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In the Beginning: From Silent Films to "Talkies"

(1900 to the 1930s)

From the very beginning of the cinema, Bible stories often served as inspiration for films. The first silent film based on the Hebrew Bible was Pathè's production of Samson and Delilah in 1903. That was the first of over fifty silent films derived from the Old Testament. Many of these early films were experimental as they continually discovered how they could go beyond the limitations of the stage with innovations such as outdoor location shooting, boom shots, and massive sets, among other things.

 

Judith of BethuliaOne of the fathers of American cinema was D.W. Griffith, who produced two biblical spectacles: Judith of Bethulia (1913) and Intolerance (1916). Based on the apocryphal book of Judith in which the heroine saves the city of Bethulia by seducing and then cutting the head off of the unsuspecting Assyrian general Holofernes (see right), Judith of Bethulia was in many ways the precursor of the huge Hollywood biblical epics that followed. Griffith's other major biblical epic, Intolerance, was one of the first American films to tell parallel stories, often one ancient and its parallel modern. Intolerance actually narrated four stories from different historical eras: ancient Babylon (see left), first century Judea (passion of Christ), 1572 France, and modern America. Unfortunately, Intolerance was a bust at the box office, likely due to its message of peace and tolerance at the eve of World War I (Solomon, 8).

Belshazzar in IntoleranceAnother great American director who cut his teeth during this period was Cecil B. DeMille (see more on DeMille on my The Golden Age of Biblical Epic page). His 1923 production The Ten Commandments, like many films of this era paired the ancient story of the ten commandments from the book of Exodus with modern stories of people breaking various commandments.

The advent of "talkies" in the 1930s added a whole new dimension to film. The first film based on the Old Testament with sound was Michael Curtiz's 1929 Noah's Ark, which was actually first released as a silent film and then re-released with sound later the same year.

Betty Blythe as the Queen of ShebaWhat is somewhat surprising of these early films is how they pushed the envelope in regards to how much skin and sexuality they showed. J. Gordon Edwards' 1921 production of the Queen of Sheba featured a scantly clad Betty Blythe as the exotic Queen. Most of her outfits clearly showed her breasts and nipples (see right for one of her more modest costumes). It was, in fact, the excesses of these early films which prompted moralistic production guidelines in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was DeMille's 1929 film, The Sign of the Cross, with its provocative scenes of women bathing in Donkey's milk, disrobing, and its infamous "lesbian" dance scene (which is really quite humourous by today's standards) which appeared to be the last straw that prompted the codes and the formation of the Legion of Decency. (For an interesting look at early censorship struggles, see Frank Walsh, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry [Yale University Press, 1996] Buy from Amazon.caBuy from Amazon.com).

Unfortunately, many of these early films are difficult to find or unavailable (and some are even lost). D.W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia and Intolerance, as well as DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923) are probably the most accessible.

The Era of Silent Films (to 1930)

There were over fifty silent films on the Old testament produced in the first two decades of cinema.

  • Moses in the Bullrushes (Gaumont, 1903).
  • Samson and Delilah (Director: Ferdinand Zecca, 1903).
  • Joseph vendu par ses frères (Director: Vincent Lorant-Heilbronn, 1904).
  • Belshazzar's Feast (Pathè, 1905).
  • Daniel in the Lion's Den (Pathè, 1905).
  • Giudetta e Oloferne [Judith and Holofernes] (Cines, 1906).
  • Moses and the Exodus from Egypt (Pathè, 1907).
  • Moses (Pathè, 1907).
  • Samson (Pathè, 1907).
  • A Modern Samson (Pathè, 1908).
  • David and Goliath (Director: Sidney Olcott, 1908).
  • Noah's Ark (Arthur M. Cooper, 1909).
  • Samson and Delilah (Director: Ferdinand Zecca, 1908). [A remake of the 1903 version]
  • The Judgment of Solomon (Director: J. Stuart Blackton, 1909).
  • Jephthah's Daughters: A Biblical Tragedy (Director: J. Stuart Blackton, 1909).
  • Judith et Holopherne (Director: Louis Feuillade, 1909).
  • Life of Moses (Director: J. Stuart Blackton, 1909-10).
  • Saul and David (Director: J. Stuart Blackton, 1909).
  • Adam and Eve (Phil Bruns, 1910).
  • Cain and Abel (Gaumont, 1910).
  • David and Goliath [David e Golia] ([unknown - Pathè], 1910).
  • Esther and Mordecai (Director: Louis Feuillade, 1910).
  • Jephthah's Daughters (Director: Louis Feuillade, 1910).
  • The Marriage of Esther (Gaumont, 1910).
  • Pharaoh, or Israel in Egypt (Gaumont, 1910).
  • I Maccabei (Director: Enrico Guazzoni, 1911).
  • Infancy of Moses (1911).
  • Abraham's Sacrifice [Le Sacrifice d'Abraham] (Director: Henri Andréani, 1911).
  • Moïse sauve des eaux (Director: Henri Andréani, 1911).
  • Caïn et Abel (Director: Henri Andréani, 1911).
  • Potiphar's Wife [Potifars Hustru] (Director: August Blom, 1911). [Presumed lost]
  • Esther: A Biblical Episode (Director: Theo Frankel, 1911).
  • Samson and Delilah (Director: Theo Frenkel, 1911).
  • Judith (Director: Theo Frenkel, 1911).
  • Saul and David (Gaumont, 1911).
  • The Son of the Shunamite (Director: Louis Feuillade, 1911).
  • The Slave's Revolt (Pathè, 1911).
  • Cain and Abel (Director: Richard Strauss, 1911).
  • Cain and Abel ([unknown - C.G.P.C.], 1911).
  • The Deluge (Director: Richard Strauss, 1911).
  • Adam and Eve (Director: Ivo Urbanic, 1912).
  • David, King of Israel (1912).
  • Saul and David (C.G.P.C., 1912).
  • Belshazzar's Feast (Gaumont, 1913).
  • Daniel (Director: Frederick A. Thomson, 1913).
  • Esther (Director: Henri Andrèani, 1913).
  • Jephthah's Daughters ([unknown], 1913).
  • Judith of Bethulia (Director: D.W. Griffith, 1913).
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  • La Mort de Saül (Director: Henri Andrèani, 1913).
  • La Reine de Saba (Director: Henri Andrèani, 1913).
  • Rebecca (Director: Henri Andrèani, 1913).
  • The Wife of Cain (Director: Charles Gaskill, 1913).
  • Joseph in the Land of Egypt (Director: Eugene Moore, 1914).
  • Joseph and His Coat of Many Colors (Director: Louis N. Parker, 1914).
  • Joseph's Trials in Egypt (Pathè, 1914).
  • Samson (Director: J. Farrell MacDonald, 1914).
  • Samson [and Delilah] (Director: Lorimer Johnson and G. P. Hamilton, 1914).
  • Samson (Director: Edgar Lewis, 1915).
  • Esther (Director: Maurice Elvey, 1916).
  • Intolerance (Director: D.W. Griffith, 1916).
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  • Sansone contro i Filistei (Director: Domenico Gaido, 1918).
  • The Bible, or After Six Days [La Bibbia] (Director: Pier Antonio Gariazzo, 1920).
  • Sansone e i rettili umani (Director: Amedeo Mustacchi, 1920).
  • Queen of Sheba (Director: J. Gordon Edwards, 1921). [Presumed lost]
  • Joseph and His Brethren [Josef und seine Brüder] (Director: Carl Froelich, 1922).
  • Samson and Delilah (Director: Edwin J. Collins, 1922).
  • Samson and Delilah [Samson und Delila] (Director: Alexander Korda, 1922).
  • Sodom and Gomorrah [Queen of Sin] (Director: Michael Curtiz, 1922 & 1923).
  • The Ten Commandments (Director: Cecil B. DeMille, 1923).
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  • Moon of Israel (Director: Michael Curtiz, 1924).
  • David (Director: Harry Southwell, 1924).
  • The Shepherd King (Director: J. Gordon Edwards, 1925).
  • Samson and Delilah (Director: H.B. Parkinson, 1927).
  • Giudetta e Oloferne (Director: Baldassarre Negroni, 1928).

The Advent of the "Talkie" (1930 -)

The first film based on the Old Testament with sound was Michael Curtiz's 1929 Noah's Ark, which was actually first released as a silent film and then re-released with sound later the same year.

  • Noah's Ark (Director: Michael Curtiz, 1929).
  • Her Strange Desire [Potiphar's Wife] (Director: Maurice Elvey, 1930).
  • Joseph and His Brethren (Director: Adolph Gartner, 1930).
  • The Sacrifice of Isaac (Director: Adolph Gartner, 1932).
  • Joseph in the Land of Egypt (Director: George Roland, 1932).
  • Lot in Sodom (Director: James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, 1933).
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  • The Green Pastures (Director: Marc Connelly and William Keighley, 1936).
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  • Samson (Director: Maurice Tourneur, 1936).
  • The Ten Commandments ([unknown], 1943). [Unable to confirm this Italian film starring Valentina Cortese and Rossano Brazzi]
  • Der Apfel ist ab [The Apple Fell] (Director: Helmut Käutner, 1948).
  • Queen Esther (John T. Coyle, 1948).

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Last Updated on Friday, 02 October 2009 09:54