It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that there are relatively few films about Israel’s most enigmatic monarch. There’s a collection of early silents of course, plus one or two other minor films such as the one made for the Greatest Heroes of the Bible series, but, for years, King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba (1959) was the only major film treatment of the story.
Thankfully, the Bible Collection did decide it was worth covering, and overall they have far outstripped Vidor’s film (which was little more than an orgy scene padded out with a trite storyline).
Perhaps the major reason for the film’s success is the quality of the acting.
This has been uneven across the Bible Collection as a whole. Whilst the series has used many well-known actors, these have generally been supported by relative unknowns. Rarely have these unknowns performed as well as they do here. Richard Dillane, Ivan Kaye, and Dexter Fletcher – all with only a handful to TV work to their names at the time of filming – are all impressive in the roles of Jeroboam, Adonijah and Rehoboam. Dillane is particularly good as Jeroboam who rises from labourer to Solomon’s closet confidant, and ultimately his successor.
The title role is played by Ben Cross, best known for his portrayal of another Jewish hero, sprinter Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire (1981).
Whilst, in real life, it is Abrahams’ counterpart, Eric Liddell, who is best remembered, it is actually Cross’s performance that makes the film so memorable. His burning intensity typifies the drive required of champion sprinters, and his smouldering, glowering stares manage, paradoxically, to leave the viewer both convinced that Abrahams will win whilst fearing that, somehow, he won’t.
Cross’s portrayal here is similarly complex, perfectly capturing a king famed for his wisdom, but crippled by his folly; loved for his vision, but blinded by love. His first few steps are uncertain, but he quickly finds his stride – the transformation is subtle yet utterly convincing. Later on, Solomon drifts away from his God, but the deterioration is depicted so gradually that it is impossible to work out where is really started to go wrong. At one point, Cross’s Solomon is so charismatic that it almost threatens to undo the logic of the narrative. He makes his case for religious tolerance so convincingly, that any social commentary intended by the filmmakers falls by the wayside.
But the film has many other strengths besides its acting. Roger Young has been at the helm for a number of The Bible Collection's best efforts including Moses and Jesus, and his direction is generally good here as well. For example, by placing less reliance on dialogue than looks and mannerisms, the Solomon-Queen of Sheba sub-plot is realised far more convincingly than the extra-biblical romances in many of the other Bible Collection films. At the same time, it is let down by being a little overlong. Whilst this was no doubt to emphasise the pivotal nature of this relationship, that is made quite clear by the following scenes, and the two together tend to hammer home the point a little too much.
What is surprising about these scenes is that they almost entirely eschew quotations from Song of Solomon, in favour of crass, but epic-sounding, dialogue such as "she is my missing arm. No, she is my entire body". Only one line from Song of Solomon stood out - "how much better are your kisses than wine?" Elsewhere, however, the film does a generally good job of incorporating Solomon’s writings into the narrative, thanks to Bradley T. Winter's strong script. The scene following Sheba’s departure, where Solomon recites several portions of the book of Ecclesiastes is particularly effective. There is also a fairly generous helping of proverbs. Thus the film links Solomon to his writings in the following order - Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes - in contrast to Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes which many favour. But then the Bible Collection series has always been good at taking an alternative look at things, and thankfully on this occasion this strength is more than matched by the strength of the film as a whole.