Cecil B. DeMille's epic Samson and Delilah doesn't bring the Blu-ray house down
By Jim Bray
When one thinks of classic epic biblical movies, titles such as "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur" come to mind immediately. But Cecil B. DeMille had a couple of such flicks under his belt before his 1956 "Commandments" magnum opus, including the new to BD "Samson and Delilah."
Unfortunately, while this movie has its charms (including those of Hedy Lamarr!), it's a pale shadow of his later "Moses versus Ramses" epic. Part of this is thanks to dubious casting decisions.
It sure looks great on the high definition disc, though!
Set after the age of Moses, but still during the old testament and long before the birth of Christ that opens "Ben-Hur," the film sees our hero's people suffering under the yoke of the Philistines. As with Moses (eventually) in "Commandments," the people look up to Samson (Victor Mature), a man whose incredible strength makes him a kind of superhero of his day. He may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he can mow down overwhelming numbers of enemy soldiers armed only with the jawbone of an ass!
I'll refrain from any politician jokes here…
Samson's also a bit of a loose cannon, in that he wants to marry outside his own people - and he has his sights set on a Philistine woman named Semadar (a very young Angela Lansbury). It doesn't work out, but it isn't for a lack of trying on Samson's part. And after all the foofaraw surrounding his pursuit of Semadar he eventually ends up getting together with her sister Delilah (Lamarr), a gorgeous schemer who wants Samson for her own.
All heck breaks loose, however, and Samson is forced into hiding - at which time the Philistines put mounting pressure through taxes and other intimidation tactics to get them to turn Samson over to them. They do this, eventually, and after a bit of meandering in the manner of plot, he ends up getting sucked in by the nasty Delilah into telling her the secret of his strength. And it's hairesy! Naturally, she uses this against him and the Philistines blind him and take him back to Philistine headquarters, where he's chained to a grinding wheel to serve out his life in absolutely horrible conditions. It's pretty depressing.
Naturally, there's plenty more to the plot than this, but I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't seen it. And no cheating by reading your bible!
Unfortunately, while "Samson and Delilah" was apparently a big, spectacular epic as far as 1949 is concerned, it's a pale shadow of DeMille's own "Ten Commandments" - let alone William Wyler's masterpiece "Ben-Hur." But in it you can see from whence "Commandments" sprang - this film has the same kind of taking itself too seriously as the later epic does - but it isn't as involving or spectacular. Sure, he brings the house down, but he sure doesn't bisect any bodies of water!
As mentioned earlier, part of the movie's problems are thanks to casting. I haven't seen a lot of Victor Mature so don't know his body of work, but in this flick he seems incapable of acting his way out of a paper bag. It's too bad, because the rest of the cast (which also includes such other Hollywood luminaries as George Sanders and Henry Wilcoxon) is just fine. But Mature cannot carry the movie and his weakness as an actor really stands out. Heck, he doesn't even look buff like a superhero - though that may have been the point.
The story of Samson is one of those great Old Testament tales that make for such compelling stories (like Noah, Joseph, Daniel, King David, Solomon etc.), so it isn't surprising that DeMille would tackle it. It's just too bad he didn't make a better movie.
It doesn't help the modern moviegoer that the epic was made before widescreen became popular, so it appears in the classic 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which leaves big black bars on either side of the squarish picture. That means you don't get the wonderfully wide vistas that make epics seem so, well, epic.
That said, the 1080p picture looks simply scrumptious. Paramount's transfer offers fine detail, rich colors, and excellent black levels. Whether it be costumes, props, actors' skin or whatever, it all looks magnificent from beginning to end. It's basically reference quality.
The audio isn't nearly as good, but that should surprise no one. Paramount has given it the Dolby TrueHD lossless treatment, and it's fine considering the source material, but of course it falls down seriously compared with today's digital surround tracks - and there's been no remixing into surround. Not much can be done about that considering the state of today's (and yesterday's) technology.
Extras are limited to the film's trailer.
Despite its flaws - chief among which, of course, is Victor Mature - Cecil B. DeMille's "Samson and Delilah" is an interesting flick and I'm glad I had the chance to see it. It shows a Hollywood long gone, when the Bible and religion were treated with reverence, not just as pegs upon which lazy liberal filmmakers can hang their bad guys' motivations.
And Paramount has done the film justice with its meticulous high definition video release.
"Samson and Delilah" seems almost like a dry run for DeMille's later big, widescreen epic "The Ten Commandments," or at least the step from which DeMille launched that more larger and more famous epic. Of course "The Ten Commandments" also benefited from having the great Charlton Heston on board in the lead role and, unlike Victor Mature here, he could carry a film on his broad shoulders.
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.