If you ever wondered what it might have looked like for Samson to slay 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, wonder no more.
I mean, you didn’t necessarily have to wonder before. It’s not like Bruce Macdonald’s Samson, Pure Flix’s first venture into epic moviemaking, is the first screen version of this story.
But Cecil B. DeMille’s stodgy, dated 1949 Samson and Delilah, with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr, is no classic. The 1996 Bible Stories TV version with Elizabeth Hurley, Dennis Hopper and Diana Rigg is way too long at three hours (and the jawbone scene involves no more than a dozen or so dead Philistines anyway).
Perhaps most importantly to Pure Flix’s constituency, both of these versions and most others include varying degrees of racy content. For DeMille, indeed, the opportunity to show skin and sexiness in an overall context of piety and morality was part of the appeal of biblical and ancient epics. There’s a reason most versions of this story are called Samson and Delilah; a musclebound hero and a treacherous temptress are an obvious sell. Screen Samsons typically get a lot of shirtless scenes, often with Delilah and/or other female characters.
Taylor James, a young English actor who got his start on London’s West End, has by far the most superhero-esque physique of any live-action Samson I’ve seen. In fact, James had a bit part in Justice League as an Atlantean, though he actually reminds me of a particular Marvel hero: With his black hair and bulging facial bones, he would make an excellent Wyatt Wingfoot in a future Marvel Cinematic Universe Fantastic Four movie. (Okay, maybe not, unless it turns out that James has Native-American ancestry, but still.)
Since this is a Pure Flix production, Samson only loses his shirt a couple of times that I recall, and never in romantic moments, which are very chastely filmed. Actually, it’s not just how they’re filmed; the biblical character has been cleaned up quite a bit.
The Book of Judges says that Samson “saw” an unnamed Philistine woman and wanted to marry her; later we read that he “saw” a harlot and went in to her. The repeated verb suggests that the draw in both cases was very much on the surface.
Turning the story of Samson’s ill-fated marriage to a Philistine woman, here named Taren (Frances Sholto-Douglas), into a sweet and chaste story of true love is defensible creative license. So is making Delilah (Caitlin Leahy) conflicted and genuinely in love with Samson.
Likewise defensible, if overly tidy and contrived: linking these women to each other and to Samson’s great enemy, the sadistic Philistine prince Rallah (Jackson Rathbone), son of King Balek (a formidable Billy Zane). It turns out that before Delilah delighted Solomon, she was Rallah’s intended — and Taren was her handmaid.
But the sequence in which Samson innocently finds himself in a brothel only by accident might be the studio’s signature moment. “What manner of inn is this?” Samson asks warily, and the mistress titters, “Nothing indecent, I promise, my lord.” That’s Pure Flix’s promise to you.
Making this sanitizing of the story more jarring is the very different approach to violence. Samson is, I think, Pure Flix’s first PG-13 production, pretty much entirely for violence, including battlefield sequences, cold-blooded murders and brief torture. The jawbone scene, in particular, goes on and on; the filmmakers may not show all 1,000 of those kills, but they want to get as close as possible.
Since the battle has to come to an end at some point, the good news is that James isn’t just the biggest screen Samson I’ve seen, he’s also perhaps the most engaging — a low bar, admittedly, but we spend two and a half hours with the guy, so it matters.
This is a Samson who seems humanly lacking in self-understanding, who often acts more on instinct than on certitude that he’s God’s invincible action figure. Usually sanguine and insouciant, he goes into a cold fury when the spirit of the Lord comes mightily upon him just before a battle.
To peg him in 21st-century movie-hero terms, Samson is part Thor, part Aragorn: a cheerfully irresponsible brawler and a reluctant hero who doesn’t want to embrace his destiny or lead his people.
He’s also an improbable peacemaker, wanting to see Hebrews and Philistines coexist peacefully, though his family and neighbors want him to lead his people to war against their oppressors. (Samson’s parents are played by Rutger Hauer and Lindsay Wagner; as James chortled to my friend Peter Chattaway in an interview, “My dad’s from Blade Runner and my mom is the Bionic Woman!”)
It would be nice to interpret Samson’s peacemaking impulse as a sign of his chosenness — a visionary sense of God’s true will in spite of our hero’s general slacker shortcomings. The film, though, seems to side with his family and neighbors: God has chosen Samson for war, not for peace.
Like the other major heroes of the Book of Judges, Samson was chosen by God to deliver his people from the enemies into whose hands God had given them because of their wickedness. Yet the judges were not just military leaders; they were also civil leaders. After the jawbone massacre, the Bible says that Samson judged Israel for 20 years.
The implication seems to be that, after delivering Israel from the Philistines, Samson proceeded to bring at least some measure of righteous rule to his people, leading them away from the wickedness that had led to Philistine domination. For those 20 years, there was relative peace and justice in Israel (“relative” being the operative word, certainly).
Of course, the Philistines nursed a grudge against Samson — and took their revenge when they got the chance. Yet nothing in the biblical account warrants the scene at the start of the second half (“many years later”) in which we find the Israelites yet again oppressed and starving because Samson refuses to fight for his people.
“For years we have listened to you,” Samson’s younger brother Caleb (Greg Kriek) charges. “We have barely endured. Nothing has changed.”
My misgiving here is not just that the filmmakers have taken dramatic license with the biblical account, but with how this particular choice shapes the film’s themes and point of view.
From start to finish, Samson is about a divinely elected war leader who wrongly wants peace instead of war and who fulfills his destiny only in his climactic self-annihilation — as opposed to the biblical picture of a champion who becomes a civil leader judging his people more or less rightly for 20 years before falling into the hands of his enemies.
The saber-rattling denouement (I wouldn’t exactly think of this as a spoiler, but it’s about the very end, so fair warning), after Samson brings down the house on the Philistines, depicts a sword-wielding Caleb mustering a force of Israelites chanting Samson’s name. In death, then, Samson becomes what he never quite managed to be in life: a figure around which his people unify to fight their enemies.
In spite of these caveats, I can just about recommend Samson to its target audience. It’s competently made and sometimes impressive. The acting is generally good.
There are occasionally decent ideas, such as King Balek schooling his son Rallah in the Realpolitik of religion: The gods, he says, “have no power. For us, they are a means of control. I am Dagon. You can be Dagon.” But Rallah, who has seen God’s power in Samson, struggles with almost Chalcedonian language to describe it: “I have seen a real God in a real man.”
The dialogue is serviceable, and often better than the prior versions (again, a low bar). Occasionally there is a glaring contemporary colloquialism, such as the villain threatening consequences “if Samson doesn’t show.” And Caleb glibly uses the phrase “still small voice” as if it were a well-known cliché and Elijah were not still centuries in the future.
My favorite Bible movies tend to be ones that surprise me and offer me new ways of thinking about the stories I know so well. I feel a little smarter for having seen them. (Films like this include DeMille’s The King of Kings, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew, DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, the stop-motion The Miracle Maker, Aronofsky’s Noah, and the Anne Rice adaptation The Young Messiah.)
Samson makes me feel … not smarter. But perhaps that is a cheap shot, and I am being too hard on a pretty okay movie that will make a lot of viewers happy.
Caveat Spectator: Much moderately intense action violence; brief torture; mild womanizing theme. Older kids and up.