• 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


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    Saturday, July 02, 2016

    The Canon in the Early Silent Era pt.3

    Please note this post is very much a work in progress and as such a few parts of it need closer fact checking
    In the previous two posts in this series I looked at how the cinema of the early silent era treated the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels. I know want to have a look as to some of the reasons as to why this might be.

    This earliest period of film history was very chaotic, certainly when you compare it to the studio system that dominated in the middle of the twentieth century. Studios were only just being set up and whilst some of the names of those studios remain known to us (such as Pathé and Gaumont), most of the film producers from this era have faded from general consciousness. In many ways this was the wild west (although cinema's move to "the west", to Hollywood, did not begin until the second half of the silent era). The technology was still emerging, and improving at a rapid rate, systems were very much ad hoc, expectations around production values were still fairly low, the star system was still in its infancy and the expectations of what going to see a/some film/s actually entailed was very much still fluid.

    In essence this still forming context meant that making films was still relatively cheap. Films could be less than twenty minutes, shot against the kind of painted sets as seen at the theatre, and without the need to pay stars huge wages. The shortness of many of the individual films meant that exhibitors commonly showed numerous films in an evening's entertainment, meaning there was a demand for a larger number of films. It also meant that the range of filmmakers was relatively diverse and they brought with them their own agendas and interests. So there were the technological pioneers such as the Lumierè brothers, dramatists from theatre backgrounds, magicians such as Georges Meliés and, of particular relevance here, clergy men and evangelists seeking to harness the potential of the new medium for instruction and to spread the gospel.

    Perhaps surprisingly, the period that most matches the hive of filmmaking activity at the start of the 20th century is that start of the 21st century. For much of the intervening period filmmaking became the expensive preserve of the rich or the dedicated. But this earliest period and the current one have found a far more democratized marketplace where production of films is relatively cheap, markets more forgiving and distribution channels more fluid. Religious filmmakers, both then and now, have very much taken advantage of this democracy and both periods are marked both by a relatively high number of religious films and considerable diversity. It's perhaps not coincidental, then, that stories which have not considered particularly worthy of adaption in more professional circles, but are perhaps close to the hearts of religious groups have primarily featured in these two periods. The Book of Daniel is perhaps the most notable example here.

    The result of all the activity in this period meant that the numbers of films made was relatively large and diverse, such that the probability of an obscure story being adapted into a film was relatively high. This pattern is particularly apparent when such stories were aligned to a group's specific interests. Nevertheless one thing that is interesting, not least when viewed from the supposedly enlightened 21st century, is this period's inclusion of episodes that have a more prominent female perspective. So during this period we have the Old Testament narratives of Jael, the Shunamite woman and Athalia; the deuterocanonical stories of Judith and Susanna; and Gospel episodes such as the woman of Samaria, the daughter of Herodias and the almost ever present appearance of Veronica.

    It's commonly assumed that our own era gives women the greatest voice, but there are persuasive arguments in favour of the earliest silent era. Firstly whilst the impact of directors such as Alice Guy Blaché has historically been minimised by film historians, this is starting to reverse and Guy's contribution in particular has been highlighted for the way it developed cinema. Secondly there are various prominent other roles in filmmaking where there was gender parity, in particular script writing and editing. Finally as cinema was then, as now, primarily a financially motivated business the fact that many of the films of the era seemed those more likely to appeal to a female demographic such as those above with a female hero.

    There's a further factor however as to why certain stories ended up being adapted whilst others weren't and that is the religious context in which certain stories were chosen and these films were made. Of course the sheer numbers of people who are part of the Christian faith means that instead of talking about a diverse and wide ranging religious context we are essentially talking about contexts and whilst numerous of Church historians have attempted to summarise and compartmentalise the journey that Christianity has taken, the very fact that these various accounts differ from one another in terms of emphasis and even, at times, perceived fact only further underlines the point.

    Furthermore it is also questionable to what extent an individual, or rather a group of individuals, will adopt the overarching mindset and approach of the majority of those who share their faith living in the same place and time. Given this complexity, and that coming up with a path through these dilemmas is outside of the scope of the present work, I shall just offer a few broad observations on these evolving and diverse contexts.

    The first is to note the shifting locus of filmmaking activity. In the early silent period it was the French film industry that was to the forefront, with Pathé and Gaumont leading the way as well as the work of the Lumières, Guy Blaché and Georges Méliès, though there was also notable activity in Italy, Britain and the US. When it comes to questions of canonicity, then, it's not difficult, then, to understand the adaption trajectory of, say, the deuterocanonical story of Judith. Whilst it's easy to be distracted by the most famous version of the story, D.W. Griffiths' Judith of Bethulia (1914) produced in Protestant America, the remainder of the Judith stories in this era were from Catholic France and Italy. Nor is it surprising, then, that as the European film industry declined during the First World War and took off in America, that this story has largely faded from view. The notable exceptions to this are a brief renaissance in Italy during the "Peplum" revival of their film industry in the 50s and 60s and a flurry of TV films in a number of other Catholic countries in the 70s as TV drama began to gather momentum. This shifting context may also provide part of the reason as to why characters such as Susanna and Veronica also fared well in this era.

    The interwar period cemented this shift in the film industry from Catholic France to Protestant America. The First World War shattered France and the French film industry, the troubled economies of the rest of Europe struggled to recover and the problems were exacerbated by the exodus of filmmaking talent from Europe to America. Michael Curtiz, for example, made Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel) in 1924 before fleeing Nazism and making Noah's Ark for Warner in 1928.

    Whilst American film still predominates today, it's noticeable that the growth of the film industry in other regions has led to new regions making films about stories found in the Bible. For example, Catholic Brasil has produced a number of extended series about biblical characters, such Rei Davi (King David, 2012). Elsewhere a number of films have been made in Islamic countries such as Turkey and Iran, though with more emphasis on the Koranic presentation of these stories than the corresponding biblical versions. This again is a different understanding of Canon, one that Christianity does not identify with and yet which very much impinges on the way the canon has been adapted on screen.

    One final point that is worth noting is the impact of a number of key works related to the Bible that may have had a wide effect. For example, various authors have noted similarities in composition between particular scenes and famous religious paintings. Perhaps the most well-known example is Leonardo's "Last Supper", but other examples abound. However it is difficult to gauge how recognisable these paintings would have been given that they were single works. They are considered hugely influential, and have been widely copied and imitated, but whilst they would be well known by any student of art, many of the early filmmakers were not students of art.

    Nevertheless it's not hard to imagine that these influential images begat more artistic interpretations of the same story which may have led to certain stories becoming more prominent, yet this is not always the case. One of the most famous religious images of all time is Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" yet the Sistine Chapel also contains a considerably larger depiction of Perugino's "Moses Leaving to Egypt" featuring the moment when Moses' son is circumcised after an angel tries to kill Moses (Exodus 4:24-27). This episode has, to the best of my knowledge, never featured in a Moses film despite the proximity of Perugino's image to Michaelangelo's.

    Technology, however, changed all that and so it was the biblical illustrations of James Tissot & Gustave Doré, that may have had a far wider influence as Bibles illustrated with their works proved wildly popular. And this was particularly true of the earliest filmmakers who were working around the same time as his death (1902) and the publication of a collection of his biblical works in 1904. Several of the early filmmakers in this era copied Tissot's compositions, based their sets and costumes on his work and used his name to publicise their work. It's not hard to imagine this may also have extended to their selection of source material. I may expand that final paragraph in a lter post, but for now I want to move on to look at the eras of film production following 1916 and the release of DW Griffith's Intolerance

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    • At 10:16 pm, July 04, 2016, Blogger Peter T Chattaway said…

      Regarding "Catholic Brazil", at least some of the Bible-themed productions over there seem to have been financed by evangelical/charismatic prosperity-gospel types. I touch on that briefly here.

    • At 8:57 am, July 05, 2016, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Ah, yes, good point! I might have to revise that bit when it comes to the actual chapter.

      Thanks Peter,



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