Nobody made Biblical epics like Cecil B. DeMille, and Samson and Delilah (1949) was one of his best. The film has been meticulously remastered, and has just been released on DVD for the very first time. It is a stunning example of what we now call the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Samson and Delilah is drawn from chapters 13-16 in the Book of Judges. In the King James version of the Old Testament, these passages amount to just five pages of text. Out of this, screenwriters Jesse L. Lasky Jr. and Frederick M. Frank have extrapolated a massive tale. The film is filled with lust and devotion, exploring the darkest sin, and culminating with the holiest redemption. It is a classic in every way.
It is clear from the opening, six-minute musical “Overture” that Samson and Delilah is a very big picture. And it certainly does not disappoint. The Overture is played out over a blank screen. The first image to appear is of the planet Earth, and it is telling that it just happens to be the United States that is facing us. It is a glorious sight, and then we hear The Voice of God, as portrayed by Mr. DeMille himself.
One of the key phrases in this introduction is: “Deep in man’s heart burns the unquenchable will for freedom.“ This statement is a natural prelude to what will follow. The story of Samson and Delilah recounts the battle for freedom waged by the Dannites against the Philistines. In the America of 1949 though, I imagine these words hit home on a number of other levels as well. World War II was very recent history, and the fear of communism was rapidly building.
With a spectacle such as Samson and Delilah, it is hard to separate it from the time in which it was produced. And in this regard, Cecil B. DeMille was simply brilliant. Not only was he a master of the form, but he spoke to his audience in a fantastic way. None of this takes away from the movie itself. Indeed, the tale is a timeless one. As played out here, it is also quite racy. The costumes of Edith Head are one example of this, and were so good as to win the Academy Award for design that year.
The special effects are marvelous as well. Many have called Samson and Delilah DeMille’s “rehearsal” for The Ten Commandments (1956). I find that to be something of a back-handed compliment though. I agree with those who have called The Ten Commandments the greatest Biblical epic ever, but Samson and Delilah is much more than just a dress rehearsal. The scene in which Samson takes on the Philistine army with nothing but the “jawbone of an ass” is incredible. The finale of Samson regaining his strength and bringing down the Temple is even more amazing.
Cecil B. DeMille was as famous as any of his actors. He had many critics, including the legendary Pauline Kael, who called him one of the screen’s “greatest manipulators.” All of this was just grist for the mill however. What we are left with is an incredible legacy, and no matter what one might think of him, there is no denying a film such as Samson and Delilah. It is a landmark achievement in every way, and a movie I recommend without reservation.