Director: D.W. Griffith. Biograph.
Writers: D.W. Griffith, Grace Pierce, Frank E. Woods. Camera: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer.
Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Kate Bruce, Harry Carey.
Biblical tale, taken from the ‘Book of Judith’, that chronicles the efforts of widow Judith (Sweet) who, whilst her city of Bethulia is being attacked by an Assyrian army, hatches a plot to seduce their leader Holofernes (Walthall) and kill him when he’s intoxicated with her.
Titillating, mildly salacious and not entirely successful early stab at the epic format from Griffith who would very shortly nail this type of movie with aplomb.
Griffith had expanded the art and language of cinema during several years at Biograph film studios, where he churned out hundreds of short films, experimenting with camera, lighting and editing styles and developing a more naturalistic, psychological acting style with a stock company of stars.
This was a costly gamble and one that only paid dividends some time later. Biograph, comfortable with shorter, cheaper films, baulked at the budget and fired the man who had almost single handedly made their fortune. But, when Griffith wen independent with even longer films, the studio failed to move with the times and they soon went bankrupt.
Judith of Bethulia confirmed Griffith was made to handle longer films as he develops his mastery of crowds and cross-cutting between scenes to achieve effect.
Although the hand to hand combat scenes lacks finesse, the action as Bethulia comes under attack is 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 one the most popular performers during this era and maintained that success right through to the very early days of sound, but her performance here is aggravatingly melodramatic, the worst kind of theatrical overacting with explosive hand gestures, unnecessary swooning and eye-rolling.
Directors during the silent era would instruct their actors off-camera about 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 must be the most simply and arousing makeover in film 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.