Purim peplum. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Esther and the King, the 1960 sword-and-sandals Biblical epic co-produced in CinemaScope by Fox and Italy's Galatea, co-written and directed by Raoul Walsh (with some people giving cinematographer Mario Bava credit for co-directing), and starring Joan Collins, Richard Egan, Denis O'Dea, Rik Battaglia, Sergio Fantoni, Daniela Rocca, Renato Baldini, and Rosalba Neri. Certainly not Scripture, and perhaps a tad light on the expected pepla action, this rather cut-rate Biblical epic still delivers the coarse goods, with a fast-moving palace intrigue story, lots of good-looking Italian babes on display, and most delightfully of all, reams of quotably bad dialogue. In other words: just exactly what you want in this kind of movie. Unfortunately, Fox's wildly fluctuating Cinema Archives line does not give Esther and the King the anamorphic treatment...but it doesn't pan-and-scan it, either (as it unfortunately did with their recent Sodom and Gomorrah): the letterboxed 2.35:1 image here looks about right for the ratios, but the fidelity inevitably suffers. Too bad. An original trailer is included as a bonus.
Persia, 2550 years ago. King Ahasuerus (Richard Egan), the most powerful ruler on Earth, the supreme leader of over 120 providences from India to Ethiopia, has returned from successful battle in Egypt. Before entering the gates of the city of Shoushan, Ahasuerus rewards Judean soldier Simon (Rik Battaglia) with the Sword of the Golden Rooster, for saving the King's life in battle. Simon returns to his small village and his betrothed, simple, loyal, stacked Esther (Joan Collins), while the King returns to his whorish, incredibly endowed wife, Queen Vashti (Daniela Rocca), who is having it off with the King's right-hand man, slimy Prince Haman (Sergio Fantoni)...as well as with half the palace guard, apparently. The King had already received battlefield reports of the Queen's infidelity, so he promptly (and privately) banishes her--a development in the King's romantic life that Haman sees as a political opportunity. When the Queen forces the King's hand by dancing lasciviously at a palace orgy, she's secretly killed by Haman's stooge. Now, Haman will supply the King with a new Queen, according to ancient law: all the comely virgins in the land will be brought before the King, for his choosing...with Haman putting in his ringer, gorgeous concubine Keresh (Rosalba Neri). However, the King has eyes only for demure, terrified Esther, who has been convinced by her uncle, Mordecai (Denis O'Dea), the King's trusted counsel, that her destiny lies in romancing the King to eventually convince him to protect the Jews, who refuse to pay homage to Persia's gods. Esther wants only Simon...or does she, once she sees the King's kind ways and huge feet, while Simon vows vengeance on the King. Will Haman succeed in manipulating the King into massacring the Jews? Or will Esther finally succumb to Ahasuerus' size 14 double wide Thom McAn's, and stop the evil Haman?
Primarily an Italian production from Galatea, with American money from Fox--along with writer/director/producer Walsh and the American stars backing it up--it's guess work to divide credit (or blame) for this international co-production. Certainly Hollywood had been going over to Italy to more-cheaply lens their epics for some time (M-G-M's Quo Vadis?, from 1951, was the first big post-war U.S. production shot there, with others like Ulysses and Ben-Hur following later). And no doubt after the staggering success of Ben-Hur in 1959, it's not surprising that Hollywood would continue to cue-up biblical epic imitations with alacrity...particularly on such economically advantageous terms (no American unions, inexpensive-but-skilled crews, abundant "exotic" locales, and tax breaks and post-war frozen funds just laying there, waiting to be used). On the other hand, those big, splashy Hollywood epics, conceived to fight television's continued erosion of Hollywood's audiences, are what drove the Italian film industry to try their own cheapo copies of pseudo-biblical epics. Focusing most successfully on mythological superheroes (to wild box office in Italy, which Hollywood certainly noticed), the pepla cycle went into overdrive in 1959, when producer Joseph E. Levine (for a song) picked up 1957's Hercules starring American muscleman Steve Reeves, and proceeded to hype it into a multi-million dollar international smash hit. So, was Esther and the King primarily an American spectacle, (cheaply) designed to continue Hollywood's already long line of biblical "t*ts and togas" epics shot overseas, or was it primarily an Italian production, designed along the already rapidly-established pepla conventions, with a little more money and some American "name" talent shoring it up for international appeal? "Both," would probably be the most accurate answer for Esther and the King.
One thing you can't call Esther and the King is an accurate depiction of the Jewish Tanakh/Old Testament story, from The Book of Esther. I'm certainly no Biblical scholar (let alone a believer), but I remember my Sunday school, and this version of Esther and King Ahasuerus is lot sexier and more violent than what Mrs. Coolidge told us all those Sunday mornings ago. New characters are introduced (Simon, Esther's first fiance and rebel killer), subplots are altered and embellished (the Queen's deliberately self-destructive, provocative dance--including going topless!--wasn't in any story I remember, believe me), nor does the supposedly ironic, tragic foreshadowing of Ahasuerus' defeat by Alexander the Great jibe, I believe, with any historical time line out there (at least that I know of). And to all of that I say, "So what?" I'm not watching Esther and the King for a church sermon; I know what to expect from this kind of movie, and fidelity to the Biblical texts isn't going to be one of them (Italian pepla--just like Hollywood--were notorious for taking established myths and historical stories and altering them to suit their genre needs). The last thing Esther and the King is about is Purim; it's about sexuality and politics and the violence of war, all inexorably intertwined. The complicated palace intrigues of Haman are driven by his hatred of the Jews and his lust for power...as well as for any woman he spots, including Esther. The King's ennui and disillusionment comes not from his successful battles, but because of his unsuccessful marriage, and the lack of love in his life. And Esther's fate isn't to be the childhood bride of Simon, living anonymously in a small village, but to be the calm voice of religious tolerance to her husband, the King--a position she initially doesn't want (until desire and love overcome her disinclination) that puts her in mortal danger repeatedly with Haman.
Which all starts to sound a little heavy, until you see the visuals and hear the dialogue. Now, as well as not being a Biblical expert, I'm also not a shot-by-shot auteurist of either Hollywood action specialist Raoul Walsh or outrageous exploitation master Mario Bava. But undeniably...there are a lot of shots in Esther and the King that remind me of Bava. How much of that was collaboration (some of those old Hollywood helmers would just tell their cinematographers to "set up a nice shot" and leave them to it...and certainly Walsh relied on Bava to instruct the Italian crew), and how much of it was Walsh or Bava, I'll leave to the experts (it is important to remember, though, that Walsh was pulling triple duty here...and he was no push-over). But clearly, there's a heightened sense of a fetishistic sexuality in Esther and the King that feels weighted towards Bava's later work. Beautiful, half-naked women are constantly put on display for us to ogle. Bava the cinematographer shoots them in elaborately arranged and lit pin-up poses that resemble top-of-the-line movie magazines (or rougher mags), that gives the movie a deliberately presentational, baroque feel at times. Smooth, shapely legs and large breasts are focused on obsessively ("The Goddess of Nature has been especially generous to you!" top-heavy Rocca is told, hilariously), with Bava (or was it Walsh?) staging a few sexually sadistic scenes that somehow got past the censors. Fantoni whipping the hulking mute, bathed in blood red light, as he screams, "Idiot! Idiot! Monster of stupidity!" is deliriously funny, but when knee-weakening Neri is strangled to death, with Bava key-lighting her fabulous legs spasmodically writhing and jerking in a grotesque parody of sexual release, you know you're in Bava-land (you can also tell that Joan Collins had absolutely no "star power" to stop all these fantastic-looking women from being in "her" movie; she looks almost dowdy next to them--some feat for a sex symbol of Collins' allure). Esther and the King must have looked like hot stuff back in 1960, not only for what it actually showed (there's even a shot of Fantoni sniffing some kind of drug), but what it implied, as well (sharp-eyed audience members back in '60 were rewarded with a few frames of Rocca's naked side breast when she strips-off for Egan, but when Bava lingers over a full-blown close-up of Egan's foot as he exclaims, "They're uncommonly large, don't you think?" in his effort to seduce Collins, we have to tip our hats to Walsh's and Bava's sense of dirty fun).
Most amusing of all, though, is Esther and the King's dialogue. Almost always hilariously overripe, this is the kind of excess one wants from a movie like this. If the director keeps cutting to women spilling out of their clothes--as well as frequent shots of Egan's powerful physique all oiled-up--then one wants dialogue that matches those delightfully prurient concerns. It's difficult to even know where to start in giving examples. When "pagan" Egan is confronted with the possible power of Hebrew prayer, he seriously intones, "This unseen God of yours is strange to me...but he does seem to get things done." When the Queen first sees her King, she thickly exclaims, "My King! My beloved Husband! How long I've waited!" to which Egan flatly replies, "Adulteress!" (I hit the floor on that one). Everyone, except for Collins, speaks as if they're bitchy queens, from Egan ("I condemn you in private. You will be forever dead to me...now send for your lovers, harlot!") to Rocca ("I'm going to the feast! Prepare me! Hurry! Hurry!") to Fantoni, who has the movie's best/worst line about his concubine's sadder-but-wiser past: "If the perfume of the rose is pleasing...no one is going to question who crushed the petals." Jesus that's just great. With lines like those routinely popping up in Esther and the King, who cares if some of the other pepla conventions are slighted (the action is a little light, while nobody--not even Bava--seems to know how to shoot all those thousands of extras. Couldn't anybody even climb up on a hill...or even a ladder, so we could see them all?). There's more than enough intentional (and unintentional, one surmises) weirdness in Esther and the King to highly recommend it to pepla fans.
The letterboxed, 2.35:1 widescreen transfer for Esther and the King looks good enough considering this less-than-optimal presentation, that it only makes one wonder how terrific this CinemaScope pic would have looked properly presented. Still...at least we get the correct framing and ratio. Colors are okay (some washing out...but way better than the public domain copies I've seen), and the image is still quite clear (even if you have to zoom to fill your large monitor).
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track is healthy, with no much directional effects but a loud, loud re-recording level. No subtitles or closed-captions available.
An original trailer is included here. Nice.
When Richard Egan sneers at the paltry offerings at his desultory "Welcome Home" orgy and intones, "What poor idiot decided to bore me with this sorry spectacle?", I really don't think you can ask for a more enjoyable moment in this kind of pepla spectacle...except that there are many more such moments in the beautifully delirious Esther and the King. Pity about the lack of anamorphic enhancement...but at least we have the right ratio. I'm highly recommending Esther and the King.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.