• 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, August 09, 2017

    Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914)

    The story of Joseph is one that's never really benefited from a major Bible film, though the Joseph entry in The Bible Collection did win an Emmy back in 1995. For me, this is because the two climaxes to the story - Joseph's elevation to the role of Egypt's second in command, and his reunification with his father - have never been adequately fine-tuned and balanced. The literary version uses Joseph's sudden promotion as something of a mechanism to get the children of Israel into Egypt, the end of a lengthy prologue before the real story of the Hebrews starts in Exodus chapter 1.

    But that doesn't cut it for a movie version of Joseph's life, so films have tended to be caught between the peaking-too-early drama of Joseph's elevation from prison to governor and the actual ending but hard to develop moment when Jacob and his son are reunited. In between the two lies a complicated narrative where the brothers traipse back and forth between Canaan and Egypt, having tests/tricks played on them by their little brother before he finally gets his Dad and full brother Benjamin back by his side. For me, it's this that tends to kill the narrative. It's no coincidence that the most successful dramatisation of the story is Rice and Lloyd-Weber's musical Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat which compresses this final act so that Joseph's elevation by Pharoah and his reunification with his father are in far closer proximity.

    At three and a half reels Thanhouser's Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914) was relatively long for its day, but is short compared to later versions of the story meaning that whilst most of the to-ing and fro-ing is included, it doesn't take that long overall, even if the love Jacob has for his lost son is largely underdeveloped. This is not helped by the fact that the film's intertitles - in the version that remains on the Thanhouser Vimeo channel at least - tend to be lengthy scriptural quotations rather than something more emotionally stirring. That said, in places the biblical version of the story does contain some good lines, most notably Joseph's "lift up your head" pun when interpreting his fellow inmates' dreams, which the film wisely retains.

    But whilst the dialogue is rather stodgy, the filmmakers do manage to sex things up a bit, mainly in the form of Potiphar's wife. Here, she's a character I feel rather sorry for. The Joseph story is often seen as the climax of the story of the patriarch's Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but this story is a reminder of the other type of patriarchy. Mrs Potiphar is cast as the villain of the piece and the archetype for the seductress attempting to derail the virtuous hero from his quest. It's no coincidence that Potiphar's wife is the last woman encountered in the book of Genesis, forming a matching pair with the first woman of the book, Eve.

    Two points in this regard are particularly interesting. The first is the fact that whilst the wife has tended to be portrayed as am older cougar type, preying on her young buxom servant, here she is very attractive, particularly when compared to some of the actresses that were playing other supposed biblical beauties such as Judith or the Queen of Sheba at the time. She is clearly taken with Joseph right from her first sighting of him in the slave market (above) where she nudges her husband to make sure he buys him.

    The other is later in the film, when she is shamed before Pharoah for her actions. This is a rare insertion into the text, but one that highlights that gulf between her and Joseph that now exists. Joseph is the victor and it is lauded over his former accuser. And this, perhaps inadvertently, reminds us that history, even biblical history, is usually written by the victors. Ultimately Joseph triumphs over Potiphar's wife and accordingly the Bible's account of what happened very much flatters and favours him rather than her (she started it, he resisted, she falsely accused him). It's not inconceivable is it that what really happened was less black and white.

    The other thing that is striking in this film is the use of dream sequences and flashbacks. Whilst this was hardly unknown in cinema at this stage, it was realtively innovative for a biblical film. The first occasion of this is in the dungeon when Pharoah's cup-bearer tells Joseph his dream. The sequence is hardly elaborate, it's a close up of the vine which, after what seems like quite a while, the cup bearer enters to pick some clusters of grapes. Yet the closeness of the shot and the inital absence of humans in it gives it a distinctly different feel from the rest of the film. It feels more credibly dreamy than many of the dream sequences that are produced today, perhaps because it is so simple and primitive.

    Not disimilarly is the moment we witness a flashback which the camera indicates is taking place inside Joseph's head. Again the sequence is simple and Joseph's recollection of his father's love is far from overwrought. Instead the naturalistic, low key acting and the simplicity of the shot are the most emotionally true moment of the whole film. The moment is recalled again in the final shot as with the family reunited Jacob's rests with his son's arm around him as if for all the suffering the pair of them have been through, it's Jacob's that has caused the greatest heartache. The point of the biblical narrative maybe to manouver him into the land of Egypt, but as far as the film is concerned it's a simpler story of a man who is finally reunited with the son he so deeply loved.

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