• 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, January 28, 2014

    Rei Davi [King David] (2012)

    Of all the films about David easily the most ambitious is Rei Davi. Indeed with 30 episodes and perhaps as much as 20 hours of footage it's probably the most ambitious project to film the Bible that has successfully been brought to fruition. The series was created by Brazilian company Rede Record, though is perhaps best known in the US for a run on the Spanish-language channel Mundofox as El Rey David.

    Whilst all of the episodes appear to be on both YouTube and Dailymotion only the first two episodes appear to be available with English subtitles. That's enough however to get a bit of a feel for the series.

    I mentioned in my review of the Greatest Heroes of the Bible's version of David and Goliath that one of the strengths of that version was how focussing on only one main incident made for an engaging narrative arc. This works for Rei Davi as well, only by covering one main incident in every episode it's able to maintain that narrative tension within that episode, but also be part of a broader coherent story which is able develop characters and sub-plots weaving together a grander tapestry than even a very long film can achieve.

    Focussing on one incident per episode really allows the stories to build up. Normally, for example, there's not much plot in David being anointed by Samuel (episode 1) or him being brought to play music for Saul (episode 2), but both episodes gradually build up the story and bring real interest to it. Episode 1 for example explores the tension's in Jesse's household, in a way that parallels the story of Jacob and Esau as well that of Joseph and his brothers. Eliab is the mighty warrior, beloved of his father, whilst Jesse scorns young David who is still very much under his mother's wing. David being anointed king does not sit well with either his brother or his father. Indeed there's a bit of a cliff hanger at the end of the second episode as Eliab is tempted to tell Saul that his new musician is actually the person who has been anointed as the future king.

    The production values seem reasonably high as well. There are a few special effects but generally they serve the needs of the story rather than feeling as forced as they do in some other Bible series. The costumes seem OK and whilst the filters aren't seem a little more basic that UK/US audiences are used to they don't detract from some good lighting and camera placings. And whilst the odd actor chews the scenery - most notably Gracindo Júnior as a raving mad King Saul - overall the performances are pretty decent.

    One particularly impressive performance is that of Leandro Léo as the young David who often manages to balance opposing emotions at the same time. His David blends confidence with humility. He's hurt by the way his father disregards him, but he refuses to be pushed into hatred, sulking or self pity. It gives a level of credibility to his later battle with Goliath - a nicely taught affair - where his unshakeable confidence never towers over his very reasonable fear.

    Hopefully the whole series will find itself translated sooner or later, whether on DVD or online, as I think it could easily become addictive viewing and there's plenty of evidence in these first two episodes to suggest it might well reward anyone who manages to put aside the 15 plus hours to watch it in its entirety.

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    Sunday, January 26, 2014

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: David and Goliath (1978)

    The latest in this series of films about David is this entry from The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series and I have to say it exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations. Perhaps the main reason for this is the filmmakers decision to limit the story to that of the battle between David and Goliath. As a single narrative the film comes to a natural climax which provides tension throughout, even though the audience know all along who will win. This contrasts with some of the other David films which cover most of what we know about him leaving the storyline more as a series of episodes but without a great deal uniting the various threads or driving the plot.

    As with the other entries in the series, the film starts with a two and a half minute introduction to the Bible, which starts with the authoritative "In the beginning...". What follows is equally authoritative in tone but it moves from being actual words from the Bible, to a paraphrase of what the Bible says, to it's own modern take on the Bible.

    In some ways that's the opposite of what happens once the film starts properly. The opening scenes are all essentially extra-biblical - there's a huge sub=plot about Abner's plan to use David's bout with Goliath as a distraction which will allow his guerilla army to sneak up undetected on the unsuspecting Philistines. Then gradually the film moves more into ground that is more firmly biblical, ending on David killing Goliath.

    One of the biblical sounding additions is when David actually hears God's voice telling him to fight Goliath. It's an interesting addition - the only David film which I recall making the link between David's bravery and God's will so explicit. Typically the bravery aspect is played up, making David seem more heroic, whilst alleviating the issue of David killing and beheading an enemy.

    Another interesting way in which the programme makes subtle additions is a brief shot from Goliath's point of view. Again this is fairly rare, and it's notable not just because other films haven't really done it, but also because of the unusual angle that it uses. In fact of all the David films this is perhaps the one that is most sympathetic to Goliath. Apart from anything he is played by the most well known actor in the cast, Ted Cassidy, best known for playing Lurch in The Adams Family. Cassidy is undoubtedly tall (6'9"), but he doesn't appear as mighty as the majority of Goliaths, indeed he looks rather awkward.

    There are also elements of the Joseph story imported in here. When David's brothers hear it is he who is to tackle Goliath they implore Abner to let them fight Goliath in his place.

    The battle itself is also a little unusual. It's rather drawn out and the "sword, spear and javelin" line from 1 Sam 17:45 is played out rather literally as Goliath throws his spear and javelin at David before producing his sword. The fight scene is also intercut with shots of Abner's men sneaking into position. Whilst this whole sub-plot is rather ludicrous - not least because it seems to undermine the impression of being biblically faithful that the production seems to strive for - it has to be said that these intercut scenes, and the score do ratchet up the tension.

    Once his men are in position Abner blows his horn, David goes on the attack as do the Israelite army. There's a battle which might have culminated in a battle between the rather aged Saul and the Philistine king, were it not so feeble. Nevertheless, it's a more decent production than I would have imagined and at only 40 minutes worth seeing.

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    Saturday, January 18, 2014

    The Story of David (1976)

    Somewhere in the 70s someone decided it was OK to do away with even the pretence of authenticity in casting biblical films and just go for sun-bleached blonds instead. So we get Ted Neeley and the super-blond Robert Elfstrom playing Jesus in 1973, Blanche Baker and Jeff East taking the lead roles in Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith and, as the decade wore on, a whole range of implausibly Anglo-Saxon actors taking all manner of roles in the Greatest Heroes of the Bible.

    So whilst Timothy Bottoms and Keith Mitchell are, admittedly, not quite as yellowy as Elfstrom, the casting director certainly can't have ranked "Middle Eastern looking" too highly on her list of attributes required to play history's most famous Jewish king. That's not all that will stand out to modern viewers, either. The photography is, perhaps, best described as "very seventies": it's all Instagrammy high exposure and lemon tinting, making the Kingdom of Israel seem surprisingly innocent for a world where at any moment you could get asked to whip up 100 foreskins as a dowry.

    Sadly that incident is one of the few that The Story of David leaves out (although a rather icky bag is handed out after David's return). At roughly three hours, there's pleasingly good coverage of David's life, and the filmmakers make good use of the two-part format by dealing with events in 1 Samuel in part 1 and covering the events of 2 Samuel in episode 2.

    One of the film's big selling points is it's cast. In addition to Bottoms and Mitchell in the title role there are three big name actors, Jane Seymour, Brian Blessed and Anthony Quayle. Quayle's portrayal of Saul is the most memorable performance. Both the Bible itself and many of the other films about David portray Saul in a poor light, but Quayle's performance combines with the scripts best writing to give real sympathy to the Benjamite monarch, reticent to carry out the inhumane actions that Samuel demands after years of service. Later when Saul needs David's music to calm him, he's clearly afflicted. It's a moment of sympathy when so often this scene is used to buttress the reasons why Saul needed to be replaced by his son in law.

    One of the other highlights is the film's attempts to grapple with the complexities of the David the King. Having won the throne he has to deal with the rivalries between Abner and Joab, and between Amnon and Absalom, not to mention Absalom's attempt to wrestle power away from his father. But in reality these episodes are merely notable rather than engaging or insightful. Similarly the affair with Jane Seymour's Bathsheba is of little interest.

    Ultimately, then, it's a mixed bag. The camera work, compositions are workmanlike, aside from Quayle the acting is mundane and the writing is occasionally quite clunky. And whilst a lack of visual authenticity does not necessarily prevent a film from illuminating its subject it's nigh on impossible to forget that this is just a bunch of Americans running around in California with a camera.


    Thursday, January 16, 2014

    David et Goliath (1910)

    (Warning: sometimes I write well, intelligently and interestingly. Other times I seem to be more driven by a desire to record everything, even if it's dull and meandering so at least I know where to find it if I ever need to. Sadly for all concerned this is one of those latter occasions.)

    I'm doing some writing on film portrayals of King David at the moment so I thought it was about time I wrote up my notes on Pathé's David et Goliath from 1910. There was a rush of short films about David at the time with six films about David being released in as many years (the others being David and Goliath in 1908, Saul and David in 1909, David and Saul in 1911, David, King of Israel in 1912, and La Mort de Saül in 1913).

    David et Goliath is the only one I have seen however, although the fact that Solomon1 (p.166) discusses the Italian made David, King of Israel and Shepherd2 (p.66-68) discusses Blackton's Saul and David means that prints of those two films are still in existence. As far as I can tell however David et Goliath does appear to be the only one which you can view online (parts 1, 2 and 3). The online version comes with French intertitles whereas the version in the BFI archives has German intertitles. As it was there I first encountered it - and diligently wrote down all the intertitles it is those I'll refer to, though I'm not convinced that the intertitles all say the same things.

    It's also worth noting that the German version has been produced using some kind of early colour process (hence the image above) whereas the French version is in black and white. The appearance is similar to that of early two-strip Technicolor, but as that wasn't yet in existence then it looks like it was made using either Lee-Turner Colour, Kinemacolor or the Keller-Dorian process. (The Kinemacolor Wikipedia entry lists 262 films made using the process but this isn't one of them.)

    Unusually the film starts with a close up of some of the leading actors, the French version shows the actors playing David, Goliath and Saul, whereas the German version only includes Goliath and Saul. As was typical at the time the rest of the film only comprises mid-shots so these are the only close ups in the picture. The close ups are proceeded by each actor's billing (though the German print only starts after Goliath's introduction.

    Following the introductory shot of Saul we get the first intertitle proper.
    Die Philister haben
    Den Israeliten den Krieg
    Erklärt, und die drei
    Brüder Davids ergreifen
    die waffen

    The Philistines declare war on the Israelites and David's three brothers take weapons.
    This preceeds a scene of David and his brothers are sitting around which is absent from the French version. David plays the harp, Jesse wears an alarmingly short robe and Samuel arrives giving the early 20th century gestures for "quit playing that harp I have a message from God". More messengers arrive and read from a scroll resulting in a two columned intertitle designed like a scroll.
    Sohn Israels!
    Die Philister sine
    in dein Land eingedrugen
    Der König
    mendet sich an dich
    damit durch deinen
    Hut die Ehre deines
    Gottes gerellel werde
    There seem to be quite a few errors between what I noted down and correct German, some of which is probably my poor quality transcription, but there are translation errors in some of these intertitles as well, so here is what it seems the intertitle should be trying to say and an English translation
    [Sohn Israels! Die Philister sein in dein Land eingedrungen Der König wendet sich an dich damit durch deinen mut die Ehre deines Gottes gerettet werde Saul]

    Son of Israel! The Philistines have invaded your land. The King turns to you so that by your courage the glory of your God will be saved. Saul
    The older sons are sent off to war and David tries to go too, but Jesse stops him, putting his arm around his shoulders. A heartbroken David sits down and pleads to go but Samuel also intervenes.

    The next intertitle introduces the next scene of David looking after the sheep
    “David Verteidigit
    Seine herde gegen
    die raubtiere"

    [David Verteidigt Seine herde gegen die raubtiere]
    David defends his herd against predators
    The "predator" in question turns out to to be a wolf, bear or lion, but an eagle. It's a surprising divergence (do eagles poach sheep frequently enough for this scene to be credible. Perhaps it was just that the fake eagle seemed more credible than a fake lion / bear / wolf. Perhaps composition required an aerial threat rather than another woolly mammal trying to stand out amongst all those sheep. Either way David brings it down with his sling and Jesse is so pleased he allows him to head to the front with a basket of bread for his brothers.
    “Im auftrage
    seines vaters bringt
    David seinen brüdern,
    Sauls soldaten,

    David on behalf of his father brings his brothers, Saul's soldiers, food.
    There's an oddly comedic scene here (also absent from the French version) where some boys hide and steal David bread. Fortunately David whips out his sling, fells one of them and gets his brad back.

    David then arrives at the camp waving into the distance. Meanwhile some of the soldiers grab weapons and line up.
    Goliath Schlägt
    Saul einen
    Einzelkampf vor

    Goliath beats Saul before single combat
    I'm not entirely sure what the meaning of this sentence is so I've left it rather literally. Essentially though it's followed by Goliath strolling into camp and shouting (in tablet form):
    König Saul!
    Erwählet einen unter
    euch, der mit mir
    Kämpfe, Vermag er
    wider mich zu streilen
    und schlägt er
    mich, so wallen wir
    eure Knechte sein,
    schlage ich aber ihn, so sollt
    ihr unsere Knechte sein.
    In zwei Studen erwarte
    ich meinen Gegner

    [König Saul! Erwählet einen unter euch, der mit mir Kämpfe, Vermag er wider mich zu streiken und schlägt er mich, so wollen wir eure Knechte sein, schlage ich aber ihn, so sollt ihr unsere Knechte sein. In zwei stunde erwarte ich meinen Gegner]

    King Saul! Chose one of you, with me fighting, he is able to strike against me, and he beats me, then will we be your servants: but I kill him, then shall ye be our servants. In two hour I expect my opponent
    Seeing Goliath leave, David is ashamed. Saul begins his hunt for a champion, but only David is willing:
    Es entfalle keine,
    menschen das herz um
    deswillen dein knecht
    will hingehen und
    mit de Philister straiten

    Let no man's heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with the Philistine
    There are quite a lot of extra subtitles in the French version than in the German, which disrupts the story for anyone that knows it. David offers himself and points to the sky and then in the next scene comes face to face with Goiath.
    David sprach zu Goliath:
    Du kommst zu mir mit
    Schwert, Spieß und Schild;
    Ich aber komme zu dir im
    namen des hernn zebaoth
    des Gottes ISraels den
    du Gehöhnet hast

    [David sprach zu Goliath: Du kommst zu mir mit Schwert, Spieß und Schild; Ich aber komme zu dir im namen des herr zebaoth des Gottes Israels den du Gehöhnet hast]

    David said to Goliath:
    "You come to me with sword, spear and shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel whom you have defied"
    Thus David reveals that he is the challenger. Goliath mocks him of course, raising his arms whilst David prays desperately to God. The two circle each other for a while using the depth of field in a way that was not that well established at the time so that by the time David fires the vital shot, Goliath is closest to the camera. Goliath falls, writhes and dies.

    The final scene shows David processing through the town on a horse. He wears a crown on his head whilst a minion follows at a respectable distance with Goliath's head on a stick. Again there are more subtitles in the French version, the last of which ends by citing Samuel 1 - 2 Ch 32.

    Campbell and Pitts describe it as follows:
    1000 feet B/W
    CAST Berthe Bovy, René Alexander, L.Ravet.
    Another in the series of French Pathé films adapted from Old Testament stories. This version of David's slaying of the giant Goliath, at 1,000 feet, was a bit longer than most of the series entries.
    The BFI archive has a synopsis for this film rolling two descriptions into one very long one so I'll just provide the link on this occasion.

    1 - Solomon, Jon. "The Ancient World in the Cinema", (Revised and expanded edition). Yale University Press, 2001 p.166
    2 - Shepherd, David J., "The Bible on Silent Film: Spectacle, Story and Scripture in the Early Cinema", Cambridge University Press, 2013. pp 66-68.

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    Friday, January 03, 2014

    Belshazzar's Feast (1905)

    Le festin de Balthazar (Belshazzar's Feast - 1905) is one of three short films made by Pathé that were also packaged as the one-reeler Martyrs chrétiens (also 1905), and of the three it is undoubtedly the most interesting and technically accomplished. Whilst the other two films, Les martyrs and Daniel dans la fosse aux lions, are essentially just a more exciting way in which to present lion-tamer footage, Balthazar is marked by an impressive matte shot that allows for both the film's villain and the mysterious hand to appear in the same shot.

    It makes for a rather awkward composition of course. The giant hand and the words it writes dominate the left of the screen; Belshazzar's party are squished into the right. The shortness of the footage relies on using a large chez lounge to highlight which character Belshazzar is, not to mention that for this to really pass as a feast for 1000 (Dan 5:1 NRSV) Belshazzar has to be surrounded by courtesans, dancers and drinking buddies for the scene to work. And then of course there is the arrival of the Median army who burst into that same shot through the large doors in the middle.

    What's fascinating is that the order in which the cinematic innovations appear to have taken place. In 1905 films were almost entirely composed of long, static mid-shots, as if the cameraman were watching a play. Montage, inter-cutting and close ups were really still a thing of the future. Yet, remarkably, matte shots (including this one which actually utilises a close up) were in use, even though most modern viewers would assume they would be more advanced.

    And then there's the use of filters, well known to those familiar with the films of this era, but here swapped in the middle of the scene, with dramatic effect. The "sky" turns from serene blue to a foreboding red at the very moment the hand appears on the wall.

    The other interesting point about this film is that the hero of the original text - Daniel - doesn't really make an appearance. Even before Belshazzar has had a chance to get an interpretation of this strange sign, the Medes are upon him and Babylon has fallen.

    The BFI synopsis of the film credits Lucien Nonguet as the director and offers the following summary:
    DRAMA. Historical. Based on the Old Testament Book of Daniel, Chapter 5. Belshazzar indulges in a lavish feast, surrounded by women, and plied with wine. Suddenly, he perceives a vast, disembodied hand, tracing writing on the wall in a strange language. He is filled with foreboding, and falls back on his couch. A moment later, armed Medes burst in, and carry off the women, and King Belshazzar is slain (123). The End (130 ft).

    Campbell and Pitts also discuss the film (p.1)
    1 reel B/W
    Taken from the Book of Daniel, this short theatrical film told of the court of Belshazzar in ancient Babylon and included the Biblical account of the handwriting on the wall. The film was remade, with the same title, by the French Gaumont studio in 1913

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