Chris Hicks: 'Samson and Delilah' was start of biblical-epic film craze

Published: Thursday, March 7 2013 4:38 p.m. MST

"Ben-Hur" was part of the biblical-epic film craze.

MGM

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After watching the new DVD release of “Samson and Delilah,” I immediately looked up the ages of Angela Lansbury and Hedy Lamarr to see how old they were in 1949. Couldn’t help myself.

In the film, Lansbury’s character is identified as Semadar, the older sister of Lamarr’s Delilah, which struck me as odd since Lansbury appears to be at least a decade younger than Lamarr, more of a “kid sister” type.

But in this adaptation of chapters 14-16 of the book of Judges in the Old Testament, Lansbury is indeed playing Delilah’s older sister, although when the film was released she was just 24 (and looked even younger), while Lamarr was a more mature 36.

A surprisingly odd casting choice by the usually savvier Cecil B. DeMille, who directed and produced the film.

Ah, Hollywood.

Nonetheless, “Samson and Delilah” was the biggest moneymaking movie of 1949 and is considered the picture that sparked the biblical-epic film craze of the 1950s (followed quickly by two of 1951’s biggest box-office hits, “Quo Vadis” and “David and Bathsheba”).

Next Tuesday, 64 years after its theatrical debut, “Samson and Delilah” is finally coming to DVD for the first time (Paramount, $19.99), having gone through an expensive, time-consuming restoration process. And it looks great.

The story has the Israelite Samson blessed by the Lord with incredible strength, all the better to put fear into the Philistines that rule his people with an iron fist.

Victor Mature is very well cast as Samson, and there are memorable performances from George Sanders as the evil Philistine ruler and Henry Wilcoxon as his enforcer. And it must be said that despite being a bit long in the tooth for the role, Lamarr is appropriately seductive and duplicitous as Delilah.

Observant viewers will also notice as Saul, teenage Russ Tamblyn, who would later play Riff in “West Side Story,” and in a bit part, George Reeves, destined to become TV’s first Superman. Mormon character actor Moroni Olsen is also on hand.

The film, of course, takes liberties to expand the Bible’s brief telling of Samson’s story — arguably, the most egregious being the idea of making sisters of Delilah and Samson’s Philistine wife.

But all of Samson’s most famous Bible scenes are here, from his wrestling a lion to his riddle about the honey he finds in the animal’s carcass to the killing of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass to his teasing Delilah about the source of his strength to his being blinded and ultimately toppling the Philistine temple.

Despite its popularity in 1949, “Samson and Delilah” isn’t likely to win over many young converts in 2013. The film is pretty hokey by modern standards. That is, by modern theatrical motion-picture standards. Compared to biblical films that have been made for television over the past few decades, this one’s a masterpiece.

Even the infamous sequence early in the film that has Samson rolling around with that lion, which has long been berated by critics as looking quite fake, isn’t nearly as bad as ABC’s 2006 version of “The Ten Commandments” or the 1999 “Noah’s Ark” or myriad other dull, overlong biblical TV movies with lousy effects.

Baby boomers who remember being taken as children to see “Samson and Delilah” in a theater will bathe in fond nostalgia, and film buffs will want to see for themselves its historic value as the first of the “new wave” of biblical epics, and as Cecil B. DeMille’s dry run for what would come seven years later, his final film and biggest hit, “The Ten Commandments.”

Biblical epics were not exclusive to the 1950s, of course, despite the fact that we tend to think of the genre as being a relatively short one mounted during that decade and sandwiched between two Charlton Heston films, “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.”

The 1950s marked the most popular period for them, no question. “The Ten Commandments” was the biggest moneymaker of 1956, nominated for seven Academy Awards and winner of one (for special effects); “Ben-Hur” was the biggest hit of 1959, nominated for 12 Oscars and winner of 11 (a record that stood until it was matched in 1997 by “Titanic”).

But big-budget movies taken from the Bible had actually been around since the silent era. In fact, when DeMille — undisputed king of the big-screen, cast-of-thousands biblical epic — made “The Ten Commandments” in 1956, he was remaking his own 1923 film of the same title.

And if you look at the dates of “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur,” they are separated by only three years. Yet it’s easy to think of them as generations apart since they mark distinctively the changes Hollywood was going through: “The Ten Commandments” being more flamboyant and over the top, and somewhat stilted in its acting style, while “Ben-Hur” is more mature, adult and unafraid to show vivid violence and blood on camera.

A rash of Bible-based movies followed the 1949 “Samson and Delilah” and played through the 1950s and well into the ’60s, each bigger than the one before, some of them quite good, others so-so to awful, and all motivated not just by the popularity of their predecessors but also by the threat of television.

To lure viewers away from the living-room comfort of their 13-inch black-and-white TVs, movies had to become more colorful and bigger in story and scope — which happened literally in 1953, as CinemaScope was introduced by yet another biblical epic, “The Robe,” setting a widescreen standard for movies that continues today.

Yet now, some six decades later, we’ve reverted back to small screens — much smaller even than the 13-inch TV sets of old — as we watch movies on laptops and handheld devices.

What do you suppose Mr. DeMille would make of that?

E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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