A fascinating work of high artistry, "Judith of Bethulia" will not only rank as an achievement in this country, but will make foreign producers sit up and take notice. It has a signal and ... See full summary »
A fascinating work of high artistry, "Judith of Bethulia" will not only rank as an achievement in this country, but will make foreign producers sit up and take notice. It has a signal and imperative message, and the technique displayed throughout an infinity of detail, embracing even the delicate film tinting and toning, marks an encouraging step in the development of the new art. Ancient in story and settings, it is modern in penetrative interpretation - it is a vivid history of one phase of the time it concerns, and is redemptive as well as relative, a lesson from one of those vital struggles that made and unmade nations as well as individuals, yet it is not without that inspiring influence that appeals powerfully to human sense of justice. The entire vigorous action of the play works up to the personal sacrifice of Judith of Bethulia, a perilous chance she takes for the sake of the lives and happiness of her people. She dares expose herself to overwhelming humiliation and dishonor ... Written by
Moving Picture World 1914
When Judith goes out into the city and begins to bless the young mother's baby, an extra enters the shot in the left foreground, blocking the action. She or he quickly retreats back out of view, as someone obviously yelled out. See more »
"Hear me, and I will do a thing which shall go through all generations"
Judith of Bethulia is, depending on your definition, Griffith's earliest full-length feature, or his longest short. While nowhere near as mammoth in length as Birth of a Nation, in scope and ambition it is a leap forward from two-reelers like The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch. In any case, it was certainly Griffith's first genuine attempt at making a feature, and only really suffered from curtailment by the Biograph bosses.
The care Griffith takes in establishing character was nothing new, and neither were the techniques he uses for staging the battle sequences. What stands out here though is how constant the quality level is. While the whole is clearly lacking some development - the romantic angle between Mae Marsh and Bobby Haron appears to have been a casualty of Biograph's cutbacks - what does remain is consistently of a high standard. There are no wrong notes, no awful performances and no misjudged cuts. In this respect Judith of Bethulia differs from many of the better known Griffith features, which whilst appearing fully rounded and complete, were often peppered with weak moments.
Nevertheless, Griffith has clearly put a lot of thought into the structure of Judith of Bethulia. The film is filled with counterpoint and contrast, and it is in fact this which gives it the nature of a feature and not a short. The majority of Biograph shorts dealt with one form of business at a time - frenzied action, emotional turmoil, loving harmony and so forth - and any attempts to mix and match these tended to be a bit of a mess. In Judith of Bethulia Griffith pulls off just such a blending. For example, when Judith is wrestling with her conscience over whether she can murder Holofernes, Griffith intercuts the Bethulian soldiers' dash to recapture the well. The ensuing battle scenes would seem to be at odds with Judith's agonising, yet by now the audience has bought into her situation and the counterpoint works. Another example occurs in the middle of the film, where Griffith cuts back and forth between Judith's decision to go forth into the enemy camp, and Holofernes executing a cowardly soldier. Why intercut between these two seemingly unrelated scenes? Because they are the defining moments of character exposition for both - Judith's spiritual awakening, and Holofernes at his most barbaric.
In relation to the above, there is also a lot of contrasting of Bethulian piety and purity with Assyrian debauchery. This kind of religious moralism is rare in Griffith's work, although as anyone who has seen more than a few of his films will know he was happy to wear almost any political or philosophical hat so long as it suited the story.
Griffith casts what were, at the time, all his favourite leads, hence the generally strong performances throughout. The historical setting allows for a little more hammyness and theatricality than would be acceptable in a contemporary drama, which means things even out nicely given the generally naturalistic but occasionally over the top acting styles of the late Biographs. It's interesting to see Lillian Gish cast in a supporting role as "the young mother". To date her best and most prominent performance had been in The Mothering Heart, and she also played the token mother of the token baby in The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch. Later, when she was Griffith's primary female lead she would play the purely symbolic mother figure, eternally rocking the cradle in Intolerance. Although she never had a child in real life, with her tender features Griffith had clearly singled her out as the archetypal mother, specifically of babies.
Judith of Bethulia was inevitably overshadowed by the three-hour extravaganza that was Birth of A Nation. Now that Birth has been denounced as racist nonsense, film buff favourites Intolerance and Broken Blossoms are now most often cited as Griffith's ones to watch. It's really about time Judith of Bethulia was given recognition as Griffith's true feature debut, and the crowning achievement of his days at Biograph.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?