• 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, February 13, 2014

    A Story of David (1960)

    British/Israeli production A Story of David is the only modern-era David film not to feature his victory over Goliath. Instead, it bravely starts it's tale during the period when David is well-established at court. His slaying of the giant has led to prominence in Israel's army and he is happily married to Saul's daughter Michal.

    It's a gamble that certainly pays off. Often David films have a sense of anti-climax. After his early heroics, even becoming king seems to lack dramatic pay off. But then A Story of David doesn't have that either. Instead it limits its narrative to the story of David having to flee from Saul and surviving his forces in the wild until he and Saul are reconciled when David spares his life. Certainly this is the only film amongst the David biopics that manages to uncover the inherent tension in this part of the story.

    There are a number of interesting innovations here. Doeg the Edomite relatively minor role in the scriptures is greatly inflated to one as Saul's key advisor, poisoning his mind. Indeed Doeg comes to hold far greater prominence than Abner, who whilst he is steadfastly loyal to Saul nevertheless looks on with disapproval at many of his actions. There's also an enhanced role for Abiathar. As per 1 Sam 22 & 23 he escapes the slaughter of the priests at Nob and flees to be with David. Though still a boy he becomes one of David's inner circle - certainly not implausible given his later position as (joint?) High Priest. But he also becomes the one from David's mighty men who draws water from the well only to see David pour it out to the Lord (1 Chron 11). (This is the only David film to include this incident as far as I recall).

    The film also gives a significant amount of screen time to Abigail and her first husband Nabal, who is played by a relatively restrained performance by Donald Pleasence. This was three years before his role in The Great Escape brought him acclaim from outside the UK.

    By this stage, though, the plot is beginning to peter out. The final scene where David and Joab sneak past Doeg into Saul's tent lacks both the necessary tension and a sufficiently strong resolution leaving the film without a satisfactory ending.

    (Available to view online here.)


    Tuesday, February 11, 2014

    David e Golia (1959)

    The title may read David and Goliath, but really it's all about Orson Welles' Saul. It's unclear what possessed Welles - a director of sublime talent - to get involved in this film, where very little talent is on display, but nevertheless he did and his portrayal of the Israelite king is, unsurprisingly, the best thing in an otherwise forgettable movie. 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.

    Whilst the vast majority of the film is set in the period before David becomes his national hero, the filmmakers nevertheless introduce the theme of Saul's jealousy for his one-day successor. It's not hard to see why. In contrast to the boyish figures that feature in many films about David here he is a full-blown, muscular adult. Whilst actor Ivo Payer is certainly shorter in stature than Goliath, he would be a match for many a man. Personally my feeling is that this is a little more realistic. The odds are still overwhelmingly in Goliath's favour, but David's subsequent military heroics make far greater sense.

    One of the most interesting things about this film is that it gives Goliath a backstory. Indeed all three of the major players are developed as characters. The film's early scenes keep the three in isolation working hard to help the audience connect with them and build a backstory. This casts Goliath in a particularly interesting light. His character is shown to be a loner, living outside normal society. His only "friend" is really seeking to sell his labour to the Philistine kings. This sense of isolation is heightened by the bold and unusual soundtrack when Goliath is on screen. The orchestral music that features for most of the film is replaced by more esoteric sounds such as the musical saw and the theremin. It evokes sci-fi / monster B-movies, and makes Goliath monstrous and further emphasising how he is different from normal people.

    Of all the films about David, this is the one that is most content to invent plot lines to flesh out the story and leading characters. David's first scene features his fictional girlfriend Egla who dies when she is struck by lightning. Later David visits Jerusalem (which in this film is already an Israelite city) and appalled by what he sees takes action and makes a speech against those exploiting others to make money. It's strongly reminiscent of the episode in the Gospels where Jesus turns over the tables in the temple. Abner and Saul's daughter Merab are also lovers and plot together against David, a scheme brought to an end in one of the closing scenes when Saul shoots his favourite commander with a bow and arrow. These elements so add a greater level of intrigue to the plot.

    The biggest downside of the film, in the English dub, at least, is the attempted use of King James English. Whilst it's not hard to understand - it feels a little like someone has just gone through the script with a checklist of modern English words that convert to 17th century English - it's not close enough to the King James Bible to sound authoritative or authentic. Instead it leaves the film feeling stilted and phony and whilst the melodramatic acting and cheap sets mean this was never going to achieve classic status, it does ruin what had the potential to be a cult favourite B-movie.


    Friday, February 07, 2014

    David, a Young Hero and David, A King of Israel (1958)

    The The Living Bible series tends to stick very rigidly to the biblical text and the three episodes that feature David are no exception, so I've not got a huge amount of comments on these films. I say "three" because the elderly David does appear at the start of the episode Solomon, A Man of Wisdom. So anyway, here's more of a scene guide to these episodes (something I wish I'd kept closer tags on as I was writing up the others in this series). N.B. Where an incident occurs in both Samuel-Kings and in Chronicles I've referenced if from Samuel-Kings.
    David, A Young Hero
    David playing the harp whilst shepherding (Psalm 23)
    Anointing of David (1 Sam 16:1-13)
    David plays for Saul (1 Sam 16:14-23)
    David and Goliath (1 Sam 17)
    Saul throws a spear at David (1 Sam 18:10-17)
    Jonathan warns David using arrows (1 Sam 20)
    Given my post a few days ago about Saul's mental health problems the one moment of this production that really stood out was the scene where David is brought in to play his harp. It's interesting that the narrator seems to provide both a natural description of the problem as well as providing a supernatural explanation. Initially Saul's problem is described as "black moods of despair" - which is notable not least because we have not been shown Saul's rejection by God. Moments later, though, the cause of Saul's problem is put down to evil spirits.

    Given the film's low budget it does a good job of making an effective Goliath. By limiting the two competitors to only one shot in which they both appear some of the awkwardness about Goliath's relative size is effectively dealt with, and whilst the sound effects on Goliath's voice may lack sophistication they are certainly effective. I also like that David is clearly a late teenager/young man here rather than a young teenager/boy.

    The film does end at a curious point which very much underlines the fact that this is the first instalment of a two-parter. Jonathan confirms that his father is trying to kill David and so David heads off into "the wilderness". When David returns he will be played by an older actor. Most David films change actors shortly after his felling of Goliath suggesting it is this action that turns him into a man. Here however it is his having to flee Saul and live a life of the run that ages him and matures him.
    David, King of Israel
    The 400 come to David (1 Sam 22)
    Protection of Keilah (1 Sam 23)
    David spares Saul's life (1 Sam 24)
    David spares Saul's life a 2nd time (1 Sam 26)
    Elders make David king (2 Sam 2-5)
    The Ark Brought to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6)
    Covenant with David (2 Sam 7)
    It's slightly peculiar that for an episode called David, King of Israel only a third of it (5 minutes) involves David actually being king. Given the series' conservatism it's no surprise that it overlooks the troubles of his reign, not least his affair with Bathsheba and the problems with Absalom.

    One other pouint that stood out for me was in the scene where David spares Saul's life for the first time. Whereas most other films tend to depict Saul wearing his coat at the time, here he puts it down on a nearby rock, a rather more plausible scenario in my opinion. That said the robe itself is more like a women's wrap than any kind of robe, and the actor playing Saul clearly seems to struggle to wear whilst giving the impression that he has not noticed a large piece of it is missing.
    Solomon, A Man of Wisdom
    David announces his successor (1 Kings 1-2)
    David passes on his plans for the temple (1 Chr 28-29)
    [rest of episode]
    This film does go where most other films about David don't however covering the messy situation surrounding his successor. That said the ousted Adonijah seems rather more relaxed about David's pronouncement than the Bible suggests and the two half-brothers shake hands in a manner which in no way suggests that Solomon is about to butcher his rival. Bizarrely the next scene depicts David having sprung up from his death bed and explaining his plans for the temple. It is, to say the least, a rather odd arrangement.

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    Thursday, February 06, 2014

    King David (1985)

    Like The Story of David, Bruce Beresford's King David (1985) also tries to fit the majority of the events of David's life into a single storyline. However, as with that film King David also starts with Saul's sparing of the Amalekite king Agag.

    What follows is the stuff of Bible film folklore. The film bombed, lead actor Richard Gere won the Razzie for "Worst Performance of the Year" and it would be almost 30 years before another major studio would venture into the Hebrew Bible again.

    Surprisingly, though, King David is not nearly as bad as all that. Gere's award probably hung on the infamous nappy scene where he strips off an dances as the ark makes its way into the city. It's hard to suppress a giggle during the scene but in fairness to the filmmakers the text is clear that David's dancing was undignified and semi-naked. It's hard to imagine anything being a great deal more undignified than Gere monkeying around, but his display certainly fits the bill - it's easy to sympathise with Cheri Lungi's Michal. And, if nothing else, it's a tribute to Gere's flexibility as an actor that just three years later he was winning over hearts everywhere with his portrayal of a sex-trade client with a heart of gold.

    The other things that makes King David stand up well to some of the other films about David is that it is relatively short. At 114 minutes it manages to compress the storyline fairly effectively, covering all the main events: Saul's sparing of Agag, Samuel anointing David, David playing for Saul; David slaying Goliath; David and Michal; David fleeing for his life; Saul executing the priests; the deaths of Saul and Jonathan; the Ark being brought into the city; David's affair with Bathesheba; the rape of Tamar; Absalom's rebellion and Solomon's succession. There's even time to go into some of the incidents the other films don't cover such as Abigail and his other wives. By using a narrator the film is able to skip onto the next episode fairly quickly, although sometimes this is too much, too quickly with too little explanation.

    There are a few moments of interest for Biblical scholars. The film brings out and enhances some of the prophetic aspects of the story, such as Samuel using the Urim and Thummim to clarify which of Jesse's sons is to be anointed king. Samuel also follows this up by prophesying to David what else will to happen including that God will challenge him in a none-too-subtle reference to his fight with Goliath.

    There are also echoes of other Bible stories, such early in the film when Saul cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It's a phrase most familiar for being spoken by Jesus on the cross, but that is, of course, a reference to Psalm 22. Psalm 23 pops up as well as one of the songs David plays Saul (a feature of many of these films). Later on Absalom is question as to the whereabouts of Amnon and answers "Am I my brother's keeper?" with a reference to Cain and Abel.

    Perhaps the most significant re-appropriation of the Bible is the story of Jacob wrestling with God. This first occurs as one of Saul's dreams, but it is then read out by Ahimelech shortly before he and his fellow priests are murdered. The idea of wrestling with God and not just settling for the accepted way of doing things seems to underlie much of the film. As a boy David fought Goliath when no-one else would. As a king he danced semi-naked and shows mercy to Absalom in contrast to his advisors' reading of the law. Nathan even accuses him saying David thinks he "knows his [God's] will better than the prophets".

    This pattern finds ultimate expression in his final piece of advice to Solomon, his heir. "Be guided by the instincts of your own heart, no matter what the prophets tell you. For it is through the heart, the heart alone, that God speaks to man". Whilst such a "follow your heart" message is hardly a radical for a Hollywood movie, it is certainly contrary to the understanding of the time, a fact confirmed by Nathan's disapproving face as David says it.

    That's hardly surprising as Nathan is portrayed as a dour, harsh and inflexible character throughout. Even the way he challenges David by telling him the "You are the man" parable lacks any real conviction, and the film doesn't seem too troubled by the whole affair. In this film it's Bathsheba who approaches David and the screenplay conveniently rearranges the order of events to suggest that Uriah is killed before David sleeps with Bathsheba. Later when Absalom is declared dead David mourns at length, whilst Nathan stands nearby scowling and rebuking him "When will you learn to obey the Lord your God instead of your emotions".

    The scene following this is, perhaps, one of the most interesting in the film. David has been planning his temple, but when he hears God has rejected his plan he picks up Goliath's old sword an smashes his model temple to pieces. What's interesting is that as he is doing this (in slow motion no less) the narrator starts by saying "Fear the Lord and serve him in truth with all your heart. Consider the great things he has done for you" before adding "And behold it came to pass that David sinned no more. And the Lord smiled upon his servant David and strengthened his hand and gave him victory over his enemies wheresoever he went" before listing all the tribes David destroyed. The act of smashing the temple seems to be the filmmakers having an unsubtle swipe at organised religion, particularly as the narrator seems to endorse his actions by talking about David having God's favour.

    Yet the film can't completely cut itself free from the grasp of organised religion. Having contrasted David's faith with Nathan's inflexible religion the filmmakers desperately try to glue back on the branch upon which they had until recently been sitting. David lies on his death bed dispensing "follow your heart" advice like a 13 year old who's just discovered Facebook, but then expresses annoyance at the presence of a scribe. "Must you record every word I utter?" David enquiries irritably? "It's for the Book of Samuel my Lord. You ordered it". It's a strange attempt to lend the film some historical credibility with a rather old theory about how the Books of Samuel may have come into existence. It bears very little relation to any historically credible theory, not least because the Book of Samuel was only known by that title well into the Christian era. Furthermore, the scenes of David on his death bed come from the start of 1 Kings rather than 2 Samuel, and, of course, there David says nothing that could really be summarised by the above.

    It's possible, I suppose, that this is a clever suggestion that Nathan and his ilk got their hands on "the book of Samuel" and changed David's words to something that rather more suited their purpose. Possible, but unlikely. This is, after all, a film where all too often demonstrates its 'sophistication' with slow motion running; a David that can't shoot straight; a pre-battle "I'm Spartacus" type moment; and, yes, a man in a nappy dancing like a big monkey.


    Sunday, February 02, 2014

    Saul e David (1964)

    Saul e David by Italian director Marcello Baldi is a much undervalued member of the Bible films canon. So much so, in fact, that despite it having sat in my film library for many years I had to be reminded of it recently by Witlessd.

    The image above occurs near the end of what is for, for me, the finest shot in the film, and indeed one of the finest in any biblical film. It's from the scene in 1 Samuel 26 when David spares Saul's life for a second time. Only we don't yet know it. The previous shot of Saul's camp in the distance, it's lights twinkling in the darkness of the night fades into a slow panning shot of the hills. As the pan continues Saul's camp emerges in the foreground and the camera tracks past sleeping soldiers before pausing momentarily on Abner's face, and then on Saul who lies asleep with his water jug at his side. It pans again along Saul's body until it encounters his javelin and the feet of someone standing over him. A slow pan upwards reveals the face of David. It's a sublime shot, not quite on a par with Orson Welles' start to A Touch of Evil but certainly worthy of being mentioned in the same breath.

    Director Marcello Baldi was a stalwart of Italian "Peplum" films. Other entries on his CV include Goliath and the Dragon (1960) and I grandi condottieri (1965 - a.k.a Gideon and Samson) so he was familiar with filming this type of material. (He also did a great deal of second director work). However here he transcends much of the cheesy Son of Hercules vs Venus type material to focus on the more intimate story of Israel's first two kings†.

    The film relies largely on Norman Woodward's performance as the troubled king. Some have found the performance to be over the top, others have found it powerful and sympathetic, but certainly it is an intimate performance that tries to understand Saul's paranoia, desperation and faltering faith. Gianni Garko also puts in a good performance as David too. Outwardly he cuts a heroic figure, his blond good looks and confidence winning audiences as well as almost everyone who comes into contact with him. But Garko manages to convey a great deal with his eyes. Again the shot above displays both his love for Saul, but also his sorrow that his King still wishes him dead.

    What's interesting about David's heroic stature is this was previously the role held by Saul. Few films really attempt to portray this, but Saul e David captures it brilliantly in the opening scene. As Saul arrives back at camp following his victory over the Amalekites the people swarm round him . It is clear he is their hero. Saul himself is seemingly swept away by their euphoria. When Saul arrives to chastise him for not following God's commands to the latter, Saul expresses his doubts that Samuel even hears God. The scene ends with Samuel declaring "you will grow smaller and smaller" and with that the film cuts to a series of quick shots of huge tents being collapsed as the army prepares to return home.

    The heroic link between Saul and David is emphasised when the Saul first encounters the young shepherd boy. "You're the ghost of my boyhood come to mock me" mutters Saul to the blond, almost golden skinned, child that stands before him. David's puniness casts a stark contrast with Goliath in one of the rare occasions that a David film portrays the giant at what would seem to be around 9'6". It's also one of the bloodiest befellings of the man from Gath, with blood spurting almost comically from his forehead.

    From then on the story focusses on Saul's obsession with David and his perceived threat and superiority. It's an intimate portrayal which really draws out the tension in Saul's family (Michal, Jonathan) which only serve to twist the knife.

    †Technically, amongst the northern ten tribes Saul's remaining son Ish-bosheth was the second king, ruling for two years before he was ousted by David, but that doesn't flow as well. Interestingly there is a reference to this at the end of the film. As Ish-bosheth witnesses the battle being lost he reminds Abner of his promise to protect him which he does. As they ride away Saul's other sons are killed and Saul falls on his own sword.


    Saturday, February 01, 2014

    Saul, Depression and The Bible Pt 4

    I have a great deal of sympathy for King Saul. I've experienced depression myself and have several close friends who have also struggled with it, so it, no doubt, makes me empathise with those whose minds trouble them.

    It would be foolish, of course, to try and place a precise diagnosis on someone who is, essentially, just a character in a book. We only have a very small part of the picture and the writers hardly sympathise with whatever the mental troubles are that so afflicted Israel's first king, nor do they have any sort of expertise in mental health. Indeed they, like most people of their time linked mental health problems to demon possession. Yet whilst scholars are becoming more comfortable aligning, say, some of the 'demoniacs' that Jesus 'exorcised' with epilepsy, there seem precious few revisionist takes on Saul.

    Saul, was a young and tall man when he was, rather surprisingly, anointed king of Israel. He was not at all prepared for the role - his family amongst the lowest in Israel - but found himself thrust into the limelight with only the resentful Samuel as his mentor. Yet despite the odds against him, he unites Israel and wins a string of key victories over the enemies that had been afflicted him. The result? The kingship is torn away from him on a couple of technicalities and he never sees his guide and mentor again. He slides into an affliction so deep that the court worries about how to help him. Fearing he is cursed, he dithers when faced with Goliath (who according to some manuscripts may only have been a little taller than Saul) and sees another young man from a humble background to fight in his place. David's victory is decisive, but propels him to greater popularity than even his king.

    We don't really know why Saul threw the spear at David. It's unlikely to be justified, but the sources all seem to favour David, despite his desertion to the Philistines, and so it's possible that the accounts of subsequent events are less than fair to Saul, but his reaction to David sparing his life is both an interesting contrast to the madman who we so often see depicted and a sign that sadness and humanity remained in his heart. His last acts smack of despair. Faced with a revived Philistine army, in desperation he consults a medium in the hope of reaching Samuel. Saul's worst fears and realised. The battle is lost. His sons are killed. He takes his own life.

    The above is not meant as a serious historical account, nor as a neatly comprehensive Bible study. It's simply offered as a more sympathetic take on Saul - a man whose great potential was destroyed by his troubled mind.

    I've been mulling this piece for a long time, perhaps almost a year since I first saw The Bible's fourth part. Various films treat Saul more or less badly. In some such as Rei Davi he is clearly stark, raving mad. In others, such as The Story of David he is played more sympathetically.

    The Bible's account is interesting because on the one hand it wants to stick closely to the text. It doesn't really want to appear historically inaccurate by allowing Saul to foam at the mouth. Yet on the other hand it goes to considerable length to cast Saul in a very poor light. In addition to the inclusion of all the major low points in Saul's life, the are three overarching ways in which his failings are highlighted / exaggerated: dialogue, storytelling licence and visual representation.

    As a series The Bible often uses paraphrased / invented dialogue but uses archaic sounding language to give it an air of authenticity. This is particularly true of the narrator whose authoritative voice lend the production the additional impression of credibility, particularly as the series first broadcast on the History Channel.

    In the fourth part of this series the narrator adds various bits of dialogue that emphasise and exaggerate Saul's failings. When Saul is condemned for not destroying Agag and the Amalekite animals the narrator concludes that "in trying to please his men Saul has displeased God". Later on he tells us that Saul is now "obsessed with destroying David".

    When The Bible's characters speak it is a mix of the semi-archaic and modernised dialogue, but it too is used to paint Saul in a poor light, emphasising his paranoia ("he'll want my crown next". "He wants our crown, can't you see?") as well as the extent of his problems ("Father! What demons posses you?"). There is also a good deal of mad/paranoid shouting at various points in the episode.

    Storytelling Licence
    All visual interpretations of the Bible involve a degree of artistic licence, but the ways in which the narrative varies from that in 1 Samuel is fairly telling, frequently painting Saul in a worse light that the biblical text. An early example is the first time Saul attacks David. In the Bible Saul throws his spear at David, just before he goes on to allow him to marry his daughter. It's a moment of insanity, but in the Bible it occurs when David returns from de-foreskinning 200 Philistines and Saul still appears to be brooding about the failure of his plan to endanger his future son-in-law. Later when Michal protects David by claiming he is ill, it's Saul himself who barges into Michal's room, rather than sending one of his men. It implies a kind of driven madness that is simply not their in the biblical account.

    Another occasion when the programme pushes a little beyond the biblical account is when David "spares" Saul's life. In both accounts of this in 1 Samuel Saul repents and calls David his son. In the first account (ch.24) he even weeps. In this film however Saul remains annoyed and angry about the incident and shows no remorse. Finally, Saul's suicide in 1 Samuel happens as Saul is fleeing and pressed hard by the battle. He seems to kill himself to avoid the punishment that the Philistines mete out to his corpse instead. Here however when Saul takes is own life he is under no particular pressure certainly not in the heat of battle.

    Visual Representation
    A few of the techniques used here also make Saul seem less sympathetic. The first is that the actor chosen to play Saul is far less attractive that the actor who plays David. There is only 4 years between the two men but whereas Langley Kirwood who plays David seems hunky and youthful, Francis Magee, who plays Saul, seems old an haggard. Magee's demeanour doesn't really help matters, he sneers and hardly ever smiles.

    The camera-work also adds an extra dimension here. Saul is often shot using a hand-held camera, for example in one scene when he is tossing and turning on the bed. Later on he prays and this time not only is a hand-held camera used it is held at a low angle and extremely close up, giving a real air of madness to Saul's attempts to reconnect with God.

    I'm not sure why this episode stuck in my mind as it did. Perhaps it is just the way that for all the things that are going on around him Magee manages to find some humanity in Saul and help us find some pity for him. But perhaps it's just the way in which a number of small changes all pointing in a certain direction seem to go above and beyond what seems, to me at least, an already harsh assessment in the pages of 1 Samuel.


    Whilst I'm here I noticed a few other things in this issue not relating to the main issue discussed above. The first is when David enters Jerusalem a hero and petals rain down on him from the buildings above. It's noticeable for two reasons, firstly I'm not sure we know about the kind of buildings the Israelites were living in at this point - they had yet to conquer Jebus - but this kind of multi-storey courtyard seems a little far-fetched. It's also noteworthy because this shot is repeated (I believe) in a later scene where one of David's descendants (Jesus) also parades into a city and is greeted by a shower of petals. Later Jesus enters the same courtyard on the way to Golgotha, but this time is only treated with derision. Again, if memory serves the raining petals motif is something borrowed from Last Temptation of Christ.

    Speaking of visual nods to Bible films gone by, there is an awful lot of similarity between the wooden screens Bathsheba gets changed behind in this film and in 1951's David and Bathsheba. Interestingly Bathsheba is also involved in the scene where the ark is brought into Jerusalem. It takes a bit of re-arrangement to make this happen (in 2 Samuel David's affair with Bathsheba is five chapters after the ark has been brought into the city), but it does throw fresh light onto why David's dancing was undignified and why his first wife, Michal, was not best pleased.

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