The image above occurs near the end of what is for, for me, the finest shot in the film, and indeed one of the finest in any biblical film. It's from the scene in 1 Samuel 26 when David spares Saul's life for a second time. Only we don't yet know it. The previous shot of Saul's camp in the distance, it's lights twinkling in the darkness of the night fades into a slow panning shot of the hills. As the pan continues Saul's camp emerges in the foreground and the camera tracks past sleeping soldiers before pausing momentarily on Abner's face, and then on Saul who lies asleep with his water jug at his side. It pans again along Saul's body until it encounters his javelin and the feet of someone standing over him. A slow pan upwards reveals the face of David. It's a sublime shot, not quite on a par with Orson Welles' start to A Touch of Evil but certainly worthy of being mentioned in the same breath.
Director Marcello Baldi was a stalwart of Italian "Peplum" films. Other entries on his CV include Goliath and the Dragon (1960) and I grandi condottieri (1965 - a.k.a Gideon and Samson) so he was familiar with filming this type of material. (He also did a great deal of second director work). However here he transcends much of the cheesy Son of Hercules vs Venus type material to focus on the more intimate story of Israel's first two kings†.
The film relies largely on Norman Woodward's performance as the troubled king. Some have found the performance to be over the top, others have found it powerful and sympathetic, but certainly it is an intimate performance that tries to understand Saul's paranoia, desperation and faltering faith. Gianni Garko also puts in a good performance as David too. Outwardly he cuts a heroic figure, his blond good looks and confidence winning audiences as well as almost everyone who comes into contact with him. But Garko manages to convey a great deal with his eyes. Again the shot above displays both his love for Saul, but also his sorrow that his King still wishes him dead.
What's interesting about David's heroic stature is this was previously the role held by Saul. Few films really attempt to portray this, but Saul e David captures it brilliantly in the opening scene. As Saul arrives back at camp following his victory over the Amalekites the people swarm round him . It is clear he is their hero. Saul himself is seemingly swept away by their euphoria. When Saul arrives to chastise him for not following God's commands to the latter, Saul expresses his doubts that Samuel even hears God. The scene ends with Samuel declaring "you will grow smaller and smaller" and with that the film cuts to a series of quick shots of huge tents being collapsed as the army prepares to return home.
The heroic link between Saul and David is emphasised when the Saul first encounters the young shepherd boy. "You're the ghost of my boyhood come to mock me" mutters Saul to the blond, almost golden skinned, child that stands before him. David's puniness casts a stark contrast with Goliath in one of the rare occasions that a David film portrays the giant at what would seem to be around 9'6". It's also one of the bloodiest befellings of the man from Gath, with blood spurting almost comically from his forehead.
From then on the story focusses on Saul's obsession with David and his perceived threat and superiority. It's an intimate portrayal which really draws out the tension in Saul's family (Michal, Jonathan) which only serve to twist the knife.
†Technically, amongst the northern ten tribes Saul's remaining son Ish-bosheth was the second king, ruling for two years before he was ousted by David, but that doesn't flow as well. Interestingly there is a reference to this at the end of the film. As Ish-bosheth witnesses the battle being lost he reminds Abner of his promise to protect him which he does. As they ride away Saul's other sons are killed and Saul falls on his own sword.