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Archive for the 'Silent Films' Category

King Saul on the Silver Screen: An Early Film about Saul and David

16th March 2006

I recently bought on eBay a DVD with a silent film from the early 1900s about Saul and David. The amateur DVD is entitled, “Early Religious Films” and besides the film on Saul and David, it includes two other early Jesus films. Matt Page over at Bible Film Blog purchased the same DVD and has blogged on the two Jesus films here and here, and the Saul and David film here. As Matt noted in his blog entries, identifying these films is a bit challenging. The distributor who made the DVD from old reels doesn’t have any further information on the films included. In particular, a major problem with the Saul and David film is trying to determine whether or not it is one film or two. Matt thinks what is on the DVD is actually two films, a film called “David and Saul” and another film called “The Death of Saul.” Matt’s summary of this film is excellent and I encourage you to read it. I thought I would offer my own slightly different take on this early film about Saul and David.

Identification

According to my research, in the early 1900s there were four films made that focused particularly on the reign of Saul, the first king of Israel, and his stormy relationship with David. My primary sources for this information are:

  • Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (University of California Press, 1994; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com)
  • Richard H. Campbell and Michael R. Pitts, The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897-1980 (Scarecrow Press, 1981; out of print)
  • Jon Solomon, The Ancient World in the Cinema (Revised & Expand edition; Yale University Press, 2001; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com)

As I piece the various lists together, there are four early films on Saul and David. In chronological order they are:

  • Saul and David. This early American film was directed by J. Stuart Blackton with the scenario written by Madison C. Peters. Produced and distributed by Vitagraph in 1909. [Noted in Campbell and Pitts, 3; Solomon, 5, 166; IMDb]
  • Saul and David [Saül et David]. A French film produced and directed by Léon Gaumont in 1911. [Noted as "lost to the ages" in Campbell and Pitts, 5; Solomon, 7]
  • David and Saul [David et Saül]. Produced by the French studio Pathé-Frères and distributed by their export office C.G.P.C. in 1912. Campbell and Pitts has this film listed as “Saul and David” while IMDb has it as “David and Saul.” In addition IMDb notes this film was directed by André (Henri) Andréani and dates it to 1911. This identification is plausible since Andréani directed many of Pathé-Frères biblical films in this period; the earlier date likely represents its actual production date, while the later date is its American distribution. [Noted in Campbell and Pitts, 5; Solomon, 7; IMDb]
  • The Death of Saul [La Mort de Saül]. This French film was directed by André (Henri) Andréani with the scenario written by Eugène Creissel with Louis Ravet playing Saul. It was produced by Pathé-Frères in June 1912, while its American distribution date is typically listed as 1913. 12 minutes long. [Noted in Abel, 319; Solomon, 7, 141; and IMDb]

The challenge with identifying the film on the DVD is that, based on the intertitles, it appears to be two films spliced together. The first three intertitles include the title “David and Saul” in small print at the top of the frame; then there is a full-frame intertitle introducing “The Death of Saul” while the rest of the intertitles in film have “The Death of Saul” in small print at the top. In addition, while there is remarkable consistency between the two sections in regards to costuming and it appears Louis Ravet plays Saul in both parts, the actor playing Saul’s son Jonathan is different between the two sections.

Matt Page identifies the first part with the 1911/12 film “David and Saul” and the second part with the 1912/13 film “The Death of Saul.” This identification is more than likely correct, since both films are by the same studio. From the discussion in Abel (which is based on the version of the film in the Library of Congress archives), however, it is clear that the “Death of Saul” on the DVD does not include its original beginning. Perhaps that is why excerpts from “Saul and David” were included at the beginning.

What should be clear from this discussion is that figuring out the early history of Bible related films is challenging to say the least!

Analysis

The origin of the film aside, the version that I have consists of two main sections, Saul and David and the Death of Saul. Here is my breakdown and discussion of the two parts (my divisions are based primarily on the intertitles):

David and Saul

This part of the film may be divided into three sections based on the intertitles. It’s camera work is pretty basic, consisting of almost exclusively of stationary longshots.

David-and-Saul_Michal_Given.jpgDavid, conqueror of the Philistines, asks Saul to Keep his Promise [to give his daughter Michal in marriage]
This section is based on 1Sam 18:27 and has David returning from battle, being greeted by a portly Jonathan, and being given Michal in marriage by Saul.

David-and-Saul-Sauls-Jealo.jpgJealous of David’s Popularity, Anger Invades Saul’s Heart.
This section consists of five scenes. The first has Saul in his palace looking out at the crowds who are evidently praising David’s military prowess (inspired by 1Sam 18:7). The second scene, based on 1Samuel 19 (cf. 19:1, 17), shows a confrontation between Saul and a group consisting of Michal, Jonathan, and some others. Saul is evidently asking for the whereabouts of David, but he leaves none the smarter. The third scene shows a dejected looking David and his motley crew of followers at the cave of Adullam (1Sam 22:1-2). Note that Matt Page identifies this scene as “David feigns madness whilst in hiding” based on 1 Sam 21:10-15. The problem with this identification is that the setting is does not appear to be Achish and David doesn’t look too insane (at least he’s not scratching marks on gates or drooling). The fourth scene is very roughly based on 1Sam 22:6-18. It has Saul going to the sanctuary at Nob and confronting Ahimelech the priest about David’s whereabouts (I say only roughly, since in the biblical account the priests are brought to Saul). Ahimelech refuses and is then killed by a nasty looking Doeg the Edomite. The fifth and final scene of this section has Saul and his guard leaving in search of David.

David-and-Saul_David-Hiding.jpgFatigued, Saul Seeks Repose in the Cave where David was Hidden.
This third and final section appears to be cut off prematurely. It is made up of two brief scenes based on 1Sam 24:1-3 (not 1 Sam 23:24-28 as Matt Page suggests). The first has Saul and his guard coming to a cave in the wilderness of En-gedi and Saul going into the cave to relieve himself (for more on the euphemisms used in this passage see my post here). The second scene shows David and his followers within the cave hiding themselves from the approaching Saul.

The Death of Saul

The second part of the film is, as Matt noted, of a higher quality and shows more innovation in camera work. It includes a pan shot as well as some ambitious outside action shots. It consists of seven parts of various lengths.

Saul Decides that the Priests and Other Inhabitants of the City shall be Slain.
This scene somewhat accurately represents the story in 1Sam 22:11-19 where Saul (in his palace) decides to kill Ahimelech and put the entire city to the sword. Interestingly, Abel, in his discussion of the film, mistakenly identifies the besieged city as Keilah (1Samuel 23). This is quite unlikely, especially considering Saul gave up his expedition against Keilah once he heard that David had fled the city.

Jonathan Endeavors to Avert the Massacre.
This section is quite long and involved, consisting of at least seven different scenes. The first two scenes of Jonathan fleeing the palace and warning Ahimelech of the coming massacre does not appear to be inspired by any biblical passage. The next scene has the priest going out and praying for the inhabitants of the city. Then the fourth scene shifts to Saul and his guard leaving the palace. The next three scenes has Saul and his army entering the city of Nob and burning it and putting it to the sword. These scenes employ some of Pathé’s patented special effects of red smoke and small explosions. The final scene of this section shows Saul receiving a written message just leaving the city. The message, which is signed by David, is presented on an intertitle. It says, “O King, know thou that the Philistines have gathered together to do battle with us. May the God of Israel protect us.” This may be based on 1Sam 23:27, though one cannot be sure.

Death-of-Saul_Saul_rallies_.jpgSaul Seeks the Witch of Endor.
This section consists of two scenes based on 1Sam 28:3-8. The first has Saul encamped at Gilboa in fear of the Philistines who are assembled against Israel at Shunem. While the second has Saul leaving camp with two men to inquire of the medium at Endor since the Lord did not answer him. This second scene includes a primitive pan shot as the three men are walking towards Endor.

Death-of-Saul-Samuel-Appear.jpgThe Witch Evokes the Spirit of Samuel.
This section, taken from 1Sam 28:8-25, begins with a scene with Saul and the two men coming to the cave where the witch lives and then there is an interesting close-up bridge shot of Saul going down the narrow tunnel to the cave entrance alone. The scene where the disguised Saul asks the witch to consult Samuel has some interesting camera shots. Samuel appears on the cave wall with a flaming special effect and fade in shot and then later disappears with a straight cut. Samuel’s message to Saul, paraphrased from 1Sam 28:18-19, is included on an intertitle. Interestingly, the next three sections of the film are introduced by intertitles including excerpts of this message.

Seath-of-Saul-Philistines.jpgThy Armies Shall be Delivered unto the Hands of the Philistines.
This section starts with Saul returning to the Israelite encampment, cuts to an amazing scene of the Philistine army rushing the Israelites, and ends with Saul and his army rushing out to meet them.

Thy Sons shall Perish. This brief scene includes a son of Saul coming back from battle and dying in Saul’s arms (if this is Jonathan, then it is a different actor from the first film as noted above), Saul lamenting and then falling on his sword.

Death-of-Saul.jpgThey Sword shall Avenge the God of Israel.
This final scene shows Saul dying — with, of course, the sword handle appropriately protruding from his belly!

Final Thoughts

There are a number of noteworthy things about this early film. First, as perhaps is clear from the various departures from the biblical storyline, that even in the early days of cinema films were interpretations of the biblical story. The scenario writer and director crafted their story with liberty to modify the biblical version as they thought appropriate. Second, what the film chose to focus on is interesting. The attention given to the massacre of the city of Nob and the visit with the witch of Endor likely stem from a number of things, including the simple desire to show off some of the special effects. Finally, I have to concur with Matt Page when he notes, “the most successful biblical films have been those that use less familiar material to challenge our pre-conceptions, or are at least more concerned with trying to explore their protagonist’s motives.” In this regard, I found this film to be quite intriguing.

For a complete listing of films based on the Hebrew Bible, please see my Old Testament on Film pages.


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