• 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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    Friday, January 26, 2018

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Samson and Delilah (1978)

    I have a few Samson movies on my list of key films that I still need to review, so with the release of a new Samson film next month, I thought now would be a good time to run a short Samson series. However I didn't have time to watch those films and review them, so I settled for the Samson and Delilah entry from the late 70s series The Greatest Heroes of the Bible.

    At the start of the film starts Samson is already an adult, aware of his powers and his God. When some Philistine soldiers threaten his parents and a girl from his village, he lashes out to defend them. He soon regrets being so hotheaded and retreats some distance to reflect and pray, only to have his prayers answered. A billowing cloud and echo-effect voice-over portray God affirming Samson and commissioning him using the words from Judges 13:3-8 that were actually spoken to his parents by an angel before Samson was born.

    The leading roles here are played by John Beck and Ann Turkel neither of whom are familiar names today, which is something of a departure from the other entries in this series (at least amongst those I have seen) where at least one of the cast had a decent TV role, a minor movie role, or went on to become more famous following their appearance. Beck is particularly unconvincing in the role here. He's fairly tall, I suppose, but not particularly muscular, which rather works against him. On the one hand if God was the source of Samson's power then there's no need for Samson to be big, but in contrast once Samson's hair is cut off, it seems inconceivable that he would not be able to put up more of a fight.

    The lack of a known name is not this film's only departure from the series formula, however. One real positive here is that the script avoids the spurious fictional sub-plot to spur things along. These tend to be one of the biggest weaknesses of the other films and Samson and Delilah does far better without it.

    The film does focus quite a bit on the role of leader and judge, something that is often rather skipped over, not least by the source text. Here however the film constantly shows Samson carrying round a large shepherds crook - which he uses to fight with in several scenes, portraying the protecting shepherd leader and prefiguring King David. But we also see Samson struggling with and gradually coming to terms with his responsibilities as leader. After the initial fight scene the Philistines wage a campaign against the Israelites which they promise to continue until Samson is brought to them. As with the rest of Judges 15:9-16 the people beg Samson to turn himself over, which he does only to break free, grab a convincing weapon-like ass's Jawbone and rout his captors.

    This leads to a sort of peace which lasts for a while until an unfortunate turn of events. The girl from Samson's village encounters a lion, runs off in panic, and falls and dies. Samson kills the lion - in a manner that seems far more realistic than in the DeMille's version, but instead of leading to riddle making sends Samson into a downward spiral of depression. Samson is seen out drinking in Gaza calling out "What good am I to God? Or he to us?". Thus whilst there's not much sub-plot, there is this invented motive for what happens next.

    In the words of the film's narrator, Samson has a crisis of faith and becomes "a man adrift" and whilst there's no sign of activity with a prostitute in Gaza he does end up in trapped in the city overnight with the authorities unwilling to open the gates. Here, though, the gates Samson rips off are rather small, made out of wrought iron (in the Bronze age?) and Samson doesn't so much carry them the 16 or so miles to Hebron, as turn and chuck them at some soldiers. Perhaps this was just down to the budget, or an attempt at presenting a more likely scenario that then got exaggerated through centuries of storytelling. Either way it doesn't really work as it seems neither realistic, nor the kind of particularly spectacular act of which one who was channelling God's strength might be capable.

    In the midst of this is the Philistine plot involving Delilah. She's seemingly aroused by what she hears of this strongman and thus keen to meet him and the two become attached. But after her initial attempt to trap him fails, he heads back to his people to resume his judging duties. It's clear though that both are torn between doing their duty for their respective countries, the financial difficulties of their circumstances and their feelings for one another. The film does a reasonably good job of portraying these varying tensions not least their national loyalties. Samson of course gets sucked back in, Delilah reluctantly strikes again and the Philistines have their man.

    The climatic scene, though, is a bit of a calamity, as the cheap 1970s special effects have aged particularly badly. God starts to speak to Samson - again more echo chamber and billowing clouds - but soon key members of the crowd hear him too. Then suddenly Samson goes white, and then, in the films most bizarre moment his (already shoulder-length) hair grows back to it's previous luscious length. Samson leans on the pillars, which structurally don't appear connected to much else, yet nevertheless the walls all tumble down like only large blocks of polystyrene can.

    For an episode that tried a few interesting things, the ending is a bit of a let down then. The script made a reasonably good attempt of fashioning a reasonably sturdy plot out of a series of episodes that cohere rather badly in the original. If only architecture in the finale had been assembled to the same standard.

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    • At 6:09 pm, January 26, 2018, Blogger James Pate said…

      I remember John Beck from the show Dallas. He had a fairly significant role there----not enough to get him on the opening credits, though.

    • At 7:59 am, January 29, 2018, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks James. I wasn't aware of that detail. I guess that started in the same year that this aired, so it could well be he was very well known to TV audiences at the time. Thanks.


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