Saturday, May 30, 2020

G-d Week: For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.


SOLOMON AND SHEBA

1959
Directed by King Vidor
Written by Anthony Veiller, Paul Dudley, George Bruce, and Crane Wilbur

Spoiler alert: well, eventually Haile Selassie was overthrown...


Not that Solomon and Sheba is frequently discussed in the first place—when it is, it's usually in the context, "the final feature film of King Vidor, who, more importantly, made these other movies"—but on the off chance it is mentioned, it's to single it out for how much of a confabulation it is, as if that were something special, and mid-century Bible movies weren't always one part Bible and nine parts fan fiction.  But it's the very first thing on its Wikipedia page.  Consider also this mildly irritating Guardian write-up, which, insofar as there is indeed one short scene that features a couple of would-be assassins who happen to wear masks, is titled "Take Bible, Add Ninjas," which I think sums up the level of discourse.

In any event, it is true that, at first blush, Solomon and Sheba looks like even more of a screenwriter's invention than the usual case, because it would almost have to be: it's "based on" the thin material of the first thirteen verses of I Kings 10, which themselves but vaguely relate the story of how an unnamed Queen of Sheba visited Solomon of Israel and Judah, mostly so the queen could echo the compliments already given in the first nine chapters of Kings, these being largely about how wise and cool Solomon was.  Nevertheless, the film is more solidly-founded than this would suggest, and not solely because the queen has often been identified as the lover in the Song of Songs, as she is here.  Rather, it makes a credible (if, to a near certainty, Judaically-indifferent) effort at capturing the essence of the Deuteronomistic history that asserts itself as the organizing principle of the Books of Melakhim/Kings—which, as you know, doesn't exactly hide that it was composed by Jerusalem priests who barely made a distinction between "heathen idolatry" and "worshipping Yahweh elsewhere than at our particular temple," and which was also only completely finalized by Exilic Jews who had a lot of explaining to do if they wanted anybody to stay Jewish.  And so does Solomon and Sheba wind up, at least in spirit, more of an adaptation of the next chapter of Kings, which turns right around and reminds the reader that Solomon was also the dude who started the process of fucking everything up for Israel, following his famous loins wherever they took him, happy to share his bed with any and all of his hundreds and hundreds of pagan wives, along with all their abominable foreign gods.  And that's why his God ultimately said to Israel, "if you like polytheists, you'll love the Assyrians."


On the contrary, then, Solomon and Sheba is simply good adaptation: it makes a condensed, cinematically-possible narrative out of the sin of Israel by narrowing Solomon's sexual and religious promiscuity down to one single, visible focus, and if it gives Solomon's story a Happy Hollywood Ending in the process, rather than the Unhappy Deuteronomist Ending of "Samaritans got what was coming to them and eventually so did we," well, it's not about that part.  Of course, that does mean that the Happy Ending in this context is "the theocracy was confirmed," but, as it would be annoying to hold that against it, I won't.  On the plus side, Ethiopian Jews and Christians ought to be stoked, because this one's for them.

Solomon and Sheba begins out on the southwestern frontier, where two sons of David, the heir-apparent Adonijah (George Sanders) and his younger, softer-hearted half-brother Solomon (Yul Brynner), confront an Egyptian "invasion"; and, the sad fact is, Solomon and Sheba starts off immediately on the wrong foot—or at least it does after an admittedly-spiffy "etched-in-stone" title sequence—for this opening scene concerns itself with Israelite and Egyptian "armies" that would barely be convincing as rival bandit gangs in a contemporary Western, and renders them in a lot of unattractively-obscure day-for-night photography.  But at least it introduces us to the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobridgia), an ally of Pharoah (David Farrar), who's accompanied her Egyptian friends on their expedition to Canaan, and who makes the acquaintance of Adonijah by way of her horsewhip.  This is neat, but things don't really improve as Solomon and Adonijah are recalled to the court of their father (Finlay Currie), dying of old age with just enough strength left to name Solomon his successor.  Contra-biblically, Solomon does not have Adonijah executed, but this is just as well, insofar as the Bible is extremely confusing as to why Adonijah's request to be married to his dead dad's nurse and stymied sex helper, Abishag (Marisa Pavan), was so offensive to his brother; regardless, our film's Abishag has eyes only for Solomon, and Adonijah himself couldn't care less, doing a lot more to make himself Solomon's enemy than merely hitting on their father's underage courtesan.  Yet his violent protestations soon curdle into mere resentment, and, for the moment, Solomon's been confronted with a much bigger problem, even if he doesn't know it yet: for the Queen of Sheba has hatched a plan to get close to Israel's new king and discover his weaknesses.  She'll soon find one in what was, in retrospect, the most obvious place of all.

Solomon and Sheba, as you can probably tell, takes a long time to spool up, and that's its single biggest problem structurally: it's a bit over forty full minutes before the film's driving plot actually kicks in.  Yet once it gets on track, it stays there.  And so Sheba schemes and seduces, and it's compelling stuff, in huge part because this Bible movie revolving around the perils of the flesh—unlike, particularly, Samson and Delilah, upon whose schematics this is obviously based, or David and Bathsheba, to which this is almost a sequel—manages to make its antagonistic tryst credible.  "Credible" even undersells it; "credible" would be the bare minimum.  Indeed, for all that it's pitched at a bludgeoningly obvious level—maybe even because it is—Solomon and Sheba is actually, dare I say it, sexy.  A great deal of this was accomplished with apt casting, particularly on Solomon's part: for while Lollobridgia is blatantly much better at arraying her body erotically than, for example, Hedy Lamarr was in Delilah, with all of that random, angular thrusting, you can argue that this is just an iterative improvement, especially since Lollobridgia certainly isn't presenting a less cartoonish version of dangerous feminine sexuality, just a less clumsy one; Brynner, however, is a qualitative improvement over his blockhead predecessors, using the one-note intensity that was always his most often-used trick, but which also always worked.  The man smolders, and if watching Brynner glare at things with barely-restrained violent horniness is your jam, Solomon and Sheba is the movie for you.  He even modulates it a bit, between the moments where he's lost in sexual abandon and the moments where he's hating himself for his undeniable urge to frolic with the idolatress and the gods she makes sound like so much more fun than his own.


But it also comes down to solid storytelling, with the overarching plot presented as dynamic and interesting—the threat Sheba poses is an enormous source of tension, and the ways she comes to have second thoughts about her mission in Jerusalem despite being honorbound to carry it out only adds to it—and the romance itself is made plain to be something that's been missing from Solomon's life, making it believable why he'd allow himself to be gulled by an enemy.  There's an extraordinary little scene where Solomon visits his harem—I appreciate that Solomon and Sheba does not soft-pedal this—and he surveys his mass of wives, silently realizing that they no longer hold much interest for him.  It's the equal he sees in Sheba that consumes him; maybe even the hubris of accepting the challenge to his vaunted wisdom which her seduction represents.

On the downside, this is subtle and graceful subtext in a movie that doesn't have especially subtle or graceful text, starting with a lot of mildewy dialogue that everybody other than Lollobridgia has a hard time saying, and Lollobridgia is only exempt because she's the scene-chewing villain who gets to rise above such things.  But even Sanders, the other villain, is atypically lost in his underwritten role of would-be usurper.  Brynner's not necessarily that much better anywhere but in the presence of his key scene partner.  And the performance style that creates these other scenes is distracting: as if Brynneresque glaring were contagious, there are a lot of actors just staring uncomfortably hard at other actors while waiting for them to finish their lines.  It's one reason why the pre-Sheba first act is a bit of a drag.

But then, the post-Sheba scenes have a lot more of Lollobridgia—you know, so to speak, keeping up the proud tradition of movies on this particular theme (cf. 1921's outright censored Queen of Sheba) bearing more skin than contemporary audiences might've even known what to do with.  It's indulgent as hell in all sorts of ways, really, one of the truer Bible spectacles, with a monumental Solomonic Jerusalem so imposing I'm not even entirely sure how art directors Richard Day, Luis Pérez Espinosa, and Alfred Sweeney quite managed to do it—not all of it's visual effects, though Solomon and Sheba does have some impressively seamless visual effects.  (Now, I can guess how set decorator Dario Simoni did his job, but this is because the Temple and palace have an appealing streamlined modernism to their accoutrements, which doesn't quite do justice to the Biblical descriptions and leaves a lot of very noticeably empty space, but which does emphasize the isolation of the principals, and makes for a marked and symbolic contrast with the soft veils and intimate atmosphere of Sheba's tent.)

Meanwhile, in terms of genre violence, Solomon and Sheba ultimately brings those dastardly Egyptians back in, too, offering a climactic battle scene with thousands of extras, hundreds of horses, and four or five bespoke chariots that (in the briefer shots) could, conceivably, be mistaken for a squadron.  This battle sequence handily redeems that threadbare opening skirmish; if it also hinges on a silly comic book gambit, with a phalanx of blindingly reflective shields, then, hey, that's just the kind of movie this has always been, bright and big and dumb.  It finds the right resonance in its bigness and dumbness, anyway, even at the expense of everything else: I'm struck especially by a scene where a repentant Sheba has made her way to the Temple, and Sheba, who is a woman, and a gentile, prostrates herself roughly right at the Holy of Holies.

And while there's no extra rule against it because it didn't even occur to them to make one—and they can only execute you once anyway—I bet the kohanim wouldn't be thrilled about her being pregnant, either.

On the other hand—and this is what, I'm afraid, drags it down from the top tier—it's not actually well-directed in any detailed sense, and I imagine this has as much to do with its current trashbin reputation as anything else.  Besides the routinely-mismanaged side performances (and even a third of its male lead's performance), it's not even always beautiful to look at, either: it is frighteningly overlit, even for Technicolor, and a number of shots that try to do something a little subtler, and shape their subject with light, just don't work out, with distracting electric-light shadows cast on far parts of the frame, even when it's supposed to be night and Solomon is supposed to be illuminated by a single candle as is, in fact, discussed in the dialogue.  But then, that's the tradeoff one sometimes makes: the overlighting also lets you luxuriate in the shiny set design and—above everything—Ralph Jester's costumes, the most memorable of which is undeniably a gauzy number that probably didn't take a whole lot of effort to actually make; and to cinematographer Freddie Young's credit, clearly some extra actual thought was expended to get the lighting diffuse and dreamy during these key scenes in Sheba's tent.  (Not that I want to imply that lingerie was the limit of Jester's contribution: even if "practically nothing" is Lollobridgia's most interesting attire, she has something like a dozen different costumes throughout, and they're all gorgeous color creations; and Jester doesn't even stop there.  Brynner and even featured extras get a number of extraordinarily vivid robes and uniforms.  The green and orange costuming on the soldiers is searing.)  And Vidor, working in the Technirama 70 frame, often finds some breathtaking geometric possibilities in the giant boxes of his sets and the arrangement of his armies.

So, on balance, that's wholly acceptable work.  But where Solomon and Sheba comes close to outright falling apart as a functional object is Vidor and Otto Ludwig's editing, which is distractingly bad at almost all times: eyelines not coming close to linking up, poor graphic matching, clunky flow and a general inability to process dialogue scenes, even straight-up continuity errors—whatever could go wrong does.  It's at its most apparent in what is otherwise the film's single best scene (a pagan orgy at one of the disfavored High Places, and the very climax of Solomon's fall from grace, versus Abishag's lonely prayer in the Temple).  It boasts wonderful "pagan dance" choreography, a nice musical rhythm, and it's wracked with suspense, because everything about it is clearly building toward the wrath of God—and it winds up clumsily cross-cut, and featuring bizarre cutaways to Solomon that might not technically violate the 30 degree rule, because they're discontinuous, but still feel like they do.  It is so confusingly bad, coming from a canonized director with thirty years of filmmaking experience, that you feel like there must be some explanation for it.

And, as it turns out, there is, or at least a partial one: this movie got made twice.  It got made once, with Tyrone Power, who died about one third of the way to actually finishing it; then it was remade, with Brynner.  I'm not at all sure it explains everything—though it might go a long way to explaining the vague hostility in the performances, now that I think about it—but the mere fact that something almost functional came out of such a film-leveling debacle makes me better-disposed toward it than I might have been.  The strengths of Solomon and Sheba are such that I want to put it in the very top rank of the Hollywood Bible epics; even as it lacks the sense of intellectual questing that is the most interesting aspect of David and Bathsheba and The Ten Commandments, the things it gets right are so easy for the genre to get wrong that I want to love it without reservation anyway.  I can't do that, but I wouldn't be quick to write it off, even if I desperately wish they'd just cast fucking Rameses in the first place.

Score: 5/10

Reviews in this series:
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)
Samson and Delilah (1949) (שופטים/Judges)
The Story of Ruth (1960) (רות/Ruth)
David and Bathsheba (1951) (שְׁמוּאֵל/Samuel)
Solomon and Sheba (1959) (מלכים/Kings)
Esther and the King (1960) (אֶסְתֵּר/Esther)
The Prodigal (1955) (Λουκᾶν/Luke)
Salome (1953) (Ματθαῖον καί Μᾶρκον/Matthew and Mark)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) (Ἰωάννην/John)
The Robe (1953) (Ρωμαιους/Romans)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) (Κορινθίους/Corinthians)
Barabbas (1962) (Ἑβραίους/Hebrews)
Quo Vadis (1951) (Αποκάλυψις/Revelation)

...plus! Ben-Hur (1959)

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