• 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.

    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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