• 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, 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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