• 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, October 28, 2023

    Sansone (Samson, 1961)

    I'm writing on, reading about and teaching on Italian cinema at the moment and have a session on the 1950s peplum films in a few weeks, so I thought it was time I watched Gianfranco Parolini's Sansone (Samson, 1961) as I've never seen it before. It was a film that I had looked into a little when I was compiling my book, but couldn't remember all the specifics of why I decided to include I grandi condottieri (Samson and Gideon, 1965). It was practically the only film to cover the story of Gideon and that was all I remembered.

    Turns out that another big factor is that, despite the title, Parolini's Samson has nothing, really, to do with the biblical strongman, aside from the characters' mythical super-strength. As I mentioned in my list of films "about" Samson many of the Italian-produced Samson films from this era "have very little to do with the Book of Judges". 

    Indeed these peplum films all play pretty fast and loose with the original stories of their heroes, even to the extent that the names of the title characters changed from country to country. For example, the strongman hero of Giovanni's Pastrone's Cabiria (1914) – Maciste – was then made the star of many of his own films,[1] such as Maciste nella valle dei re (1960) and Zorro contro Maciste (1963), but these titles were changed in English language regions to Son of Samson and Samson and the Slave Queen respectively.

    In this case, the title in English regions was a straight translation (Samson) but in France it was released as Samson contre Hercule – Samson against Hercules. That would clue most people in to the fact that this is very much a new story spinning off the mega success of Le fatiche d'Ercole (Hercules) three years earlier in 1958, the film which is usually credited with sparking the peplum trend in Italian filmmaking. Hercules does not feature in the Bible. Interestingly, in both English and Italian this character is called Hermes (these days renown as a popular mail delivery service) but not generally regarded as a legendary strong"man" who might be passed off as Hercules (as he was in Spain as well as France). Ironically one of the traits if Hercules in these films is his association with pulling huge chains. Here though, it's Samson (played by Brad Harris, who starred in Il vecchio testamento (1963)) who gets that particular task (see below).

    So in fact the film has nothing really to do with the biblical story. There's no Delilah, lion-wrestling, woman from Timnah, honey riddle or jawbone of an ass, or even a mention of God or the Israelites, just a super-strength hero running around in little more than his underpants. 

    Plot-wise the film is fairly conventional, fitting neatly into the broad plot summary given by Robert A. Rushing in his book on the peplum "Descended from Hercules" 

    A cruel, unjust, and foreign ruler has usurped the throne and oppressed the people. There can be minimal variations in this setup – for example, the unjust ruler may not be foreign but instead may be manipulated by foreign agents; he may be the proper, just ruler, but under a magic spell (cast by a foreign agent); or the unjust ruler may be an evil, seductive (often redheaded) queen – but the basic structure is always the same. Hercules must depose this cruel oppressor and free the people by restoring the legitimate ruler to the throne. The strongman is almost always a disinterested outsider with minimal or no ties to the throne in question; any suggestion that he could be a political threat or represent the forces of instability and anarchy is completely absent.[2]

    Here there is a seductive queen, Romilda (Mara Berni) who is being manipulated by Serge Gainsbourg's "weasel-like" Warkalla who as Barry Atkinson goes on to point out never really convinces you that he "could boss whole legions of hard-bitten soldiers around.[3] Samson and Hermes (peplum regular Sergio Ciani aka Alan Steel) team up along with two of Samson's sidekicks and after seeing off scores of soldiers many, many times, manage to return the kingdom of Sulom to its rightful (boy) king.

    There are a few good moments. Samson's tug of war across a fire-pit with a whole troop of soldiers (pictured above) sticks in the memory. As does a scene where the spiked walls on Samson's cell gradually close in on him (powered by a group of soldiers working a slave-powered mill - similar to that Victor Mature pushes at the end of DeMille's 1949 take on Samson and Delilah). Simultaneously, the mechanism also stretches out Samson's female friend Janine (Luisella Boni). It's tempting to think this scene may have inspired the walls closing in scene from the original Star Wars (1977), but that seems a stretch even if it's impossible to to think of that scene when you see this one.

    Speaking of Janine, there's very little chemistry between she and Samson, or between him and either of the other two significant women in the film, even though he has scenes alone with all three of them. Indeed the only real chemistry seem to be between Harris and Steel. Otherwise it's all fairly lacking in interest. The scenery and cinematography look good though.

    Incidentally, I kept going back and forth about whether to watch this one in the Italian dub or the English one (pepla rarely use live sound and often actors recorded their lines in the own language. There is no "original" version so to speak), and eventually went for the English which paid off. Although Harris gets surprisingly few close-ups or even mid-shots, he does get a sizeable chunk of the dialogue and I didn't find the dubbing of the other characters as troubling as it is sometimes.

    So this isn't required watching for Bible film enthusiasts, but it's a reasonable example of Italian peplum even if it's hardly the sub-genre's finest.

    1 - Wikipedia currently lists 29 Maciste films (including Cabiria) in the silent era and a further 25 during the 1960s as well as a couple by Jesús Franco in 1973.

    2 - Rushing, Robert A. (2016) Descended from Hercules: biopolitics and the muscled male body on screen,  Indiana University Press, pp.13-4.

    3 - Atkinson, Barry (2018) Heroes Never Die: The Italian Peplum Phenomenon 1950-1967, London: Midnight Marquee Press. p.133 & p.134.

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    • At 5:13 am, December 25, 2023, Blogger PEPLUM TV said…

      I don't think the movie was meant to be about Samson of the Bible.

      Even though it deals with a strong man named Samson...the movie itself is simply an action picture with a strong man named Samson. When you go to a carnival and you see a strong man who's name is Samson, lifting up barbells, you know he's not replicating the dude from the Bible but it recalls it.

    • At 10:03 am, January 05, 2024, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Ha, yes! I probably went on far too much about that point didn't I?


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