• 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, August 27, 2021

    Absalon (Absalom, 1912)

    Henri Andréani was just an actor when Pathé's "promoted [him] from within its ranks" to the role of co-director under Ferdinand Zecca.1 At the time the market for 'respectable' material such as biblical films was growing rapidly. Gaumont, Vitagraph and a number of lesser known (mainly Italian) studios had all released films on biblical subjects such that despite Pathé's early Passion Plays, and a handful of New Testament films they were losing ground. Pathé's strategy had been to create/acquire various new 'Art' brands/subsididiaries such as SCAGL (Société cinématographique des auteurs et gens de lettres), Film d'Art and Filme d'Art Italiana 2.

    Having learned from Zecca (who had previously co-directed the 1902-05 Passion Play La Vie et passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, and directed its 1907 remake), Andréani's first solo effort was David et Goliath (1910) before he went on to make films about Moses, Cain and St. Stephen, but he returned to the story of David in 1911 with David et Saül and with La Mort de Saül the following year. 

    Given Andréani's penchant for the Bible's more visually striking acts of violence - Andréani is the only director to have given us Jael driving a tent peg through Sisera's skull, and also gives us Goliath's head on a spike, Cain caving in his brother's head and one of the few versions of Jephthah's daughter - it was only a matter of time before his continued adaptation of the David narratives tackled Absalom. For those unfamiliar with the story, Absalom is one of David's sons who started a rebellion against his father after his half-brother raped his sister. Sadly, he proves to be more of a politician than a warrior and when the battle with his father's forces starts to go against him, he flees into the woods and gets caught in a tree by his hair and is stabbed by David's general Joab.

    The film largely follows this narrative (there's more in the Bible, but, like Andréani I've not gone into all the details. You can read the story for yourself in 2 Sam 13.1–19.8). The main difference occurs at the start. Despite Andréani's apparent relish for grizzly deaths, he omits Amnon's rape of Tamar. Instead Absalom's motivation derives from David choosing Solomon to succeed him even though Absalom is the eldest. This is a bit of conflation. By the time David appoints Solomon, Absalom is long since dead and it is David's next eldest son Adonijah who misses out to Solomon and starts a rebellion. (The scene is covered in Solomon and Sheba (1959) featuring George Sanders as Adonijah).

    In any case, this is the scene with Absalon (also known as A Prince of Israel) begins. The composition strongly echoes that of the battle between David and Goliath in Andréani's earlier film with the low camera, looming figures and the depth of the shot, but the scenery is very different. Solomon is still  child. Absalom cuts a pretty hefty figure. Of all the characters in the Bible none are described as thoroughly as Absalom. Not only are we told that "in all Israel there was no one to be praised so much for his beauty as Absalom"  and that he was without blemish (2 Sam 14:25), but also that he only cut his hair once a year and that it weighed "two hundred shekels" (2 Sam 14:26) – about 2kg according to the Good News Bible. Perhaps the film was meant to be set shortly after that annual trip to the barbers, but it's fair to say this is not how I pictured him.

    However, the casting is interesting for another reason. I think Absalom might be played by Louis Ravet who starred as Goliath in Andréani's earlier film. Meaning he Ravet had pretty much cornered the market in playing enemies of King David. Ravet's is credited in the intertitles to David and Goliath as being from the Comédie Française - the world's oldest active theatre company. Ravet was more or less simultaneously involved in various productions of Racine's "Athalie" at the Comédie Française while appearing in a string of historical films for Pathé, particularly working with Andréani 3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his build, he also took the lead in Capellani, Zecca and Andréani's Samson (1908).

    In film-making terms Andréani had moved on significantly since the start of his David series. Here there's a little more insight into the motivations of the characters, though not to the extent we find in La Mort du Saul. More significantly we see a far greater cast. There are a number of crowd scenes as Absalom puts himself about gaining popularity while undermining David and fomenting rebellion. perhaps the biggest spectacle here is the battle scene (pictured above). It would be interesting to compare Andréani's crowds with one of its contemporaries Enrico Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1912/3) for Cines. Certainly they are more sizeable than those in D.W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia a year or two later. Andréani also uses a cut to make the start of the battle larger. The result is what looks like a rather odd panning shot. It starts on one set of advancing soldiers, only to pan away to empty space, presumably to enable an invisible cut while the extras move to the other side of the imminent conflict and charge in the other way. Either way the next shot (above) - of soldiers in hand to hand combat looks very impressive, and there's a depth of field on display here which really makes the battle look huge.

    Indeed Andréani's use of the 3D space here is a significant advance on David and Goliath. See for example the shot below of two men sent by David's spy Hushai, peeling off from Absalom's marching forces and cross (the River Jordan?) to warn their King. It very effectively tells the story with the river clearing marking the distance between Absalom's forces and David's spies. Their prominence in the shot reinforcing the fact that these are the good guys. (Though Absalom is portrayed relatively moderately in the film).
    As with many films revolving around an iconic moment 4, a significant part of how it is judged depends on how it handles that moment. Here's it's a little disappointing. This is in part because the first time I remember hearing this story it was Absalom's hair (specifically) that got caught in the tree, rather than just his head as the text says (2 Sam 18:9). I was probably a teenager and the preacher in question was from a free/ independent/ conservative evangelical church and used the story as a warning against vanity. Doubtless the idea that Absalom's fate was an apt punishment for his vanity persists in some circles.

    However, this is to take things quite a way beyond the text. Firstly it only says "head" and there seems to be no connection in the writer's mind between the two. Perhaps the further you get from the story the more appealing the connections seems. As Daniel Lavery points out in this quirky reworking of the story, "if Absalom’s heavy hair were caught in the limbs of the terebinth tree, he would have only to cut it to free himself."5 Moreover, the text has plenty of bad things to say about Absalom, but it doesn't criticise him for being vain, nor does anyone view the accident which led to his execution as being an act of God. 

    In any case, here Absalom's hair is not long enough to get accidentally caught in a passing tree while fleeing a battle, and, as you can see from the .gif below, it doesn't really show him as getting his head caught either. There's an attempt at an impressive stunt. Absalom/Ravet grabs at the tree as his mule goes under it. It must have been fairly difficult, but it never looks anything other than a man hanging from a tree with his arms. It's difficult to know if audiences would have been impressed by this at the time. I suspect not because while movie stunt work, like the rest of cinema, was in its infancy, it was well enough established in the theatre that it's unlikely anyone was as impressed as they would have been by some of Méliès' camera trickery. After he's cut down there's some sort of plait that's left swinging as the soldiers ride on. Was this deliberately included as part of his hair (in which case how did it get caught?) or some part of his apparel? Or was it just part of the stunt that was left, a little carelessly on display afterwards?

    Joab stabs the dangling Absalom ("exactly as stabby as we could wish" in Fritzi Kramer's words) and his men hack him down and carry him to David.6 It works dramatically, but it does mean that one of the few Black characters in the Bible – an unnamed Cushite – is excluded. Having been marginalised in the text by not having their name mentioned, they are cut out of this film adaptation entirely. The final shot shows David morning for his son rather than celebrating the victory, while Joab looks on disdainfully.

    It's interesting how the final shot in many ways mirror the first. David showering affection on one of his son's in the middle of the screen, unaware of the extent to which it is irritating one of those close to him who is shown on the left of the screen demonstrating visible signs of their annoyance. While Joab continues to serve David the incident with Absalom seems to have been the start of a rift between him and David, which led to Joab eventually being replaced as David's commander and David advising his son and appointed successor Solomon to have Joab killed, advice Solomon takes. The film nicely captures that cycle.

    Absalom appears in a handful of films about David, particularly The Story of David (1976), the Richard Gere vehicle King David (1985) and the Bible Collection's David (1997), but they tend to be ruined by terrible wigs failures an a failure to empathise with the character or give him any sense of depth. In a way, this portrayal of Absalom avoids those pitfalls, mainly because even though this is in some ways a continuation of Andréani's David series, the film-makers are happy to make Absalom centre stage. Admittedly, the acting is in that stagey style (which people assume typifies acting in the silent era, even though it doesn't), but nevertheless the film is fairly effective at telling the story dramatically and cinematically and the battle scenes and its use of depth of field is an interesting development in the directors style.

    Readers might also be interested to see Fritzi Kramer's review of Absalom at Movies Silently.

    1 - Shepherd, David J., The Bible on Silent Film: Spectacle, Story and Scripture in the Early Cinema (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.125.
    2- Abel, Richard, The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp.38-43
    3 - Anon. "Louis Ravet" Wikipedia, France. Available online: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Ravet
    4 - I know "iconic" is overused, but I struggle to find a suitable alternative. Any suggestions would be most welcome.
    5 - Lavery, Daniel, "Absalom's Death and Death", The Chatner. 11 March 2020. Available online: https://www.thechatner.com/p/absaloms-defeat-and-death 
    6 - Kramer, Fritzi, Absalom (1912) A Silent Film Review", Movies Silently, 8 September 2019. Available online: https://moviessilently.com/2019/09/08/absalom-1912-a-silent-film-review/

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    Wednesday, August 04, 2021

    Silent Bible Film Mystery - #06
    Pre-Griffith Judith Films

    As I've noted before, D.W.Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (released in 1914, though filmed in 1913) was not the first film based on the Book of Judith but the fourth or even fifth. Of the others two are definitely still in existence  Giuditta e Oloferne (1906/1908) [my review] and Gaumont's Judith et Holopherne (1909), directed by Louis Feuillade [my review]. But recently I've been investigating a Judith film, or perhaps two Judith films, from the UK released sometime between 1910 and 1912 going by the title Judith

    The Theo Frenkel Film
    The film more likely to have both existed and been about the biblical heroine is one directed by Dutch director Theo Frenkel (above right). It is listed along with several of Frenkel's other films on page 7 of Jon Solomon's "The Ancient World in the Cinema" (2001) and although the list of films is from 1911-1912 the index clarifies that Judith was 1912. Solomon kindly checked his notes for me but unsurprisingly, all these years later he was unable to determine his source. The IMDb repeats these details, however the BFI database has no entry.

    There's also a mention in "Anzeiger für die Altertumswissenschaft" Volumes 59-61, listing the film as:

    Judith, GB 1911, Regie Theo Frenkel [Regie translates as director].

    This evidence is also backed up by a list I was sent many years ago now by David Wilson, adding that the film was produced by Charles Urban's Natural Colour Kinematograph Co. Frenkel was also known briefly as Theo Bouwmeester during his British years, after his mother, indeed that's the name he is listed under in Brian McFarlane's " Encyclopedia of British Film". There's a good piece on Frenkel at eyefilm.nl though the only thing it mentions about this period is to confirm that he was indeed working for Urban at this point in time.

    Interestingly Tord Larsson, among other sources, mention another biblical film by Frenkel from this era, Fall of Babylon (1911), covering events in Daniel. Indeed it appears from IMDb that he directed numerous films with biblical sounding titles including: Samson and Delilah (1911), Ester: A Biblical Episode  (1911), Herod (1912), The Prodigal Son (1913), 

    Things are further complicated by the fact that Frenkel directed a later film which was also called Judith in 1923, only this was not a biblical adaptation. Whilst it certainly doesn't rule out the possibility that he made a biblical film called Judith in 1912, it does raise the possibility of error. Perhaps Frenkel's 1923 film was mis-dated at some point, or maybe his 1923 film was a remake and neither film was biblical. However, overall I'd say the possibility of this film existing and being about Judith of Bethulia looks fairly probable.

    The Brockliss Film
    The evidence for a British Judith film from 1910 comes down to a single line in an advert in the British Weekly trade publication "The Bioscope" on the 3rd March 1910. In the listings of film's available to exhibitors it simply lists "Judith ... Brockliss    700   B" as shown below.
    The 700 is 700ft (about 10-12 minutes depending on various factors) and the B is one of Bioscope's genres (my term not theirs) standing for "Biblical" which in itself is kind of remarkable as the Bioscope listed only 16 genres at the time. 

    These few details are so scant it's difficult to know how to interpret them, but the Brockliss in question is (the company founded by) J. Frank Brockliss, pictured, left, above. At this stage, Brockliss primarily seems to have been selling projectors - see the puff piece on him in the August 1912 edition of the Cinema News and Property Gazette. However, according to Jan-Jun 1912 copies of The Implet (produced by US company Imp Films) he was also an agent distributing (Imp's) films and it seems he imported films into the UK to sell to exhibitors. 

    Three possibilities come to mind. Firstly, this could (as I thought initially) be a film in its own right, probably British. I can't rule that out, but it seems unlikely to me given the available evidence. It's also possible, given what I've written above that this film was the same as Theo Frenkel's 1911/1912 film Judith. I can't be 100% certain that film even existed, and in any case, this is (at least) a year before Frenkel's film is usually dated. The fact that Brockliss imported films from overseas, rather than distributing home-grown talent also seems significant.

    For me, a third possibility seems most likely: that Brockliss was actually distributing the 1909 Gaumont film Judith et Holopherne. The Cinema News and Property Gazette article tells us that he already distributed Méliès' films in the UK and that he had other French producers signed up. Secondly at the end of March 1910 an almost full page advert for Gaumont's film appeared in The Bioscope and, in contrast to the French title it was simply going under the name Judith in the UK. While it looks like they were distributing the film themselves, that doesn't rule out Brockliss promoting the same film three weeks before on the 3rd of March. Perhaps they ultimately decided not to do business together. 

    The full page ad also gives Gaumont's release date was April 20th again this is the right kind of time-frame. It does raise the question as to how Brockliss was already showing it on the 10th March, but as the Bioscope was more of a trade publication, perhaps this was a pre-screening for exhibitors. The other minor problem with this theory is that Brockliss' 700 feet is considerably less than the Gaumont advert's 960ft, but given that lengths of cuts varied, this is not insurmountable.

    Whilst the BFI database/collections does have an entry for this title which notes Brockliss's involvement, it refers directly to the same Bioscope advert as I have and has no other details, so so it seems quite likely the database entry is based on the advert. It does, however, also list the Gaumont film under the title Judith rather than the fuller French title, confirming that this was the name it was known by in the UK. There's no entry in the IMDb for this film and I could find no other verification.


    So it's hard to be 100% confident that either film actually existed, but if you put a gun to my head I'd say the Frenkel one did, but Brockliss was just promoting the Gaumont film in the UK, quite possibly before either he or they decided to part company.

    As an aside, in the process of investigating all of this I also made a few discoveries. For example, I've known for a while that several early silent film periodicals are available to view via the Internet Archive (yet another reason to donate to them), and that you can search for key words in the scanned in versions, this tends to take a while for many files (some of which contain over a thousand pages. However, if you scroll down you can get a text file version of these files which are so much easier to search and then cross compare. Searching "Moving Picture World" (in the combined book of the first six months of 1910) yields a rave review of the Gaumont Judith film (p.552) by T. Ruth. There's also a run down of the plot of the Book of Judith for "lecturers and exhibitors who may not be in a position to readily refer to the Apocryphal books of the Bible" (pp. 699-701). 

    Larsson, Tord (2017) "The New Testament in Film" in Ilona Nord, Hanna Zipernovszky (ed.), Religious Education in a Mediatized World (Kohlhammer: Stuttgart). p.40.

    Jon Solomon The Ancient World in the Cinema (New Haven: Yale University Press, [1978] 2001).

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