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    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


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    Saturday, June 20, 2020

    Samson dan Delilah (1987)

    Bible films are acts of adaptation and invention. Sometimes filmmakers try and stick as closely as they can to the original text. Sometimes they are happy to strip away all but but a story's essential points in the service of exploration or entertainment. Samson dan Delilah, by Indonesian director Sisworo Gautama Putra, is a film which very much falls into the latter category.

    The success of the Italian film Hercules (1958) led to a string of peplum films being made which traded on the names of a mythical strong men. Hercules, Goliath, Odysseus and Samson all ended up appearing in films which borrowed their names, but very little else from their original stories. Indeed there were several occasions when films bore Hercules' name when released in Italy, were re-titled and repackaged as films about Samson when they were re-dubbed and re-released further afield.

    Putra's film is doubtless influenced by pepla such as Samson and the Sea Beast (1963) or Samson and the Pirate (1964). Indeed, just as Hercules cast an American bodybuilder as the mythical strongman (Steve Reeves), so too Samson is played by Paul Hay, an Australian whose muscular credentials are laid out, somewhat oddly, during the opening credits. As with those films, the hero battles fantastical foes such a very unconvincing Cyclops - whose pointed shield grinds against Samson's naked torso without a scratch. Shortly afterwards Samson steals another attacker's sword/axe and slices him in two from top to bottom, only to see the two halves reform, like something from Terminator 2 (1991), and for him to redouble his efforts. Even when, moments later, Samson slices clean through his waist, his attackers legs continue to kick him. The cartoon gore, which is not in short supply, is a hangover from Putra's better known work in horror.

    The film's most obvious innovation is the introduction of several elements of the kung-fu/martial arts film. The choreographed fights, the exaggerated foley work and poor dubbing are strongly reminiscent of the late seventies 'shenmo' TV series Monkey or the films produced by the Shaw brothers. The fight scenes in Samson are not particularly well executed but they are entertaining nevertheless, though perhaps because of their sheer over-the-topness, rather than in spite of it. 

    Yet in contrast to the pepla, Putra's film sticks more closely to the biblical material. Samson's affair with Delilah (played by Indonesian horror queen Suzzanna), her betrayal of him and his subsequent blinding and enslavement are all included. Also like the account in Judges Samson regains a little of his former super-strength, although bizarrely the film also has him regain his site after a woman rubs her breasts in his face, and finishes by him destroying his captors' temple destroing both himself and his enemies.

    There are other similarities too. The key to Samson's strength still lies in his uncut hair.  He exists in a world where he belongs to an invaded and oppressed people. Like the biblical character, his motive is as much about revenge as fighting injustice, indeed the film's title for its release in France was La Revanche de Samson (The Revenge of Samson). Adaptations of his story often overlook this thirst for revenge. Yet in one scene Samson is prepared to give himself up, as per Judges 15:9-17 in order to stop the ruling regime's soldiers attacking the villagers (only for him to escape again later). 

    However, arguably the most interesting deviation from the biblical text is the time and place where the story is situated. Instead of Israel around 1000 B.C. the film relocates the story to colonial Indonesia in the early 1800s. The soldiers who plot to destroy Samson are white Europeans wearing tall hats and smart, full length, powder-blue coats as if picked from a Quality Street tin or a Jane Austen novel (1). While in this case they are Dutch, they stand for the dark, still glossed-over era of European history - our brutal invasion, colonisation, repression and rule of countries across the world. Putra and those from former European colonies doubtless experience this film from white Europeans like myself - a painful reminder of a shameful era in our history that refuses to provide an easy way out.

    It's perhaps these elements that mean whilst hardly a work of great artistry, Samson dan Delilah is worth viewing. The action sequences and a food-inspired love scene between the two leads make for a trashy, rather than profound, adaptation of the biblical stories, albeit one that has it's own oddly entertaining appeal. Yet at times it manages to rise above all that to remind us that while Samson stood on the side of the oppressed often those claiming to be on the side of his god, have not.

    There are some other reviews, plot outlines and screen grabs of this film at Ninja Dixon, Backyard Asia, Ballistic Bullets and DevilDead.

    *Quality Street are a UK brand of chocolates who for for about 80 years have sold their products in decorated tins such as these.



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