Few directors are burdened with a more troubling legacy than D. W. Griffith. Though undeniable in importance and influence as one of the great innovators of the first few decades of the cinema’s existence, his reputation has been marred by the overtly racist contents of many of his most famous films. After all, his most infamous film The Birth of a Nation (1915)—originally entitled The Clansman—unapologetically lionizes the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. But his work’s racist overtones has overshadowed something equally worrying: his depiction of women. By and large Griffith’s heroines existed to be captured, threatened, brutalized, or killed by brutish man-beasts. Stretching back to the beginnings of his career—his very first film The Adventures of Dollie (1908) centered on a young girl being kidnapped by barbaric “gypsies”—Griffith’s women existed to suffer.
Perhaps this helps explain why his first feature film Judith of Bethulia (1914) seems so bizarre in retrospect. Based on the play by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the film tells the Apocryphal story of Judith, a widow who saved her city of Bethulia from Assyrian invaders by seducing and killing one of its generals. Played with admirable subtlety (at least by early twentieth century standards) by Blanche Sweet, Judith stands as a remarkably complex, three-dimensional heroine. Her struggle involves more than just the risk of death: she discovers, to her horror, that she finds the villainous general Holofernes (Henry Walthall) sexually attractive.
Tormented by the temptation of succumbing to her lust and abandoning her people and God, her fight becomes both an internal and external one; of conquering an adversary and of conquering herself. Her eventual slaying of Holofernes does more than save Bethulia, it saves her own soul from ruination. Additionally, Judith represents one of the few roles in silent cinema where a woman’s sexual charms are portrayed in a positive light. It is through her sexuality that she saves the day, not in spite of it.
Of course, Judith of Bethulia cannot be claimed a perfect film. One of Griffith’s greatest strengths had always been his succinctness; he could cram into one reel of film more story than many full-length modern motion pictures. However, galvanized by the success of other early feature films as Mario Caserini and Eleuterio Rodolfi’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) and J. Stuart Blackton’s The Life of Moses (1909), Griffith bends over backwards to stretch his story to a feature-length runtime. His solution: needless characters and subplots, the most egregious of these being a pointless cul-de-sac where Bethulian soldiers make a mad dash to gather water from captured wells only to be repelled by Assyrians.
Griffith would later find a sturdier solution to this problem: add more actual story. His later features Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), and yes, The Birth of a Nation, would justify their runtimes with larger, more sprawling narratives and more developed characters. But his women were never able to shake his fascination with their ruin and destruction.