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American Movie: Judith of Bethulia (1913)

There is really no way to reasonably select a single definitive event with which to begin a discussion of the beginnings of cinema, the beginnings of the American film industry, or even the beginning of the American feature film. The history of the developing technology which ultimately led to “the movies” stretches back surprisingly far, even into the 18th century, while the latest stages of pre-cinematic and then pre-Hollywood development become impossibly broad. The emergence of cinema was truly an international phenomenon, and the full story of its origin is as much one of economic and socio-cultural forces as it is of technological and industrial innovation. During a period of about 20 years, from roughly 1895 to 1915, cinema underwent a dramatic (though hardly unique) shift from existing as a sort of novel curiosity to occupying an enviable niche as a rather lucrative and well-established industry.

If a lengthy, detailed examination of that story sounds ridiculously dense and technical, do not be alarmed. It probably would be (certainly could be), but its absence need not prevent a much briefer discussion of the immediate circumstances of the beginnings of the American feature film. A significant piece of the story would have to do with the ultimately unsuccessful war waged by Thomas Edison for monopolistic control over the technology which made the medium possible. Another piece would involve the limitations of early cinema as a storytelling device, both in terms of its reliance on totally different art forms such as stage drama for stylistic cues and its confinement to single, ten- to fifteen-minute rolls of film. A third piece would describe the rise of venues constructed specifically for the purpose of showing films to paying audiences, from cheap nickelodeons of questionable reputability to extravagant, elegant movie palaces. And, finally, there would be a piece describing early concerns about the dangers of the new medium and efforts at censoring or severely restricting the exhibition of film in American cities.

The sum of all these parts would be a picture of the formative years of an American institution, the art form of the 20th century, and its development from the first successful national attempt to regulate and control the industry in 1908 (the Motion Picture Patents Company, or “The Trust”) to about 1913, when its back was finally broken by the sheer weight of pressure from the decentralized independent studios, whose spirit of freedom and innovation had succeeded in claiming the best talent in the industry. By 1914, the first American feature films were crowding into theaters as Europe descended into the darkness of the First World War. Hollywood was left to claim the title of movie capital of the world, which it has managed to retain ever since.

Neatly spanning this period is the early career of D.W. Griffith, who directed his first film, for Biograph, in 1908 and whose first feature film was released by the company in 1914, after he had moved on to greener pastures to begin adapting a popular Civil War epic. During these years, Griffith directed nearly 500 films, and assembled, piece-by-piece and film-by-film, an indispensable lexicon of the language of movie storytelling. The differences between that first short film, The Adventures of Dollie and the full-length Judith of Bethulia are, to say the least, dramatic enough to be worthy of further comment.

The Adventures of Dollie is a rather conventional 12-minute film in which a young girl is kidnapped by an evil gypsy who has been angered by her parents. Dollie’s father immediately suspects the gypsy when the girl disappears, but when he arrives at the gypsy’s wagon, Dollie has been hidden in a barrel which the gypsy is sitting on. After the father is gone, the gypsy and his wife load the barrel into the wagon and move out, but as they are crossing a river, the barrel tumbles out of the back and floats away. After winding along the river for a bit and tumbling over a short waterfall, the barrel is fished out by Dollie’s father and a Huck Finn look-alike and the girl is restored to her parents.

The story, or rather the scenario, is simplistic in a way that is quite typical of the period. The entire film is composed of static “tableau” shots; that is, shots which contain the entirety of the actors bodies as well as the space above and below them. The camera is set up so as to take in the whole of the action of the scene, and remains fixed in one spot while that scene plays out before cutting directly to the next tableau. Editing shots within scenes, camera tracking, and the dramatic close-up would not become commonplace for some years. Not, in fact, until shortly before Griffith moved into feature-length film production.

Throughout his years at Biograph, as Robert Sklar attests, Griffith gradually “moved the camera closer and closer to the players […] increased the number of shots in his one-reel films […] increased the complexity and variety of movements within his frame […] gave more detailed attention to natural and artificial lighting […] improved his skill as a director of actors […] found new ways to increase the tempo and build the tension” (Movie-Made America, 54). He also assembled an impressive slate of loyal performers at a time when no one (neither the director or the stars) received screen credit for their work.

By 1911, Italy was exporting impressive multi-reel productions that caught the attention of critics, audiences, and industry artists alike. However, the men who belonged to Edison’s Trust, including the leadership at Biograph, continued to restrict its directors to churning out one-reel shorts at a high rate. Griffith grew increasingly frustrated with this policy, and during the early winter months of 1913, as he and his crew retreated to sunny southern California, he went behind his employers’ backs and began to plan an ambitious multi-reel feature. Griffith and his crew constructed a large set, hired extras, and started shooting Judith of Bethulia, a biblical epic based on the apocryphal (in the Protestant Bible) Book of Judith.

The result filled four reels of film, nearly an hour in length, and stood as Griffith’s answer to both the Biograph management and the Italian imports. In it he employed every device he had developed in his extensive cinematic repertoire, bringing the story to life with impressive battle sequences, dramatic character development, and a kinetic editing style that builds the action towards its climax.

In the movie, an Assyrian general named Holofernes (Henry Walthall) leads his army out to conquer the kingdom of Judah. His access to Jerusalem is blocked by the city of Bethulia, which guards a narrow pass to the capital. Holofernes settles his army in for a siege, cutting off the Bethulians’ access to their water supply. As the situation grows desperate, a brave and well-respected widow named Judith (Blanche Sweet) takes her maid and goes out to the Assyrian camp.

Once there, she employs her considerable feminine wiles to ingratiate herself with him. In the process, she actually begins to fall in love with him. However, driven by her sense of duty to her dying countrymen, she arranges to be alone with him one night and lops off his head with his own sword. She then bundles up the head and takes it back with her to Bethulia, where she is welcomed with much rejoicing. The Bethulian army immediately launches an all-out attack on the Assyrian camp, and when the Assyrians discover their general’s headless corpse, they quickly disperse and run for the hills.

The selection of subject here is a good one. Judith of Bethulia has a lot going for it: action, intrigue, drama, pathos, romance (particularly in a sub-plot involving a captured Israeli woman and her frantic suitor inside the city). Nearly all of Griffith’s usual suspects can be spotted here and there among the cast. Mae Marsh is the Israelite captive, Naomi, Lillian and Dorothy Gish are both present inside the city, and even Lionel Barrymore and Mary Gish (mother of the other two) have minor roles.

The battle scenes, in particular, are brilliantly staged and choreographed, involving relatively large armies, including a number on horseback or driving chariots. The idea of having Judith develop feelings for Holofernes (borrowed from the 1904 stage play to which the film is directly indebted) allows some welcome complexity to creep into the proceedings. The one genuine complaint I feel constrained to offer is in reference to Blanche Sweet’s performance as Judith. She is, frankly, awful. She is rarely on-screen without emoting histrionically in a display that is totally devoid of subtlety. In all other respects, however, Judith of Bethulia provides a fascinating and rewarding introduction to the infancy of the American feature film.

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~ by Jared on September 30, 2008.

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