When it comes to filmmaking, Cecil B. DeMille is a legend among legends; the highest honor bestowed by the Hollywood Foreign Press bears his name. So, you may have wondered why his 1949 film, Samson & Delilah took so long to be released on DVD. As it turns out, there’s a good reason why. The film, finally debuting on DVD, is a flawed mess of biblical proportions, yet it still bears marks of DeMille’s colossal genius.
Samson and Delilah, starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in the title roles, follows the tale of the Bible’s famed strongman and the alluring woman who seduces and betrays him. In addition to the infamous haircutting scene (that Leonard Cohen even sang about), the motion picture brings to life Samson’s best-known exploits like his battle with a lion and the scene where he singlehandedly vanquishes an entire Philistine army with a mere donkey’s jawbone. On screen, these heroics are juggled fairly well alongside the scandalous romance and the mighty Samson’s internal battle between devout faith and unchecked compromise. Plus, the film builds to the expected, yet marvelous climax in which the wounded hero pulls down the pagan temple.
While the story from Scripture remains a timeless tale, it’s obvious that DeMille’s Samson and Delilah has not stood the test of time. Some 64 years after its theatrical debut, it’s unlikely to win over modern audiences, but fans of the classics will love it. The varied production values, overblown performances, and irksome dialogue can overpower some of the satisfying spectacles that are engaging, however,
Screenwriters Jesse L. Lasky Jr. and Frederick M. Frank have extrapolated a massive tale out of a few pages of Scripture and, not surprisingly, the tale feels bloated. As the opening moments move from a four-minute musical “Overture” to an image of the planet Earth and the voice of God (played, appropriately, by DeMille), it’s clear that Samson and Delilah is an attempt at a big, iconic motion picture.
The overblown film, of course, takes some liberties in adapting the Bible’s concise telling of Samson’s story in the book of Judges in the Old Testament. Yet, there are some odd twists included to the tale to add drama to its 133-minute runtime, including making sisters out of Delilah and Samson’s Philistine wife Semadar (played by a wonderfully young Angela Lansbury). Additionally, the dialogue that Lasky and Frank provided is far from believable. Many lines have an unexpected playful quality, but much of the dialogue is either heavy-handed or, to the present day viewer, even campy. To their credit, the script does succeed in providing some clever foreshadowing to major turns in the story. In the first few minutes, while spiritedly arguing with her son, Samson’s mother says, “Oh, Samson. You’re blind!”
There’s nothing true-to-life or tremendous in Mature’s performance. Far from it. Neither his appearance nor delivery makes Mature seem especially imposing, sympathetic, or convincing as Samson. When he’s not disconnected or rigid on screen, he’s cocky and blithe in a way that makes him irritating instead of likeable. Interestingly enough, when the protagonist prays aloud to Cecil B. DeMille — ahem — to God, Mature is convincing and impassioned, yet those moments are fleeting. He’s not a particularly skilled actor, but to be fair, the brawny fellow with the husky voice is potent and, if you try just hard enough, you can at least reason why Mature captivated audiences more than half a century ago.
Similarly, Lamarr is adequate as Delilah. She’s fetching and sultry enough, playing the part with boldness and reservation, depending on what the scene calls for. The motion picture makes her character especially sympathetic and remorseful compared to other versions of the tale, allowing for a more three-dimensional, dynamic character. George Sanders and Henry Wilcoxon also appear in the film with overstated turns as Philistine leaders.
Even by 1949 standards, when all the performances are combined with the trying dialogue, the end result isn’t enough for the film to be absorbing, though it remains somewhat entertaining. (It’s also worth noting that, in context, debuting not too long after World War II, the themes of oppression, freedom and heroism must have been vital to the film’s original appeal.)
The production rightfully earned Academy Awards for both Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. To call Samson and Delilah “showy” would be an understatement. It’s full of lavish visual appeal: extravagantly colored garments, countless extras, pleasingly ornate sets, majestic temples, grandly polished golden Philistine armor, and even the some of the makeup radiates with unnatural Technicolor shimmer.
However, obviously, some of the effects used to create astonishing moments look laughably obvious and dated to contemporary eyes. To convey Samson’s strength in the wondrous action sequences, a variety of special effects are employed including stylish wire work where chariots and 400-pound brutes are tossed. Some sequences fail miserably. For example, take Samson’s battle with a lion, which relies heavily on choppy editing. Preposterous close-up shots of Mature wrestling a noticeably stuffed lion are woefully intercut with notable shots of an actual lion pawing at a stunt double that, unfortunately, fails to even come close to matching Mature’s towering stature. (According to DeMille biographer Charles Higham, Mature was wildly afraid of the live, tamed and reportedly toothless lion.)
Still, the film earns its “epic” classification during the finale, which begins with a blind, captured Samson being led into the Philistine’s public forum to be jeered by the hostile crowd. They yell, “Where’s your God now, Samson?” Even there though, strange inclusions derail the story as little people in wild costumes jab the penitent hero while Victor Young’s Oscar-nominated score supplies some peculiarly whimsical musical accompaniment.
Nonetheless, when all is said and done, DeMille dramatically delivers a grandiose climax as Samson brings the colossal pagan temple down. This epic destruction of the stone temple holding hundreds of people makes the entire film worth pursuing as you watch an over 100-feet-high, built-to-scale temple tumble to the ground. Combined with the film’s beautiful Technicolor cinematography, it’s stunning.
As cinema’s biggest hit in 1950, Samson and Delilah holds historic value in film history as the first of a “new wave” of biblical epics to hit the big screen. Most notably, it’s accurately considered Cecil B. DeMille’s rehearsal of sorts for what would come seven years later, his final film and biggest triumph, The Ten Commandments.
Ultimately, while the DVD case boldly claimsSamson and Delilah is DeMille’s masterpiece, it’s not at all. That would be more deceptive than anything even Delilah could muster. DeMille created a much more satisfying religious epic in The Ten Commandments. This flawed 1949 flick is just an odd, lavish, brawny step in that direction. Even so, if you happen to adore DeMille’s movies, Samson and Delilah is assuredly for you.
The new DVD release includes no special features or Blu-ray counterpart, but it does contain an incredible restoration of the film. The original negatives were cleaned and color corrected in 4K, which must have been an expensive, time-consuming restoration process. Along with the visuals, the original audio track has been cleaned up by the restoration team, bringing this Paramount picture back to its intended glory. That, in itself, is surely a heroic feat fitting for any of DeMille’s films, even this one.