• 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


    Monday, July 20, 2009

    La Vie de Moïse & The Life of Moses

    La Vie de Moïse, Pathé, France, 1905.
    Interspersed with
    The Life of Moses, J. Stuart Blackton, Vitagraph, US, 1909-10, 13 mins.
    Perhaps the most unusual story behind the films being shown at last month's Ancient World in Silent Cinema event was these two films, which had been mixed together as if to form one film. The films on display at the event were all taken from one particular collection (the name of which I somehow failed to write down) which was apparently brought together by a teacher in a seminary in Switzerland. Those using Bible films to teach the Bible today can see the idea goes back a long way. Anyway, it appears that the original collector spliced these incidents together from two rather incomplete films, to give a fairly full account of Moses's life. I've listed the events below first with those episodes taken from the 1905 French film in the lighter text, and those from Blackton's 1909-10 US film in the darker text. I've also included biblical references.
    Baby Moses on the Nile - (Ex 2:1-9)
    Israelite Slaves - (Ex 1:11-14)
    Moses kills an Egyptian - (Ex 2:11-14)
    Moses flees - (Ex 2:15)
    Moses meets Jethro & his Daughters - (Ex 2:16-22)
    Burning Bush - (Ex 3:1-4:17)

    Burning Bush - (Ex 3:1-4:17)
    Return to Egypt - (Ex 4:18-23; 27-31)
    Before Pharaoh - (Ex 12:31-42)

    Parting of the Red Sea - (Ex 14)
    Manna from Heaven - (Ex 16)
    Water from the Rock - (Ex 17:1-7)
    Giving of the Ten Commandments - (Ex 20)
    Radiant Face of Moses - (Ex 34:29-35)
    Unfortunately, writing these films up has taken me longer than I anticipated (I still blame East Midlands trains), and so the details of these two films are beginning to fail me, but here are a few observations based on what I wrote at the time and the odd memory that is yet to desert me.

    When Moses is portrayed as a young man his complexion is surprisingly dark. There's little attempt to fill in his backstory - as opposed to the two or so hour DeMille devoted to this part of Moses' life not covered by the Hebrew Bible - we see some Israelite slaves in the pits making bricks, and of the three silent Moses films this is the one that goes into the most detail with different shots detailing different steps in the process. It's an almost documentary-esque sequence which we snap out of once Moses enters the frame. Two Israelites have been having a heated discussion when an Egyptian attempts to restore order. Moses kills the Egyptian but rather than thanking him, the two Israelites continue their quarrel pausing only to tell others what Moses has done.

    Moses fears the worst and not giving Pharaoh a chance to hear of it, he goes to the house of Miriam and Aaron and flees. Moses is clearly already familiar with the two of them, and they help him in his flight. Moses arrives in Midian in time to save Jethro's daughters, and then encounters the burning bush in the next scene. What's interesting about the sequence of events presented here is how closely it corresponds to the biblical account. The bulrushes scene is obviously from a different film from the rest of the Exodus 2 material, but it sticks fairly closely to the events as they are presented with little embellishment.

    Special effects were still fairly basic in this period, but it's interesting to see how quickly they develop. Some of the early Pathé films really did make the most of the medium here - consider, for instance, the walking on water and ascension scenes from Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. The only episode here to appear in both films is the burning bush and we see two contrasting special effect techniques. The later film here is shown first. The bush seems to have been actually set on fire, but before the scene ends the fire has gone out. The other scene, shot perhaps 5 years earlier in 1905 uses a less realistic technique - air blown streamers flying up from the vent they are ties to in the floor. The streamers technique feels more primitive, much more the kind of thing one would expect to see in a play in the theatre (at least before pyrotechnics were invented). It's quite a development in five years, though viewing it over a century later the streamers do give it an otherworldly feel that the realism of the Blackton film perhaps lacks.

    The plagues are largely omitted: there's two brief scenes back in Egypt (from the US film) before we return to the earlier movie to witness the parting of the Red Sea. Given this is such an early film, it's very cleverly done (although it emphasises just how impressive DeMille's efforts were less than 20 years later). My memory is a little sketchy at this point so perhaps anyone else who saw this film could confirm or deny what follows. There's a mid shot of Moses and some Hebrews, with some "sea" in the foreground. Moses prays/ commands and this water seems to move and drain away (it's perhaps shot on an actual beach as a wave goes out. There's then a cut to a body of water which jostles about and retreats. This looks like it could have been something shot in reverse.

    Special effects abound in the next scene as we see manna fall from heaven like snowflakes, followed swiftly by Moses striking a rock to bring forth water. At a guess I'd say this was the same set as the earlier burning bush scene, certainly the low-ish camera angles and the backdrop are very similar.

    The last scene, again from the earlier film, is of the giving of the Ten Commandments. Moses is met on Mount Sinai by some angels who give him the stone tablets. By this stage Moses's hair has turned white and he has a halo. Once he descends a little the halo is replaced by two rays from his head after Exodus 34:29-35. It's an interesting halfway house between the "horned" face of Jerome's Vulgate translation, and the now more widely accepted "radiant" face. The horned Moses, as portrayed in Michaelangelo's famous sculpture above, was usually thought to have two horns, and here he is given two rays that come out of his head initially as if they were horns.

    The BFI database doesn't include a synopsis for this film, but does list some alternative titles, one of which is Moses and the Exodus from Egypt for which Campbell and Pitts give the following summary:
    Moses and the Exodus from Egypt
    1907, France, Pathé, 478 feet B/W

    Another short film in Pathé's series of Biblical movies, this outing was perhaps the first flicker to tell the story of Moses. Included in this lost silent were the scenes of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and the falling of the manna from heaven.
    The later film actually appears to be a collection of shorter films released individually between 1909 and 1910. Again the BFI offers few details. Whilst they list each entry separately, the only details are the names of the company (Vitagraph) and director (J. Stuart Blackton). It lists the following four episodes:
    Campbell and Pitts give this a much more significant write up, naming five episodes and giving release dates. The titles match, and the final episode is called The Promised Land
    1909-1910, Vitagraph, 5 reels, B/W.

    Director: J. Stuart Blackton
    Screenplay: Rev. Madison C. Peters
    CAST: William Humphrey, Charles Kent, Julia Arthur, Earle Williams, Edith Story.
    Vitagraph released THE LIFE OF MOSES in five parts beginning December 11, 1909 and culminating February 19, 1910. The whole film told the story of Moses and how he led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
    The portions of the film and their release dates are:
    Part One: "The Life of Moses" (December 11, 1909).
    Part Two: "Forty Years in the Land of Midian" (December 31, 1909).
    Part Three: "Plagues of Egypt and the Deliverance of the Hebrews" (February 5, 1910).
    Part Four: "The Victory of Israel" (February 12, 1910)
    Part Five: "The Promised Land" (February 19, 1910)
    The first of a supposed series of Biblical pictures from Vitagraph, THE LIFE OF MOSES
    Showed such happenings as the pillar of fire, the parting of the Red Sea and the giving of The Ten Commandments. The Moving Picture World called it "a picture that is deserving of the greatest praise and commendations as a whole"
    Incidentally, J. Stuart Blackton was also the director of a number of other Bible films including Salome (1908), Saul and David from 1909, and Jephthah's Daughter; A Biblical Tragedy (1909) which was one of those that was originally due to be shown at the UCL event, but had to be cut for reasons of time.

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    • At 8:24 pm, July 21, 2009, Blogger Witlessd said…

      Hi Matt

      A few observations: (1) I think these are a marriage of two complete films. The earlier scenes (there are 6: manna & water from the rock are a single tableau) comprise the entire Pathé film.

      The Pathé filmography is now on-line (I discovered this only last week), and here's the fiche for this film: http://filmographie.fondation-jeromeseydoux-pathe.com/index.php?id=5835. (NB: the scene numbering went wrong in transfer from page to screen.)

      For this period, Richard Abel’s The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914 is very helpful. Here’s what he has to say on La Vie de Moїse and the Red Sea effects in particular: "Brief intertitles – “Moses Saved from the River” or “The Burning Bush” - introduce each of this film’s six autonomous shot-scenes, which reproduce familar “Bible lesson” episodes from Moses’ story. The tableaux rely exclusively on painted-flat decors, recorded in LS in the studio, and the supernatural moments are generally created by simple cinematic trucs: either cuts or dissolves. The one exception to this pattern occurs in ”The Parting of the Red Sea.” This episode is comprised of three tableaux, and the transitions between them are marked by very brief sections of heavily scratched film stock (as crude signs of a supernatural effect), separating the Hebrews’ successful sea crossing (between huge painted - flat waves) from the Egyptians’ drowning (apparently in the real water of Pathé’s studio pool). That difference is further marked in the third tableau by a change in camera position to HA LS, perhaps in order to better represent the struggle of the Egyptian soldiers and horsemen. The very next tableau - in which Moses produces drinking water out of the desert rocks - then is set off by the return to a waist-level camera position. Framing and editing, consequently, serve equally with the mise-en-scène to differentiate two crucial moments of the film’s spectacle. And the gender difference determining that spectacle finally is made explicit in the last tableau - the women dancing in ritual adoration around the golden calf are dispersed by Moses and his stone tablets, after which he himself turns into a radiant white figure, in front of whom a single male worshiper remaining next to the broken idol kneels in supplication. " (pp 162-162)

    • At 8:28 pm, July 21, 2009, Blogger Witlessd said…

      (2) I'm pretty sure that the scene from the Vitagraph film comprised the whole of the second film in their "Life of Moses" series: Forty Years in the Wilderness.

      Here’s the synopsis from The Moving Picture World, 31 December 1909, which corresponds more or less exactly to what we saw: “Scene 1 ... The Hebrews are still under bondage, and we see them laboring in the brick field.... Moses has been reared and educated in an Egyptian court, ... but he does not forget that be is of Hebrew blood, and, as he watches his brethren in their slavery his blood boils at the outrages ...
      Scene 2- A number of Hebrews are digging clay, which is filled into baskets. The load is too heavy for ons of the laborers, and the taskmaster beats h im unmercifully. Moses sees this and kills the taskmaster.

      Scene 3 - The other Hebrew slaves, horrified at the enormity of the act, run away, and Moses, afraid of the consequences, hastily buries the body in the clay pit.

      Scene 4 - Two days after this, Moses seeks to separate two of his brethren who are quarreling, and one of them says: “Wilt thou kill me as you did the Egyptian?” Moses is terrified when be knows that his crime is known, and decides to flee from the country.

      Scene 5 - He seeks refuge in the home of a Hebrew laborer and

      Scene 6 - Bargains for a suit the laborer’s garments, with which he disguises himself; he also purchases provisions and a water bottle, and departs.

      Scene 7 - Moses is seen crossing the desert. Tired and dusty, he rests and drinks from his water flask.

      Scene 8 - Still toiling on through the arid desert, he reaches an eminence and looks back to see if he is being followed, and, seeing no one, he gives thanks for his deliverance.

      Scene 9 - Moses has at last reached the land of Midian. He discovers a well and refreshes himself. While he is resting seven daughters of Jethro, a Midianite, come to the well to draw water for their sheep and cattle. Other herdsmen also come to the well, and ungallantly drive away the maidens, but Moses comes to their aid, and draws the water for them.

      Scene 10 - The home of Jethro, priest of Midian, father of the seven maidens. They enter and tell of the encounter at the well, and how they were aided by a Hebrew traveler. He says the man must be his guest, and –

      Scene 11 - Hastens to the well and greets Moses and invites bird to the shelter of his house, which offer is accepted.

      Scene 12 - Moses enters the home of the priest of Midian, where he is effusively greeted by the whole household, and ...

      Scene 13 - We see him seated and enjoying a meal with the family. (“And Moses was content to dwell with the man...and he gave Moses his daughter, Zipporah, to wife.”)

      Scene 14 - (Forty years later) Moses is now a shepherd, and, while tending his flocks in the land of Midian –

      Scene 15 - The voice of God speaks to him out of a burning bush and commands him to return to Egypt and deliver his brethren out of the bondage of the Egyptians.

      Scene 16 - Moses bids farewell to Jethro ... and, with his family, journeys to Egypt. On the way he meets Aaron, who had been commanded by the Lord to meet Muses, and together they arrive at the Egyptian court.

      Scene 17 - The court of Pharaoh, a young man, the elder Pharaoh having died while Moses was in Midian. The officials announce the new arrivals, and Moses and Aaron are ushered in and demand, in the name of the Lord, that the Children of Israel be set free. The Egyptian King refuses, and Moses tells him that it he does not consent the wrath of God will come on all the Egyptians.”(NB: The BFI does also list V: The Promised Land"; And Campbell & Pitts misname Part I – the BFI title is correct.)

      I’d also recommend Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films by Uricchio & Pearson, which has a full chapter on the Moses series.

    • At 4:13 pm, July 22, 2009, Blogger Matt Page said…


      Given how many of these films are by VItagrpah that might be worth getting. Do you know if there is an equivalent book for Pathé?


    • At 11:42 pm, July 22, 2009, Blogger Witlessd said…

      The Vitagraph book isn't an exhaustive filmography; but it's certainly worth getting. Not sure about Pathe. There is the scholarly filmography by Bousquet, but that has basically ended up on that Pathe site that I referred you to earlier. The site isn't complete (the later years don't appear) because there are still volumes of Bousquet still to come.

      By the way, I haven't forgotten my promise to send you my list; I just need to tidy it up a tad before I do.

    • At 8:36 am, July 23, 2009, Blogger Matt Page said…




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