There’s malice in the royal palace when King David’s hottest son, Absalom, decides to stage himself a little coup de tat. Lots of stencil-colored Biblical war in this impressive French production.
This is my contribution to the Costume Drama Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. Be sure to read the other reviews!
Bad hair day
Biblical subjects were quite popular in the early days of silent film. At a time when the entire art was being attacked for encouraging criminal activity and general lawlessness, stories from the Good Book were essentially censor-proof and would attract audiences that might have otherwise avoided the theater.
Biblical films also fulfilled the desire for bigger, grander, more epic productions. Italy correctly receives a lot of credit for pioneering epic filmmaking but all of the major production centers were trying their hand at historical subjects with splendid costumes, extra-heavy battles and even location shoots.
Henri Andréani directed a series of religious films for Pathé Frères, most in the years leading up to the First World War. Not many of his pictures are available for viewing but he seemed to take a completist approach to his subject and tackled both popular and familiar topics (Moses Saved from the Waters) as well as deeper dives into the book of Judges (Jael and Sisera looks particularly tempting).
Absalom falls into the latter category. Considering his importance in major religions, King David doesn’t have nearly the box office draw or cinematic longevity of Moses, the undisputed champion of Old Testament cinematic leads. (You could argue the point but movie nerds are saying “Let my people go!” and not whatever Gregory Peck said in David and Bathsheba.) And Absalom, while incredibly popular for poetic titles, is not such an appealing character for filmmakers, it seems.
For those of you unfamiliar with Absalom, here is the very brief skinny: Absalom was so handsome that he basically caused fainting wherever he went and his boasted some of the most luxuriant locks in all the land. “But in all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty: from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him.”
The film skips over quite a few events and gets right down to the business of rebellion, telescoping a bit and making Absalom jealous of his half-brother, Solomon, and deciding to seize the throne from his father, King David. (Absalom’s full sister, Tamar, was raped by his half-brother, Amnon. Absalom murdered Amnon. This is all hand-waved away in a title card but audiences of the time would have likely been familiar with the full story.)
Absalom wages a charm offensive to try to win over the populace and then, assisted by traitorous Ahithophel, prepares for a shooting war with his father with the crown of Israel as the prize. David is forced to flee Absalom’s superior forces but he has a trick up his royal sleeve. David has his friend Hushai feign allegiance to the rebellion and act as a spy and saboteur.
Absalom heads out to crush forces loyal to David but Hushai gives them a heads up and it is Absalom who is crushed. Per biblical custom, Absalom attempts to flee, is caught in a tree by his lush locks and is stabbed three times by Joab despite David’s orders that his son not be harmed. (Without getting too deep in the weeds, that is so Joab.) David loudly mourns his son and the film ends.
Well, I have to say that I had a lot of fun with this one! The cast list doesn’t seem to be complete but I must give kudos to the performer who plays Ahithophel. He blusters and shouts and generally swallows the scenery whole. It’s the sort of giant performance we would expect from, say, Wallace Beery in the next decade of filmmaking. And Joab is exactly as stabby as we could wish, gleefully punching darts into Absalom’s mid-section.
Speaking of Absalom, do you think he qualifies as blemish-free beauty? Please vote in the poll below!
The battle is rather impressively shot. At first, a few soldiers trickle across the screen and a viewer would be forgiven for wondering if Pathé cheaped out on extras. And then an invisible dam breaks and extras stream before the camera. I am not sure if the scene was designed to play out this way but I am certainly glad that it did. Now I want to see how Pathé handled Jael and Sisera! (Cliff’s Notes: Enemy general + warm milk + fit lady + tent peg = a rather gory end!)
In general, Andréani keeps his scenes crammed with people and some of them are very nicely framed (Absalom addressing the people of Jerusalem, for example). It looks like a fair amount of money was spent on the production, though it should be noted that since there was a whole series of these pictures, the sets and costumes could be recycled between pictures.
With movie costuming, I tend to worry less about absolute perfection and more about capturing the general feel of an era and I feel that Absalom does a wonderful job. It’s all fringed robes and gladiator sandals and patterned textiles and I am living for it. It looks like an engraved illustration come to life.
My one regret is that a stencil-colored print is not available. According to trade magazines, Absalom was released in the United States as A Prince of Israel and its stencil color was prominently featured as a draw. The battle scenes would have likely benefited from the addition of color because it’s a bit challenging to see which side is which. Incidentally, if you wanted to rent this picture for your American movie theater in 1912, it would set you back $10 or about $250 when adjusted for inflation.
(Harpodeon has other films in this series available with color. Here’s a sample from David and Goliath.)
But in general, Absalom is an impressive mini-epic that manages to cover a lot of ground in its brief runtime. (The version I saw lasted just 13 minutes, give or take.) It’s exciting and reasonably easy to follow even if you are unfamiliar with the succession wars of Israel. It’s also a great showcase of what filmmakers were capable in the early 1910s. It’s not stodgy thanks to its enthusiastic cast. I had a good time with it and I think you will too.
Where can I see it?
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