Though a bit draggy in its second-half, compensated by a spectacular climax, Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949) is an immensely entertaining religious epic. Today, of course, DeMille is best remembered for The Ten Commandments (1956), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and perhaps the 1934 Cleopatra, but he was essentially a silent film director. Three-quarters of his credits are from the pre-sound era, and movies like Samson and Delilah and the sound version of The Ten Commandments came at the tail end of his career. He was pushing 70 when Samson was made and, stylistically and dramatically, even his ‘40s and ‘50s films anachronistically resembled silent movies.
DeMille painted in broad strokes, with dialogue and acting bordering on (and occasionally crossing over into) high camp. But with the right actors fully committed to playing these larger-than-life roles, DeMille frequently could not only get away with his older, less realistic style of movie-making, but produce uniquely compelling spectacles. Samson and Delilah works in much the same way The Ten Commandments does, and the two films are remarkably similar and play well for the same reasons. Even some of the dialogue is the same: "Where's your God now, Samson/Moses?" "Oh, Samson/Moses! SAM-son/MOE-zus!" etc.)
Samson and Delilah was shot in standard (1.37:1) three-strip Technicolor, and Paramount's new Blu-ray is a honey. The image retains the super-enhanced hues of the three-strip process, with the matrixes perfectly aligned for nearly the entire picture. On big home theater screens the film simply looks great.
Victor Mature stars as the super-strong Samson, a Danite engaged to Philistine Semadar (Angela Lansbury). Her family and friends, particularly suitor Ahtur (Henry Wilcoxon), leader of Gaza's troops, and Semadar's sister, Delilah (Hedy Lamarr), who wants Samson for herself, oppose her marriage to the Hebrew. At the wedding Semadar is tricked into providing the answer to Samson's riddle, a bet placed against 30 Hebrew-hating Philistines. ("Philistine," incidentally, is pronounced about ten different ways over the course of the movie.) In the brawl that follows Semadar and her father are killed, and Samson becomes a wanted man.
On the run, Samson becomes a folk hero, burning Philistine fields and the like. The Saran of Gaza (George Sanders) and Ahtur are increasingly frustrated by Samson's elusiveness. At one point he's captured but, appealing to God, Samson breaks the chains and ropes binding him, and with the jawbone of an ass routs the Philistines.
Delilah, now the Saran's concubine, offers to take Samson alive by seducing him provided "no blade shall touch him and no drop of his blood shall be spilled" once he is recaptured.
The $3 million production draws obvious Cold War parallels, C.B. being an especially virulent anticommunist and active supporter of the Hollywood blacklist. Nonetheless, the film delivers plenty of action and spectacle, from Samson's battle with a lion (perhaps the best-staged fight of its kind) to his skull-crushing thrashing of the Philistines with that ass's jawbone. (DeMille always got away with far more sex and violence than the Production Code would normally allow, and this scene is notably bloody and graphic. There's no question Samson is cracking his opponents heads wide open.)
Samson's super-strength is also frequently on display, the kind of thing the subsequent Adventures of Superman TV show could have used a lot more of. (Superman himself, George Reeves, has a nice scene in Samson and Delilah as a messenger reporting Samson's jawbone-of-an-ass-kicking battle.) As he'd be once again in The Robe (1953), Victor Mature is surprisingly effective and with his broad chest and barrel-like arms, physically just right. (Wikipedia reports DeMille "lobbied hard" for bodybuilder Steve Reeves, then unknown in Hollywood, but this claim sounds dubious to me.)
Vienna-born actress (and inventor*) Hedy Lamarr is conventionally beautiful and completely adequate as Delilah, though by today's standards she doesn't hold up as well as Hollywood's other great seductresses. Certainly she and London-born Lansbury are among moviedom's great mismatched siblings.
However, Mature and Lamarr handle these larger-than-life characterizations pretty well, and just as DeMille would balance Charlton Heston and Anne Baxter with subtler old pros like Cedric Hardwicke and Edward G. Robinson in The Ten Commandments, here George Sanders especially expertly sells his pragmatic villain, so much so that when he meets his end one almost feels sorry for the guy.
The movie climaxes with one of the greatest special effects set-pieces ever devised, one this reviewer actually prefers to the celebrated Parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. A blinded Samson topples the Temple of Dagon, god of the Philistines. Supervised by Gordon Jennings, the sequence was realized via travelling mattes and a 37-foot high scaled-down miniature. On big screens and monitors, this sequence is still quite awesome.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original 1.37:1 standard frame format and including the original overture, Samson and Delilah looks terrific on Blu-ray. The colors are vibrant and accurate, and the transfer shows precious little in the way of damage or misaligned color matrixes. The Dolby TrueHD 2.0 mono, in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish (with optional subtitles in all of those languages) is adequate for this pre-stereophonic era production. The lone Extra Features is a trailer, also in high-def.
A marvelous, still very entertaining religious epic with many spectacular scenes, Samson and Delilah is Highly Recommended.
* With composer George Antheil she developed a forerunner to modern spread-spectrum communication technology.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.