• 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


    Wednesday, May 16, 2018

    Salome (1953)

    Salome (1953) was the last biblical epic to be made before the advent of widescreen later that same year, and it remains a fine example of what could be achieved with the academy aspect ratio, not least because of director of photography Charles Lang's compositions and striking use of technicolor. Yet for all that, it's a film that is easily, and indeed often, sneered at. For many, it seems it has become the poster-child for all that is 'wrong' with biblical epics: the camp; the excess; the fake piety; cheesy dialogue and bad acting; not to mention a plot that bears little resemblance to the scant source material. Yet on closer inspection it is a different film, a better film, than its reputation suggests.

    It's true that, in contrast to many biblical epics, Salome seems to rather relish the lowness of its brow, in particular the elements of camp. Alan Badel portrays John the Baptist in super serious fashion, his clipped English accent and wide-eyed staring into the distance, contrasting with his camel-hair costume like Jeeves in leopard skin. In contrast Charles Laughton dusts off his performance as Nero in Sign of the Cross (1932) and "plays Herod like a giant, randy eunuch" (Lindsay, 107). And then there's the earnestness with which Rita Hayworth, once the forces sweetheart, plays a character fifteen years her junior.

    Hayworth's role is particularly interesting. Tragically, as a star she is beginning to be remembered less for her movies than for her posters. Even amongst serious film students, the pivotal role of posters of her in The Bicycle Theives (1948) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) seems to be overtaking her fine performances in films such as Gilda (1946) and The Lady From Shangai (1947).

    Whilst it's true that at 35 she was perhaps a little too old to play a coming of age princess, it's certainly no worse than Henry Winkler playing "The Fonz" at almost forty, or, more recently, 31 year old Andrew Garfield playing the teenager Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Indeed with this role there was even historical precedence; Alla Nazimova was 43 when she played the eponymous role in the 1922 version of the story. In contrast to all of those actors, Hayworth appeared fresh-faced and bright-eyed and was perhaps 'never lovelier', than as the princess who finds her homeland has more to offer her than Rome. Sadly Hayworth's career never really recovered from the film's critical mauling, though she continued working for another twenty years.

    Salome also had a similar affect on director William Dieterle's career. One of many Jewish directors to flee 1920s Germany, his career never reached the peaks of Robert Siodmak or Billy Wilder, even though his 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola won the Academy Award for best film. After Salome he produced only a few more films over a twenty-year period, eventually returning to his native country in the late 1950s.

    Yet the film was not the financial disaster all this suggests, going on gross $137 million at the box office. The film's success was, in part, down to a controversial billboard campaign featuring the Salome's love interest Claudius (Stewart Granger) leaning over a scantily clad Hayworth. The city council in Los Angeles claimed to have received "over 150 letters of protest" about the posters and so forced them to be taken down (Variety 1953a), although the subsequent court case was dismissed, finding that "(p)ublic morals were not shocked" (Variety 1953b). The controversy and resulting publicity only appears to have piqued interest at the box office, to the extent that in May 1953 Columbia were reportedly thinking of casting Hayworth in another biblical picture this time about Mary Magdalene (Variety 1953c).

    However, contrary to what the controversy suggests, the film's real surprise, was the way it tried to redeem Salome and, by extension, Hayworth's image. In contrast to the marketing images of Salome, in her opening scenes she appears clad in a virginal white gown, dancing an innocent, rather than seductive, dance. It's interesting that whereas the filmmakers were taken to court but ultimately vindicated over the use of Hayworth's image, in the film Salome herself is exiled without any kind of trial or due process, an innocent victim.

    This portrayal as Salome as a misunderstood innocent continues throughout the film. Forced out primarily on the grounds of "being a barbarian", her only real crime throughout the film is taht she is initially a little put out at her mistreatment. The male characters, and indeed, her own mother, consistently judge her based on little more than her appearance: Caesar banishes her, Pilate assumes she will be trouble, Herod lusts after her, the Baptist condemns her (or at least her family) and her mother deceives and uses her. Ultimately even the audience's primary expectation - that Salome will dance to condemn John the Baptist - is proven to be false. In a revision of the basic plot breathtakingly out of keeping with the traditional story, Salome dances not to condemn John, but to save him. Ultimately, John dies not because Salome is too corrupted, but because she proves to be too innocent, outwitted by her mother's machinations.

    It's difficult to know what to make of the film's revisionist take on the story. Previous film adaptations, such as the 1922 silent Salomé, tended to take their lead from Oscar Wilde's 1891 play (and, to a lesser extent, Strauss's 1905 opera). Wilde provides a different motive for Herodias' daughter to the biblical story, where Herodias encourages her daughter to ask for the Baptist's head to silence his criticism of her affair with Herod. In Wilde's play, Salomé falls in love with John, but when he rejects her advances, she turns on him and dances for Herod in order to exact her revenge. However when finally presented with the Baptist's severed head, her old feelings return and she kisses it, an act that so appals Herod that he has her killed. Wilde's Salome, then, is presented as the archetypal femme fatale: attractive, lustful, capable of furious anger such that the cycle of the story can only be completed by her death. In other words it's a noir plot where a women is punished for her failure to conform.

    Of course, aside from her posters, Hayworth is best remembered for her role in Gilda (1946) a typical film noir where she plays a typical femme fatale. It's not hard to imagine, then, that audiences expected her to undergo a similar comeuppance. Yet instead of a biblical Gilda they get treated to an innocent Hayworth who only agrees to use her sexuality when pressured by various characters, and for the noble cause of saving John. Thus whilst Forshey is correct to note that the curious revision of the plot still manages to appeal "simultaneously to the religious sensibilities and the prurience of the audience", it was surely not in the manner in which they were expecting. This is no doubt why even though the famous dance of the seven veils scene is more or less as might be expected, it ultimately feels out of keeping with the rest of the film.

    Commentators on the Bible on film have tended to judge the film harshly for this very reason. For Babington and Evans the "wildly inventive" narrative is the result of "deformation piled upon deformation...producing an exhibition of the sub-genre's intrinsic interests, motifs and themes, though at the cost of historical plausibility" (186). Be that as it may, the revisionist plot does join together particular biblical details in an interesting fashion. The gospel accounts of John the Baptist's death never mention Salome by name - that detail is left to Josephus. Yet the name Salome does occur in Mark 15:40 and 16:1 as one of the women at the crucifixion and the empty tomb. This is usually taken to be an entirely different woman, as is perhaps likely, but there's a certain poetry to the theory that the daughter of Herodias did somehow become one of the followers of Jesus, possibly even one of the women of means who supported him.

    Whilst the film doesn't explicitly make this claim, the final shot we see of Salome is her, again dressed in white, stood next to Claudius and listening to Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount. Christ's face is not shown, only his back is visible, both here, and in an earlier scene where he restores a man's sight (where we get a close up of his hand). As is typical for the Roman-Christian epic, we're left to infer the rest.

    I can't help wondering, however, if the reason the subversion of the original story is so notorious is not so much because it diverges from the Bible - it would hardly be the first epic to be guilty of that - but because they've failed to properly smooth out the plot around the edges of the transplant. In particular, it's not really clear how come Granger's Claudius shifts from being banned from returning to Galilee in one scene, to turning up there hoping to save the day in the next. Nor is it clear why, when he does arrive, he's unable to do so. I imagine there's a cutting room floor somewhere that could tell a tale, but without scenes explaining this, the ending comes across as a bit of a mess.

    Ultimately, though, I still can't decide about Salome. Is it a cynically exploitative take on the story made in the knowledge that, provided they could keep the censors at bay, the prospect of Rita Hayworth stripping off would prove to be box office gold? Or is it bold revision of the traditional story which not only attempts to rehabilitate the biblical character, but also the star that played her. Either way it provides an opportunity to revisit the biblical story in the light of the #MeToo movement. A girl of unknown age coerced into trading her body. If that's not a metaphor for the Hollywood of yesteryear, I don't know what is.

    -Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    -Forshey, Gerald E. (1992) American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars Westport CT: Praeger
    -Lindsay, Richard A. (2015) Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    Variety (1953a) "
    Rita Shows Too Much ‘Salome’ to Suit LA." May 5 
    Variety (1953b) "Solon’s Not Hot ‘Salome’" May 19 
    Variety (1953c) "Widescreen, Stereo Sound For Coronation Tinter" May 26

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    • At 12:21 pm, May 18, 2018, Blogger LL said…

      I think old movies related to Bible or Jesus should be made again or should be reintroduced again in HD versions so that today's youth can understand the Bible / religion values


    • At 1:01 pm, May 18, 2018, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain did a version (based more on Wilde/Strauss) back in 2013. I've not seen it yet so can't comment on how close it is to the Bible, but this does tend to be one of those stories that gets remade in each era.


    • At 9:26 am, May 21, 2018, Anonymous MUST WATCH :) said…



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