BR: Solomon and Sheba (1959)

June 3, 2015 | By


SolomonAndSheba1959_BRFilm: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  March 10, 2015

Genre:  Biblical Epic

Synopsis: King Solomon is lured by lusty Queen Sheba while his brother Adonijah plots to reclaim the throne of Israel with the Pharaoh’s mighty army.

Special Features:  Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / 2 Theatrical Trailers / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment. 



After a steady stream of films, screen star Tyrone Power had his eyes on producing his own biblical epic, given the genre had become a mainstay in cinemas with widescreen formats and stereophonic sound – perfect for exploiting sprawling vistas, rich colours, and lavish romantic soundtracks that bridged classic tales of romance and tragedy with modern audiences.

The genre had always existed in Hollywood since the silent era, but during the fifties it seemed like the perfect venue to reassure war-traumatized audiences that the human spirit always triumphed over greed, betrayal, and wayward lust – the latter an element often de rigueur in the works of historic epic pioneer Cecil B. De Mille whose logic was sublime: as long as nudity (direct or implied), illicit romances, or raunchy behaviour was taken from interpretations of translations from supposedly sacred texts as recorded by someone of a supposed authority, who could say it was exploitation?

The genre had its share f peaks and valleys, and the tale of Solomon and Sheba was an ideal candidate for the big screen: Israel’s king is smitten by a hussy who betrays him for Egypt’s Pharaoh, but she comes around to a higher moral thinking, and after severe contrition, lives to serve a singular and less pagan god. It was almost classic De Mille, especially since the power of the throne was threatened by an older jealous brother willing to side with any power in order to rule what he felt was rightfully his.

Casting George Sanders as greedy brother Adonijah made sense, given the actor’s skill in coating malevolent characters with smarm and glee, whereas Power had shown he could go beyond the handsome leading male roles and portray flawed characters, especially those pushed to the limit of sanity. Gina Lollobrigida may have been awarded a more cartoonish version of a hussy, but certainly in her physical performance, every movement – walking, standing, staring, or nibbling flopping grapes from a jostling bunch – she fit the mold.

Power was reportedly halfway through filming when a duel staged with Sanders caused a heart attack, killing the gifted actor at the age of 44. The production clearly had to reach its intended completion – its massive visual scope and production values couldn’t be written off – so the decision was made to recast the film with Yul Brynner, himself a veteran of the De Mille epic having been one of the superb elements in The Ten Commandments (1956), the director’s own career swansong.

If these brief clips from rare surviving footage with Power is an indication, the script remained largely the same, with the Brynner footage inserted between the extant Power material – certainly a surreal salvage effort for any editor – and while Brynner is fine, and A / B comparison of select scenes shows very distinct interpretations of Solomon by two charismatic actors. Brynner’s introverted style relies on posturing, an authoritative voice, and steely eyes in various modes of concentration, whereas Power is more emotionally raw, unafraid to explode or writhe on camera.

It is a pity no effort has ever been made to create a reconstruction of a Power version, as a tribute to the actor’s final role, but then Solomon and Sheba is a critically maligned film, being one of the lesser epics due to a deadly dull script that spends far too much time with foreplay between the inevitable lovers, plus some really terrible dialogue, most of it spoken by Lollobrigida. (The judgment scene in which Sheba observes Solomon handling two women arguing over the lineage of a newborn is especially dull; Lollobrigida is part bored, part robotic in the way she mutters banal statements meant to compliment Solomon’s wisdom.)

The costumes, however, are stunning, making one suspicious the final publicity poster billing should’ve read ‘Brynner, Sanders, Lollobrigida, and her Heaving Bosom.’ Sheer fabrics, supportive mammary meshing, meticulous lighting, and specific edits capitalize on breasts and waistline, and one wonders whether the actress had fun with it, or was resigned to playing a one-dimensional temptress whose few dramatic scenes happen far towards the end (such as pleading for Solomon’s life to Jehovah, and being stoned by a mob).

The film achieves its ultimate kitsch-point in a pagan ritual where trained dancers gyrate and mimic lewdness while Queen Sheba performs a weird fish-puppet maneuver with her arms that’s supposed to be a modern interpretation of pagan choreography. She’s also carried like an idol by her pagan clan in one giant mosh pit before she lures Solomon to a cave and they irk Jehovah by consummating their passion.

Sanders clearly had fun with the role, but he’s too old to engage in swordplay, hence director King Video often covering defensive motions in close-ups. Sometimes Sanders could wield a big sword, but most of the time he’s clearly struggling not to let the weight snap his wrist.

As much as the film lumbers along, the finale really kicks into gear once Solomon must meet Adonijah’s army, enhanced by the Pharaoh’s own men in a massive flowing valley. Both the battle scenes and the ride to hell which turns the fight into Solomon’s favour are superb, and reveal Vidor’s gift for montage; never mind the obvious models in later shots, because it’s all in the rhythm and choreography that make the sequence.

There’s no doubt Freddie Young’s desert cinematography convinced David Lean this was his man for Lawrence of Arabi (1962). Young’s widescreen compositions are incredible, and Vidor knew how to exploit the ‘scope ratio in singular angles and camera movements. A close-up on Solomon suddenly veers into a wide shot with Solomon’s men sprawling by the hundreds down a slope; and many high angle shots show troop movements to give audiences a sense of continuity as masses of soldiers fight in the bottom of a valley. (It wouldn’t be a surprise if director Sergey Bondarchuk ran with the technique and applied aerial shots for the battle scenes in his 1970 epic Waterloo, and the 1966 version of War and Peace, a novel which Vidor had tackled back in 1956 for producers Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti.)

Mario Nascimbene (who also scored Vidor’s War and Peace) delivers a decent score that’s more evocative of a mythical tale than fact, which actually works better for the film given key twists of fate occur from direct divine intervention rather than human bumbling. The vocal stylings give the film a surreal feel, and the use of playing back organ tones and warbling re-recorded audio are very novel for the era, yet presage his own experimental-styled score for De Laurentiis’ underrated epic Barabbas (1961).

Had Power lived to finish the film, Solomon and Sheba would’ve retained the same structural and dialogue flaws, but this is one of the last great biblical epics that delivers visual (and bosomy) scope to audiences.

MGM’s HD transfer of the film is really gorgeous – Lollobrigida’s weird, arching eyebrows are even creepier in HD – and the sound is a light stereo mix, a nice surprise for Nascimbene fans.

Twilight Time’s added a mono music & effects track and two trailers – one hyping the romance and spectacle, and the other hyping the (deserved) splendor of Super Technirama 70, given the film was shot for 70mm exhibition. Both trailers are loaded with spoilers, however.

The ideal would’ve been a recorded commentary with film historian Julie Kirgo, but in her liner notes she conveys sufficient facts and admiration for this oddball, tragic production which ultimately did very well at the box office. It is eerie to think vestiges of the Power footage remains in the finished film (reportedly in distant battle scenes), but both Brynner and Lollobrigida were huge draws – if not for their screen charisma, then seeing Brynner in the most perfect hairpiece fitted onto a bald noggin. With hair + manicured beard, Brynner is magnetic, which compensates for his character interpretation that reportedly ran contrary to Vidor’s direction.

Kirgo’s sadness for Vidor’s decision to retire after making a blockbuster is justified – he was a great craftsman going back to the silent era, and many shots and his use of montage within Solomon and Sheba are very classical – but in his autobiography (King Vidor, American) there’s a sense he’d simply had enough of epics, tempers, egos, exhausting production schedules, and exotic taxing temperatures, and wanted something different, if not more intimate film projects. His career change came in the form of teaching, which gave him great pleasure, and although he never directed another feature film, he left an indelible imprint in late-career classics such as Duel in the Sun (1946), The Fountainhead (1949), and War and Peace (1956).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  — DGA King Vidor Entry —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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