Solomon and Sheba (1959)

This post exists because I was toying with the idea of doing a series about the British actor David Farrar. That might still happen – one put-off is the lack of availability of certain titles – because he remains one of my favourite Golden Age stars, the kind of actor who at least lent an air of authority to whatever role he took and at his best really elevated a movie. Added to that is the undeniable pleasure of covering a fun epic like this one, to many a terrible movie, absolutely not without its delights and coming with not a little luridity, albeit by tame, 1950s standards. Enjoy…

Some historical epics are rightly celebrated still, earning replays on television and made available on the best formats to be enjoyed by viewers hungry for fat slices of Hollywood film making on its grandest scale. Others have fallen by the wayside. Sometimes this is unfair. I would argue the case forever that The Fall of the Roman Empire is among the very finest the genre has to offer, which at least seems to be in tandem with a slowly developing, more favourable retrospective of the film that was once damned as the last word in vanity projects. And then there’s something like Solomon and Sheba, another vastly budgeted entry that is perceived by some to be among the worst films ever made, a bloated and boring effort that suffers from poor writing, bad casting, and a checklist of historical inaccuracies.

The film takes as its starting point the tale of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon in the ancient and recently founded state of Israel. In the Old Testament and Quran sources, she turns up bearing gifts, gets some wisdom in return, returns to Sheba, and that’s it. Historians have suggested that Sheba was a kingdom in what is now Yemen, or possibly Ethiopia, or perhaps an island in the Nile river. No one seems certain, and it is of course perfectly plausible that the whole thing was made up. The sources go on to outline Solomon’s reign in Israel as a time of plenty. The famous temple in Jerusalem is constructed. The king gains a ‘wise heart’ from God and in return sacrifices in his honour, only for the whole show to be brought down by his fateful love for the pleasures of the flesh. Solomon’s libido leads to the introduction of foreign wives to Israel, who bring their false idols with them, and this causes his ultimate downfall.

I mention all this because the film snatches at bits of Solomon’s story to craft something almost entirely contrived for its plot. The king’s women are largely condensed into the Queen of Sheba, and his lust for her brings about his near ruin. Before her visit, Solomon’s partnership with God transforms Israel from a dusty backwater into the earthly paradise that had been promised. It prospers. The king has no desire to maintain hostilities with Egypt, so peace and a golden future looks like a distant possibility. But threats come from within and without. His older brother, Adonijah, has always seen himself as the rightful heir to David, and is horrified at being passed over for the younger and less warlike Solomon. In Egypt, the Pharoah continues to plot Israel’s destruction. His plan to build massive armies for this purpose is put on hold when Sheba suggests she can conquer the king by seduction. Once she has her claws in Solomon and introduced her pagan idols, she will have affected the undermining of his rule and left the country open to conquest.

Sheba is played by Gina Lollobrigida, and every effort is made to portray her as the most desirable woman of her age. Once she appears in Jerusalem the queen’s costumes become smaller, sheerer, showing everything while revealing nothing, pushing the boundaries of what could be put on screen, exhibiting all the reasons why Howard Hughes invited her to leave Italy and work with him in Hollywood nearly a decade previously. Lollobrigida is at her best in these scenes, the ‘seduction’ phase of the narrative, knowing exactly how to play Sheba as an endlessly exotic siren. Solomon is rightly helpless to resist, ignoring the pleas from the heads of the twelve tribes as desire takes over everything he has worked to build.

Yul Brynner takes the part of Solomon in the film, and there’s some novelty value in seeing him with a full head of hair. He’s fine, achieving similar levels of command to that he held in The Ten Commandments, depicting clearly enough the moments when he can no longer resist Sheba. It is, however, a sad footnote of Solomon and Sheba that he wasn’t the original choice for the role at all. According to its director, King Vidor, audiences were shortchanged by Brynner, who brought none of the nuance to Solomon that had already been captured – but not completed – on film by Tyrone Power. By all accounts Power conveyed the duality of his character, the moral choice tearing him apart, and we’ll never see it apart from a handful of scenes that are available. Also a producer and driving force behind the picture’s making, Power saw this as his push into mature roles, though anyone who’s seen Nightmare Alley and his last credited appearance in Witness for the Prosecution will be aware he could kill it as well as anyone. Power was filming the climactic fight scene with George Sanders’s Adonijah before having to stop, and shortly after dying from a massive heart attack. He was 44 years old, younger than me in fact, though our paths differ in the fact I don’t work through four packs of cigarettes a day. Alas the lack of adequate health warnings, or alternatives, back then.

In his mid-fifties at this stage, Sanders looks too long in tooth for Adonijah – the following year’s The Village of the Damned is a far better use of his talents – but brings his usual gusto to the proceedings. The rest of the cast is filled out with mostly British actors, with roles of varied screen time for the likes of Laurence Naismith, Harry Andrews, Jean Anderson and Finlay Currie, the latter making his customary ‘wise old man’ turn in historical epics as the dying King David. As for Farrar, he plays the power broker behind it all, the Egyptian Pharoah. While that might suggest a meaty part, he’s restricted to two scenes in which he has to set in motion schemes that will be enacted by other people. Farrar easily has the air of authority to play Pharoah, but it’s a shame to see so little of him.

I find it difficult to criticise the film for its inaccuracies when I consider the source material to be the written versions of oral storytelling, as much allegorical as they are records of fact. That leaves nitpicking over, for example, the Israeli state’s heavy use of the Star of David on its iconography, its armour (Solomon has it blandished proudly on his shield), whereas in reality it first appeared anywhere in medieval times. But does that mean it’s any good? Well, I would recommend it as an entertaining picture for completists rather than essential to the genre. Try as they might to take the material seriously, the cast can’t stop the plot from being a bit on the silly side. The word of God makes a cameo appearance, complete with the same ethereal smoke that once smote the Egyptian first born in the The Ten Commandments. A climactic battle, while impressively mounted, pivots on a chance bit of inspired wisdom by Solomon/advice from God that compels the entire Egyptian army to plunge itself into a crevasse. And how about the film’s notorious orgy scene, no doubt daring for its time but one that now verges on the laughable.

One thing that Solomon and Sheba ain’t is boring. At 141 minutes it isn’t overlong and packs in a lot of action, though things slow down during Sheba’s efforts to seduce Solomon. In the turgid stakes it can’t compete with Cleopatra, which no doubt saw its enormous profits (despite middling criticism it was a box office hit) as justification for inserting scene after scene where very little happens. Talking of which, the latter production aped this one in depicting a Queen’s entrance into the home of her (would be) lover, one-upping it with the staggering scene that sees Elizabeth Taylor sitting atop an enormous Sphinx.

Production levels are high throughout, with the usual impressive efforts by costume departments to kit out literal armies of extras in contemporary uniforms. Freddie Young was on hand as Director of Photography, and used the vast possibilities of the Technirama screen process to produce a visually beautiful piece of work, Israel presented as a lush oasis surrounded by desert wilderness. This was director Vidor’s last feature. Having been involved in Hollywood cinema since its earliest days, it seems clear that the long and difficult production, the loss of Power, the filming in other countries (it was shot mainly in Spain) and the need to direct a cast of thousands took their toll. Having done his best work way back in the Silent Era, Vidor finally called time on a lengthy and distinguished career, and left an impressive cache of films that dated back incredibly to 1913.

Anyone seeking the less celebrated Ben-Hur should be advised that Solomon and Sheba isn’t it. There are many better examples of epic cinema, but I will confess to enjoying it as a fun spectacle. A limited run of Blu-Ray editions was released in 2015; I have the Studio Canal Region 2 DVD and am very happy with the restoration effort that went into it, certainly enough not to hunt down the HD upgrade. As with many basically average titles from the time, there’s still a lot of pleasure to be had from this one, though signs the genre was running out of steam are clear. It was all very well to pump millions into productions so long as they were reclaimed with ticket sales, but once that stopped the expensive gamble of historical epics was nigh, and that moment would come, with devastating force, in the following decade.

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 July (12.50 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

I suppose that like many 35-45 year olds, my first introduction to Ice Cold in Alex was via the aggressive marketing campaigns of branded lagers. Holsten Pils spliced Griff Rhys Jones into footage from The Great Escape. There was retaliation from Carling Black Label with a skit on the bombing scene off The Dambusters, playing on West Germany’s ability to win penalty¬†shoot-outs¬†by having a dam defender saving and parrying each bomb sent in his direction. Carlsberg responded with the simplest concept of them all, lifting the climactic scene of Ice Cold in Alex without edits and simply showing the bit where John Mills downs a glass of beer in a clearly branded glass. Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle and Harry Andrews look on admiringly as he finishes his drink and says ‘Worth waiting for.’

It’s a lovely advert and almost a happy accident for Carlsberg, whose name appeared on the glass because the film makers didn’t want to associate Mills’s beer with anything German, opting instead for the safe Danish brand. The commercial’s all the better because Mills looks so in need of his drink. It’s only in watching the film that it emerges this is entirely the case. The entire point of the picture, the moment is’s been building towards, even the title of the piece, refers to the perfect frosty one Mills anticipates when he reaches his destination.

Ice Cold in Alex was once dubbed ‘the ultimate British war film’ by Channel 4, and it’s therefore a surprise to find it challenging many stereotypes of the form. For one thing, Syms plays a strong, independent woman as opposed to the trapped, helpless female so typical of the genre. The love interest that develops between her nurse and Mills’s Captain Anson is a bit forced and obviously shoehorned in. Neither participant seems especially passionate about their budding romance and the whole plot development comes across as an afterthought, but that isn’t the defining aspect of her character. She mucks in with the lads and rarely lets the situation they’re all in overpower her, and it’s to both Syms’s and the film’s credit that the characterisation works. By all accounts, some of her scenes were reshot after she revealed too much cleavage in her clinches with Mills and indeed hers is a strangely buttoned down demeanour in the desert conditions of the film, but ultimately her lack of obvious sexiness adds credibility to her role.

Then there’s the depiction of the Nazis. Ice Cold in Alex takes place in the North African theatre of the early 1940s, as the battle lines shifted constantly along the Sahara desert. Mills and his fellows are driving a knackered old ambulance to Alexandria, making various detours as they attempt to avoid the Germans they fear could be waiting around any bend. As it turns out, they are – twice. And yet in both instances, the enemy lets them move on, they believe because they’re in a medical vehicle and pose no threat. The second nurse travelling with them is shot by the Nazis, but this is a result of the frayed Anson’s attempts to outrun them rather than through malice, and indeed the Germans are never made out to be the heartless monsters you might expect to find. As the story unravels, it becomes apparent that one of the travelling companions is also a Nazi, yet this character is every bit as helpful and genuinely warm-hearted as the others, and the film ends on the kind of sympathetic note that could only be struck in something made years after the war ended.

Mills does as much as any other element to subvert his own image as the clean cut British hero. Anson looks constantly ragged and strung out and is clearly teetering into outright alcoholism as a consequence of the stresses war has played on his nerves. He doesn’t always make the right choices, inadvertently killing one of the team thanks to his own reckless actions, and he shows signs of the tension overcoming him more than once. It helps that he looks tiny compared to the big men played by Andrews and Quayle, to whom he nevertheless dishes out his orders, and it’s the former’s dogged devotion to him that appears to keep Anson in charge.

The most famous moment in the film, apart perhaps from the lager drinking climax, is the team’s effort to guide their ambulance up a dune and beyond the depression they’ve traversed. The task has a futile, Sisyphusian edge to it, but it’s just one of several great bits. I especially like the passage when they cross a minefield, Quayle and Mills leading the ambulance on foot and using it as a sparring of egos between two strong men. The music stops and the long silences of the desert take over, punctuated only by the vehicle moving cautiously behind in first gear. The camera seems to track each faltering footstep, and then Quayle steps on something metal…

J Lee Thompson brought real suspense and a dry wit to the proceedings, more or less making up the minefield scenes as he went along to wring every last drop of tension from it. He brought many elements of Ice Cold in Alex to North West Frontier, made a year later and copying much of the ‘perilous road trip’ dimension despite a very different setting. Indeed, it even features a traitor within the ranks, though Herbert Lom’s nasty is a far less empathetic villain than the one depicted in this entry. It’s good fun, reminiscent of many a spare two-hour slot on the Saturday afternoons BBC2 used to fill with classic films, with excellent support from the stolid Andrews, and Quayle reining in many of his actorly excesses within a bravado-led role that could really have seen him let rip.

Ice Cold in Alex: ****