Villainy is afoot in ancient Israel, the Assyrians have laid siege to a little mountain town. All seems to be lost. But the Assyrians didn’t count on a young widow named Judith (Blanche Sweet), who wields a mean saber. Will the charms of the enemy general (Henry B. Walthall) derail her plans? Or will our Assyrian lose his head over the comely widow? This is an early feature film and the start of director D.W. Griffith’s big, Big, BIG! period.
A woman’s work is never done…
By 1913, movies had come a long way since the days of the kinetoscope. Nickelodeon theaters had popped up all across the United States but change was in the air. Directors and actors wanted to make bigger films, longer films and American studios, inspired by the success of feature-length European imports, were starting to oblige them.
D.W. Griffith was secure in his place as top director in the still-young American film industry but he was ready to move onto those bigger films as well. He had already experimented with The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch and had epic plans for a follow-up. The resulting movie was Judith of Bethulia, a four-reel mini-feature that went over budget and ultimately resulted in Griffith severing ties with the Biograph company, the studio that had been his home since 1908.
The history of studio motion pictures seems to be one long game of tug-of-war between directors and stars wanting bigger budgets and studio heads trying to keep costs under control. In this case, Griffith openly defied his bosses and they did not take kindly to it. However, Griffith had one major advantage. He was not just a director at Biograph, he was the director at Biograph. The studio had no one who came close to his skill and box office clout.
We know that Griffith would find phenomenal success in epic features and then be undone by his own profligate spending, sloppy business practices and bulging ego. The loss of Griffith and a few legal setbacks proved to be the death of Biograph. They stopped making original productions in 1916.
But enough of the backstage issues.
The story selected for Griffith’s epic was an ancient one. The book of Judith is part of the Apocrypha, books considered canonical by the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches but rejected by Protestantism and Judaism. The narrative is often described as the first historical novel and for the purpose of this review I am going to treat it like one.
The town of Bethulia is a walled outpost with its wells on the outside. (This surely will not prove to be a problem later.) Judith (Blanche Sweet) is a wealthy and respected widow, renowned for her charitableness and religious devotion. Among those who benefit from her generosity are the Gish sisters.
But then the Assyrians attack. Led by Holofernes (a roaring Henry B. Walthall), they lay siege to Bethulia. Without food or water, it is only a matter of time before surrender is the only option. The Assyrians also capture Naomi (Mae Marsh, the Griffith actress who can never catch a break), one of the young women of the city and Judith’s friend. Her boyfriend, Nathan (Robert Harron) is more than a little anxious.
While observing the encamped army that surrounds the city, Judith has an epiphany. She will dress in her finest raiment and pay a call on the Assyrians. Once she has won their trust, she will strike. Assisted by her servant, Marah (Kate Bruce), she will bring victory to Bethulia or die trying.
As it turns out, Holofernes was bored with his goofy dancing girls. I don’t blame him. They display their charms by pretending to be… fish? (No aspect of silent film has aged worse than the “sexy” dances.) Judith comes along and weaves a tale of woe. She claims that she wants to side with the winners and wishes to stay in the Assyrian camp. Holofernes is smitten (possibly because she does not pretend to be a fishy, glub, glub) and gives her a luxurious tent and all the comforts of home.
At this point, the tale departs from the ancient text. The film is not based on the original book of Judith but on the play by Thomas Bailey Aldrich. (Read a public domain copy online here.) While the original Judith took down Holofernes without hesitation, the Judith of the play and the film balks. She is falling for the Assyrian.
They met once. Once! Why does she go for him again? Because he gives her stuff? We’re supposed to believe that this woman, someone who is supposed to be bright and brave and noble, ignores all the nasty stuff the Assyrians have done because their commander gave her presents?
Since the story is at least 2,000 years old, I have no qualms about spoiling the ending. Judith overcomes her love for Holofernes, hacks off his head and takes it back to Bethulia. Mae Marsh is saved by Bobby Harron (who is inexplicably dressed as a pirate) and all is well. But Judith is melancholy after killing the man she loved.
The original Judith was a merciless headswoman and deprived Holofernes of his cranium in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. The idea that Judith would fall for her enemy can be traced to German playwright Friedrich Hebbel. He stated that “I have no use for the biblical Judith. There, Judith is a widow who lures Holofernes into her web with wiles, when she has his head in her bag she sings and jubilates with all of Israel for three months. That is mean, such a nature is not worthy of her success.”
These complaints and the subsequent alterations to Judith’s tale reveal the deep sexism of the authors. It’s not “nice” for Judith the cunningly talk her way into an enemy camp, kill the general and then walk out in triumph. This assertion would have stronger merit if the authors had said the same thing about Ehud, the canonical warrior judge who cunningly talks his way into an enemy stronghold, kills the king and then walks out in triumph.
I’m waiting… (crickets)
Nope, we only get this handwringing about Judith. You know those females. The sensitive, emotional creatures cannot possibly play the heroine without getting all sad.
Let me emphasize that I am very much in favor of giving historical and legendary figures complicated motivation. However, it is very clear that the nineteenth and twentieth-century interpreters of Judith’s tale were not interested in making her character complicated. They were uncomfortable with a woman expressing her power on what they considered to be a man’s turf.
This discomfort is likely the reason for Judith’s rather staid portrayal in fine art. She is often shown with the head of her enemy after the deed was done and when she is portrayed in the act of killing, she seems rather bored with the whole business. It cannot be a coincidence that Artemesia Gentileschi (a rare female painter in Renaissance Italy) was one of very few artists to portray Judith as vital, healthy, deadly and very much dedicated to her assassination.
Warning: Fine art representations of mayhem and millineria.
Griffith was, if nothing else, a product of the Gilded Age and it is hardly surprising that he would take the sappier version of Judith as his text. However, he does not lose track of the idea that he is on semi-holy ground. And this is the second biggest problem with the film.
When making a film about a hero or a holy person, there is a difficult balance that must be maintained. The character must be human but they must also be portrayed as remarkable. Quite often in silent films, directors would portray this by having their main characters randomly look heavenward with flared nostrils.
This is the approach that Griffith and Blanche Sweet take. I am a big fan of Sweet’s work but felt that she really overplayed her hand here. Her character’s motivation is opaque but surely she could have done something to act a little more human. In contrast, Mae Marsh is very moving in her plight but Marsh could play that sort of role backwards with her eyes closed.
For my money, the performers who come off the best are Henry B. Walthall and Kate Bruce. Walthall is best remembered for his leading role in The Birth of a Nation but he had been with Griffith for years before that. Walthall’s performances are often hit-or-miss for me. He tends to flail his arms and lurch awkwardly at the camera at the most inopportune moments. However, he really owns the role of the arrogant Holofernes and sold me on his ruthless personality. Perhaps his performance was too good as it makes Judith’s love for him all the more unlikely.
Typecast as Griffith’s resident mom, Kate Bruce could be fierce when called upon (see Ramona). I always suspected there was a versatile and lively performer hidden under all those saintly and often dying mothers. Bruce’s Marah proves my suspicions. Dour and with a glint of fanaticism, it is Marah who urges her mistress on and who ultimately ensures that Judith’s mission is accomplished.
As for the rest of the cast, Robert Harron comes off as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Lillian Gish is decidedly smug. Dorothy Gish gets shoved in the background somewhere. So par for the Griffith course, I think.
I cut our director some slack for this all being new and whatnot but I found the fight scenes to be rather tedious. Basically, two bands of bearded extras wave their swords in the air, no one can tell which side is which and we get shots of the city walls. Yawn.
So, how does Judith of Bethulia hold up? Not extremely well. The plot is oddly paced, the heroine’s motivation is ridiculous, the performances are inconsistent. Still, there is enough good stuff to make this worth watching, especially for the Griffith completist. Film historian William K. Everson said it best when he described the picture as both disappointing and fascinating.
The film clocks in at a little under an hour. It’s worth seeing but don’t get your hopes up.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
Judith of Bethulia is available on DVD from Alpha and the disc is pretty wretched. The image is soft and some of the title cards are cropped off, plus a painful canned score. However, it is cheap. You can get a copy for a buck or two. I recommend getting the Reelclassicdvd release, which features a far superior print and a very suitable custom score by John Mucci.