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JUDITH OF BETHULIA, 1914
Starring: Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Kate Bruce.
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...
Early movie maestro Griffith, who had expanded the art and language of cinema during several years at Biograph studios, where he churned out hundreds of short films, here attempted his first “feature length” movie, never again returning to his one or two reeler roots.
It was a costly gamble and one that did not entirely pay-off for its director – Biograph baulked at the budget and, more comfortable with cheaper, shorter subjects, fired him. The studio would, very shortly, fold as they failed to move with the times.
It did, however, confirm Griffith was made to handle longer films as he shows the same mastery of crowds and cross-cutting between scenes.
Although the hand to hand combat lacks finesse, the action scenes of Bethulia under attack are impressively filmed – the screen is constantly packed with platforms toppling over, horses charging around and soldiers scrambling up and down the walls and on ladders. It’s like Lord of the Rings without the CGI.
Sweet was on the most popular performers during this era and maintained that right through to the very early days of sound, but her performance here is aggravatingly melodramatic, the worse kind of theatre acting with explosive hand gestures, swooning and eye-rolling.
Directors during the silent era would instruct their actors on how to emote as the camera’s turned and in Sweet’s rough performance, one can easily tell when Griffith was asking her to change tack.
More amusing is her transformation from grieving widow to titular temptress – a peacock feather headband is the blandest makeover in religious history.
This print, copyrighted from TVdays, also features a disastrous score, a comic fudge that ruins any dramatic tension or action by reducing the proceedings to an extended Keystone Cops film. The silly, canned crowd sound effects also don’t help – cheering when people are actually running and screaming is not a clever addition.
JUDITH OF BETHULIA