Like a Holy Candle

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

There are four sorts of scenes alternated: (1) the particular history of Judith; (2) the gentle courtship of Nathan and Naomi, types of the inhabitants of Bethulia; (3) pictures of the streets, with the population flowing like a sluggish river; (4) scenes of raid, camp, and battle, interpolated between these, tying the whole together. The real plot is the balanced alternation of all the elements. So many minutes of one, then so many minutes of another. As was proper, very little of the tale was thrown on the screen in reading matter, and no climax was ever a printed word, but always an enthralling tableau.

The particular history of Judith begins with the picture of her as the devout widow. She is austerely garbed, at prayer for her city, in her own quiet house. Then later she is shown decked for the eyes of man in the camp of Holofernes, where all is Assyrian glory. Judith struggles between her unexpected love for the dynamic general and the resolve to destroy him that brought her there. In either type of scene, the first gray and silver, the other painted with Paul Veronese splendor, Judith moves with a delicate deliberation. Over her face the emotions play like winds on a meadow lake. Holofernes is the composite picture of all the Biblical heathen chieftains. His every action breathes power. He is an Assyrian bull, a winged lion, and a god at the same time, and divine honors are paid to him every moment.

Nathan and Naomi are two Arcadian lovers. In their shy meetings they express the life of the normal Bethulia. They are seen among the reapers outside the city or at the well near the wall, or on the streets of the ancient town. They are generally doing the things the crowd behind them is doing, meanwhile evolving their own little heart affair. Finally when the Assyrian comes down like a wolf on the fold, the gentle Naomi becomes a prisoner in Holofernes’ camp. She is in the foreground, a representative of the crowd of prisoners. Nathan is photographed on the wall as the particular defender of the town in whom we are most interested.

The pictures of the crowd’s normal activities avoid jerkiness and haste. They do not abound in the boresome self-conscious quietude that some producers have substituted for the usual twitching. Each actor in the assemblies has a refreshing equipment in gentle gesticulation; for the manners and customs of Bethulia must needs be different from those of America. Though the population moves together as a river, each citizen is quite preoccupied. To the furthest corner of the picture, they are egotistical as human beings. The elder goes by, in theological conversation with his friend. He thinks his theology is important. The mother goes by, all absorbed in her child. To her it is the only child in the world.

Alternated with these scenes is the terrible rush of the Assyrian army, on to exploration, battle, and glory. The speed of their setting out becomes actual, because it is contrasted with the deliberation of the Jewish town. At length the Assyrians are along those hills and valleys and below the wall of defence. The population is on top of the battlements, beating them back the more desperately because they are separated from the water-supply, the wells in the fields where once the lovers met. In a lull in the siege, by a connivance of the elders, Judith is let out of a little door in the wall. And while the fortune of her people is most desperate she is shown in the quiet shelter of the tent of Holofernes. Sinuous in grace, tranced, passionately in love, she has forgotten her peculiar task. She is in a sense Bethulia itself, the race of Israel made over into a woman, while Holofernes is the embodiment of the besieging army. Though in a quiet tent, and on the terms of love, it is the essential warfare of the hot Assyrian blood and the pure and peculiar Jewish thoroughbredness.

Blanche Sweet as Judith is indeed dignified and ensnaring, the more so because in her abandoned quarter of an hour the Jewish sanctity does not leave her. And her aged woman attendant, coming in and out, sentinel and conscience, with austere face and lifted finger, symbolizes the fire of Israel that shall yet awaken within her. When her love for her city and God finally becomes paramount, she shakes off the spell of the divine honors which she has followed all the camp in according to that living heathen deity Holofernes, and by the very transfiguration of her figure and countenance we know that the deliverance of Israel is at hand. She beheads the dark Assyrian. Soon she is back in the city, by way of the little gate by which she emerged. The elders receive her and her bloody trophy.

The people who have been dying of thirst arise in a final whirlwind of courage. Bereft of their military genius, the Assyrians flee from the burning camp. Naomi is delivered by her lover Nathan. This act is taken by the audience as a type of the setting free of all the captives. Then we have the final return of the citizens to their town. As for Judith, hers is no crass triumph. She is shown in her gray and silvery room in her former widow’s dress, but not the same woman. There is thwarted love in her face. The sword of sorrow is there. But there is also the prayer of thanksgiving. She goes forth. She is hailed as her city’s deliverer. She stands among the nobles like a holy candle.

Providing the picture may be preserved in its original delicacy, it has every chance to retain a place in the affections of the wise, if a humble pioneer of criticism may speak his honest mind.

— Vachel Lindsay

Related

  • Lindsay’s “The Art of the Motion Picture” is one of the essential movie books. Accessible here.
  • “Judith of Bethulia” was in many ways Griffith’s warm-up for the Babylonian sequences in his later “Intolerance.”

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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