Tuesday 13 October 2009

Solomon and Sheba (1959)

Director: King Vidor
Stars: Yul Brynner, Gina Lollobrigida and George Sanders
King Vidor was one of the great names of American cinema, beginning his long and celebrated career as a Universal clerk at a salary of $12 a week. His first film as a director was Hurricane in Galveston in 1913 and he would go on to make such classics of the silent screen as The Big Parade, The Crowd and Show People. Such success eluded him in the sound era, at least after 1931's The Champ. Then again, having seen films like Not So Dumb and Bird of Paradise, failure isn't too surprising, Dolores del Rio notwithstanding. Then I watched Duel in the Sun, which is a truly outstanding piece of classic Hollywood garbage, as overblown and lacking in substance as any mega-budget, CGI-laden, star studded blockbuster of today. Excepting a short documentary in 1980 called The Metaphor, Solomon and Sheba was his last film and bizarrely it feels as if he attempted not to blot Duel in the Sun from our memories but to outdo it in ineptitude.

As if to highlight just how much this is going to depart from the wildest attempt to approach history or even legend, we open with a battle between cowboys and Indians. Those heathen savages ride through town a-whoopin' and a-hollerin', burning down the entire place, only for the wily townsfolk to ride down from the hills where they've been hiding to rout this invading force and wipe them out. Ah, but they're not really cowboys and Indians, they're the forces of Egypt and Israel two thousand years ago. Apparently the more things change, the more they stay the same.

If the appalling fight and the accompanying slaughter of obvious dummies isn't enough, I should point out who's playing these historic parts. Perhaps the personification of the inevitable failure of this film is the casting of Prince Adonijah, eldest son of King David and heir to the throne of Israel. For some reason they picked George Sanders. Now, Sanders was one of the greatest devious miscreants in the history of cinema and I'm a huge fan, but somehow casting him as an ancient Israelite, even a devious miscreant of an ancient Israelite, seems utterly ludicrous. To play his brother Solomon, they cast Yul Brynner, bizarrely making the two sons of David both Russians, just as the leading ladies are both Italians. Brynner isn't bad but it takes a lot of effort just to get past the fact that he has hair. In fact not only isn't he bald but he grows a beard and moustache too, which seems as surreal as if Beyonce had played the part.
Unfortunately, while Sanders attempts in vain to exude military power while being poured into his costume and Brynner manages the amazing feat of appearing to get on wonderfully with his co-star Gina Lollobrigida while not generating any sparks between the two characters, the story is even worse. Among the Egyptian dead they find a man who looks just like the rest of the Egyptians, only for them to wax lyrical about how different he is. It's all to highlight that he's a subject of the Queen of Sheba and so kindle Adonijah's interest in her. That's before he even sees her, so he doesn't yet know that she's played by the lovely Lollobrigida with what seems like half the studio's skimpy costume department to aid her.

There's intrigue going on here. Back in Jerusalem, King David is dying, apparently even falling into a coma at one point, even though I didn't think they knew about such things two thousand years ago. Adonijah is an arrogant man, eager to claim the throne that is to come to him, so much so that he decides not to wait until his father dies to announce that he is the new King of Israel. Naturally the Queen, accompanied by Baltor, her Klingon right hand man, is in the very next chariot he sees and so they get to banter about which nation she should side with. However she isn't interested in his offer to grant her all the Egyptian lands that border on her own after he crushes the Pharaoh, probably because he's promising lands he doesn't have in the name of a throne he doesn't sit on. She even has the temerity to whip him while he stands there like a complete wuss. I couldn't tell if he was crying or not but it's a close call.

No wonder that when David announces his successor, it isn't his elder son Adonijah but his younger son Solomon. Apparently God visited him and told him that Israel can only survive in peace not war, but needless to say Adonijah is a little pissed. And from here we descend into lunacy. You don't need to have studied the Bible, you only need to have heard the odd Bible story as a kid to realise how crazy this melodramatic yarn is. For most of the two hours and twenty minutes that this film runs, I kept hoping that the moronic lead character could acquire some of the wisdom of Solomon.
Sure, we get the classic splitting the baby in two judgement but that's about the only thing this Solomon gets right until the end of the film, and that's hardly his doing either. Instead of ensuring the integrity of the Israelites and preserving the unity of the twelve tribes, he gives way to the commands of his loins and causes his God to blow vast holes in the holiest building in his land, bringing a whole new meaning to that word. It even comes close to taking out the Ark of the Covenant and what would Indiana Jones have done without that? With such consistently dubious decisions, it's a wonder that even some of Solomon's supporters stay with him throughout.

It doesn't take much of a conspiracy theorist to believe that Tyrone Power, who was originally cast as Solomon, died of a heart attack at the age of 44 just to get out of the film. He's there in long shots but it's hardly a fitting epitaph to a great career. What makes it worse is that the man who perhaps gave us the greatest swordfight in screen history, battling Basil Rathbone in The Mark of Zorro, collapsed after a duel with George Sanders in this film and didn't survive the ride to the hospital. The retake with Brynner may not be the worst swordfight in screen history but it doesn't bear mentioning in the same breath as Tyrone Power. Fortunately for the leads, they would quickly recover from this film, at least: a year later would see Brynner in The Magnificent Seven and Sanders in Village of the Damned.

The whole thing is painted in such broad blockbuster strokes that we even get a pagan ritual dance scene and orgy that would better fit a South Sea Island exploitation melodrama, though we don't get the accompanying Les Baxter soundtrack to truly give it life. The drums keep pounding and I kept waiting for Kong to erupt into the scene and steal Lollobrigida away. Apparently the European version had a topless pagan delight dancing for our pleasure, but the American version was bowdlerised, even before God strikes the pagan idol out of the sky with lightning. Shame on the Production Code that stole the only bit of joy out of the film from us. Its biggest sin is that it's boring. Even Duel in the Sun, such a blot on the face of American film, never fell prey to that flaw.


Mrs. R said...

I've actually seen some of the Power scenes in Solomon and Sheba, and they're very good. Brynner demanded rewrites of the script. Power by that point wanted to make a film a year and spend the rest of the time doing stage work.

Fortunately, this film is never considered Power's last since he's basically not in it except for long shots. His last film is Witness for the Prosecution. I think that's fitting.

Some trivia: There was a problem with Power's physical, which was attributed to the EKG machine. Power didn't investigate it, though his ex-wife thought he should have another test. I'm sure he was afraid he wouldn't be insurable. (His father died of a heart attack, and Power was a four-pack-a-day man. It's rare to see a photo where he doesn't have a cigarette.)

In order to cash in the insurance the producers had on Power, they had to agree not to have Power anywhere in the movie. Obviously they cheated.

Power actually died in the studio rather quickly. He was taken out of the studio by his stand-in, Mike Steckler, and someone else, with a scarf tied around his neck to keep his jaw from dropping open, which is what happens when you die and they stand you up. They didn't want anyone to know because they were afraid his wife would find out via a press person. So they took him to the hospital and made everyone think he was still alive.

His son was born six weeks later. He turns 51 in January, and is also an actor. He has a son who is also a Tyrone. There are 7 other grandchildren.

Anonymous said...

Actually Brynner wore a wig but he did grew out his beard. I thought Solomon and Sheba was an okay movie, I wish the dialogue was better. In my opinion, it seems more like a porn than a biblical epic.