• 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


    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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