• 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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