• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Tuesday, March 06, 2018

    Samson and Delilah (Collins, 1922)


    1922 saw two films released about Samson and Delilah, but aside from the titles and the source material it is difficult to confuse the two. Korda's Samson und Delila mixes the biblical tale with a modern story, and fits in most of the biblical story's spectacular moments. The acting is portentous and stylised, the cast is vast, the sets enormous and the titular strongman towers over all who dare approach him.

    In contrast this version, directed by the UK's Edwin J. Collins, is an altogether more restrained and naturalistic affair. At only fifteen or so minutes in length it lacks its rival's ability to go into all the stories, yet nevertheless the way it does spend that quarter of an hour is very telling.

    The film consists of barely more than four scenes, and even the first of these is really only a prologue. Samson (W..D. Waxman) is shown in the opening shot praying. But as he does the Philistine High Priest and two of his soldiers walk into the rear of the shot and mock him. Moments later an unassuming Delilah (Madamoiselle De Valia) also enters from the same side, at the very back of the shot. When the soldiers "mock his God" he beats them to the ground and leaves the shot accompanied by an intertitle explaining that he has "received a divine instruction" and is to "wage war on the Philistines". Delilah clutches her chest and the camera cuts to a close up of her looking thoughtful. The shot ends in an iris - the first of many in the film's short run time, encouraging the audience to read the scene romantically even though this doesn't quite correspond with De Valia's face.

    Theologically there are a number of differences as well. As noted above Samson starts the film praying, on his knees in worship, something he rarely does in the biblical account. The second main scene consists of Samson sitting calmly surrounded by three young women looking at him adoringly. Delilah moves in, wins his heart and takes him back to her place for the third, and main scene. Here she persuades him to have a drink which, itself, would have invalidated Samson's Nazarite vow even without going near a pair of shears.

    I point these minor alterations out not so much as an exercise in theological nitpicking (fun though that can be), but because they are consistent with this film's calmer, more homely tone. Korda's Samson feels more wild and uncontrollable, almost an animal. There, the really remarkable thing about that Delilah's achievement is that she tames him, not in the way she gets him to reveal his secret. Here, however, things are more complicated. Initially Delilah's motives are hard to read, but when he loses interest in here, she throws herself at him once more in order to take her revenge on him.

    The homely tone is greatly increased by the way these two middle "scenes" are shot outdoors.1 The natural daylight and the way the actors' hair occasionally blows gently in the wind, makes their affair feel more romantic even as we know that Delilah is misleading him all along. It also seems somehow more intimate, thought less overtly sexual than the equivalent scenes in Korda's film. This third scene alone accounts for around half the film's total run time, and the comparatively gentle development of Delilah's seduction of Samson builds greater depth into their relationship and the way she gets him to reveal his secret. Even then as she sits shearing away his hair, her mixed emotions are palpable in the way she pauses and bites her lip before making that first decisive cut, and in the way her laughter once the deed is completed suddenly cuts short with momentary regret. Her spurned love has driven her to revenge, but even as she unleashes it she is struck by the thought she may have gone too far.

    In contrast, the final scene is dealt with relatively quickly and the final six shots are telling: a close up of Samson as he summons his energy one last time; a brief shot of one of the pillars; a close up of a horrified Delilah as she turns to witness what is happening; a brief wide shot of the pillars dislodging and the roof falling in; a close up of a now peaceful Delilah partially under the wreckage; and the corresponding shot of Samson. The whole sequence is over in 25 seconds, yet the abrupt pairing of the final two shots seemingly unites the two lovers in death like they never quite were in life. In captures the tragic tone of the original albeit in a somewhat different fashion. 

    Campbell and Pitts note how the film is based on Camille Saint-Saëns's opera "Samson et Dalila" (13), but in truth it is Korda's film that feels the more operatic. Collins' film finds a gentler, more muted key which manages to replace showy spectacle with something more emotional and heartfelt. Both films have their merits, but Collins' is the more effecting.

    This film is available to view onYouTube.

    1 - The actual number of scenes here is hard to work out. There is a nine minute sequence in total which all seems to take place on the same set, but the identity of the supposed locations seems to vary and be a little inconsistent. Thus whilst it feels like two scenes, it could perhaps be four or five,
    ==========================
    Campbell, Richard H. and Pitts, Michael R., (1981) The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897-1980, Metuchen, N.J., & London: The Scarecrow Press.

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