• 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.

    Friday, October 05, 2018

    Solomon and Sheba (1959) - part 2 - Parallels and Politics


    This is the second in a series of posts looking at the 1959 epic Solomon and Sheba. You can read them all here.

    In the last post in this series I touched on the way Israel is depicted as believing her God to be far more upright, moral and decent than the way the film actually portrays him. In order to understand this contrast more fully it is necessary to undertake a fuller exploration of the portrayal of Israel in the film. As with many epics of the era the filmmakers attempt to draw parallels between the Hebrew nation and 1950s America.

     This is particularly notable at the start of the film as Adonijah (George Sanders) presumptively declares himself David's successor, only for the king to emerge from his coma just long enough to recommend that Solomon should succeed him instead. As David (Finlay Currie) explains to his, now seething, eldest son, "Above all others, the King must respect and obey the law. In proclaiming yourself, you have violated the law of God and of man". As Forshey observes
    "This is more an American ideal than a Hebrew one, and reflects the opinion that the rule of law should not be hereditary. According to this point of view, the will of God requires that the most qualified should rule." 4
    Yet even this intervention wasn't sufficiently American to satisfy the screenwriters, so Solomon's claim to the throne is boosted by a democratic election, of sorts, by the elders of the twelve tribes. It is they who consent to David's choice of successor, Solomon, in preference to his older brother Adonijah. Whilst Solomon is technically a monarch, his position is very much dependent on the votes from these representatives, thus resolving the inherent tension in portraying a firmly monarchic nation as a forerunner of modern (democratic) United States. Furthermore
    "King David's federalistic, melting-pot deathbed speech" has the outgoing monarch insisting "on a 'union' of the tribes 'welded together in an indestructible oneness'. The first equivalence sees two God-inspired democratic nations fighting to free the world from slavery. The second parallels two 'chosen' people formed out of frontier, both loking (sic.) nostalgically back to those origins from present urban corruptions."5
    Having squeezed ancient Israel into the mould of twentieth century America sufficiently well, the film can then dwell on the most important moral values the two nations supposedly have in common. Thus Israel is frequently portrayed as a champion of progressive values. Their enemies in the surrounding nations deride them for it ("Peace is for women and children") and see their championing of freedom from slavery for all is seen as a critical weakness.

    When one of Sheba's advisers tells her about the Israelite's "one god who teaches that all men are equal and none are slaves" she initially dismisses it as "a foolish idea" but then reflects that perhaps she ought not to dismiss this threat so lightly adding "yet... if that idea were to take hold of the people, the Queen of Sheba would soon come crashing down from her throne". "As would all other absolute monarchs" her aide suggests.

    For a film that tries so hard to milk the success of 1956's The Ten Commandments (even recruiting one of its leading stars) this conversation seems curiously contradictory. Superficially it almost appears like it is the idea of democracy/freedom for all that is being attacked. However, the word "absolute" is no doubt intended to be pivotal. It acts as a way of highlighting the 'superiority' of the proto-American Israelites over the never-really-depicted Shebans. The Israel of this film is a quasi-democratic theocracy (or at least 'one nation under God') and so, by implication, is not running the risk that everything will "come crashing down" by banishing slavery.

    However, this idea of Israel being a place free from slavery is not historically accurate. Far from ending slavery, the Law of Moses legislates for it. Furthermore, it is difficult to find an Israelite monarch whose actions did more to increase and promote slavery - even at the cost of dividing his kingdom after his death - than Solomon. Whilst Solomon's father became king partly because God chose him and anointed him, but also because, eventually, the 12 tribes in some way consented to
    him being their leader. In contrast, the reign of Solomon himself seems to have been far more authoritarian.

    Nevertheless the Israel of the film is portrayed as anti-slavery which ultimately only serves to highlight the gulf between the god that Israel believes itself to be following and the god that is depicted by the film itself. I will expand on that gulf in the next post in this series in a few weeks.

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    4 - Forshey, Gerald  E.,  "American  Religious  and  Biblical  Spectaculars"  (Westport,  CT.  Praeger  Press:  1992),  p.78.

    5 - Babbington,  Bruce  and  Evans,  Peter  William.  "Biblical  Epics:  Sacred  Narrative  in  the  Hollywood  Cinema",  (Manchester:  Manchester  University  Press)  1993,  p.55.

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