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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Solomon and Sheba (Blu-ray)
Solomon and Sheba (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time // Unrated // March 10, 2015 // Region Free
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Screenarchives]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 15, 2015 | E-mail the Author
C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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P R I N T
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For the second time in three reviews, I found myself watching a movie listed in Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss's popular but snarky book, The 50 Worst Films of All-Time. Solomon and Sheba (1959), the biblical epic starring Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida, is like nearly all of the fifty undeserving of the "honor." It's an entertaining, impressively gargantuan production gorgeously photographed by Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia) in Technirama, though there are serious casting problems and the dialogue is often clumsy and ludicrous.

That it was released at all was something of a miracle. Two-thirds of the picture was in the can when its original lead, Tyrone Power, suffered a fatal heart attack while filming a duel with co-star George Sanders. With crucial footage yet to be shot, the producers were faced with three options: shutting the film down and collecting the insurance money, shooting the unfilmed scenes with another actor, or reshooting most of the film with a new leading man. They opted to replace Power with Brynner, but his approach to the character differed sharply from Power's, and Brynner's performance damages the film.

Super Technirama 70 was essentially VistaVision with an anamorphic lens. Standard 35mm film moved through the camera horizontally rather than vertically, exposing eight perforations of film, twice as much acreage on each frame as conventional, 4-perf 35mm. The result is an exceptionally sharp and steady image. For release, prints were in 70mm. Blu-ray titles that have gone back to the original horizontal Technirama camera negatives have yielded extraordinary results, with Circus World, 55 Days at Peking, Zulu, and Sleeping Beauty being prime examples.

Twilight Time's Blu-ray of Solomon and Sheba is mostly very impressive. It's not clear whether licensor MGM went back to the original negative or not. The image shows enough grain (most obvious in scenes with clear blue skies) to suggest that perhaps a 35mm print-down was sourced, but it's still an amazingly sharp and vivid presentation, very satisfying indeed. (See below)


A thousand-odd years before the birth of Christ, King David (Finlay Currie) has united the Twelve Tribes of Israel, with heir-apparent first-born son Adonijah (George Sanders) defending its borders against hostile enemies, particularly Egypt. However, the dying David unexpectedly names Adonijah's scholarly, pragmatic younger brother, Solomon (Brynner), the new King of Israel. Outraged, Adonijah plots his brother's assassination.

Elsewhere, the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) makes a pact with the Egyptian Pharaoh (Black Narcissus's David Farrar): for his annexation of a port city (belonging to one of Egypt's allies) she'll bring about Israel's downfall by seducing Solomon and inciting a civil war that will destroy the Israelites from within.

Soon enough, Solomon's wisdom seems to abandon him in matters concerning his curvy, Italian-accented shiksa. The pleas of advisors like Hezrai (Laurence Naismith) fall on deaf ears as Solomon and the Queen embark on a torrid love affair, eventually planning an alliance between their kingdoms. So blind does Solomon become to her blasphemous ways that he even permits her pagan orgy within the very gates of Israel.

The biggest problems with the film are the performances of Brynner and Sanders, and director King Vidor's inability to make the stilted, Hollywood biblical epic-phrased dialogue sound acceptable. Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments had pretty terrible dialogue itself, but actors like Charlton Heston, Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, and Vincent Price knew how to sell it; Anne Baxter much less so, as she comes off like Divine in a John Waters movie.

Sanders found himself at a serious disadvantage. Best coolly underplaying characters like Simon Templar and Addison DeWitt, he's at a loss with Adonijah, a role requiring a theatrical grandeur Sanders just can't deliver. Instead he comes off shrill and hammy.

For Brynner, the problem is more complex. Apparently none of Tyrone Power's footage as Solomon survives; at least one assumes so as MGM has never included it as an extra feature on any of Solomon and Sheba's home video versions. But it's easy, especially considering late-career performances in things like Witness for the Prosecution and Seven Waves Away (aka Abandon Ship!), to see how he would have played a much more conflicted, even tortured Solomon.

Brynner, on the other hand, seems unwilling or unable to loosen the belt of his established screen persona: the intensely virile exotic with steely-eyed confidence and determination. He only ever completely broke away from this persona once, in his startling (to say the least) cameo appearance in The Magic Christian (1969). Brynner's Solomon never seems bewitched, conflicted, or contrite, all qualities the part needs, and which Power almost certainly conveyed better before his untimely death. It also doesn't help that in Brynner replacing Power audiences are asked to accept Sanders and Brynner as brothers and, even more wildly improbable, Brynner as the son of Finlay Currie.

Supposedly Power is visible in some of the film's battle scenes, in long shots, though I've never definitively spotted him. One major glitch almost certainly the result of all the reshooting concerns the death of a major character, who in footage without Brynner lies dead with her eyes shut, while in two-shots with Brynner her lifeless eyes are placidly wide-open.

Solomon and Sheba was filmed in Spain and was one of the first major Hollywood productions to realize how much bigger the bang for one's buck was possible there. Even with all the reshooting the picture cost around $6 million, by 1959 standards still a bargain for such an epic production.

The film's battle scenes, swarming with hundreds of extras, are very impressive, and except for one lousy matte shot, the special visual effects are outstanding. One shot of the temple Solomon builds has the camera slowly tilting down to show off its immense size. It looks like it might be a foreground miniature but is so seamless, I can't tell for sure just how they did it.

Video & Audio

As noted above, Solomon and Sheba was photographed in Technirama. The Blu-ray has great color and very impressive sharpness. Grain is still visible but overall it's an excellent transfer that really impresses on big projection systems especially. The English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is also good, with aggressive use of surround for the big battles though mainly in opening up Mario Nascimbene's interesting, at times engagingly weird, score. The complete 141-minute cut is what's on the disc, though without an Overture, Intermission, Entr'acte, and Exit Music, if it ever had those.

Addendum: A reliable source has informed me that MGM did indeed source an 8-perf inter-positive struck from the original horizontal Technirama camera negative, and that research could find no evidence that an Overture, Intermission, etc., was ever part of the original release version.

Extra Features

Supplements include an isolated music and effects track, two trailers (one touting the Super Technirama process), and liner notes by Julie Kirgo.

Parting Thoughts

I didn't much care for Solomon and Sheba in its past home video incarnations, but on Blu-ray and on big screens the stellar cinematography, big-scale battle scenes, huge sets, and its compelling if, by today's standards, campy telling, compensate for its shortcomings. Highly Recommended.


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.

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