• 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


    Tuesday, October 29, 2013

    The Bible and Writing Coherrently

    I've been meant to be writing a proper piece on the History Channel's The Bible miniseries for quite a time now, but on top of having too much else to do and exhaustion to contend with, I now find myself with a major case of writer's block. Fun times. Getting those first few opening lines has never really been my strength as a writer, but this piece, in particular, is proving a major challenge.

    So I thought I'd hash out a few thoughts here in the hope that it will at least get something going, or help anyone who hasn't visited my blog for quite a while to see that, yes, I do still produce content, right?

    One thing that has really stood out to me about this film is the opening disclaimer that flashes up at the start of every episode.
    This program is an adaptation of Bible stories that changed our world. It endeavours to stay true to the spirit of the book.
    I've thought a fair bit about both sentences, but one thing I've really been thinking about is the staying "true to the spirit of the book" bit. The first thing to say is that it's a little unclear whether this is the spirit of the book or the Spirit of the Book. An all-caps font is used and whilst (proper) "capital letters" are very slightly larger, and the "S" doesn't appear to be, I could be wrong. The use of Spirit rather than spirit is fairly significant in this situation. Every adaptation is judged by whether or not it has stayed true to the "spirit of the book". But a capital would suggest the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead. Staying true to that is rather different.

    But of course the Bible - as smart aleck Bible teachers are also so keen to tell us - is not a book, it's a collection of 66+. And whilst the same "Spirit" might be behind them all, it's by no means a forgone conclusion that the same spirit is behind them all. The spirit of Ecclesiastes, say, is very different from the spirit of Acts, or Leviticus or Revelation. Stylistically it makes sense to talk about acoherence. David's psalms don't feel the same as Jesus' parables, which differ again from Moses' purity laws. This is how it should be.

    All of which raises some interesting questions when it comes to one program trying to cover a significant proportion of the Bible. How coherent should the visual style of the different sections be? What about acting style? Editing? Pacing and so on?

    The 1990s series Testament: The Bible in Animation faced these questions by making the different sections in completely different forms. Some were stop-motion animation, others hand-drawn, but even the hand-drawn entries used a variety of styles, from the operatically delivered Elijah episode to the spiky elongated figures of the Moses entry.

    As with other, similar, projects such as The Living Bible and The Greatest Heroes of the Bible, the decision made for The Bible has been to adopt what is essentially the same style for each section. Visually this has been the grungy-with-perfect-teeth approach to costume design with the same grungy filters used on the cameras. Scene length has tended to be about 2-3 minutes. Shot length has tended to be fairly fast - frenetically disorientating at times. Camera work has often been fairly dramatic and showy. The diegetic soundtrack is quite dominant at times.

    All of the above and a lot more give the production a sense of coherence. Anyone who, having watched last weeks episode, finds themself tuning in late will know they had reached the right programme instantly despite having leapt from the Babylonian era to the Roman one.

    It could, of course, be argued that the parts of the Bible that this series shows us are all essentially a variation on the historical narrative. That, in itself, is a good enough justification for formal coherence. It's notable, for example, that whilst The Bible Collection varies its style in episodes such as the Apocalypse one and the creation one the styles are far more divergent than they are for the majority of the series.

    Nevertheless, the coherence isn't just an accident, it's a deliberate choice, and a choice that makes a far clearer statement about the Bible's unity than the series' dialogue ever could or would.


    Wednesday, October 23, 2013

    Joseph films for Church Use

    A while back, one of the churches I'm involved with has asked me about good clips for use in a series on Joseph. I've been flat out recently, so I suspect I'm too late to be of any use, but I thought I'd highlight a couple of films that might be useful for churches looking at Joseph.

    Compared to some biblical characters, Joseph hasn't actually had that many films made about him, and there are still a few I need to see. Chief amongst these is 1974's The Story of Jacob and Joseph (sometimes called simple Jacob and Joseph), starring Colleen Dewhurst amongst others, which sits unwatched on my shelves. It's got 7.1 on IMDb suggesting it's better than average for the time, period and subject, but I suspect it probably is still a little too shabby for public use.

    There were a number of silent films on the subject, most notably La Sacra Bibbia (The Sacred Bible): The Story of Joseph in Egypt (my review). The first Genesis film was one about Joseph, the French Vendu Par Ses Frères (Joseph Sold by his Brothers) made in 1904. IMDb turns up a couple of others both from 1914 - Joseph in the Land of Egypt and Joseph's Trials in Egypt. (Campbell and Pitts list date Joseph in the Land of Egypt as 1915). None of these three are commercially available.

    There were then a string on Joseph films in the 1960s, predictably two coming out of Italian studios - Giuseppe Venduto Dei Fratelli [Joseph Sold by his Brothers] (1960), I Patriarch Della Bibbia [The Patriarchs of the Bible] (1963) - as well as a couple of Israeli films - the puppet animated Joseph and his Brethren (1962) and Joseph the Dreamer (1967). The story is also covered by the Living Bible series (1957 - Joseph, The Young Man and Joseph, Ruler of Egypt, ) and the Greatest Heroes of the Bible series (1978 - Joseph and his Brothers).

    However, all these films are probably too dated for modern audiences. Some people in those church groups might find them interesting, but as all generations become increasingly more media literate, the above films seem increasingly archaic and unintentionally humorous. So realistically we need to look to the modern era. A neat division is made here by the absence of any Joseph films from the 1980s.

    Al-Mohager [The Emigrant] (1994)
    Whilst the film's subtitles will mean that this film is probably not going to work for most congregations, it's probably the best of the films about Joseph in my opinion. It's been five years since I saw it, but as I mentioned in my review at the time, it's the one version of this story that actually makes me care for the protagonist.

    The Bible Collection: Joseph (1995)
    This entry (also known as Joseph in Egypt) is arguably one of the best in the Bible Collection Series - it did, after all, win an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries. Much of that is down to Ben Kingsley's portrayal as Potiphar, although Paul Mercurio's (Strictly Ballroom) turn in the lead role and a strong supporting cast (Martin Landau, Monica Bellucci, Warren Clarke and Lesley Ann Warren) also helped. At 3 hours long you would expect it to cover most of the story's main episodes, although it's been so long since I saw it that I can't remember. Peter Chattaway fleshes things out a bit in his thoughts on the series.

    Testament (1996)
    I've reviewed much of the Testament:Biblein Animation series in recent years, but this is one episode it's been a while since I saw. It's one of the few puppet animated entries in the series and so will work well for kids, although that usually puts off the adults who fail to realise that this is animation made primarily for adults. So whilst it's a succinct and relatively thorough account of the story, with all of Testament's usual technical excellence, I'd advise potential users to think about how it will be received.

    Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999)
    If you wanted to go for campy humour value then look no further. This 1999 recording of Rice and Webber's stage show camps it up to the max, but even so the final result is exceptionally poor. There's perhaps some credit to the casting of Joan Collins as Potiphar's wife - genuinely terrifying - and the songs are (annoyingly) memorable, but even the straighter Jason Donovan version of the stage show brings little but an easy laugh.

    In the Beginning (2000)
    Landau pops up again in Joseph's ancestory, but here he's playing his Great Grandfather Abraham (rather than his dad Jacob as in the Bible Collection). The film is pretty poor, but the Joseph scenes are not the worst of it.

    Joseph, King of Dreams (2000)
    King of Dreams is the prequel to the hugely successful Prince of Egypt so the fact it went straight to DVD speaks volumes. That said there are some notable successes, primarily the early scenes of Joseph's dreams, which are visualised in the same breathtaking style that won so many plaudits in Prince of Egypt. It's also notable for some voice work by Mark Hamill, although it's Ben Affleck who voices the hero. For whatever reason I do remember this one rather fondly and so have a hunch that had it been made today, with the popularity of sequels being what it is, it probably would have got a proper cinematic release. That's why it would be one of my recommendations to look at and why I'll be revisiting it with my children shortly.

    It's also surprising to look at the films that don't include the Joseph story. For all it's boats about it's long running time, this year's The Bible almost completely ignores Joseph. Another interesting film not to include the story here is Cheick Oumar Sissoko's La Genèse which is written during the time that Joseph is in Egypt, but written about the exploits of the rest of the family in his absence. There is of course reference to what has happened, and the film does a powerful job of portraying Jacob's grief, but essentially this is a film about Joseph made through his absence rather than his presence. Also falling into the close-but-no-cigar category are Huston's 1966 The Bible, Year One and The Real Old Testament all of which stop in the time of Joseph's father/grandfather.

    Overall then, for church use, I'd cautiously suggest checking out the Bible Collection's Joseph miniseries and having a look at Joseph, King of Dreams and the Testament entry as well. For a film night for more discerning viewers either Al-Mohager or one of my perennial favourites La Genèse.

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    Thursday, October 03, 2013

    Jephthah in Film

    It seems like a bit of a cheat to call this piece the definitive guide to Jephthah in film; after all there are only two of them. Aside from this pair of early silent films, the complex and controversial story of Jephthah has been overlooked by filmmakers. As the cost of producing movies escalated exponentially from the very early silent era to today, so the financial risk in making films has increased, leaving producers uneasy about adopting subjects which even the majority of those interested in the Bible find unpalatable. In short increasing spectacle nudged filmmakers towards an increased conservatism, and so whilst some filmmakers have persisted in seeking support to explore difficult, insular and challenging material, such as Jephthah, they tend not to adapt conservative material such as the Bible. Even those who have done (Huston, Pasolini, Rosellini, Scorsese and Arcand) have tended to opt towards the more popular stories rather than those of the more obscure characters from lesser known Old Testament histories, Amos Gitai being a notable exception.

    As a result to date we are left with only two Jephthah films, or, to be more correct, only two films about Jephthah's daughter. The distinction is not just in order to reflect that both films (1909 and 1913) share that title, but also because both films can be seen to be more about this unnamed widow that her rash and barbaric father.

    The distinction is easier to appreciate with the later film. There are a few excellent shots of Jephthah during the battle -his vow to God as the battle rages down behind him and that of him stealthily creeping past the camera a little while later - but his recall to the leadership of the Gileadites, or his account of Hebrew history to his enemy are omitted and replaced with the fictional story of his daughters attempted elopement during her tour of the mountains.

    As melodrama it is overwrought and non-sensical: the affair ends in Romeo-and-Juliette-esque tragedy, with the only mild comfort for the viewer perhaps being the idea that Jephthah's daughter and her lover Zebah we're together in death the way they could not be in life. Yet as theology it draws attention to the face of the victim. Indeed the biblical account portrays Jephthah's daughter as the classic sacrificial victim, not only chosen for death to fulfil a bargain with a cruel God, but also a seemingly willing victim. There are other ways to read the text but what this film does is give the lump of meat for the sacrificial offering a name (well almost), a face, a personality and a story. Girard argues that the radical break that the crucifixion makes is allowing to see, for the first time, the face of the victim. This film does likewise.

    Whilst the earlier 1909 version of Jephthah's Daughter is only a mere 6 minutes long, it to goes beyond the boundaries of the original story in humanising the daughter and judging in her favour in contrast to her father's. Whilst the actor's overwrought performance on seeing his daughter is the one to be sacrificed is typical of acting styles of the time, it only serves to weaken modern audiences' connection with Jephthah heightening the characlter's apparent stupidity.

    The critical moment occurs as the flames lap around the daughter's corpse, suddenly she stands serenely erect before them glowing as if resurrected. It evokes so many other biblical stories not least Shadrach, Meshach and Abenbego miraculously survivng Nebuchudnezzar's furnace and the resurrection of Christ.

    At time of writing it is 100 years since the last film we know of about Jephthah was produced and whilst many reasons could be out forward as to why the story was never adapted again, perhaps the answer lies in the events of the following year. 1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War. With stories rife of ageing political leaders sending their children out to be (often) needlessly sacrificed for the sake of military success, it is more than possible that the audience would no longer stomach pious retellings of the story of Jephthah and his daughter.

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    Tuesday, October 01, 2013

    Jephthah's Daughter (1913)

    Four years after the 1909 Vitagraph film of the same name Warner's Features released another Jephthah's Daughter, four times the length of the original (though at 25 minutes it was still far shorter than some of the 70+minute films that were starting to be made elsewhere). The film was produced by J. Farrell McDonald who directed 50 film between 1912 and 1917 and went on to have acting roles in over 300 films including bit parts in such great films as Sunrise, It's a Wonderful Life, My Darling Clementine and Meet John Doe.

    The real strength of this film was its compositions. The image below is perhaps my favourite from a silent Bible film. The opening shot (above) is also very interesting taken with the camera standing high up with Jephthah and his men in the foreground whilst the battle rages on lower ground behind them. Jephthah's position on high ground is apt. Not only is he the leader who stands above them, it also reflects the traditions around spirituality and high places.

    The plot itself contains significant deviations from Judges 11, mainly omitting Jephthah's longish speech to the King of Ammon and inserting an overblown love story that only unfolds once Jephthah's daughter heads for her time in the mountains. the biblical material is skimmed over quite quickly. The opening title card gives way for the battle scene described above, just in time for Jephthah to make his vow. Critically he uses "whatsoever" rather than whosoever.

    Unusually, for the era, the film is still introducing credits by this point, so we are told the Jephthah's daughter is played by Constance Crawley and her lover Zebah by Arthur Maude. That same year the pair would also star together in another Bible film The Shadow of Nazareth (stills here) a love triangle between Crawley's Judith, Maude's Barabbas and Caiaphas (Joe Harris). The year before she made this film Crawley had suffered a severe bout of tuberculosis, from which she never truly recovered, dying tragically young in 1919. Crawley and Maude starred in a string of films together, many of which, like this one, were directed by Maude, and rumours have persisted that the pair were lovers.

    It's not too surprising, then, to find Crawley and Maude playing each other's love interests here too. Zebah has a vision of / flashback to Crawley's character declaring her love for him. There's some suggestion that she is in peril and crying out for help. Having previously offered to do so, Zebah kidnaps Jephthah's daughter and some of her maids (?) as they roam the hills in their mourning period.

    Being an established war hero, Jephthah tries to find them and there's quite a long sequence of shots where Jephthah and his men hunt Zebah down. Eventually, after a tip off from Zebah's sister, Jephthah catches the pair but, as I think is obvious from the image below, his daughter is deeply conflicted between the man she loves and her duty to her father/God.

    Jephthah kills Zebah leaving his daughter to declare her love for the Zebah and offering to die in his place. It's too late of course and so Jephthah's daughter stabs herself in a gesture strongly reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Crawley had appeared in many Shakespearan plays prior to becoming a movie actress and 1916 saw her return to the stage for her last great in Julius Caesar, so perhaps the Shakespearean undertones here should not be too surprising.

    Sadly though it does seem to result in leaving the rest of the plot rather nonsensical. The death of the daughter (and it would have been so much easier if Maude had given her character a name) leaves both Zebah's love and Jephthah's vow unfulfilled. Perhaps this is fair enough given the film's subtitle A Tragedy from the Scriptures. The daughter's death is deeply unsatisfying on a narrative level, but perhaps that dissatisfaction leads us to re-examine the original story in a way that a more conventional ending might not have done.

    Furthermore, it's hard to think of an ending would have been more satisfactory. The daughter's obedient death at her father's hand would seem even worse now that she has been so significantly fleshed out as a women with a life and a love of her own. Conversely her successful elopement would be to take a path that the film had seemingly ruled out from the start.

    Seen from the point of feminist theory the ending is even more interesting. In contrast to the love triangle of Maude's The Shadow of Nazareth, her there is a power triangle. Crawley's father views his daughter as a thing that can be used to make bargains, even to the extent of offering her up for a sacrificial death. Whilst on the other hand there is the chief bandit Zebah - presumably named after the Midianite king from Judges 8 - who kidnaps her against her will. Whilst she eventually falls for him, his estranged sister (and Deborah's best friend) still considers him a malignant force, ultimately choosing to betray him in order to protect her friend. The daughter's death at her own hand highlights the extent to which she is trapped, but renders her not as a powerless victim, but as a figure who is still able to make decision and determine the course of her own life.

    Writing about this film less than 24 hours after the final episode of Breaking Bad also raises the question of how tidy the end of a narrative should be. If, from a narrative point of view, the ending is unsatisfactory then perhaps, given the subject matter, this is rightfully so. The story is disturbing. It's from a book that is steeped in the moral ambiguity of characters simply doing "what is right in their own eyes". And a story about a man that makes a deal with God to kill his daughter in exchange for a victorious battle; and a God who seems either to endorse his actions - or at the very least unwilling / unable to intervene, should not be let off the hook so easily.


    The BFI archive doesn't have a plot summary and neither do Campbell and Pitts, but I'll include the one provided at the Ancient World in Cinema II event in 2009.
    Jephthah's Daughter (US, J. Farrell Macdonald, 1913) 25 mins.
    "A tragedy from the scriptures". In battle, Jephthah vows that if he is victorious he will sacrifice to God the first creature he meets on his return. His daughter and her servant Deborah (awaiting news of the outcome) meet Deborah's long lost brother, the wily robber chief Zebah. The victorious Jephthah is greeted by his daughter and reveals to her his vow. Zebah sends spies to follow the daughter and capture her as she rides in a wagon. He holds her in the woods and tried to woo her. Two months later, Deborah chooses to betray her brother in order to protect her mistress. Zebah is wounded and captured, accompanied by the daughter who is now in love with him. SHe asks her father to spare Zebah in return for her readiness to be sacrifices, but the two lovers die.

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