• 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, August 18, 2018

    Solomon and Sheba (1959) - part 1

    This is the first in a series of posts looking at the 1959 epic Solomon and Sheba

    "At times, a man feels drawn toward the dangers that 
    confront him, even at the risk of his own -destruction". 

    Strip away all the glitz and glamour of King Vidor's magnificent looking epic and at its heart it's pure film noir - Gilda in gold-sequinned pants starring the Queen of Sheba as the femme fatale. She turns up one day on Solomon's doorstep playing the innocent, but everyone, including Solomon himself, knows she's trouble.

    Away from Solomon's lavishly rendered court she conspires with his enemies - the Egyptian Pharaoh and Solomon's waspish half brother Adonijah. Solomon attempts to keep her at arm's length, and when that fails he tries to impress her into thinking he's invulnerable to her charms, but he's drawn towards her "like a moth approaches a flame" and once he falls, he falls hard leaving his whole kingdom exposed.

    But then, like a low-grade Vertigo, there's the twist: Sheba falls for her mark and realises that the enemy she was trying to deceive, seduce and destroy means more to her than the traditions she has been raised with and has fought to protect. Now there's going to be trouble for both of them.

    Yul Brynner's performance as Solomon is often criticised for being too one-dimensional, but he was never going to simply repeat his performance from The King and I. Instead his passive, subdued portrayal is a classic leaf out of the noir handbook. It's always the female characters who are the more interesting in noir anyway. This is very much the case here as Gina Lollobridgida's Sheba steals every scene she features in. She smoulders, plots and purrs so well that you can easily forget her biblical role was supposed to be almost-intellectual - a head of state of an upwardly mobile country posing tough administrative questions which only the wisdom of Solomon could possibly answer.

    Of course Noir's finest films are all built around the stellar female performances. It's why names like Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner still hold some cultural resonance whilst Dana Andrews and whatever the bloke from Double Indemnity was called have faded into obscurity. Great as Bogart was he is forever linked with the super-smart Bacall, and whilst Mitchum, Stewart and Alan Ladd all graced the genre, the reason they are more fondly remembered is for their work elsewhere.

    With Lollobrigida giving it her all - except the orgy scene where she, rather understandably, seems bored by its banality ("but, Gina dah-ling", you can almost hear the studio rep saying, "it'll draw in the crowds") - it's no surprise that the audience sides with her far more than the stoical Brynner1. "Wherever she moves Sheba colonises her space, dominating her interlocuters, for instance in the pastoral scene with Solomon, where her positioning in the frame often prioritises her spatially".2 Whilst we see both monarchs consulting with their advisors, we are given far more insight into the goings on in her inner circle than we ever are in his, even if we sense he has more to lose.

    One of the things that is surprising about Solomon and Sheba is its depiction of the Israelites' god who rather unexpectedly steps up to claim the noirish role of the dark malevolent force conspiring to keep the two lovers apart. In contrast to other Old Testament films it's neither the Sheban religion (with its highly-choreographed, but curiously unerotic, orgies3) nor the Egyptian army (who - in a sequence combining stunning visuals with a total lack of realism - fall, quite literally, for Solomon's battlefield "genius") that are the real problem, but the deity who the Israelites worship, yet fail to understand. Israel believes her God to be far more upright, moral and decent than he is actually shown to be.

    In order to understand this contrast more fully it is necessary to undertake a fuller exploration of the portrayal of Israel in the film. So in the next instalment I'll be looking at how, along with many epics of the era, the filmmakers attempt to draw parallels between the Hebrew nation and 1950s America.

    1 - One of the more modern skewering I've enjoyed is Alex von Tunzelmann's "The ludicrous Solomon and Sheba (1959) tempted in audiences with the promise of an Old Testament orgy scene, though being 1959 this merely consisted of the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) doing the funky chicken in a gold bikini while her acolytes formed a conga line and then ran off giggling into the undergrowth" - "Reel History: The World According to the Movies" (London, Atlantic: 2015), p.22.
    2 - Babbington, Bruce and Evans, Peter William. "Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema", (Manchester: Manchester University Press) 1993, p.67
    3 - Fraser employs the phrase "curious balletic orgy" which sums up the use of movement and space and the ineffectiveness of the eroticism nicely. "The Hollywood History of the World", MacDonald Fraser, George, (London, Harvill Press: 1996), p.26

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    • At 5:21 pm, August 19, 2018, Blogger angmc43@hotmail.com said…

      What? No mention of the Medved Brothers' FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME book? They refer to the dancers doing the Bunny Hop, comments the international cast would have been more suitable for a Tower of Babel film, Brynner's versatility ("As the King of Siam he sang and danced; as King of Israel he went to orgies and set people on fire").


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