Accents run amuck as dim-witted American he-man Samson battles the Philistines, the poor judgment of his people, and his own temper. Born of oddly British parents, Samson is pushed into rebellion by the local Turkish girl, but abandons the fight to marry a doting Italian. When his wedding ends in multiple homicides, he sets off on a course which will lead him to battle an evil German prince and a modern American general before being captured by the very hot, and very English Delilah.
Old Testament stories are just more fun. It’s probably because New Testament God is a real prick, but he’s also big on rather boring speeches about love. So there’s plenty of time spent on hypocritical lessons on goodness before God points out how he hates anyone different. Old Testament God is an unapologetic prick from beginning to end. He uses people as pawns in childish games, kills just about everyone, and does it all with a smile. Lets face it, straight out cruelty and violence is good entertainment. In Samson and Delilah, God is playing with Samson, the Israelites, and the Philistines. He could have told Samson what he wanted, or just made things all bright and sunny for everyone, but that’s not his way. His plan all along was for Samson to suffer just for giggles, and most of the young male Israelites to get killed, all before Samson ends up in the right place to knock down the temple (and apparently destroy the entire country). I don’t recall The Bible laying it out quite that way, but close enough. There’s plenty of pointless bloodshed, sex, torture, and good old fashioned Biblical fun.
But when I’m in the mood for this brand of Judeo-Christian entertainment, this isn’t the version I grab. Cecil B. DeMille 1949 spectacle is the definitive one. While that one goes for bright colors and a fast pace, here we’ve got a dull pallet, drab, under populated battles, and a glacial pace. The basic story isn’t that long, and could easily be told in a thirty minute short. Grab a Bible and read it. There’s not that much meat. DeMille managed to drag it out to over two hours, but then he was a master at the craft of filling time with bright, shiny, vacuous moments. Nicolas Roeg has no such skill, and his version is forty minutes longer. New (non-Biblical) characters and situations pad the story, but aren’t the problem. The plot embellishments are welcome, and while a few characters, like the whiny teen, could have been jettisoned, most pull their own weight. The problem is the whole thing is dialed down to a crawl. It would have been nice for those added events to happen with at least mild rapidity, and the characters to spit out their dialog without overlong pauses. An hour and a half could, and should, have been cut.
Such trimming would have saved money (if done in preproduction), and money is what this project needed. Lots of money. I suppose the story of Samson and Delilah could be presented in a small, personal film, but that wasn’t the attempt here. Armies attack armies and Samson tears down walls and rips apart a city, or that was what the filmmakers wanted to portray. But there’s aren’t enough extras to give the illusion of even a dying village, much less a city. The great “battle,” important enough to have both a general and the prince in attendance, consists of a few dozen men, and most of those must have walked onto the set that morning as it’s clear none of them know what to do with a sword. Multiple melees are held in narrow corridors so that only a few men appear. The temple (and an earlier wall) is obviously made of Styrofoam or an equally un-rocklike substance. I’m pretty sure enormous pillars shouldn’t bounce. Locations are used whenever possible to save on building sets, which was clever, as the few sets are too claustrophobic. But the locations are mainly dull, clay ruins, which gives us a strange view of the Philistines: apparently, they all lived in ancient, crumbling, roofless homes, often lacking a wall.
A few extra dollars could have also gone for the rental of an additional camera, and maybe a steadycam. The sweep shots get tiring, as do the many “push in” then “pull out” moments. But that’s much better than the scenes when the camera shakes, often pointing at nothing of pertinence, or the artsy odd-angle shots, used to disguise the lack of troops and fight choreography.
The cast stands up better to comparison. No one could match DeMille’s Delilah, Hedy Lamarr, an actress often referred to as the most beautiful woman ever filmed, but Elizabeth Hurley comes close. I have no problem believing that a man would choose her over God. I want to put that out there now, in case she’s reading this: I would rather have a few minutes with her than an eternity with God. OK, not a strong statement for an atheist; just rephrase it anyway that implies she is massively, overwhelmingly, stunningly desirable. She doesn’t feel like a Philistine of the B.C. era, but neither does Michael Gambon or Dennis Hopper, who also do as good a job as possible. Eric Thal is adequate as the pretty-boy hero, though long speeches are a bit beyond his level of talent. Victor Mature (Samson in 1949) wasn’t a great actor, so Thal is just following his lead.
Thematically, there’s nothing of value in the Bible tale. It preaches against lust, sex, and sensuality (all of which I support any way I can), and gives lip service to the importance of faith (how much faith do you need when God whispers in your ear and has made you a superhero?), stresses that absolute, blind obedience is a virtue, and is strongly misogynistic. This film sticks with lust being a great evil in the world (I feel so, so very sorry for the filmmakers) and emphasizes even more that you should never think, but just do as your told. However, it presents a counterpoint. When the Israelites finally attack, and get slaughtered, they believe that they are following God’s will. They’ve seen a sign, and not being clever folk, assume it is meant for them. So what is the message there: Do what God wants you to do without question, and just hope that you luck out, and it really is what God wants you to do?
While its views on obedience are confused, it is more definite on women. Good news, they aren’t the source of all sin. Samson’s wife is virtuous and kind, and his childhood friend, who picks fights so that Samson will have to kill Philistines, is shown as a complex character, and no worse than most of the men. Delilah is painted sympathetically. Her betrayal of Samson isn’t based on her vanity and jealousy as is normally the case, but on a real fear of the prince and the desire to be long gone before he becomes king. And with several traitors among the Israelites, the men look worse than the women.
Feminists have less to complain about with this Samson and Delilah than with others, but it is no better for atheists, and considerably worse for anyone looking for excitement.