ESTHER AND THE KING
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by Raoul Walsh, Michael Elkins, and Ennio Di Concini
Movie adaptations of the Tanakh peter out at a certain point; it's not hard to see why. Halfway through Melakhim/Kings, the Hebrews start down the long road to Babylon. Sure, they got to come back—but not for long. There are numerous stories one could tell in that milieu, including ones commemorating the Jews' successes (however temporary), like the liberation by Cyrus, or the (deuterocanonical) Maccabean revolt, but if Exodus, for example, can remain an inspiring story for all sorts of folks, the collapse of the Davidic dynasty and the two and a half millennia of mostly-hardship that ensued doesn't engender the same enthusiasm, particularly among Christians, but perhaps among Jews as well.
Whatever the cause, the cinematic rendition of Israel tends to jump straight from I Kings to Jesus. Typically, the exceptions to this rule are such spotty efforts as William Castle's low-budget 1953 film, Slaves of Babylon (vaguely resembling the Book of Daniel), or European Biblical pepla, like The Old Testament from 1962 (deciding that Hamakabim/Maccabees was where it's at after all, and I'm amused by an already-awful title which wasn't even modified when it was imported to countries with Protestants, who would not necessarily recognize it as based on "the Old Testament" in the first place).
But then there's the Book of Esther, which has at least eight feature-length adaptations (and a VeggieTales, too, and while that's hardly special, I mention it because its cover is indeed especially upsetting, with Esther represented as some manner of sexy, oriental pickle). It's an odd exception, for it would seem to lack spiritual edification for Christian audiences, insofar as it's the one book of the Tanakh that does not mention God on its face, and it may be the single book of the Tanakh most resistant to being contorted around Jesus. It's an extremely Jewish story, vastly more about the Jewish nation than it is about the Jewish religion, and no less a figure than Martin Luther was skeptical of its inclusion in the Protestant canon, albeit mostly because he was a raging bigot. But one can theorize why it became such a popular subject for Bible movies, for while the Book of Esther is a chore to read (it's still the Bible), it nevertheless has a good movie inside it, with big palaces, big battles, and a big, mustache-twirling villain. Above all, it's theoretically hot: this is the inversion of the Bible movie's standby trope of upright dudes seduced toward evil; more to the point, it's the one where the gorgeous Jewish lady fucks the anti-Semitism out of a Persian shah. Daniel can't compete with that. Lions are difficult to work with anyway.
Hence 1960's Italian-American co-production Esther and the King, and I wish I could say Esther's first film adaptation was any good; unfortunately, it's the first film in our retrospective that is affirmatively, actively bad. It's also where we run into a confounding problem with trying to survey half-forgotten genre films, which is that even when they're available at all, they can be abominably preserved and presented. In Esther and the King's case, Amazon's copy is sourced from a shitty "fullscreen" VHS, and this CinemaScope film perhaps looks even worse than that implies.
Yet it's difficult to imagine better presentation transforming this into something adequate, because for all I associate director Raoul Walsh with good movies like White Heat, and even outright masterpieces like The Thief of Bagdad, I question whether any restoration to its 1960 condition could overcome a screenplay this leaden, lazy, and illiterate. I mean, I'm sure it would be more watchable, but it would still remain bereft of virtually anything—romance, spectacle, insight—that would've made it worth anybody's time. The closest it gets is the nerve of using the actual word "holocaust," which isn't entirely inappropriate, yet still maybe a touch too raw for a goofy sword-and-sandal movie in 1960, especially a lousy one made in an Axis country. In its defense, it is about how a Holocaust would be bad.
You'd guess that Esther and the King was some cheapjack European cash-in, designed to piggyback on the Bible movie craze. But no! Esther and the King was a cheapjack European scab effort, designed to circumvent American unions. It hadn't begun so inauspiciously; rather, it was a film that fell headlong into development hell, and then burrowed sideways till it popped back out in Italy. Its roots, however, stretched back to the early 1950s, when 20th Century Fox head Daryl Zanuck—confident in the success of David and Bathsheba—announced Esther as his next effort. Bathsheba's Henry King would've returned to direct, and yet, for whatever reason, it simply never happened. The screenplay wound up passing into independent hands by 1952, with none other than Hedy Lamarr producing, intending to play the Biblical heroine herself, which leads me to surmise that nobody told her that she'd reached comical levels of vanity already with her attempts to play Samson and Delilah's titular villain as a teenaged temptress back in 1949. Lamarr's movie didn't happen either, and the project, sans screenplay, was resurrected at Fox just in time for the writers' strike of 1960, at which point they turned to Walsh and said, "How'd you like to go to Rome?" He accepted, and for all I know he wrote his script with Michael Elkins on the plane.
So: Esther and the King hearkens back to the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, where we find Shah Ahasuerus (Richard Egan) returning from a campaign in Egypt alongside his favorite soldier, a Jew by the name of Simon (Rick Battaglia), whom he showers with honors, and wishes good fortune as Simon goes back to his village outside the capital of Shusan to wed his betrothed, Esther (Joan Collins). What Ahasuerus doesn't know, but suspects, is that his wife Vashti (Daniela Rocca) has been unfaithful; evidently he does not suspect that her lover is his own chief advisor, Haman (Sergio Fantoni), who has been illicitly tapping the shah's treasury in addition to the shah's wife, and who has used Ahasuerus' time away to organize a conspiracy against the throne. Ahasuerus banishes Vashti for her profligacy and disobedience, in a scene that is basically the opposite of what the demure queen does in the Bible, but we get to see most of Rocca's breasts, so there's that.
With Vashti gone, the law demands that the king remarry as soon as possible. Haman swoops in to exploit the opportunity by placing his own handpicked agent (Rosalba Zeri) at Ahasuerus' side, but the shah's more trustworthy advisor, the Jew Mordecai (Denis O'Dea), reminds them that the proper procedure is to search the whole empire for the loveliest virgins, rather than rely on the candidate of any one member of court. By dumb luck, in this forcible sweep of the provinces—because nobody would want to marry the king?—Esther is herself abducted by Persian soldiers. Simon tries and fails to defend her, but having killed a Persian, he is forced to flee into the countryside. Esther is delivered unto the palace without further incident. Unbeknownst to anyone else, however, she still has her uncle—that is, Mordecai—on her side, and, with her beauty and charm, she soon wins Ahasuerus' favor. But Haman plots to pin his treasons upon Mordecai and his people, tricking Ahasuerus into a bloody purge of the Jews of the empire. Now only Esther stands in the way of Haman's genocidal design.
The Book of Esther, of course, is effectively a fairy tale, though it's less romantic than political: Esther is an advocate for her people before a ruler cruel enough to at least contemplate the annihilation of her race, and its happy ending is a government-sanctioned counter-pogrom and 75,000 dead, plus (apparently) a number of desperate conversions to Judaism. It has interesting features, especially as an allegory for Jews living under oppressive foreign rule, calling them to mutual self-defense rather than reliance upon apocalyptic prophets (e.g., Daniel, Jesus); likewise, it has a crafty heroine who would rather just keep her head down, but does what she must, and is rewarded for her bravery with not just a Jewish holiday, but the ability to balance her competing impulses toward assimilation and cultural survival, remaining both the queen of a mighty Empire and a Jew.
Esther and the King, in dramatizing this fairy tale, somehow fails to find the most dramatic thing about it: for it is, or tries to be, a romance. It's very keen on Egan cutting a handsome and at least hypothetically-dynamic figure: there's a bit where, in a case of mistaken identity, he kicks the shit out of his own guards in front of Esther, whilst wearing nothing but a bath towel; the idea is that this is what gets the juices flowing. It does not emphasize the danger to Esther in any but the most nominal ways; and despite inventing a preexisting fiancé for her out of un-Biblical cloth, which you'd think would make this even harder for her, it can't for a moment imagine that Esther is actually sacrificing herself on behalf of her people, or that she might not want to marry a shah who, recall, banished his last wife and had her kidnapped from her own wedding ceremony. It softens the Biblical text—this Mordecai isn't so enthusiastic a pimp—and leaves Esther's arc effectively nonexistent. It doesn't even succeed on its chosen level: for all that its Esther demonstrates no inner turmoil, Joan Collins demonstrates no emotion whatsoever.
Not that one is in a rush to blame Collins: she's given a bland good girl role with absolutely no meat on its bones, plus lazy costumes that top out at "white chiton," not to mention the dullest lines in a screenplay that only ever comes close to fun when it's indulging in crude ancient-sounding innuendoes. ("For if the perfume of a rose is pleasing, nobody is going to ask who crushed the petals," Haman says of the prostitute he hopes to make his puppet queen. Another scene involves Ahasuerus telling Esther about his "uncommonly large feet.") In any event, Collins can do little but meet indifference with indifference; it's a damn far cry from her campy, vampy turn as the driver of courtly intrigue in 1955's excellent Land of the Pharaohs, and I suppose such instincts are what led her to found her own Dynasty (yes, I'm the worst). The only actor who comes alive is Fantoni, who essays an enjoyably smarmy villain, even if the character-as-written remains fairly smudgy as a machiavellian schemer.
With a sucking void in its heart, one can only fight off one's boredom with Esther and the King by finding nits to pick. We're given an obnoxiously large number, starting with a script that is unaccountably if rather ignorantly eager to situate the Book of Esther in actual (or "actual") history. (Ahaseurus is traditionally identified as Xerxes I, though naturally he's best equated with nobody, in the same way one oughtn't spend time trying to "figure out" who the kings in Sleeping Beauty were supposed to be). This tendency is at its most film-breakingly egregious in its frequent namedrops of Alexander III of Macedon, for this, of course, pins this story down to a very particular time in Persian history, and all I could think about was how grim the implications of this are: Esther became queen of Persia just in time to see her empire burn, her husband get murdered like a dog, and her people fall under the authority of the Greeks, which worked out so well that the Jews coined the phrase "abomination of desolation" to describe their joy. I'm equally displeased by the depiction of Persians as cookie-cutter Bible movie pagans, these Zoroastrians being flummoxed by theological concepts their own prophet invented. By the same token, Esther and the King decides that its audience is incapable of comprehending that "Esther" is an assumed name, and its main Jewish characters would probably not continually refer to her, in private, as "Ishtar." It's like if Alfred kept calling Bruce Wayne "Batman."
As noted, it's hard to gauge its cinematic value, though there are certain elements that are clear even in its degraded form: cinematographer Mario Bava (yes, that one) is up to some occasionally-interesting colored lighting set-ups—there's a neat scene of Haman beating his henchman, done up in hellish reds—and sometimes it's potentially a nicely-shot film, though at other times it's drowned in wholly-unreadable day-for-night photography. The set design is cheap, but can be marginally effective and at least somewhat "Persian," though this stops when, in classic Italian fashion, Walsh decides to stretch his budget by shooting amidst the ruins in Rome. This fails on two counts: first, it's Roman; second, it's ruins. Good grief, was any thought too much to ask for Esther and the King?