Judith of Bethulia (1914)
Director: D. W. Griffith
Cast: Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh
Synopsis: A religious woman seeks to save her people from destruction by seducing and murdering the enemy leader, but her plans get complicated once she falls for him.
By 1913, pioneering director D. W. Griffith was suffering the constraints imposed on him by Biograph’s refusal to allow him to produce feature-length movies. The studio believed no audience would be able to sit through a movie that lasted longer than the conventional two-reeler (about 20 minutes), but Griffith believed otherwise. So, he decamped from New York to California, giving Biograph the impression that he would produce six shorts. Once there, however, he began production of Judith of Bethulia. It was an act that would result in this being Griffith’s last movie for the studio. His next movie would be for another studio – Mutual – it would be a feature, and it would take the world by storm.
Today, Judith of Bethulia seemes mired in the melodramatics of the day. Although it tells the epic tale of Holoferne’s siege of Bethulia, the gateway to Jerusalem, there are long stretches in which very little seems to happen. Henry Walthall, sporting a voluminous beard, spends most of the movie lounging on a cushion as Holofernes, enjoying ‘Bacchanalian’ delights which amount to little more than a number of starlets performing particularly unconvincing shimmies that are supposed to be seductive. To save her townspeople from dying of thirst, Judith takes it upon herself to seduce Holofernes so that she can get close enough to kill him…
Although Judith of Bethulia was highly regarded in its day – Moving Picture World described it as ’a work of high artistry,’ when viewed today it looks like a dress rehearsal for the Babylonian sequence of Griffith’s Intolerance. The battle scenes look energetic, and are undoubtedly superior to other movies of the day, but the editing seems strangely rudimentary for a Griffith picture, and the film fails to absorb the viewer, even for a running time which, by today’s standards, is comparatively modest.
(Reviewed 23rd .September 2012)