Four years after the 1909 Vitagraph film of the same name Warner's Features released another Jephthah's Daughter, four times the length of the original (though at 25 minutes it was still far shorter than some of the 70+minute films that were starting to be made elsewhere). The film was produced by J. Farrell McDonald who directed 50 film between 1912 and 1917 and went on to have acting roles in over 300 films including bit parts in such great films as Sunrise, It's a Wonderful Life, My Darling Clementine and Meet John Doe.
The real strength of this film was its compositions. The image below is perhaps my favourite from a silent Bible film. The opening shot (above) is also very interesting taken with the camera standing high up with Jephthah and his men in the foreground whilst the battle rages on lower ground behind them. Jephthah's position on high ground is apt. Not only is he the leader who stands above them, it also reflects the traditions around spirituality and high places.
The plot itself contains significant deviations from Judges 11, mainly omitting Jephthah's longish speech to the King of Ammon and inserting an overblown love story that only unfolds once Jephthah's daughter heads for her time in the mountains. the biblical material is skimmed over quite quickly. The opening title card gives way for the battle scene described above, just in time for Jephthah to make his vow. Critically he uses "whatsoever" rather than whosoever.
Unusually, for the era, the film is still introducing credits by this point, so we are told the Jephthah's daughter is played by Constance Crawley and her lover Zebah by Arthur Maude. That same year the pair would also star together in another Bible film The Shadow of Nazareth (stills here) a love triangle between Crawley's Judith, Maude's Barabbas and Caiaphas (Joe Harris). The year before she made this film Crawley had suffered a severe bout of tuberculosis, from which she never truly recovered, dying tragically young in 1919. Crawley and Maude starred in a string of films together, many of which, like this one, were directed by Maude, and rumours have persisted that the pair were lovers.
It's not too surprising, then, to find Crawley and Maude playing each other's love interests here too. Zebah has a vision of / flashback to Crawley's character declaring her love for him. There's some suggestion that she is in peril and crying out for help. Having previously offered to do so, Zebah kidnaps Jephthah's daughter and some of her maids (?) as they roam the hills in their mourning period.
Being an established war hero, Jephthah tries to find them and there's quite a long sequence of shots where Jephthah and his men hunt Zebah down. Eventually, after a tip off from Zebah's sister, Jephthah catches the pair but, as I think is obvious from the image below, his daughter is deeply conflicted between the man she loves and her duty to her father/God.
Jephthah kills Zebah leaving his daughter to declare her love for the Zebah and offering to die in his place. It's too late of course and so Jephthah's daughter stabs herself in a gesture strongly reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Crawley had appeared in many Shakespearan plays prior to becoming a movie actress and 1916 saw her return to the stage for her last great in Julius Caesar, so perhaps the Shakespearean undertones here should not be too surprising.
Sadly though it does seem to result in leaving the rest of the plot rather nonsensical. The death of the daughter (and it would have been so much easier if Maude had given her character a name) leaves both Zebah's love and Jephthah's vow unfulfilled. Perhaps this is fair enough given the film's subtitle A Tragedy from the Scriptures. The daughter's death is deeply unsatisfying on a narrative level, but perhaps that dissatisfaction leads us to re-examine the original story in a way that a more conventional ending might not have done.
Furthermore, it's hard to think of an ending would have been more satisfactory. The daughter's obedient death at her father's hand would seem even worse now that she has been so significantly fleshed out as a women with a life and a love of her own. Conversely her successful elopement would be to take a path that the film had seemingly ruled out from the start.
Seen from the point of feminist theory the ending is even more interesting. In contrast to the love triangle of Maude's The Shadow of Nazareth, her there is a power triangle. Crawley's father views his daughter as a thing that can be used to make bargains, even to the extent of offering her up for a sacrificial death. Whilst on the other hand there is the chief bandit Zebah - presumably named after the Midianite king from Judges 8 - who kidnaps her against her will. Whilst she eventually falls for him, his estranged sister (and Deborah's best friend) still considers him a malignant force, ultimately choosing to betray him in order to protect her friend. The daughter's death at her own hand highlights the extent to which she is trapped, but renders her not as a powerless victim, but as a figure who is still able to make decision and determine the course of her own life.
Writing about this film less than 24 hours after the final episode of Breaking Bad also raises the question of how tidy the end of a narrative should be. If, from a narrative point of view, the ending is unsatisfactory then perhaps, given the subject matter, this is rightfully so. The story is disturbing. It's from a book that is steeped in the moral ambiguity of characters simply doing "what is right in their own eyes". And a story about a man that makes a deal with God to kill his daughter in exchange for a victorious battle; and a God who seems either to endorse his actions - or at the very least unwilling / unable to intervene, should not be let of the hook that easily.
The BFI archive doesn't have a plot summary and neither do Campbell and Pitts, but I'll include the one provided at the Ancient World in Cinema II event in 2009.
Jephthah's Daughter (US, J. Farrell Macdonald, 1913) 25 mins.
"A tragedy from the scriptures". In battle, Jephthah vows that if he is victorious he will sacrifice to God the first creature he meets on his return. His daughter and her servant Deborah (awaiting news of the outcome) meet Deborah's long lost brother, the wily robber chief Zebah. The victorious Jephthah is greeted by his daughter and reveals to her his vow. Zebah sends spies to follow the daughter and capture her as she rides in a wagon. He holds her in the woods and tried to woo her. Two months later, Deborah chooses to betray her brother in order to protect her mistress. Zebah is wounded and captured, accompanied by the daughter who is now in love with him. SHe asks her father to spare Zebah in return for her readiness to be sacrifices, but the two lovers die.