry out her role as assassin. It's to be hoped that the absence of modern adaptations of this story shows greater maturity in society's attitude to women. Sadly I suspect that its just a product of the predominance of protestantism in the UK, America and various other countries combined with a decline in interest in religion in general in formerly Catholic European countries.

    Judith of Bethulia was released a year or two* before D.W.Griffith's ground-breaking and controversial film Birth of a Nation in 1915. Whilst a number of releases separate the two films, many of the techniques which brought Griffith acclaim are in evidence here, albeit in their infancy.

    For example, in contrast to those two earlier films (the latter of which was made only 3 years beforehand) there is a far greater range of  shots from relative close-ups to long shots with a considerable depth of field. The sets are also an improvement on the previous Judith films, although Bethulia is no match for Griffith's Babylon in Intolerance three years later.

    The major beneficiary of this range of shots is the battle scene, featuring significant numbers of extras and several shots with a significant depth of field. These are somewhat confused, particularly in comparison with his later big action scenes, lacking a certain organisation and making it difficult to differentiate which people are which. (No doubt this is not helped by only seeing a poor quality transfer of the print)

    Griffiths also shows his penchant for personal melodrama shot against a backdrop of major historical events. Aside from the Jesus segments of Intolerance, the three other episodes all revolve around the trials of a young couple. Likewise Judith's story is juxtaposed with that of Nathan and Naomi a young Bethulian couple. She is captured by the Assyrians just before Judith's mission, and as the Assyrian army panic's in the wake of their commander's death, Nathan slips into their camp to rescue his beloved.

    Such a juxtaposition creates interesting contrasts with the relationship between Judith and Holofernes. It emphasises the strength of character Judith displays, but it also highlights the romantic element of their relationship. He for his part is instantly "ravished with her". Likewise when she finally meets the commander, she is deeply conflicted, and "wrestles with her heart" because she finds him "noble" (despite the numerous semi-clad servant girls that hang around his tent).

    Later an intertitle tells us "again she faltered for the love of Holofernes - yet struggled to cast away the sinful passion". Once again the intertitles also reveal Holofernes feelings, he "had thoughts only for Judith - and he gave no heed unto the Dance of the Fishers" but they are also conveyed visually. During the dance, a shot of Holofernes with his courtiers uses an iris to express Holofernes' lack of interest in his surroundings, which have, quite literally, been relegated to the shadows.

    It is in the killing scene when this comes to a climax. Holofernes falls asleep and Judith raises a sword above his neck, but she hesitates and lowers it again torn between her love for him and her duty to her people. She stares into the distance and the film cuts away to the well of Bethulia now littered with the bodies of her countrymen. Whilst it seems physically impossible for her to see this, the sequence suggests that somehow she knows it and she gets up and kills the Assyrian leader. Interestingly we do not witness the decisive blow. This decision may have been on grounds of taste, or technical complexity, but it acts as a testimony of her love for him. And, aside from biblical fidelity, is more to be read into her taking away the head of the man she loves?

    It's a significant film then, not only the launch of Griffiths into feature length movies, but also expanding on elements of the story only hinted at in the earlier films.

    *Sources disagree on the exact year of release. IMDB and Campbell and Pitts cite 1914, whereas the BFI give the release date as one year earlier.

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