• 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


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    Monday, September 14, 2009

    La Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba)

    Henri Andréani, Pathé, France, 1913, 19 mins
    One of the things that has changed as a result of the birth and growth of film is a universalising in standards of beauty. Whereas, in the past, curvy women were seen as the ideal in some cultures and but not in others, and different skin tones were championed from place to place, today such variety has largely disappeared and been replaced by a standardising of ideas as to what is and is not beautiful.

    This effect is something that is simply demonstrated by La Reine de Saba (1913) based on the story of Solomon and the glamorous Queen of Sheba. It's a a well-loved biblical tale which has inspired a wealth of romantic interpretations from Handel's "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" to the 1959 film Solomon and Sheba starring Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida. But, in the biblical text, there's actually no specific indication of a romance between the two monarchs. Of course Solomon had 700 wives, most of which were royalty from foreign tribes, but using there are two major objections to such conjecture. Firstly, it is doubtful that many of these marriages contained any actual romance. The majority of them would have been made for political purposes, treaties etc., and whilst lust may also have been a factor, this is also distinct from romance. Secondly, whilst this story is included immediately before the statistics about Solomon's marriages, this does not necessarily mean that this is an example of one of them. Indeed, the absence of any suggestion that the two were married may actually indicate that this is intended as a(n ironic?) contrast.

    What's also interesting about the original story is that it's a rare example in scripture of the female gaze. Obviously we also find this in Song of Solomon, but these are rare examples. Even Ruth and Esther are written from a more male point of view. So perhaps this is why the story has generally been interpreted as romantic despite any specific statement to that effect.

    It's not surprising, then, to find indications of romantic attraction in La Reine de Saba: she hears of his greatness and comes to visit; when she meets Solomon she, very symbolically, removes her veil; she wonders at his wisdom and building programme and showers him with gifts; Solomon gives her gifts in return; the two are clearly smitten; a jealous lover (Horam) is introduced and plans to kill Solomon; Solomon and the queen kiss, but when the queen is called back to her own country Solomon refuses to kiss her goodbye; finally, the queen replaces her veil as she leaves.

    Yet, to the modern viewer, the source of Solomon's attraction is not particularly obvious. The queen is far from early 20th century perceptions of beauty. She is probably at least a (UK) size 16 and, gasp, has hairy armpits. These days this actress would struggle to find a job as a villainous school teacher. The hairy armpits, of not only the queen but also of her courtiers, is particularly interesting because this is something that seems to have changed even in my own lifetime. I clearly remember at school discussing the perception that continental European women had hairy armpits - born out by meeting actual German girls on my exchange trip there in the late 80s. Nowadays, this is very rare. Aside from a the shock caused by Julia Roberts, once (!), I can't remember the last time I saw a picture on the media of a woman with hairy armpits. Thus two previous opposing standards of beauty have become one during my lifetime alone. It seems a shame to me that what is considered beautiful has become quite so standardised, particularly given that in reality, even within the same culture, different men like different things and different women like different things. I should add that the photo used above is actually from the now lost 1921 Fox film The Queen of Sheba starring Betty Blythe.

    Body hair and beauty aside, the film's biggest set piece is another particularly notable moment, showing the queen's journey to Jerusalem. The procession is huge and seems to incorporate a number of ethic groups. There are Arab men wearing typically "Islamic" hats, including a handful of snake charmers, and there are sub-Saharan African men in conventional dress for that region including spears and so forth. My guess is that this is an attempt to incorporate the disparate theories as to the location of Sheba, though to be either somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula or from around modern day Ethiopia. It's notable, however, that the queen herself, is white.

    The plot summary provided by the organisers of the "Ancient World in Silent Cinema II" event gave the film the following synopsis:
    King Solomon displays his judgement and wisdom in and around Jerusalem. The Queen of Sheba hears of the fame of Solomon and, following an exchange of letters between them, travels to Jerusalem in a great procession to meet him. She is awed by his wisdom and wealth. Solomon reciprocates with gifts. The jealousy of the queen’s follower Horam is aroused by the feasts given by Solomon. Horam is killed by Solomon’s guards outside the royal bedroom. Messengers from the queen’s court bring news of disorder in her country, so King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba are forced to part.
    Campbell and Pitts don't cover this film, and the BFI database only has a single sentence by way of summary. "Costume epic drama based on the biblical story of Queen Sheba and King Solomon."

    Photo used above is from the now lost 1921 Fox film The Queen of Sheba.

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