The Easter and Passover seasons are a time in which those of the Christian and Jewish faiths reflect upon their religious beliefs and rejoice in the celebration of crucial events in their religious history. Since the silent era, studios have attempted to capture onscreen the larger than life tales of both the new and old testaments. The majority of those films focus relate the most famous of these tales including Moses’ deliverance of his people from slavery and Jesus’ crucifixion. In those films, the focus is placed upon the triumph of goodness over evil and the redemptive power of faith. While these films are powerful works, they ignore the darker aspects of the bible that helped make its tales truly epic. This week, I’ll be honoring the season with an added twist by exploring three films that will make you think twice about the goodness of the “good book”.
|Sky rockets in flight, afternoon delight!|
1. David and Bathsheba: While King David is often remembered for his childhood triumph over Philistine giant Goliath, the kings’ story includes far more than that one chapter. The 1951 film David and Bathsheba chronicles the crises both moral and religious that the adult king encounters. The film begins by detailing the ways in which David (Gregory Peck) rules his kingdom, but quickly becomes a tale of lust and illicit love when he spies his neighbor, the beautiful Bathsheba (Susan Hayward) as she takes a bath by her window. Almost immediately after setting eyes on her he orders his men to bring her to the palace under the pretense of accepting an honor on behalf of her husband, Uriah (Kieron Moore), who is away fighting the kingdom’s enemies. It is soon revealed that Bathsheba is just as cunning as David and planned on bathing in front of her window in hopes of drawing his attention. Almost as soon as they are introduced, the pair embark upon a passionate affair and disregard the consequences until Bathsheba learns that she is pregnant with David’s child. It is only then that the couple consider the ramifications for their actions as they scramble to hide her condition before she can be accused of adultery; a capital crime. The pair first scheme to pass off the child as belonging to Uriah, and when that fails, plot to have Uriah killed so that Bathsheba can be free to remarry. The crosses and double crosses that ensue are more befitting of a noir than a biblical epic and make the film a truly sinful pleasure. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the tale is the ending, in which the couple escapes not just criminal prosecution, but all ramifications when David confesses to his sins and contritely prays, inspiring God to show mercy. While this twist shows the power of faith and mercy, it also goes against the moral lesson that the entire plot is built around and contradicts God’s supposed unbending law, which demanded the death of a minor character for an innocent mistake earlier in the film. This in turn leaves viewers to grapple with the cynical question of whether or not there are in heaven as on earth two sets of laws; one for the privileged elite and another for the general population. Whatever your answer to this question, one thing remains unquestionable; the sheer entertainment value of an ancient scandal that could rival the most saucy of modern tabloids.
2. Samson and Delilah: Samson and Delilah tells a similar tale of a biblical hero led astray by the temptations of the flesh. What stands out in the film, however, is the moral ambiguity of its traditionally cardboard characters. While touted by the other characters as Israel’s greatest warrior, Samson’s (Victor Mature) greatest enemy is not any foreign nation, but his own lack of self-control. Throughout the film, he behaves in a manner more befitting of an angst ridden adolescent than a national hero as he devotes more of his time to showing off his physical prowess and acting on petty grudges than furthering the cause of his people. When his retaliation for a lost bet goes too far and leads to his betrothed (Angela Lansbury) breaking their engagement, he refuses to take responsibility for his actions and instead chooses to immaturely lash out yet again, ultimately sparking a chain of events that ends with the murder of his fiancée. Beyond its morally compromised hero, the film also presents audiences with a complicated twist on the biblical tale’s femme fatale. Instead of a scheming seductress, Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah is portrayed as an ordinary woman hardened by personal tragedy. After witnessing the way that Samson’s recklessness led to the deaths of her father and sister, who in the audience could hold Delilah’s desire for vengeance against her? She is also shown to be ahead of both the ancient society of the film and that of the late 1940’s in which the film is released in her independence and willingness to break social norms. Rather than the passive tool of her countrymen that she is portrayed as in the bible, the film’s Delilah is an adept strategist and social chameleon who outsmarts the men around her at every turn. As a result, the film’s story of two people finding unexpected solace in one another as they cope with the loss and guilt of their pasts is far more relatable and complex than the original, simplistic, tale of a hero undone by a temptress. By 1940’s standards, the film also revels in the racier aspects of its story, showing off the physical charms of its leading man and lady in equal measure as it chronicles the forbidden love affair that ultimately proves to be Samson’s downfall. For a story that merges the battling best of the biblical with contemporary complications look no further than Samson and Delilah.
3. Salome: Racism, incest, and political corruption; 1953’s Salome tackles all of these taboo topics and more. While the film is loosely based off of the biblical tale of the princess who ordered the execution of John the Baptist, the film diverges from its source material and transforms the formerly vindictive villainess into a misunderstood and courageous heroine. The film begins with Salome (Rita Hayworth) returning home to Galilee after her Roman fiancée rejects her because she is an immigrant and the local authorities banish her from Rome as an enemy alien. Despite her vow to never trust another Roman, she soon finds herself infatuated with the roguish Captain Claudius (Stewart Granger) during her journey home. When her stepfather, King Herod (Charles Laughton), learns of her budding relationship upon her return he becomes jealous of the young man, whom it is revealed he views as a romantic rival. As if the unwanted advances of her stepfather weren’t enough of an obstacle, Salome is also forced to evade the manipulations of her mother (Judith Anderson), who encourages Salome to give in to the king’s desires in order to secure both women’s political power. Meanwhile, prophet John the Baptist (Alan Badel) adds even more turmoil to the princess’ life by inciting the citizens of Galilee to overthrow the king, and queen as adulterers and insinuates that the two conspired to murder Herod’s brother, the queen’s late first husband. After failing to persuade the converted Christian Claudius to arrest John as a traitor, she soon finds herself regretting her actions and sympathizing with the prophet’s teachings. Eventually, John is arrested and Salome selflessly offers to perform a striptease for Herod on the condition that he in return grant any request she makes, with the hidden intention of using the bargain to demand John’s release. As soon as her performance is finished, however, her mother demands the execution of John, ruining Salome’s opportunity to plea on his behalf. The film then reaches its inevitable, gory, climax when John is decapitated and his head presented to the royal family on a silver platter, leading Salome and Claudius to embark upon a daring escape from the palace. While this adaptations sidelines the most depraved aspects of the original story, Salome was daring in its time for its willingness to explore the effects of sexual abuse, racism, and religious persecution, even if only within a historical context. The film’s multifaceted portrayal of its characters succeeds where many other religious epics fail and creates a truly engaging story that viewers can apply to modern life. Coming of age story, religious epic, and social criticism, Salome is a truly epic film with more layers than its heroine’s famed seven veils.