Essays in Film Criticism, History, and Aesthetics
© Cambridge University Press 1988
Judith of Bethulia (1913) was D. W. Griffith’s first feature-length film. Griffith devoted extraordinary energy and attention to its making. Indeed, he broke irrevocably with the Biograph management, for whom he had directed over five hundred short films, by his refusal to shorten it or to release it as two separate two-reelers. The last film of Griffith’s long and productive association with Biograph, it remained, in his own estimation, one of his very best films.
Everything points to the conclusion that Judith of Bethulia is a key film in Griffith’s career. Indeed, it is a film of considerable compositional complexity, thematic directness, and cinematic artistry. In addition, it highlights a fundamental strain in Griffith’s filmmaking, perhaps carrying it to the furthest extreme of any of his films. Thus, Judith of Bethulia helps provide a perspective on Griffith’s work as a whole. Yet the film has received virtually no critical attention.
I shall proceed by first sketching the film’s narrative (the division into sections is my own).
I. Idyllic Prologue: The film begins with a prologue depicting the life of the peaceful community of Bethulia. The first shots are of the well outside the city’s walls. We see, for example, the innocent flirting of the young lovers, Naomi and Nathan (Mae Marsh and Robert Harron). Then the stout walls of the city are shown, and only then the marketplace within the walls of the city. Judith, the widow of the hero Manasses, is introduced. This prologue ends with a shot of the great “brazen gate” that guards the entrance to the city.
II. The Assyrian Threat: The Assyrians, led by Prince Holofernes, capture Bethulia’s well. Naomi is among the prisoners taken. The Assyrians attempt to storm the walls, but are repelled. In the Assyrian camp, Holofernes is enraged. He is not placated by the bacchanalian revel staged to please him. There is then a renewed all- out attempt to storm the city’s walls and penetrate its gate. A pair of shots (one of the defenders and one of the attackers) is repeated three times, then followed by a shot of Judith watching and then a shot of Holofernes waiting. Then a new pair of shots of defenders and attackers – closer and more dynamic – is intercut with the shot of Judith, now visibly more excited, and the shot of the intent Holofernes. We then get still closer and more violent shots of defenders and attackers, and a wild fusillade of shots encompassing all the setups thus far used in the sequence. Finally the shot of Judith is followed by the image of a giant battering ram brought into place against the gate. Yet the gate holds.
III. The Siege: Holofernes takes counsel. The Assyrians lay Bethulia under siege. There are scenes of suffering within Bethulia (for example, doling out water to thirsty Bethulians). The people come to Judith, imploring her to lead them. She is in despair, but then she has a vision of “an act that will ring through the generations.” (We are not shown Judith’s vision.) She dons sackcloth and ashes and then bedecks herself in her “garments of gladness.” At the Assyrian camp, Holofernes takes out his impatience and frustration on his captains. Judith, veiled, leaves for the Assyrian camp to carry out her mysterious plan.
IV. The Seduction: Judith enters Holofernes’ tent and begins the process of seducing him. Enticingly evading his touch, she finally leaves his tent (“… his heart ravished with her”). There is prayer in the Bethulian marketplace. Holofernes’ eunuch comes to Judith’s tent to announce that Holofernes is ready to see her and that she should prepare herself. A title tells us what we can in any case see: Judith is aroused by the prospect of the impending encounter. Shots of Holofernes are intercut with other shots: Judith in excited anticipation; a desperate Pickett’s Charge—like attempt by the Bethulians to reach the well, leading to renewed fighting at the walls; the separated Naomi and Nathan. Holofernes dismisses his erotic slave dancers (“… Famous Fish Dancers from the illustrious Temple of Nin”). Judith, faltering in her resolve, catches sight of her loyal old retainer and prays for strength. The eunuch summons Judith. In Holofernes’ tent, Judith seductively entices Holofernes to drink, refilling his chalice until he collapses, dead drunk. Seeing him helpless, she hesitates, momentarily cradling his head. Then Griffith cuts to images of dead Bethulians, fallen in the attempt to retake the well, and suffering in the marketplace of Bethulia. Griffith cuts back to Judith, who raises Holofernes’ sword to strike; then Griffith cuts to the exterior of the tent.
V.The Bethulians’ Triumph: When the Assyrians discover that their leader has been killed, there is chaos in their ranks. In the marketplace of Bethulia, Judith triumphantly unwraps the severed head of Holofernes. The Bethulian soldiers, transformed, pour out of the city’s gate, defeat the Assyrians, and raze their camp. Naomi and Nathan are reunited.
VI. Epilogue: Judith passes through the marketplace. The Bethulians bow before her. She walks out of the frame.
Any discussion of Judith of Bethulia might well begin with a reflection on the character of Judith, in particular, her sexuality. In the context of Griffith’s work, Judith’s sexuality is noteworthy in two general ways: its “womanliness” and its “manliness.” In contrast, for example, to Lillian Gish’s “girls,” Judith is very much a woman, although Blanche Sweet was only fifteen years old at the time. Judith’s womanliness has three aspects.
1. Judith’s womanly beauty. Griffith presents Judith’s womanly beauty directly to the viewer. Griffith gives us images of Judith that are neither his Victorian “Madonna” idealizations nor his patented depictions of “dear” girlish behavior (jumping up and down with enthusiasm, and the like). Nor are they the “familiar” representations so common in Griffith’s work (the presentation of Nathan and Naomi is, in this sense, “familiar,” with the camera asserting a patriarchal authority over its subjects, exposing their tender cores, treating them as children). In the shots of Judith in sackcloth and ashes, the usual dematerializing effect of Griffith’s makeup is eliminated in shots that anticipate Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc in their acknowledgment that a woman’s face is covered with skin. Certain shots of Judith preparing to seduce Holofernes, and engaged in that seduction, reflect a frank acknowledgment (again, rare in Griffith s images of women) that a woman has a body made from flesh that includes, say, armpits and breasts.
2. Judith’s knowledge of sexuality. Complementing Judith’s beauty are her knowledge and mastery of every stage of seduction. Her womanly confidence in her own sexuality is manifest in her peacocklike strutting, dressed in her “garments of gladness” in the full ensemble, her beauty enticingly veiled, and in the knowing way she parts her veil. Judith’s hands, especially, become instruments of seduction. The focus on hands, effected by the use of the frame line as well as costuming and gesture, is one of the main strategies of the film. Judith’s womanhood is expressed in her hands, and Holofernes’ manhood is concentrated in his. For example, when he comes to the entrance of Judith’s tent, he enters the frame hands-first. When Judith enters his tent for the first time, each stage of the seduction is registered in a pose or gesture of their hands. The erotically charged images of Holofernes’ hand reaching for Judith’s tantalizingly withheld hand are intercut with the Bethulians, begging for water, imploringly holding out their hands. When Judith kills Holofernes, his death is registered by the cessation of movement of his hands (shades of Hitchcock’s Blackmail). It is Judith’s hands, now transformed, that wield the sword.
3. Judith’s desire. When the Assyrians make their all-out attempt to penetrate the great brazen gate, the battle is imaged in clearly sexual terms as an attempted rape: Bethulia is, as it were, a woman threatened with violent penetration. The title summing up the sequence makes the underlying parallel all but explicit: “Yet Holofernes could not batten down the brazen gate nor make a single breach. The climax of the sequence is the appearance of the terrible, revelatory image of the giant battering ram. The shots of fighting, cut in a crescendo of intensity, are intercut with repeated shots of Holofernes waiting in his tent and Judith watching the battle from her window. The shots of Judith and Holofernes are linked in their composition.
Throughout the film, in fact, the left side of the frame tends to be dominated by either Judith’s presence or Holofernes’ presence, implying the bond between them.
The spectacle, climaxing in the image of the battering ram, fills Judith with ever-increasing excitement. When Judith subsequently places herself in Holofernes’ hands, pretending to offer herself, but really meaning to kill him, she finds herself sexually drawn to his majestic, bull-like presence. He has inflamed her passion even before they meet. Despite Judith’s intentions, she is sorely tempted not to kill Holofernes but to make passionate love to him. It is not that, in her intoxication with her enemy, she is motivated by the idea that he is good (as is, for example, the Mountain Girl, infatuated with Belshazzar, in the Babylonian story of Intolerance}. A title declares.”… And Holofernes became noble in Judith’s eyes,” but Griffith is using “noble” in accordance with the pseudobiblical language characteristic of most of the titles in the film (“Nathan could scarce refrain from going to the succor of Naomi” is among the more risible examples) and means nothing more than “splendid.” In Holofernes’ tempting presence, Judith does not think in moral terms at all, and it is not any idea of marriage or family that inflames her.
That the wiles of the “paint-and-powder brigade” have the power to tempt and/or deceive good men is a basic fact of life in Griffith’s narrative universe. It is the strategy of these worldly women to excite eligible men, while at the same time presenting a falsely innocent face to the world. In True Heart Susie (1919), William is disillusioned when he learns Bettina’s true nature. It is perhaps only in The White Rose (1923) — arguably the Griffith film that is most fully worked out thematically – that Griffith presents a good man inflamed by the erotic presence of a woman he knows to be “bad.” But the presentation of the good Judith drawn to the splendid yet brutal Holofernes is perhaps unique in all of Griffith’s films in its acknowledgment, and acceptance, of the dark side of a woman’s sexual desire.
Judith is every inch a woman, yet the second noteworthy aspect of her sexuality is that the people of Bethulia call upon her to act as their leader – that is, as Griffith understands it, to assume a man’s role. While Judith watches the spectacle of the battle, she is visibly aroused, as though part of her desires the Assyrians’ penetration. But she is also racked with guilt. She wants to answer the Bethulians’ call, but she feels powerless to lead them in battle. It is in this state, compounded of arousal and despair, that Judith has her first vision – a vision that, significantly, Griffith withholds from the viewer, although the presentation of holy visions is one of his specialties (as witness, for example. The Avenging Conscience, Home Sweet Home, and even The Birth of a Nation}.
Acting on her vision, Judith puts on her “garments of gladness” and goes to Holofernes as though she were his bride. To complete her envisioned act, she must harden herself, conquering her own desire. Thus, a fateful struggle takes place in Holofernes’ tent. How is the outcome of this struggle determined?
Providentially, Judith catches sight of her loyal old retainer. This is nicely presented in a deep-focus shot with Judith in the left foreground, the retainer in the background, and a smoking censer in the right foreground. Visually, the censer is linked with the well outside Bethulia’s gate – directly by its shape and inversely by the water/fire opposition that runs through the film. This shot is intercut with the representation of a simultaneous event: the ambush of a group of brave Bethulians who try to draw water from the captured well. This kind of crosscutting in Griffith’s work implies a virtual psychic connection. Although Judith cannot actually see this display of barbarism, the sight of the retainer at this moment is functionally equivalent to such a view, serving to make Judith mindful of her people’s suffering. A spasm of disgust passes through Judith – disgust for her own body sinfully drawn to the agency of her people’s suffering, I take it. She prays to the Lord for strength.
Judith talks Holofernes into dismissing his eunuch so that she can be his sole “handmaid” for the night. Alone with Holofernes in his tent, she finds herself again inflamed with desire. Repeatedly, she fills his chalice and goads him into drinking himself into a state of intoxication. For a moment, she cradles his head in her arms, but then a second vision comes to her. The cinematographer Karl Brown describes this moment:
His highest objective, as nearly as 1 could grasp it, was to photograph thought. He could do it too. I’d seen it. In Judith of Bethulia, there was a scene in which Judith stands over the sleeping figure of Holofernes, sword in hand. She raises the sword, then falters. Pity and mercy have weakened her to a point of helpless irresolution. Her face softens to something that is almost love. Then she thinks, and as she thinks, the screen is filled with the mangled bodies of those, her own people, slain by this same Holofernes. Then her face becomes filled with hate as she summons all her strength to bring that sword whistling down upon the neck of what is no longer a man but a blood-reeking monster.
Actually, what Griffith shows here is not, as it were, natural thought, but a God-given vision. When Judith is transformed by this second vision, the manhood passes out of Holofernes’ hands and animates hers. In Griffith’s imagery, the city of Bethulia itself undergoes a parallel sexual metamorphosis. The climactic image of the rout of the Assyrians is a shot of the triumphant Bethulians pouring out of the brazen gate. In reversal of the earlier images of Bethulia as a woman, Griffith here images the city as a potent man. Judith of Bethulia centers on the dramatic struggle within Judith — spiritual, yet imaged in sexual terms and mirrored by the armed struggle between the Bethulians and the Assyrians — to perform an act that appears to deny her womanly nature. How can this struggle, and specifically its triumphant and liberating resolution, be reconciled with the affirmation, fundamental to Griffith’s work, of an order in which sexuality can be fulfilled naturally only through love within a marriage?
To begin to answer this question, it is necessary to reflect on Griffith’s understanding of the natural history of a woman. When a woman grows from an infant and baby and becomes a girl, she simultaneously starts to play with dolls and begins to develop (at first unaware) the ability to attract men. When she comes of age and blossoms into a young woman, the change is twofold. Unless tutored in the wily ways of the paint-and-powder brigade (as is, for example, Mae Marsh in The White Rose; Lillian Gish, by contrast, is constitutionally unable to master the simplest wile), she continues to act in public as a girl. But she knows that her girlishness now veils her womanhood, a mystery never to be betrayed.
In defending her “trust” — her virgin womanhood — she is prepared to fight like a man. Only within the privacy and sanctuary of a marriage may she reveal herself as a woman. Her mystery now revealed, what follows naturally is that she becomes transformed into a mother. Her womanhood fulfilled, her trust now passes from her own body to the walls of her home, which enclose and protect her baby, as her womb once did. Evil threatens, no longer rape, but its equivalent, violence to her baby. Now she will fight like a man to protect her home.
The paint-and-powder brigade is made up of women who display their womanhood in public, although what they reveal is not womanhood in all its mystery and beauty but only a monstrous caricature: When a woman betrays her trust, she loses her true beauty. It follows logically that womanliness in Griffith’s films – unlike girlishness, manliness, or motherhood – is ordinarily invisible, or at least out of bounds for the camera. How can womanliness be filmed, without violating its sanctity? But then what makes Griffith’s presentation of Judith possible?
As a childless widow, Judith is no longer a girl, and she is no virgin: She has been initiated into the life of marriage, has revealed her womanhood and given her trust. (If a Griffith virgin were granted Judith’s vision, she would not understand it.) Yet she remains childless, denied that natural fulfillment of a woman.
Is Holofernes the man who can fulfill Judith? Griffith takes great pains to present Holofernes as a majestic figure. In general, Griffith’s visual treatment of men, the ways in which his camera differentiates among, for example, Henry Walthall, Robert Harron, Richard Barthel- mess, Lionel Barrymore, Donald Crisp, Joseph Schildkraut, Ivor Novello, and Walter Huston, is as crucial to his filmmaking as his treatment of women. It was no mean feat to transform slight Henry Walthall into such an imposing figure. This is attested to by Karl Brown. At his first meeting with Billy Bitzer, the cinematographer of Judith of Bethulia, Bitzer at first scoffed when Brown offered himself as an assistant. As Bitzer and Griffith were about to depart. Brown pleaded: “‘Please, Mr. Bitzer! I know I’m not wanted, but before you go, will you please tell me how you managed to make Hank Walthall look so big in Judith of Bethulia?’ He stopped and stared at me. I continued recklessly. ‘… If you’ll please tell me, I won’t ever bother you any more, honest I won’t.’ His face softened into kindness. ‘Sure, be glad to. But it’ll take a little time. Report for work at nine tomorrow and I’ll show you what you have to do.'”
Holofernes bull-like majesty and the power of his armies — crystallized in the image of the giant battering ram – arouse Judith. If Holofernes is fully a man – one who can take the place of her dead husband – then he can fulfill Judith in the natural way, and she need not carry out her plan. But, of course, Holofernes does not pass this test. If he were fully a man, he would have succeeded in penetrating the gate of Bethulia.
When Judith succeeds in enticing Holofernes to drink himself into a stupor, she knows that he cannot satisfy her. (For Griffith, any man who drinks to intoxication always thereby exposes a weakness of character that is also a sexual weakness.) Her realization of her power over him shatters the illusion of Holofernes’ manhood and frees Judith from her temptation.
For a moment, she cradles his sleeping head in her arms, as if her womanly nature tempts her to view him as the child she so passionately desires, or to imagine bearing his child. This temptation cannot be defeated by any display of power over him, but only by another God-given vision: a vision of the death and suffering that Holofernes has wrought on Bethulia.
Once Holofernes’ monstrousness is exposed, Judith’s womanhood no longer protects him from her. She becomes transformed. Wielding the sword like a man, she slays the monster and cuts off his head, symbolically castrating him. (Like Judith’s first vision, this unnatural act is not — cannot be — framed by Griffith’s camera.) When she displays the severed head in the marketplace, she acts as Bethulia’s triumphant leader, revealing – to her people and to us – that she has assumed her dead husband’s place. This revelation is the climax of the film.
By surrendering herself to her visions, Judith assumes a woman’s role, as Griffith understands it, in relation to the power that grants her vision. The moment at which she unmasks Holofernes, the moment at which she gives herself completely to this higher power, is the moment of her fulfillment as a woman. Yet, paradoxically, this is also the mo¬ ment at which she performs a man’s act, is transformed into a man. This paradox is fundamental to Griffith’s understanding of what it is to be a woman. When her trust is threatened, a true woman reveals that she possesses a man within her.
The man within Judith is Manasses. But although their marriage proves still to be alive, does it remain issueless? Is she left unfulfilled as a woman after all? The film’s answer is that Judith’s act gives life to the city itself. Judith has become the mother of Bethulia.
Reborn, the city is transformed. Bethulia’s soldiers have at last become men: They storm out of the city’s gate to rout the disordered Assyrian forces. Naomi and Nathan are reunited, their fruitfulness assured. This rebirth in turn transforms Judith. Her transformation is reflected in the final shot of the film. In the marketplace, within Bethulia’s walls, she passes into, through, and out of the frame. No one looks directly at her. Everyone bows before her. She no longer lives in the city, whose inhabitants are now all as her children. She dwells in a higher realm. She is no longer even the camera’s subject.
This final shot invokes the characteristic closing of a Griffith film: a family united within its home – except, of course, that at the end of Judith of Bethulia the mother and father are both absent from the frame. This final shot also completes the series of equations between Judith’s sexuality and the city of Bethulia. Bethulia is no longer a woman threatened by violation, and no longer a man; it is finally a home (whose walls are the symbolic equivalent of its mother’s fulfilled sexuality).
Thus, the film’s dramatic struggle is articulated in terms that are, after all, consistent with the laws of Griffith’s narrative universe, and the character of Judith can be accounted for in Griffithian terms. Nonetheless, the film’s drama, particularly in its resolution, remains extraordinary in Griffith’s work. This is reflected in the fact that Judith’s act, though inspired by holy visions, is in no sense Christian.
The general point that the film’s resolution is not Christian — is, indeed, specifically pre-Christian – is crucial to understanding the place of this film in Griffith’s work. Judith of Bethulia is Griffith’s major Old Testament film.
The grounding of Judith of Bethulia in Old Testament tradition and morality is everywhere manifest. The central strategy of identifying a woman’s sexuality with a city, for one thing, is familiar from the Old Testament. But also, the outcome of Judith’s struggle is not that she softens and forgives Holofernes, redeeming the tyrant through love; her act of retribution for her people’s suffering equals Holofernes’ acts in its harsh cruelty. The film’s eye-for-eye spirit may be seen, at one level, to determine the system of doubling — with symbolic equivalences and reversals — so characteristic of the film. The Assyrians cut off Bethulia from its water supply, and their tents are razed by flames. Holofernes attempts to penetrate Bethulia’s gate with his battering ram, and Judith slays him with the sword. Judith’s retainer doubles Holofernes’ eunuch. And so on. This system of doubling in turn is linked to the doubling of the Judith/Holofernes and the Judith/Manasses pairs, and by the doubling of both by the Naomi/Nathan pair, by the doubling of the city and its captured well, and, most important, by the doubling of Judith and Bethulia.
Judith’s consciousness serves as a field of battle for higher forces; up to a point, this reflects the general Griffith dramaturgy, laid out most explicitly in Dream Street (1921). Under the all-seeing Morning Star, the symbolic drama of Dream Street unfolds, motivated by the figures of the demonic violinist (whose mask of sensual beauty hides a face only an orthodontist could love) and a beatific preacher. The former’s mad fiddling has the power to whip mortals into a Dionysian frenzy, whereas the latter’s calm voice speaks in Apollonian strains.
The pre-Christian world of Judith of Bethulia, however, has no Morning Star to oversee it. This world is ruled by the Hebrew deity, who calls upon Judith to perform an act of violence, not an act of forgiveness; to harden, not soften.
Judith’s motherhood is unnatural, for Griffith, in the sense that it is not Christian. It is perhaps only in Abraham Lincoln (1930) that Griffith presents a heroic act true to both Old Testament and New Testament morality: The modern-day Abraham gives birth to a nation, not through a liberating, triumphant, but unnatural sexual fulfillment, but through a Christian act of sacrifice.
The presentation of an un-Christian act as heroic is unusual in Griffith’s work, but it does not in itself undermine the Christian identity of Griffith’s camera. In telling this story of a pre-Christian world, Griffith’s camera is freed from certain constraints, because the characters are not Christians, but other constraints remain. Thus, Griffith can film Judith in all her womanliness without betraying his principles, but he cannot show us her vision of the act that will “ring through the generations,” or the unnatural act itself.
Of course, by refraining from showing us that vision or that act, Griffith at the same time strongly serves the interests of his narrative, investing the film with a central enigma (What is Judith planning to do?) and suspending its solution (What has Judith done?), intensifying the film’s climax.
Thus, although Griffith does not violate his Christian morality in the depiction of Judith’s struggle and the resolution of that struggle, that morality does not by itself account for the film, for the nature of Griffith’s implication in this pre-Christian world (and the implication of his camera) remains to be determined. But that determination cannot be achieved apart from a critical account of the relationship, in Griffith’s work, between his Christian moralizing and his violent eroticism. The latter emerges in a uniquely pure form in Judith of Bethulia, in part because it is his major film that asserts no Christian moral. But Griffith could never, in any case, negate his violent eroticism simply by asserting a moral. The tense and complex relationship between these conflicting strains dominates Griffith’s work. It manifests itself in various guises: as an opposition between the theatrical and the poetic/transcendental; between the realistic and the dreamlike; between the representation and the symbolization of events; between the extreme linearity of the parallel-edited suspense sequences and a film’s organic composition as a whole. It is this tension, above all, that engenders the specific density and texture of Griffith’s films and accounts for their form.