• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Friday, March 26, 2010

    Sodom and Gomorrah (1962)

    Stephen Lang, in his "The Bible on the Big Screen", subtitles Robert Aldrich's Sodom of Gomorrah "Not the Sin We Expected". It's undoubtedly a fair point: the story of Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah lasts for only three chapters of Genesis (13, 14 and 19) - not much material for a 150 minute film - yet nearly all of the biblical story, including the moment for which the cities were judged, was somehow omitted.

    In fairness, attempted angel-rape was probably a little strong for the production code era, which forbade even the mention of homosexuality. That said, what the script writers were forced to leave out, the costuming department more than compensated for with a series of male tunics so short that they stretch little but the audience's credulity.

    The film starts at some point after the events of Genesis 13, indeed the story of Lot and Abraham's separation is told by a narrator a couple of minutes into the film. Lot is leading a large group of people through the desert and already he is facing dissent from within his own camp. The scene - which echoes the complaints Moses faced when the Israelites were in the desert - is the first of many nods to other stories from the Hebrew Bible and their cinematic interpretations. There are numerous debates about slavery, angry prophets, housebound leopards, enemies being drowned by waves, girls bathing in milk, fights won using slings and stones and chains falling off godly men.

    It's often been noted how Biblical epics have often sought to satisfy the audience's thirst for titillation and violence whilst simultaneously soothing any qualms they have about the material by including moments of piety and some form of "moral" conclusion. The wealth of biblical cross referencing perhaps also reflects the film's wealth of mildly erotic material. Given this tendency within epic films in general, it's hardly surprising that one about Sodom of Gomorrah takes it to extremes. Barely a scene goes by without a dance from a group of scantily clad women or some beefy man flexing his muscles.

    In fact the finished film betrays the likelihood that it was conceived primarily because of it's potential for titillating material. Lot is very much a minor figure in the Bible, and certainly no kind of hero. We first hear of him as he and his men are falling out with his uncle (Abraham), then he gets himself captured and needs Abraham to come and rescue him, before settling into a Godless city and only just managing to escape before it suffers and almighty smiting. There are various stories in Genesis which reflect badly on Abraham, but in his dealings with Lot he always comes out smelling of roses. But of course, the filmmakers must have reasoned, in the Bible Abraham is left out of the destruction of Sodom episode, so if we want to make a film about that, then we're going to have to make Lot the hero.

    To do this the story of Abraham rescuing Lot is missed out, the majority of the material inserted stresses Lot's morality and heroism and the story of Abraham bargaining with God over Sodom's fate is retold with Lot as the hero. The inserted material features a number of overlapping sub-plots: the queen of Sodom's brother is plotting to overthrow her using another tribe; the queen is seeking to protect her cities using Lot and the Hebrews; the queen's slave falls in love with Lot and becomes his wife; the queen's brother seduces Lot's daughters; and supposed anti-slavery of the Hebrews clashes with the Sodomites use and abuse of slaves to build their kingdom. In all the majority of these scenes Lot is portrayed as an anti-slavery, just, merciful, brave and principled leader, in stark contrast to the conniving, immoral Sodomites and their lesbian queen.

    The major exception comes towards the end of the film. The Hebrews defeat the enemy tribe, but their land has been destroyed so they turn to selling salt, make a huge profit and move into the city. But as they do so they begin to lose their principles. Lot is no exception to this compromise with Sodom, but comes to his senses after killing the queen's brother in a duel, being duly arrested and then visited and released by the two angels from Genesis 18 and 19.

    As a film Sodom of Gomorrah (also known as Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah leaves a good deal to be desired. It's overly campy, badly written and often hamily acted. But Mikos Rozsa's score is fine and the scenery (Aït Ben Haddou 20 miles outside Ouarzazete, Morocco) is often impressive. And there are at least two impressive moments. The scene where the Hebrews fight the Halamites is very well put together by a young Sergio Leone, demonstrating the potential that would blossom in his spaghetti westerns. The other is the film's opening shot (overlaid by the titles) where the camera pans over a mass of intermingled, semi-clad, restless bodies. It's strangely disorientating, particularly given the well known fate of the Sodomites, and captures the 'otherness' of the story which is about to unfold far better than the rest of the movie ever does.

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