• 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, August 06, 2016

    The Shadow of Nazareth (1913)

    Shadow of Nazareth is unusual amongst Jesus films because it sits, somewhat awkwardly between films that are primarily about Jesus, and those where Jesus is a peripheral player, making the odd cameo appearance in an occasional scene.

    The opening credits give us a clue - only the actors playing Barabbas and the fictional Judith Iscariot (sister of Jesus' infamous betrayer) are named. Instead of the focus being Jesus it is on these two, whose role and relationship with Judas are pivotal in the events leading to Jesus's death. Jesus himself is a principal, but in terms of screen time he is far from the lead.

    Whilst the full film runs to only a little over 30 minutes, it manages to include a reasonably complicated plot. Judith is very much the principal character, with whom not only Barabbas, but also a pharisee called Gabrias as well as Caiaphas are in love. An altercation between the three men results in both Barabbas and Caiaphas stabbing Gabrias, and then to further blacken the high priest's character he has Barabbas arrested for the murder. 18 months later and Caiaphas decides that the now imprisoned Barabbas is less of a threat than Jesus and so he persuades Judith to convince Judas to betray him. Jesus is condemned, Judas hangs himself and the liberated Barabbas heads to the nearest tavern.

    That scene instantly reminded me of a similar one from Richard Fleischer's Barabbas (1961)  starring Anthony Quinn. Quinn returns from his ordeal confused but joyful, that is until he spies the now condemned Jesus dragging his cross past the inn's window. His mood darkens instantly. Whilst this later film lacks an obvious homage shot a combination of the actor's demeanour, the joyous bunch of Barabbas's friends surrounding him and the tavern location suggest a certain degree of connectivity.

    Given the antiquity of this film, and the almost 50 year gap between the two it's perhaps unlikely that the Quinn film was directly influenced by Shadow. However, according to Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, there is another connection between the two films.1

    Whilst it is uncredited, the plot for the film, right down to the inclusion of a character named Judith of Nazareth, is taken from an 1893 novel "Barabbas: A Dream of the World's Tragedy" by Marie Correlli. The lack of acknowledgement for Correlli's novel is all the more interesting given the, then still recent, verdict against the producers of the 1907 adaptation of Ben Hur. In that case the film used the novel's title, but was little more than a set up for a glorified chariot race. Shadow of Nazareth seems to have escaped any such censure so it's curious that not only did the filmmakers think the way to stay on the right side of this ruling was to use the plot but not the title, but that they also got away with it.

    Correlli's novel was "a spectacular commercial success" in its own day, being "published in fifty-four editions...and...translated into over forty languages".2, so it's not not unlikely that it influenced Pär Lagerkvist when he wrote his 1950 novel "Barabbas" and perhaps the similarity stems from there. However neither Burnette-Bletsch nor Larry Kreitzer3, who writes about Fleischer's adaptation of Lagerkvist's novel, mention the link. Curiously though Kreitzer does discuss a more recent work on Barabbas, Gerd Thiessen's piece of narrative exegesis "The Shadow of the Galilean".4

    Given the ready made audience for this film, then, it's perhaps not surprising that Shadow of Nazareth performed fairly well. It was slated by many critics, and there is a certain self-seriousness about it, but whilst the film didn't make the link to the novel explicit, its fans nevertheless appear to have turned out to see the film version. There are a couple of nice shots, notably the one captured above which works far better as a moving shot than as a still, though several compound bad composition with over zealous cropping. There are also a few bits of symbolism and imagery, most notably the cross shaped twig that a repentant Judith finds in the garden where Judas has hanged himself, and of a cross symbol being imposed at the front of one shot. This was three years before Griffith would do something similar in Intolerance.

    It could I suppose, be argued that, like this film, Griffith's film's comparatively short treatment of his Jerusalem story is another example of Jesus as a minor principal. Not dissimilar in this respect was L'Aveugle de Jérusalem four years before in 1909. Yet in the modern era there have been very few such films. Perhaps the closest is this year's Risen though there Jesus becomes more and more central as the film progresses, not unlike The Third Man's Harry Lime.

    It's hard to escape the feeling that the disappearance of this cinema of the religious middle ground is the result of market economics coming more to the fore as producers became more sure footed in their understanding of different audiences, perhaps particularly in the context of evolving secularisation and a growing polarisation between those of faith and those without. Over time audiences have separated out into a segment of practising Christians who want to watch filmmakers adapt the Bible, and the rest of society, or at least the portion who want to just enjoy the spectacle and excess of the epic genre without the pluses and minuses that religion brings with it. Films like Risen are perhaps an attempt to build a bridge between the two groups: it's failure at the box office suggests that much has changed since 1913.

    Whilst the entire film is not currently available outside of film archives, the first reel is available to view at archive.org

    1 - Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda. "The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016). p.132-157
    2 - Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda. The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016). p.140
    3 - Kreitzer, Larry J., "The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow." (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). p.67-87
    4 - Thiessen, Gerd. "The Shadow of the Galilean" (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987) and subsequent reprints.

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