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December 11, 2008

Silent Reflections – From the Manger to the Cross (1912)


From the Manger to the Cross is a chronological overview of significant events in the life of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels. A great popular success in its day, the film holds little dramatic or visual interest for today’s audiences, even among silent film enthusiasts. Its significance is in its place in film history. It is an important work of the transition period between the era of one and two reel pre-features, the years around 1910, and the feature era that had become established by the mid-1910s.

The film is six reels (about 70 minutes). The length alone makes it a very ambitious production by contemporary standards and the production company raised the stakes even more with extensive on-location shooting in Palestine. There is even a scene filmed in Egypt; to show the flight into Egypt, the holy family is pictured in the foreground of one shot with the pyramids in the background- and in a second shot in the shadow of the sphinx!

Such a grand production must have been a big financial gamble, although in the event it proved a sure commercial bet. There was a large market for a film with this subject waiting to be tapped and the filmmakers were attentive to their audience’s expectations; the film is pious and respectful. The filmmakers likely had artistic ambitions as well as commercial hopes, perhaps spurred by the impressive classical epics coming out of Italy or the nascent movement towards longer productions by rival American studios. It is tempting to read the film as a broadside fired against the critics, social activists, and local officials who continually assailed the respectability of the new entertainment medium. After all, what could be more respectable than a dramatized life of Jesus?

To watch From the Manger today is to be reminded that the course of development of the feature film was not predetermined. Artistically this film is an evolutionary dead-end; it is a Neanderthal where a competing work by Ince or Griffith is an early Homo Sapien.

The film is divided into sections: childhood, miracles, ministry, Last Supper, and so on. Each section has a prefatory title card, with the text written in all capitals against the background of an appropriate drawing. Sections are further divided into scenes showing topical incidents; for example, the section on ministry includes a scene showing Jesus expelling the moneylenders from the Temple. Like the sections, each scene is introduced by a prefatory title card. The text of the scene titles is written in upper and lower case against a black background. All of the scene titles are brief excerpts from the Gospels and are footnoted with the Gospel name and chapter and verse numbers of the source text. There are also some intra-scene descriptive and dialogue titles; these differ from the prefatory scene titles only in placement.

The overall effect resembles a picture book with animated drawings. As a genus, title cards that describe the action of the succeeding scene are not unique to this film; for example, they occur with some frequency in Griffith’s pre-features. Such cards are highly irksome in Griffith’s dramas, as they are in every film that undercuts the buildup of narrative suspense by telling the audience what it is about to see in the next scene. However, in From the Manger, the purpose and effect of the prefatory scene cards is quite different. While the film does tell a story in the sense that it is a chronological recitation of related events, it is misleading to describe it as a narrative drama. It is more accurate to describe From the Manger as a catechetical text. Each scene is freestanding and complete in itself; scenes within a section thematically connected as incidents illustrating a common topic. The film is closer in form and spirit to an illustrated children’s New Testament than it is to later dramatizations of the life of Jesus.

The similarity to a picture book is heightened by both scene composition and the direction of action within the scene. A typical scene opens with a shot of a dramatic tableau. The actors and props are carefully staged within the frame of the shot; Jesus is given a position of prominence in the arrangement. One character moves within the frame while the other characters remain stationary. The stationary characters may incline their heads or torsos or move their arms and hands, but occupy the same position in the arrangement throughout the scene. Movements and gestures are orchestrated to develop the illustrative meaning of the scene. Performance is not used to develop characterization or move the story along; those concepts are alien to the film’s structure and purpose.

The film’s visual qualities are not unique or indeed, in aspects like the proscenium arch framing of the shots, unusual for the period. However, the formal qualities work in concert with the film’s structure to make a distinctive end product.

The depiction of Jesus emphasizes his divinity. The actor, Robert Henderson-Bland, is an unusually tall man who practically towers over most of the cast. In addition, Jesus is consistently isolated within the figural arrangement of a scene; for instance, he is often placed to the side or at the forefront of a group and spaced apart from the group. His manner is generally aloof and restrained and often admonitory. The costuming further emphasizes the sense of distance from other people. Jesus is costumed in beautiful white robes with crisply pleated drapery. The others wear darker hued clothing and the disciples’ robes are comparatively rough and worn.

Note: From the Manger to the Cross is available on DVD from Image Entertainment with an appropriate pipe organ score. It is part of a two movie set with The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, Our Savior (1905).