• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Tuesday, September 12, 2006

    Sexual Politics in Esther and the King

    I watched Raoul Walsh's Esther and the King last night, at least in part as preparation for the forthcoming One Night With the King. I'll review it later, but I wanted to make some initial comments on the relationships within the film first. Some people might also be interested in some comments I posted on a number of other Esther films a while back.

    After years of biblical epics featuring male heroes, Hollywood finally realised that they could also reach out to a female audience by filming the stories regarding biblical heroines. Thus in 1960 both Esther and the King and The Story of Ruth came to the silver screen. Those titles in themselves speak of Hollywood's intent. Of course the female characters' names had made it into the titles of biblical epics as early as 1949, when DeMille kicked started the genre's renaissance with Samson and Delilah. However, in the earlier films, the women were very much second billing. This can be seen from the fact that the films frequently featured the male hero at the centre of a love triangle: Semadar - Samson - Delilah, Messalina - Demetrius - Lucia, Nefretiri - Moses - Zipporah / God's Law, and so on. Whilst there are a number of love triangles in Esther and the King, the most prominent by far is the one with Esther torn between her childhood sweetheart, Simon, and her king Ahasuerus. The Story of Ruth actually goes even further, giving Ruth sole billing, and romantic interest from 3 different men (Mahlon, Tob and Boaz).

    The love-triangle aspect of Esther and the King is crucial to the film's structure, characterisations and it's handling of the original texts, and so is quickly established. The opening scene starts not with Esther, but with Ahasuerus (who we already know will be romantically involved with Esther from prior knowledge of the story and the film's suggestive title).

    Ahasuerus is returning from battle and we see him part with his close friend Simon, who we quickly learn is betrothed to Esther. Hence the film's central tension is unveiled with marvellous economy. At the same time however, there is also some evidence for a homosexual tension in the relationship between Simon and Ahasuerus. They appear relaxed and intimate with each other, yet there is relative a lack of intimacy with Esther. In fact, even after Esther becomes Queen there is no indication that she and Ahasuerus have had sex. Furthermore, Ahasuerus's parting gift to Simon speaks volumes. Seeing Simon's small dagger, he teases him about it before handing him a greatly enlarged, golden sword. The phallic connotations of all this should be fairly obvious. It also forms a striking contrast with the poverty of his gifts of pearls to Esther later in the film.

    There is other evidence as well: Ahasuerus' immutable reaction to both his scantily clad daughters, and, ultimately, Vashti's striptease. Finally when the two meet in a fight scene towards the end of the film, Simon bears all the hallmarks of a spurned lover rather than an avenging one. It is tempting to add the presence of gay icon Joan Collins to this list as well, though I don't believe she had gained that status by this stage in her career.

    The sexual politics of the film are complicated further by its third scene. During Ahasuerus' absence, his queen (Vashti) has been having an affair with Haman. This turns the love-triangle in to something far more complex (a love W?) as follows

    Simon - Ahasuerus     Haman
           \       /            \     /
          Esther             Vashti

    The Vashti - Haman relationship is seemingly driven by nothing but power, yet it is important as it establishes the character of the key players for the rest of the films whilst providing mitigating circumstances for the more unpalatable aspects of the biblical text. In the original story, Ahasuerus summons Vashti, and then banishes her when she refused to come. Some scholars have suggested that when the text reads "bring Queen Vashti to him with the royal crown on her head. He wanted all the men to gaze on her beauty" it means only her crown. That interpretation would cast Ahasuerus in a very poor light and Vashti in a good one. Interestingly, the film turns that interpretation on its head. Vashti is barred from attending the feast, but comes anyway, and performs a striptease which is remarkably graphic considering it was made in 1960.

    Even without the above an understanding, Ahasuerus demanding his wife come and display herself as a (sexual) object is hardly conducive to the image of him the film-makers wish to portray. Hence the film adds this crucial scene, and Vashti is portrayed as an adulteress. The film then attempts to soften that damning portrayal by showing her striptease as a misguided act of repentance, and her murder by Haman's hitman. Hence the Ahasuerus's actions are justified by the film, and as a result, the audience sympathises with his plight, has some sympathy with Vashti, but utterly despises Haman. Haman for his part is depicted as a power crazed sexual predator, whose (attempted) conquests are a means for him to fortify his grip on the throne. His ultimate crime is not that of an attempted massacre of the Jews (which unwittingly includes Esther), but that of treason and the attempted murder of his king.



    << Home