• 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


    Thursday, July 18, 2013

    The Kingdom of Israel: Part 2

    One of the most interesting things about the Hebrew Bible is the emergence of different voices offering conflicting opinions, sometimes even within the same book. Arguably one of the most divisive issues in this respect seems to be the role of Israel's kingdom in relation to God's will and plan. The solemn warnings by the prophet Samuel at its inauguration take a very negative view of kingship whereas the rules of David and Solomon are idealised even despite their personal faults. By the later period of the kingdom the focus has shifted again. The main issue is no longer whether or not having a king is the right path, the key question is the manner in which the king walks along that path.

    This varying status is complicated by the length of time between the events described and their final editing into 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. The length of time covered by these books is roughly around 500 years, even before other questions around authorship and so forth are examined.

    Disappointingly, very few biblical films examine the morality of Israelite monarchy as an institution, preferring instead to focus on individual rulers within the Kingdom of Israel and issues surrounding their lives. Indeed the most significant examination of this question occurs not in a Hebrew Bible film, but in one about Jesus; Roberto Rossellini's Il Messia (1975). Rossellini's focus here, as in many of his films, is on power and it's abuse, and so the scene where the elders of Israel persuade Samuel to create a monarchy is pivotal in showing the abuse of power in Israel and how Jesus comes in the opposite spirit. His Messiah is cut from a different cloth.

    The potential for the corruption of the monarchy system is illustrated in other ways however, namely the depiction of Saul and his fall from grace. This is particularly well embodied in Orson Welles' portrayal and the inaugural Israelite king in Saul and David. Whilst the quality of the film is poor, Welles' heavy, sweaty body evokes memories of his earlier role as corrupt cop Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil (1958). The impression of corruption and decay is only heightened by the cheap and poorly lit throne room set and the generally amateurish feel of the production as a whole.

    As might be expected, other films also portray Saul in a harshly negative light. Whilst a modern day therapist might look at the story of Saul and see a man troubled by mental health problems, filmmakers tend to be less specific. One notable example being 2013's miniseries The Bible. There, even in his early days as a hero Saul comes across poorly raising his crown to the sky at his coronation like a victorious sportsmen lifting aloft his new trophy. It's notable as well that in a film packed with actors bearing typicall rugged, American good looks, Saul's face is far less attractive. Indeed, few films demonstrate much empathy for Saul, a tradition that goes all the way back to the early silents David and Goliath (1908), Saul and David (1909), David and Saul (1911) and Death of Saul (1913).

    This is quite in contrast, however with the general depiction of his successor, David. The majority of David films introduce us to him before he becomes king, and focus on him as a young man, notably before the trappings of power have corrupted him. This enables the audience to sympathise with him, meaning that, where presented, his later failings are somewhat rendered more understandable.

    The most notable exception to this trend is 1951's David and Bathsheba. Whilst the film does encourage sympathy with the king, not least by casting Gregory Peck in the lead role, it's focus is almost entirely on David's latter years. His heroics against Goliath, a time when he was purer and more in touch with his god, are preserved only as a late flashback as David reflects on where it all went wrong. It nicely highlights the recurring, but subtle minority report of Saul/Kings, that power corrupts the ideals of youth.

    Nowhere is this clearer than in the story of Solomon who in his youth choses God's wisdom over riches, but ends up pursuing the latter, ultimately bringing his kingdom to the verge of bankruptcy a weakening te tribal confederation to the verge of breakdown. Such a story though is far less appealing and so films have tended to focus on the more glamourous aspects of Solomon's reign, most notably the visit of the Queen of Sheba and the implied romance in La Reine de Saba (1913), Solomon and Sheba (1959) and The Bible Collection: Solomon (1997). Whilst the damage that is done by Solomon's pursuit of wives, concubines and the political power this affords him is included in certain films, such as 1997's Solomon, generally these aspects are amongst the less memorable moments of the films.

    It would be Solomon's son however who oversaw the disintegration of the kingdom of Israel, but none of the major productions treat it as anything other than a contextual footnote on the narrative arc of another story. The divided kingdom features, primarily in the handful of films about Elijah - Athaliah, Queen of Judah (1910), Sins of Jezebel (1953), Living Bible: Elijah a Fearless Prophet (1958) and Testament: Elijah (1996) - but is perhaps best captured by the 1936 film Green Pastures where instead of portraying one particular king, it condenses them all into a single king who has set his face against God and persecuted the generic prophet who speaks out against him.

    And it is through the lens of the prophets that cinema witnesses the fall of Judah (although the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel is absent in a Hollywood history of the world), most notably the story of Jeremiah, although perhaps also the films about Judith (see Judith, film). Two major productions tell the story of Jeremiah - the fifth 'hour' of the The Bible miniseries (2013) and the 1998 biopic Jeremiah. Whilst both have their faults, not least the earlier film's mawkish love story, they also capture the chasm that has gradually appeared between the monarchy and leadership of the Jewish nation, and their supposed God. The warnings of Samuel have come to pass and Israel is about to be stripped of her monarchy forever. The two films chronicling the last days of Judah focus not on the waning monarchy, but of the rising prophets. The 1998 film is far more concerned with the ins and outs of Jeremiah's life, his struggles with God, than on the inner workings of the seat of power. Part of that focus is also on the more depressive aspects of Jeremiah's personality as manifest in his walk with God, this creating a fascinating contrast with the mental health problems of Saul. Whilst the cinematic corpus on the kingdom of Israel shows humans remaining flawed the pendulum has swung from kings to prophets, and Samuel's initial warnings about the corruption of royal power have been amply demonstrated.

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    • At 12:29 pm, September 06, 2013, Blogger Witlessd said…

      Matt, I think it's clear from your comments that you haven't seen Saul e David (1964, Dir: Marcello Baldi), which is one of the very best Biblical films ever made. Norman Wooland gives a superb performance, playing Saul as a complex, believable character and the second half plays out like a Shakespearean dynastic drama; one of the scene in Saul's fortress palace is set in winter, with snow... it feels more like Elsinore than Gibeah. Sadly the quality of the DVD available is pretty low (though this English version does have Wooland's own voice), but that cannot disguise the quality of the film itself.

    • At 7:40 am, September 08, 2013, Blogger Witlessd said…

      Hi Matt.

      From your comments it looks like you've not seen Saul e David (1964; Dir: Marcello Baldi). This is an excellent adaptation of the biblical story, featuring a superb central performance from Norman Wooland, as a complex, believable Saul. Someone on Amazon described it as played like a Shakespearian "Tragedy of King Saul" and that's absolutely correct. Indeed, some scenes are set in a wintry - snowy - fortress - and play like family/dynastic dramas like Lear, Macbeth or Hamlet. The reason the movie is less well known is not only the unstarry players, but the horrid DVD release, which is of very poor quality (even though, as an English version, it does give us Wooland's own voice). However, nothing can entirely disguise the quality of this thoughtful, skilful adaptation. It leaves the rather silly David e Golia (1960) in the shade.


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