“Our god has delivered our enemy
into our hands,
the one who laid waste our land
and multiplied our slain.”
—from The Death of Samson, Judges 16
The recent release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (and the upcoming Exodus directed by Ridley Scott) are strange reminders that once upon a time, Hollywood breathed and lived to deliver Biblical epics. These films were based on stories found in the Old Testament, and pretty much since the creation of the film industry, became staples whenever big directors wanted to make a relatively quick buck.
It wasn’t until the mid-‘60s that the success of the biblical epic began to wane, as moviegoing audiences became less devout and craved the harsh realism of New American Cinema and eventually hungered for the summer blockbuster.
Hollywood’s newly rediscovered love for the Bible epic seems even stranger, because modern filmmakers don’t seem to be interested in what is it that once made these movies so successful and instead are trying to adapt them to modern audiences’ needs. Once upon a time a biblical epic meant lush Technicolor, bright, sensual costumes, bare chested men and lustful women and overall an escape from reality. Nowadays, filmmakers are recurring to the kind of gritty realism that makes films seem more like faithful adaptations, than glamorous interpretations of texts that were still somewhat sacred.
The Old and New Testament visions of Aronofsky, Scott and Mel Gibson are populated with earthy tones, dusty landscapes and simple cotton garments, the likes of which would’ve been completely foreign in an old Hollywood extravaganza, especially those of Cecil B. DeMille. To watch one of DeMille’s productions is to be instantly transported into a world which we otherwise would only imagine.
The lavish sets that populate his films are all the more monumental because they were the real thing, in the sense that anything in film is real (and as wonderful as computer effects are, we have eyes well trained enough to know when an image of a temple is digital or not). The actors that give life to his characters are nothing if not some of the best of their generation (and some of the most popular, too). Further, his interpretations of Biblical stories are so powerful, that we don’t question the veracity of the things he states. Even the fiercest non-believer will see a flash of the truly divine in a Cecil B. DeMille epic.
Few of his films were as lavish and exquisitely done as the romantic melodrama ,Samson and Delilah, which starred Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr as the tragic lovers. The story begins as Danite Hebrew, Samson, wages a war with the Philistines after the murder of his fiancé, Semadar (a lovely Angela Lansbury). When he is betrayed by his own people and handed to the evil Saran of Gaza (a deliciously wicked George Sanders), he becomes the object of Delilah’s obsession, who loves him but also chooses to betray him in order to keep him to herself for once and for all.
The passions at the center of the plot make little to no sense (Why is betrayal the only way people choose to prove their interest? What’s this nonsense about the hair giving him powers?) but the point is to let oneself be seduced by the intensity of the feelings on display. Even if we understand that Samson is perceived by others to be nothing but a brute, it’s the mischievous, endlessly horny Delilah, who seems ruled by nothing other than animalistic desire, and Lamarr plays her like a sly creature who will stop at nothing to satiate her lust.
Mature’s performance is subtle to the point of feeling apathetic, as he allows the plot to wash over him, without much interest in striving for any changes. Watching these two extremely opposite forces at play makes for a fascinating experience, because it gently subverts gender expectations. How is it that a man as big as Mature (who is often photographed against elements that make him look positively gigantic) is often so overpowered by the petite Lamarr (Groucho Marx famously complained about Mature having bigger breasts than Lamarr).
Samson and Delilah remains a mystifying artifact, the likes of which seduces us as we try to figure out exactly what is it that makes it so appealing. Can it be that deep inside we still crave a primordial need to be surprised and marveled? Can it be that we’re falling under the spell of Lamarr’s combination of intellectual and sexual appeal? Or are the bright colors playing tricks on us?
Presented for the first time in high definition, the film’s Blu-ray edition is perhaps the best and only way, to watch this underrated classic. It’s a shame that only a theatrical trailer is included among the bonus features, but perhaps this allows the film’s many secrets to keep us from over analzying it and thus, it’s magic won’t slip away.