• 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


    Saturday, February 10, 2018

    Samson (2018)

    Throughout the history of the Bible on film six stories have predominated: Jesus, Moses, David, Lot, Noah and Samson. In particular, during the two golden eras of biblical films, in the 1920s and the 1950s/1960s each of these stories received a major film release. Recently we've been seeing a bit of a revival in biblical films and, unsurprisingly, these same stories have again proved popular. The Passion of the Christ (2004), Noah (2014), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) are self explanatory. 2009's Year One, whilst not a serious reinterpretation, was nevertheless a big screen adaptation of the story of Lot. 1985's epic King David is perhaps a bit too far in the past and recent TV adaptations have not proved successful, but nonetheless the continuing interest in the story is palpable.

    It's not entirely unexpected, then to see a new version of the story of Samson returning to cinemas. It's not quite the Hollywood epic that Noah and Exodus were, but nevertheless it's opened at an impressive number of screens across the US.

    Samson, directed by Bruce MacDonald is the latest bible film from Pureflix, the faith-based producer and distributor who also run a Christian version of Netflix. Whilst five years ago they produced the more modest Book of Daniel they went on to have greater success with God's Not Dead and the subsequent sequels, and an inventive adaptation of Lee Strobel's book The Case For Christ.

    The latter films were criticised for being a little too heavy on the proselytism. The Times' Kevin Maher dismissed The Case for Christ as "profoundly silly Christian recruitment propaganda masquerading as newsroom drama" whilst The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Farber criticised the way God's Not Dead "stacks the deck shamelessly in defense of its credo".

    The story of Samson though is a different matter. Whereas the story behind both of the above films were essentially adversarial, being based on debate and controversy, this is a more conventional narrative. The religious element of the story is upfront and to some degree unavoidable (though numerous 60s Italian 'Samson' pepla managed it), but not necessarily evangelistic. I think most critics will find Samson, better in this regard, if only because the point it's trying to make is not quite so painfully obvious from even before the film starts.

    As a narrative, the film sticks fairly closely to the biblical narrative. Samson (Taylor James) has grown up knowing he has a calling from God. Before to his notorious affair with Delilah (Caitlin Leahy) he wrestles a lion to death, rips the city gates off the walls at Gaza, beats up the Philistines with a donkey's jawbone and gets married to a different Philistine woman. At the same time the film creates a couple of other side stories to bring the story more in line with modern storytelling.

    Firstly it portrays Samson as someone who is struggling to accept God's call. Whilst this is a fairly common device in biblical films, here instead of merely embellishing the biblical portrayal, it actually seems to run contrary to it. The biblical Samson is an impulsive hothead who is as likely to tie up foxes and set fire to their tails in anger as he is to give his big secret away to his untrustworthy girlfriend because he's feeling warm and fuzzy.

    In contrast this Samson resists the call to become a 'judge' because "we need peace". The violence in the story is not so much down to his unpredictable nature as God's will as his father Manoah (Rutger Hauer) reminds him. The film's Samson is "chosen by the living God to be his hand of vengeance." When told "it's his will", Samson retorts "but it is not mine."

    Given the film is most likely to prove successful with a conservative audience, it's not hard to read Samson as a kind of idealised NRA archetype of a responsible gun holder. He has all the means to kill at his disposal, but is extremely reluctant to use them. In contrast, the biblical Samson is more like the kind of irresponsible type that the left like to point to - constantly teetering on the edge of another violent outburst.

    The other major sub-plot revolves around father-son conflicts of a different kinds between the Philistine King (Billy Zane) and his slimy, usurping, son froPrince Rallah (Jackson Rathbone). Whilst Zane is Samson's adversary, he seems to have little idea how to defeat him. For all his son's conniving he seems to be the only man who is using his head, even if he is ultimately undone by his own self-satisfaction.

    Another major difference between this film and the God's Not Dead/Case for Christ films is the sheer scope of Samson. Both the costumes and the size of the cast are far grander than those previous films. echoing historical epics old and new. Some of the overhead shots are fairly impressive, certainly for a faith-based film. The film may have its flaws, but a lack of budget isn't one of them.

    Only time will tell if any of this proves popular enough with audiences to become something of a hit. One of the reason's DeMille's 1949 version of the story proved such a big hit was the way its display of human flesh so brazenly contrasted with the modern-day, fully-dressed dramas of its day. Not dissimilarly Samson is a decisive breakaway from Pureflix's previous offerings. Certainly they will be hoping that James's muscles, combined with a generous helping of action sequences will give Samson a broad appeal. Whether it can draw the kind of audience that Noah and Exodus: God's and Kings did so that it can round out my theory, remains to be seen.

    Please note, this article is not a review of the film. I will hopefully get around to writing that at some point in the future, but given the various other projects I have on at the moment, I imagine it could be some time.

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