Judith of Bethulia (D.W. Griffith / U.S., 1914):

D.W. Griffith devises the measure of the tale in two contrasting shots, the infant wrapped in Lillian Gish's shawl at the beginning and the king's severed head smuggled in a bag into the city before the climax. In between them is the cornerstone for Intolerance, which is itself the cornerstone for every other film that followed. Holofernes and his Assyrian armies arrive "unheralded, like some tornado loosed," Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote; Griffith has Henry B. Walthall in vast beard and helmet visualizing just that on the screen, enjoying the "bacchanalian activities" in his tent while the people of Bethulia are trapped and parched behind fortified walls. Judith (Blanche Sweet) ponders the wretched spectacle and, facing the camera as "a vision comes from the Lord," lets her entire body stretch with inspiration. Swathed in "garments of gladness," she infiltrates the enemy camp to offer herself to Holofernes; wine brings down the ruler, a flash of doubt crosses Judith's face as the sword is raised but cross-cutting views of her decimated people conquer her indecision. (The decapitation offers a dash of Caravaggio, and was studied closely by Hitchcock and De Mille.) Griffith's genius for clashes is still formative, the concluding battle is staged at a crossroads as a tableau of sustained choreography -- slightly high-angled camera, masses rushing diagonally, screen filling up with smoke. Editing, meanwhile, is reserved for emotional linkage: Mae Marsh lies shackled in the prisoners' tent, her beloved (Robert Harron) sighs by his spear, a cut sutures the two spiritually. Judith receives a heroine's welcome at Bethulia, but at Biograph Company the producers could only see the epic costs, so Griffith took off to Mutual Films for wider canvases, independence, and The Birth of a Nation. With Dorothy Gish, Kate Bruce, and Harry Carey. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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