• 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


    Tuesday, May 01, 2018

    Xena: Warrior Princess - The Giant Killer (1996)

    Over the years makers of biblical films have often been at pains to stress the historical and/or biblical accuracy of their particular portrayals. There have always been exceptions however and, as would be no surprise to fans of the show, one adaptation that is cheerfully anachronistic is the episode of Xena: Warrior Princess called The Giant Killer (Series 2 episode 3, 1996).

    As the title suggests, this is the episode where Xena meets up with an old friend of hers, a giant called Goliath, only to find themselves on opposing sides of the conflict between Israel and the Philistines. Like the biblical story Israel is still being led by King Saul, seconded by his son Jonathan, but unlike 'the original' David is already a valued member of the Israelite army, such as it is, and good friends with Jonathan (who dies before Goliath does).

    For their part, the Philistines are led by a king called Dagon, (in the Bible the name of a Philistine god rather than their king) who sees Saul as a "petty criminal". Dagon also claims that the land "was an unproductive desert when we got here, and now, it's a thriving area!", which echoes the claims often made about how the kibbutz movement transformed the landscape of modern Israel.

    Goliath here is given a far more significant back story than in any other dramatisation that I can recall. He has known Xena from her time before the series began. Not only is he familiar with her metanoiabut it emerges that the last time the two of them saw each other they were fighting together against another giant called Gareth. On that occasion Goliath saved Xena from Gareth's army only to see their enemy kill Goliath's family.

    A decade on and Goliath is still hunting Gareth. It's for this reason that he is working as Dagon's muscle - despite his apparent misgivings about the Philistine king - yet when he finds out that he will be opposing Xena he almost considers deserting the Philistine army. Dagon however convinces Goliath to stay by promising to tell him where he can find Gareth if he stays.

    Reluctantly the two former comrades end up on opposite sides of the battle and unfortunately for the Philistine hero, Xena tells David about his weak spot and helps him plan how to bring the giant down. Goliath's death, then, has a sense of tragedy about it. Not only do we, at least, appreciate his motives, but Goliath dies in vain, with his family still unavenged.

    By coincidence, I happened to watch this film, Mary Magdalene (2018) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2012) within a week of each other and I could but be struck by the parallels between them. (Minor Spoilers for all three) All three feature a male protagonist who is mourning the death of his family and is now driven to action by that sense of loss. Here, as with Guardians it's too gain revenge on the person that murdered them. In Mary Magdalene it was to bring about the kingdom, which, one could argue was still a form of revenge, only a kinder, gentler form, with God doing the avenging. Nevertheless, all three characters suffer a cinematic "death" of sorts, with a sense of them being united with their families in death. And, of course, the audience gets the sense that ultimately they will get their wish (sort of). In Guardians it comes sooner than the others. In Mary it depends on how you view the Jesus movement and your faith for the future. Here, Goliath's revenge storyline reaches a conclusion later in the series when Xena causes Gareth to be struck by a bolt of lightning (end of spoilers).

    Either way, this redeeming of Goliath is a radical departure from the Bible, and even his portrayal in most other David films, although films such as David e Golia (1959) do this to a certain extent. This is thoroughly in keeping with the way Xena's "lack of historical accuracy" is a "running joke" throughout the series.2 "Xena's self-parody" and "her mismatched style" reinforcing that her "storyline never really happened".3 The series repeatedly subverts the myths in it's path, through it's humorous tongue in cheek style. By revisiting each story, playfully exaggerating and reimagining them, and developing characters beyond the details we find in the 'original' myths, it simultaneously presents a made-up version of the story which was definitely not how it happened, but nevertheless highlights the incomplete, and typically one-sided, nature of the traditional version of the stories. 

    In this particular episode it's interesting that in addition to the aspects of the dialogue and script (available online) that alter and exaggerate the story from the first Book of Samuel, it also does it visually. When we first encounter Goliath he is already taller than the 9'9" (or 6'6") that the Bible credits him with. However, as the episode goes on he grows taller and taller relative to the other characters, moving from perhaps 12 foot to about 18th by the end of the episode.

    There is also some toying with the idea of God. Being more familiar with the Greek pantheon, Xena's sidekick Gabrielle struggles to get her head around her new found friends' monotheism. At one point she tells David "This one God stuff is a new concept for me". David tries explaining that his god is "the ultimate power the highest Being there is", before employing a metaphor or two, "try to think of him as a sort of caretaker to the world, like our shepherd". This reminds David of a song he had just thought of, which he then recites which is, of course, Psalm 23. Shortly afterwards, on the morning of the battle, Xena sees David with his head bowed, sidles up to him and says "You might want to mention the weather to, you know, Him"

    But perhaps one of the most interesting things the episode does is with David, and his rise to power. Whilst Saul remains king, Jonathan's death creates something of a vacuum. Initially it seems like Xena, who has sided with the Israelites due to Dagon's oppression of them, will be the one to take down Goliath and liberate them. Yet after Jonathan's death both Xena and David independently come to the same conclusion that it has to be David that kills Goliath and defeats Dagon, not Xena. What the Israelites need is "a leader", "someone to believe in". Thus Xena advises, equips, emboldens and fights alongside David, but ultimately it is he who leads the people and he who takes on and defeats Goliath.

    Ultimately, then, for all the show's subversion, it leaves the story's primary structure more or less intact. David becomes the hero, defeats Goliath and ultimately becomes their leader. It's an approach nicely summed up by a final disclaimer in the credits: "No Bible myths or icons were irreparably mangled during the production of this motion picture". Well quite.

    1 - My understanding is that Xena first appeared in the Hercules TV series starring Kevin Sorbo as an anti-heroine, before having a change of heart after her dealings with Hercules. The redeemed Xena then began her own series as a hero with a past.
    2 - Frankel, Valerie Estelle (2018), "Hercules, Xena and Genre: The Methodology Behind the Mashup" in Diak, Nicholas (ed.) The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Since the 1990s, pp.115-134. Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland. p.116
    3 - ibid. p.123
    4 - I'm grateful for Grantman Brown's transcript of this episode provided at SpringfieldSpringfield:



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