• 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


    Saturday, December 31, 2022

    The Story of Esther (1910)

    Back in 2016 (was it really that long ago?) I wrote the first entry in my "Silent Bible Film Mysteries" series, seeking to get to the bottom of three Esther titles that Gaumont released around the early 1910s. The conclusion was that there were two shorter films, The Marriage of Esther and Esther and Mordecai that were released in the US a week apart in June 1910, but at other times and places were circulated as a single film Esther. There was also something of a lament that these films were not available to view outside of (offline) film archives.

    Recently, however, I got notified by John from betweenmovies.com that a composite version of the film could now be streamed from the (online) Gaumont Pathé archives. You have to create an account – which takes a while, perhaps because they are individually verified – but then a composite version of the film is there to view. (BetweenMovies is a great website, by the way, and has some really interesting additional information about these films, including original reviews, press ads, still and some more screen grabs).


    The first thing to notice is that the title version of the film is The Story of Esther. It's plain enough that this is a renaming of the composite material, though perhaps with some additions and subtractions. The production was attributed to Louis Feuillade, and its stars were called "three of the most noted of Paris", "Mademoiselle" Gravier as Esther, Leonce Perret as Ahasuerus and "Monsieur" Legrand as Mordecai. Perret also worked for Gaumont as a director. He was at the helm of at least 292 of their films, including his La Fille de Jephté (1910) which I've discussed before. Mlle Gravier then is presumably Gisèle Gravier who starred in both another of Perret's films, Gisèle, enfant terrible  and another of Feuillade's La prêtresse de carthage the following year.1 I could turn up nothing on M. Legrand.

    The plot remains fairly close to the contours of the biblical text. Vashti has already been deposed before the start of the film, conveniently relieving the film's leading man of the suggestion of impropriety. Instead the opening shot sees an array of young women arrive at the palace as candidates for Ahasuerus' next wife. For most of the shot, though, Mordecai and Esther stand at the front right of the screen facing the crowd. Esther hesitates before entering – and is the last to do so – then Mordecai returns to centre stage and reaches his arms to heaven. 

    After the width of the opening outdoor scene, the indoor scenes move in closer for a more intimate atmosphere. Esther and the other "maidens" are prepared to meet the king and there's a deft iris shot to close the scene focusing on Esther. 

    In the next scene similar camera placement sees Ahasuerus chose Esther from only a handful of women, with everyone else ushered out before the King himself places the crown on Esther's head. Moving Picture World's Rev. W. H. Jackson called this moment "decidedly and extremely peculiar, most unwarranted, and without doubt not faithful to the times and custom".2 I think he may be protesting a little too much. "Without doubt" seems a bit strong given how little was known about the era 110 years ago, even if he is probably right. Historical inaccuracies in Bible movie? Surely not.

    In any case it's noticeable that this scene is not particularly romanticized. Given the lengthy procession of women into the palace, Ahasuerus seems to spend almost no time at all deciding on his new queen and while he picks his bride based purely on looks, there's very little indication that she is attracted to him.

    Jackson was much more favourably disposed towards the wedding banquet scene however which manages quite an impressive depth of field with an advisor front, centre and relatively close while dancers twirl away on the stage at the back of the room. The composition is a little odd – Feuillade doesn't pan or zoom at all in this film – so the advisor is sat facing off screen, but it does leave a gap for Esther and Ahasuerus to process down. This seems to be the climax of The Marriage of Esther and, in honesty, it's more than a little slow.

    It's also noticeable here how the walls reproduce some of the statues and bas-reliefs taken from the Palace of Sargon II (in Khorsabad). While Sargon II pre-dates the era in which the story was set by about 200-250 years, the palace had only been discovered by French archaeologist Paul-Émile Botta in the 1840s and was (and is) prominently displayed in the Louvre. If you compare the scene with this image from the Louvre you can see it's a direct attempt at reproduction.
    A fairly detailed title card leads us into the second half (or Esther and Mordecai) opening the shot above. I've not managed to turn up any association between Esther and the harp, but it makes for quite a striking image. Mordecai warns Esther and the two proceed to foil a plot against her husband in the film's best action scene with Esther and Mordecai saving the king in the nick of time. 

    The same set is also used for the next scene where Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman. The wall decorations here are not immediately identifiable; they look more Egyptian than Babylonian to me. Perhaps they were recycled from another Gumont film set in Ancient Egypt, perhaps even Feuillade's own L'exode (1910), which I've seen but don't have access to in order to check.

    Haman goes to Ahasuerus who gives him the ring from his hand in order to enact his revenge on Mordecai and his people. Interestingly the throne room here resembles Jean Pesne's print/etching of the scene. It's supposedly based on Nicolas Poussin's "Esther devant Assuérus", but, Pesne's image mirrors Poussin's and makes it a good deal lighter such that the detail and architecture is far more apparent. Perhaps Feuillade and his set designers were influenced by one or both of them, perhaps neither. Haman sets off to set the wheels in motion.

    However in the meantime, Ahasuerus discovers that Mordecai had not been honoured, calls in Haman and orders him to put Mordecai on a horse and lead it through the streets announcing his honour. One of my favourite parts of the story is omitted here. In the Bible, the king asks Haman to devise the method of honouring. Haman thinking it is he who is to be honoured is then appalled by to discover his method of honouring himself will now be applied to his hated enemy (Esther 6:6-10). This ironic switch is made all the worse as it is her who has to parade round honouring Mordecai. It also foreshadows the following chapter, with a not dissimilar switch whereby the method of execution Haman has devised for Mordecai will be used to kill Haman instead (Esther 7:9-10).

    The scene of Mordecai's honouring is the film's most interesting in terms of influences. It cleverly combines both Gustave Dore's "Triumph of Mordecai" & Jacques Tissot's "Mordecai's Triumph" with a single static shot that merges the composition of one into the other. On top of this the bystanders wave palm leaves which also recalls Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. While it's appropriation / supersessionism this typological interpretation of Mordecai (as a "type" of Christ) has long been popular with Christian interpreters and so it's no surprise that biblical filmmakers carried on this tradition.

    And then comes the climatic scene with Esther's banquet. the plot abridges the cycle of meals Esther goes through prior to explaining her predicament to her husband and instead cuts to the chase. The composition here is more akin to Rembrant, Lievens, Victors and Armitage than to Tissot or Dore, but it's notable how many depictions of this scene place Haman on the left, but none of the historical artistic takes on this moment capture the dramatic way in which Esther flings her arm out across Ahasuerus to point to the man she is accusing. 

    It's noticeable also that she doesn't faint in contrast to the deuterocanonical passage from Esther 15:7 where she swoons. However Ahasuerus comforts Esther as she sobs which is found in Esther 15:8. Haman begs for is life, is seen and is led away. 

    Haman's grim execution is omitted, but there's a final scene in Ahasuerus's throne room and a final Thanksgiving scene featuring women dancing in the kind of generic SE Mediterranean costumes that dancers are routinely given in this kind of scene. I don't know enough about costumes from this time and place to know if any of them are accurate, but these ones feel particularly orientalising.

    There's little of the additional material from deuterocanonical books, or subsequent Jewish tradition. What's more interesting though is the way that he parts of the narrative that are omitted tend to benefit Ahasuerus, Mordecai and perhaps the never-mentioned God. The grim realities of Harem life are minimised. While Esther's not portrayed as attracted to Ahasuerus, he's made to seem decent enough with physical shows of affection and comfort. His questionable treatment of Vashti is left out as his Haman's execution. Meanwhile, Mordecai's orders which result in over 75,000 gentiles being killed are also not included.

    So while there isn't anything as heinous as the trivialising in the Veggie Tales version, nor the teenage romanticising of One Night with the King (2006) and perhaps a few other recent outings), it is a fairly sanitised adaptation of the story. 

    That said, all things considered this isn't a bad first cinematic screen outing for the Book of Esther. Some of the processions are over long and the characterisation is a little weak, and there's little of the spark that we find in Feuillade's Fantômas just a few years later, but it does have its occasional moments. And it's network of visual references from Assyrian bas-reliefs to Tissot and Dore provide a good deal of interest.
    1 - Gisèle, enfant terrible listed on the IMDb. La prêtresse de carthage listed on p4 of this catalogue of Early films from the collections of the Swedish Film Institute.
    2 - Jackson, W. H. "The Marriage of Esther: A Critical Review by Rev W.H. Jackson" in Moving Picture World, vol 6 Jan-Jun 1910, p.1098. Available online at https://archive.org/details/movinwor06chal/page/1098/mode/2up?view=theater 

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