• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, March 03, 2006

    Early films about David and Saul (1911-1913)

    The final films on the DVD I've been discussing this week are both about the Hebrew King Saul; David et Saul (David and Saul) made in 1911 and La Mort de Saül(The Death of Saul) made two years later in 1913.

    These films are also made by Pathé Frères and not listed in Campbell and Pitts' "The Bible on Film". They do list two other related films David and Goliath (1908) and Saul and David (1909), which is also listed on the IMDB . What is unusual about these two films is the subject material they choose to handle, particularly given that only a couple of films based on 1 Samuel had been made by this point. I imagine if you asked a modern day viewer which episodes from the books of Samuel they were most familiar with they would firstly list David and Goliath, and then perhaps David and Bathsheba, or the calling of Samuel, or the anointing of Saul or David. I'm not sure whether it's a sign of how much the parts of the bible we focus on have changed so much in 95 years, or that, even upon its release, they were unusual choices. Suffice to say none of the above scenes are in either of these films, the details of which are below:
    David and Saul (1911)
    David returns from beating the Philistines - (1 Sam 17/ 1 Sam 18:27)
    David marries Michal - (1 Sam 18:27)
    Saul grows jealous - (1 Sam 18:6-9)
    David feigns madness whilst in hiding - (1 Sam 21:10-15
    Saul slaughters the priests - (1 Sam 22:6-18)
    David hides from Saul - (1 Sam 23:24-28)

    Death of Saul (1913)
    Saul slaughters the priests - (1 Sam 22:6-18)
    The Witch of Endor - (1 Sam 28)
    The death of Saul - (1 Sam 31:1-6)
    What we do see is a great deal of attention given to Saul ordering the killing of the priests of Nob, which appears in both films. The review of The Death of Saul at IMDb notes how:
    "The story of David and Saul is an interesting and ambitious choice of material, and this short feature does a creditable job of filming it. The story has plenty of action, plus some significant psychological themes, and this movie succeeds in bringing out at least some of both."
    In my opinion the most successful biblical films have been those that use less familiar material to challenge our pre-conceptions, or are at least more concerned with trying to explore their protagonist's motives.

    A few notes:
    It's interesting that the first film starts with a celebration of David's victory over the Philistines. I put chapter 17 as a possible reference, but that's probably just re-coiling from the fact that the most likely victory this refers to is the one where he gives 200 Philistine foreskins to Saul as a wedding dowry (1 Sam 18:27). Certainly the fact that at the end of the scene Saul holds David and a very un-cinematic Michal together indicates that it is this victory which is being celebrated.

    Although this film doesn't actually show the incident where David chooses not to kill Saul when he had the chance, it does refer to it in the intertitles "Fatigued Saul seeks repose in the cave where David was hidden". However, instead of seeing David cut Saul's cloak or steal his spear, the scene following this intertitle seems to portray David hiding on the other side of the mountain (1 Sam 23:24-28). The film crams a lot in, in a very short time, and it's hard for the viewer - even if they have a good knowledge of the various stories - to work out what is being depicted.

    The break between the two films on the DVD I have is very slight, and most of the scant discussion of these two films on the web seems to treat them as one. In fact I noticed that the title of the film, placed at the top of each intertitle, changed before I noticed the briefly shown intertitle card that announced the new film.

    The second film is two years later, and the filmmakers have significantly improved in that time. The use of a red colour wash during the sacking of Nob is quite effective, as is the use of special effects when Samuel appears in the witch's cave. There's also a really impressive scene (coming soon) where a large crowd of Philistines rush past the camera into the battle. Except for the old black and white celluloid
    the way this action is filmed is on a par with anything today, and is the most impressive sequence I can recall at any point before Birth of a Nation revolutionised film in 1915.

    It is interesting how the second film paraphrases Saul's prophesy into three clauses and then shows each happening in turn:
    "Thy armies shall be delivered into the hands of the Philistines
    Thy sons shall perish
    Thy sword shall avenge the God of Israel"
    It's not quite what Samuel says (1 Sam 28:19), but the way the film takes each clause and shows it happening is a far more sophisticated narrative device than was standard for the era.

    Finally, although the second film is about the same length as the first it takes things much more slowly. The emphasis here seems to be much more on Saul and what is happening to him internally, than the events that are happening around him. It also allows a chiastic structure to the events. The film starts with Saul destroying the priests of Nob, and ends with him being destroyed by them, separated only by an announcement of God's judgement upon him, and linking the two actions nicely together.


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