King Vidor’s swan song to an industry he helped create and shape, along with Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, was Solomon and Sheba (1959); a highly questionable Bible-fiction melodrama, nee would-be epic. It’s debatable what the celebrated introduction of Sophia Loren did for American cinema. Undeniably, it opened the floodgates for a small army of fractured English and smoldering voluptuaries like Gina Lollobridgida to follow in her footsteps. But neither the glimmer of sex from Gina nor the immensity of Yul Brynner’s smooth-pated masculinity could salvage this film from becoming a turgid mess. Based on a story by Crane Wilbur, Solomon and Sheba suffered a lengthy incubation period, an arduous shoot on location in Spain and the tragic death of its original star, Tyrone Power – dead at the age of forty-four. Power had endured longer than any of his contemporaries – even Errol Flynn – as the swarthy swashbuckling stud, despite being long in the tooth for it. Having begun Solomon and Sheba with verve, while rehearsing a daring duel with costar, George Sanders in the stiflingly inhospitable heat of Spain, he suddenly dropped to his knees, stricken with a fatal heart attack. Sanders, generally deemed as ‘not very nice’ was equally as stricken, not with a case of conscience but with a bad bout of anxiety. After all, he could now add ‘public executioner’ to his repertoire of professional cruelties.
In recasting the part of the Israelite king with Yul Brynner, independent producer, Edward Small sought to salvage what he could of Power’s footage, using long shots of Power astride his steed in the final edit to keep a reign on the movie’s budget. But the interpretation of the Divine as a sort of ‘seek and ye shall receive’ entity is rather obtusely handled; Paul Dudley, George Bruce and Anthony Veiller screenplay, mangling Christianity and treating God as though he were equal parts glorified tooth fairy and genie of the lamp, granting wishes at will with a complacent air. It seems anyone who prays to the Almighty has their prayers instantly heard and answered, be they Israelite or Pagan - a liberal notion; it rather defeats the purpose of converting Pagans to Christianity. Why bother if God is on speed dial 24/7? Evidently, Vidor had hoped – or perhaps, even prayed – his ‘something new’ approach to the Lord would reinvigorate this time-honored, and badly worn, sword and sandal quickie, conveying less of the Holy of Holy’s and veering disastrously afar and askew from the historical record, more stringently adhered to in the 1921 silent classic, The Queen of Sheba.
But tricked out in Super Technirama and stereophonic sound, Solomon and Sheba ought to, at least, have looked the part. Alas, there is pretentiousness and a faux Hollywood glam-bam infiltrating its rugged style. Periodically, the film aspires to rise to the level of a DeMille epic, a sort of Ten Commandments wannabe, fabricated with all the decorous accoutrements a la an Edith Head, or, in this case, Ralph Jester, who vacillates in pouring the hourglass figure of Ms. Lollobridgida into one tantalizingly skimpy outfit after the next. Undeniably, Mr. Jester’s dispensation of chic good taste rises to a level of embarrassing tackiness during an orgy. This scene takes its cue from the ‘Romanesque’ offerings of both DeMille and Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis, though without the cleverly devised sumptuousness to fully carry it off. Worse, it is as though Vidor has forgotten some thirty years has elapsed since the public was first exposed to this sort of hysterical nonsense; sexy young gals gyrating to a primal drumbeat, their glistening navel jewels bouncing off some very flat tummies and well-rounded hips, accompanied by shirtless, chest-thumping studs, who pulsate, their arms and legs extended in ridiculous silliness, meant to invoke virility. There’s no subtlety to this set piece, and no sense of maturity about it either; Vidor relying on squirmy gesticulations to substitute for a sort of artless and witless eroticism; passé almost from the moment the movies first learned to talk.
So much for sex, it seems – the objective to titillate the audience with harrowing displays of affection further hampered by Gina Lollobrigida’s inability to render any line of lust-laden dialogue with even a hint of ‘come hither’ spontaneity. English, so obviously her second – and extremely distant – language, she strains to overthink every last word; tongue-twisted and stumbling about in her annunciations; Brynner’s patient and forthright Solomon doing all he can not to laugh in her face or take her over his knee in a sort of ‘Kiss Me Kate’ inspired moment and spank her well-rounded bottom with supreme joy. It might have enlivened their love-making considerably. Knowing Tyrone Power’s rather stiff-britches approach to some of his later Technicolor swashbucklers, I can imagine how he and the loquacious Lollobrigida might have been more aptly suited to one another. But, having lost Power to the ages, jettisoned all notions of good taste and worse, discarded even a hint of fidelity to the historical record, director, King Vidor presents us with pseudo- antiquity in its place; the kind that makes virtually no sense whatsoever in any realm other than the bizarre-land chaos of a typical Hollywood costume drama, expecting the audience to simply fall in love with it for its own elephantiasis.
Given Brynner’s intolerable fallaciousness in the part – he thunders like a Russian bear in a Victorian novel – and King Vidor’s implacably placid battle sequences (they look as though to have been shot as part of a high school prank on how not to graduate from stunt work finishing school) the final death knell for the film is its script; Messers Veiller, Dudley and Bruce badly bungling the precepts of treason and war, spiritual awakening, familial greed, international relations, and, politics – sexual or otherwise. George Sanders is a sneering villain straight out of central casting, or, at least, George Sanders-ville; an enclave of justly celebrated, enterprising deviants. After an ominous main title sequence, given over to a dirge by Mario Nascimbene (with an uncredited assist by Malcolm Arnold), we are introduced to Prince Solomon (Yul Brynner) and his boastful brother, Adonijah (George Sanders); a pair of preening peacocks in weighty robes, breastplates and effeminate headdress. Adonijah has set a trap for the marauding Egyptians near the Israeli border; effectively driving their forces from his encampment. To his great dismay, the warrior prince quickly learns from one of his captives, the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) has pledged her lot with the Egyptians against Israel. Aside: there is nothing either in scripture or archaeology to suggest Sheba was the Pharaoh’s pawn or ally.
Word reaches the encampment King David (Finlay Currie) is dying in Jerusalem. Adonijah is more pleased than concerned, for he has already accepted the throne as his own and vowed to overturn what he misperceives as weaknesses in their father’s rule, to pillage and conquer Egypt in bloodshed. It will not be as easy as he believes. Upon confronting Sheba and her troops in the desert, Adonijah is momentarily beaten into submission with the crack of her whip. Alas, Solomon has already left for Jerusalem, gravely concerned. Arriving home, he is comforted by his ward, Abishag (Marisa Pavan), just in time to hear David’s proclamation. It seems God has spoken in a vision to anoint Solomon as the heir apparent of Israel. Alas, this revelation drives a wedge between the brothers; Adonijah vowing to pledge his troth with the Egyptian armies sooner than see his birthright usurped by his younger sibling. David makes Solomon promise he will erect a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, containing the stone tablets brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses; a promise he once made to God, yet left unfulfilled these many years later.
Solomon vows to rule as his father would have wished. He prays for guidance and is granted God’s protection if he will heed the will of the Divine and allow it to rule the course of his own heart in perpetuity. Solomon’s allegiance to God is repaid with a golden era of peace. He is embraced by the people as a benevolent and just ruler. Moreover, he desires to bridge the chasm created by his appointment to the throne; offering his brother command of the Israeli army – a decision that both perplexes and momentarily softens Adonijah’s heart. The temple for the Ark is built and Solomon dedicates it to the glory of God and the legacy of his late father. Meanwhile, in the land of Sheba, the Queen is informed by her trusted advisor, Baltor (Harry Andrews) the Egyptian Pharaoh (David Farrar) has grown displeased. More amused than threatened by Pharaoh’s wrath, Sheba vows to conquer Solomon not through battle, but by plaguing his heart with lust for her, thereby learning his secrets and his weaknesses and using both to destroy him. While there is little to suggest such a plan was ever hatched, and even less to hint the Queen and Solomon became fated by love – if, at all – undoubtedly, Vidor and his wordsmiths have concocted such obvious trappings to ensure good box office. Regrettably, it worked! Audiences made Solomon and Sheba a solid hit.
The Queen arrives in Jerusalem in a manner befitting her imperious stature, also her own ego; draped with gold and jewels and delivering a menagerie of rare hand-loomed clothes, Arabian horses, acrobats and entertainers at Solomon’s feet. Yet, her greatest offering is yet to follow; a pledge of loyalty to gain Solomon’s favor as an ally. He is most pleased and accepts Sheba’s display without question, even allowing her to sit at his side at court. Her presence is a dividing force amongst the resident courtiers. But Solomon illustrates both his compassion and wisdom during a dispute between two women over a child. The rightful mother (Claude Dantes) explains how her roommate, having accidentally killed her own baby by laying upon it, has stolen her infant son as a replacement. The other woman vehemently denies this claim. So Solomon decrees for the Captain of his Guard, Josiah (Jack Gwillim) to draw his sword and cut the child in two; that both women may claim their half, whereupon the maternal instinct kicks in and the rightful mother casts herself in harm’s way between Josiah’s sword and the boy, offering the child to the other woman to spare its life. Recognizing the truth, Solomon justly awards custody to the woman who sought to protect the child from death.
Sheba uses every feminine wile at her disposal to seduce Solomon but to no avail. And although it was understood Solomon would take Abishag as his wife, his desire is already enflamed by Sheba’s tricks. Unable to rid himself of the suspicion the queen has come to Jerusalem with less than altruistic intensions, Solomon decides to confront Sheba in her private chamber. He bluntly puts to her the question of her purpose. But now it is Sheba who has changed; stirred by Solomon’s kindness, enough to respect him and reveal how her journey had begun as one to destroy him at Pharaoh’s behest. Solomon knows this to be true. But he also realizes the effect his goodness has had on Sheba, and thus accepts her into his bedchamber. A romance, however sterile in its conception, causes consternation amongst the ministers who, at first, approach Adonijah for counsel. Adonijah refuses to act as their intermediary. But he cannot help realize how Sheba might be exploited, perhaps, even against her will, to bring about Solomon’s demise.
Baltor chastises Sheba for softening towards Solomon. She is betraying Pharaoh’s trust and thus threatening her own future sovereignty. To illustrate the sway she holds over Solomon, Sheba asks to hold a Pagan celebration in Jerusalem; a festival denied, but then granted by Solomon. Solomon’s advisors are dumbstruck and angered by his acquiescence. He has betrayed God’s trust by allowing another graven image to be worshipped in the city. Solomon pledges his love to Sheba. In response, her life is threatened by assassins loyal to Adonijah and Solomon’s heart hardens toward his own people. He grants Sheba the right to practice her Paganism in Jerusalem; reluctantly resisting to attend the ceremony. Abishag pledges her devotion to Solomon in Sheba’s stead. But Solomon, driven to distraction, now skulks off to Sheba’s festival, leaving Abishag to return to the temple containing the Ark of the Covenant to pray for forgiveness for her own failure to keep Solomon’s faith pure. Lightning strikes the temple, destroying a portion of its façade and killing Abishag in the process. Sheba outwardly claims a victory, but behind closed doors she is bitterly angry for her part in bringing ruination on this nobleman – God’s emissary on earth, as it were.
God sends a pestilence to Jerusalem. The elders of the tribes rebel and separate; the fertile lands turning to dust. At the same time, Pharaoh engages Adonijah to march on Solomon and destroy his armies and the city. Abishag’s father pledges his armies in defense of Solomon. But the battle is bloody and incurs epic casualties. Sheba repents her sins to God, promising to depart Jerusalem at once and build a temple to Solomon’s God, if only God will hear her now and spare her beloved from death. The next afternoon, Solomon sets his forces upon a craggy cliff, the reflection from their shields blinding Adonijah’s and Pharaoh’s forces as they charge over the steep embankment to their deaths. In Jerusalem, Adonijah orders Sheba to be stoned; the crowd taking its vengeance on ‘the pagan slut’. Too late, Solomon returns victorious to the city, smiting his corrupted brother in a duel and discovering Sheba’s badly broken body lying at the base of the temple. His loyal guardsman explains how Sheba freely sacrificed everything – even life itself – so God might hear her prayer for the restoration of his throne in Jerusalem. Before the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon hears the voice of God proclaim that because Sheba was pure of heart she will be restored to life, though not to him, so she may return to her own kingdom and bear Solomon’s child; the keeper of the faith in two lands instead of one.
Solomon and Sheba is hardly a perfect entertainment. Moreover, it must rate as one of the most grotesquely inaccurate Bible-fiction epics to emerge from Hollywood. Awkward moments of stoic introspection aside, the movie is monstrously sentimental in its last act – even ludicrous in its ‘go and sin no more’ happy ending, meant to inspire renewed devotion to the Christian faith. The production is as hampered by its rather miniscule budget and lack of set pieces. Recall, only for a moment, in this same year – 1959 – William Wyler stunned audiences and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the grandest Bible-fiction epic of them all; the eleven-time Oscar-winner, Ben-Hur; an infinitely more satisfying and resplendently mounted super colossus from MGM.
Solomon and Sheba lacks this total investment in spectacle. Moreover, it is denied the ‘Wyler touch’; a natural affinity Wyler had for instilling humanity into the grandeur of the exercise. In its place, director, King Vidor toggles between moments of lushness – alas, too remotely parceled off to make a consistent impact on the eye – and his even more tragic adherence to staged melodrama; heavy on the syrup, but all too light and disingenuous on its Biblically inspired truths meant to be taken at face value. It’s the artifice in the spectacle that submarines the glories of the film’s production value and narrative, and the lack of consistently high production values that belie what morsels of verisimilitude ought to have come from this drama bookended by flash, pomp and circumstance. In the end, none of it works, either effectively or perhaps, even as it should on the most remedial level, leaving Solomon and Sheba a real dud.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via its alliance with MGM/Fox Home Entertainment, is hugely disappointing, as I must confess a goodly number of MGM/Fox hi-def releases are. Clearly, the studio isn’t ready as yet to fully recognize its wellspring of classics. Solomon and Sheba was photographed in Technirama; an 8 perf 35mm process that ought to have yielded remarkable results in 1080p, particularly since the movie was shot by cameraman extraordinaire, Freddie Young. Alas, MGM’s hi-def transfer is almost certainly created from less than perfect 35mm reduction prints instead of an original 8-perf camera negative. We have mis-aligned frames and more than a handful of dupes, quite obvious in 1080p and distracting. Color density and balancing are adequate, although nowhere near the level Technirama is capable of yielding. Film grain is inconsistently rendered. It’s there, then it’s gone, then it’s heavier than expected. The DTS 2.0 audio is, again, merely present and accounted for instead of delivering the wallop it likely had in discreet stereo during the film’s original theatrical release. As you’ve probably surmised from these comments, I’m not a fan of MGM’s hi-def efforts in general and this one in particular. It’s not TT’s fault. They’re working with what they’ve been offered. However, this doesn’t let MGM off the hook, in my not too humble opinion. Twilight Time has given us the barebones isolated score track and a trailer as extras. Want some solid advice – pass on this one. MGM and Fox’s general lack of investment on catalog releases in hi-def isn’t worth your time or money. If they want us to buy they need to start giving out with a level of quality worthy of the bang in our bucks - period!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)