• 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


    Wednesday, July 20, 2016

    The Canon in the Late Silent Era

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.

    The latter part of the silent era saw a distinct change from cinema's early days . Perhaps the most significant change was that films gradually moved from short films - originally less than a minute - to epics of three hours long. By the end of the silent era very few films, relatively speaking, were being made that were less than feature length and the available resources were concentrated on a lower number of longer films, the era became more professional and standardised.

    Bible films in this era were no different. The rate of production of films based on the Hebrew Bible, for example dropped from around 6.5 per year prior to the release of Intolerance to 4.5 per year thereafter. There was also a little less diversity. Many of the characters that appeared in the early silent era did not reappear in the latter period - the stories of Athalia, Jael, Ruth, Elisha, Micah, Joshua and Daniel were just some of those that were not remade and overall the range of stories dropped by about a quarter.

    At the same time new episodes did get their first airings. In 1918 the German film Hiob became the first film to tell the story of Job. Four years later another German film, Jeremias (1922) broke new ground with the first film about Jeremiah whilst neighbouring Austria saw the creation of Sodom und Gomorrha, directed by Mikhaly Kertesz. Shortly afterwards Kertesz escaped to Hollywood, changed his name to Michael Curtiz and went on to direct some of classic-era Hollywood's most famous films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942). One of his first films in America however would be the last "silent" Bible film of note, Noah's Ark (1928) which he directed for Warner. The majority of the film was shot as a silent movie, only for a few extra talking scenes to be added as producers rushed to keep up with the latest technological development.

    The other significant change in terms of production was that whereas the early silent era was typified by a handful of directors such as J. Stuart Blackton, Louis Feuillade and Henri Andréani each of whom made a series of Bible films, here most directors only made one film based on scripture. There are obvious exceptions to this like DeMillie and Curtiz/Kertesz who both made a pair of biblical films (DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927); Curtiz/Kertesz' Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Noah's Ark (1929)), but the era of a few dedicated directors continually ploughing the same furrow was over.

    But other changes were also afoot, firstly character development began to improve. The earliest silents had just presented actors as little more than cinematic nativity figurines, but even by the 1910s even the minor characters were beginning to get developed, 1910's L'Exode, for example, invented and developed the Miller and his family to heartbreaking effect. Intolerance really showcased film's ability to develop a series of characters and get audiences to identify with them even when there were many characters across several stories. This tendency quickly followed in films from the Hebrew Bible and began to gain traction in Jesus movies as well such as Robert Wiene's 1923 I.N.R.I. (Crown of Thorns) where the characters of Judas and Magdalene are also developed.

    This tendency to develop the more fringe characters seems to have lent itself to other films developing the same characters and as a result the scenes in which they were prominent began to embed themselves in the canon. For example, even though the gospels never associate Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery from John 8, conflating the two became a common way to boost Magdalene's involvement with the result that this story has a strong position within the New Testament canon.

    There's one more thing that is significant about this era that I've not yet touched on and that is the emergence of the big stories that would embed themselves as a key part of the filmic canon from this point onwards. My comments above touch on the breadth of films that were made during this period, but the height of the different films is also significant. It was, after all, in this era that we began to see the emergence of the big Bible film - those films that involved a significant investment and provided the necessary spectacle that would come to be synonymous with the genre.

    When we look at some of the "biggest" Bible films of the era, and their corresponding stories certain things begin to emerge:

    Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) - Lot
    Samson und Delilah (1922, pictured) - Samson
    The Shepherd King (1923) - David
    The Ten Commandments (1923) - Moses
    The King of Kings (1923) - Jesus
    Noah's Ark (1929) - Noah

    There are two points to note here. Firstly, that all of these films would get a big screen Hollywood remake of sorts in the period between 1949 and 1969. In four cases they used the exact title. The most tenuous claim here is the story of Noah which formed a/the key component of Huston's The Bible (1966). The point could also be made that five of the six stories have also received relatively recent big screen Hollywood adaptations, albeit with a divergence of styles (The Prince of Egypt and Year One for example).

    The other point is the flipside of this, that what might be thought of as important stories which didn't get a major adaption during this era (e.g. Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, Joshua, Gideon, Daniel, Judith) tended to be those that have lacked a subsequent big screen Hollywood adaption. There's a certain amount of cherry picking here - Solomon was covered in 1959, Esther in 1960 and Adam and Eve/Abraham were also part of Huston's The Bible, but generally the trend holds out.

    All of which raises the question of why this was. Was it that knowing these films had been successful in the past allowed producers a certain comfort that these were the stories that would do well? Was it that there was a sense of nostalgia that even the filmmakers felt themselves or, at least, felt their audiences would feel? Or was it that these were the stories most suited to the big screen where the elements of size and spectacle and/or miracle are the most apt to be captured in the big "Hollywood" blockbuster?

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