The 1959 biblical epic Solomon and Sheba is best-known for the tragic circumstances under which it was produced: star Tyrone Power (The Black Swan) passed away over halfway through the production, forcing the studio to recast Yul Brynner (The King and I) in the role of Solomon and reshoot the whole thing. The whole affair took such a psychological toll on director King Vidor that the esteemed filmmaker wouldn't direct another feature for the rest of his life. That factor aside, the shoot was still a challenging and unpleasant experience. Actor George Sanders (All About Eve) offered his memories: “Even though they were only mock battles, they might as well have been in earnest if we consider the amount of damage and the number of casualties involved. No less than twelve horses were killed and countless extras were carted off to the hospital with broken ankles, broken collarbones or just plain exhaustion and shock.”
Considering all of this, there's undeniably an air of melancholy that hangs over Solomon and Sheba – enough to make it more compelling as a historical artifact than as a cinematic experience. Even so, it is an interesting film on its own terms: a sweeping biblical epic that freely contradicts the Bible, other religious texts and history books for the sake of adding some extra dramatic punch to an old story.
If we stick purely to the biblical record, Solomon's life wasn't nearly as exciting as that of his father David. Both ruled over the kingdom of Israel, but led very different lives. David slew a giant with a rock, led armies into battle, had a scandalous affair and once engaged in a nude victory dance in front of all his servants. Solomon, on the other hand, was... wise. Very wise. Okay, he also made some thoughtful decisions, married hundreds of women, had a crisis of faith and wrote some sexy poetry. There's dramatic material there, but it's hardly enough to fuel a spectacle-filled biblical epic aiming to match the standard set by The Robe and The Ten Commandments. As such, numerous large-scale battle sequences are thrown into the mix. “Shouldn't you be home writing songs?” one military leader asks Solomon. “I can write songs AND fight on the battlefield,” Solomon replies, undoubtedly echoing the words of a studio executive.
Familiar details from Solomon's life are worked into Solomon and Sheba (such as the memorable moment in which he resolves a dispute between two women fighting over a baby), but the majority of the film elaborates on a brief, vague passage from the Bible. In that passage, the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon in order to test his wisdom. She asks him a series of questions, has all of her questions answered satisfactorily, they exchange a bunch of gifts and the queen departs. Not much to write home about, right? With amusingly melodramatic flourish, Solomon and Sheba turns this pleasant little anecdote into a sprawling soap opera.
In this version of the tale, Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida, Beat the Devil) is secretly conspiring with the leaders of Egypt, who would love nothing more than to overthrow the kingdom of Israel. In an effort to spare Egypt an expensive battle, Sheba agrees to seduce Solomon and use her “womanly ways” to discover his weaknesses. She'll find a way to destroy his kingdom from within. “Solomon is the wisest man on earth!” one Egyptian protests. “Yes, but he still has human desires,” Sheba replies with a sly grin.
Meanwhile, Solomon is dealing with his own set of problems. His relationship with his brother Adonijah (Sanders) has grown incredibly tense, as Adonijah had initially thought that he would be inheriting the throne from David (who passes away early in the film). The two work out a tentative truce, but Adonijah secretly plots to overthrow Solomon (leading to the hilarious scene in which a romantic interlude on a balcony is interrupted by ninja assassins – it turns out Solomon's wisdom includes some pretty sweet self-defense maneuvers).
Over time, Sheba's plot to destroy Solomon transforms into romance, as the two begin to develop genuine feelings for each other. At least, that's what the screenplay tells us. You'd never guess it from the performances, as Brynner and Lollobrigida can't manage even a little bit of onscreen chemistry. This is largely due to the fact that they're performing in entirely different keys: Lollobrigida is throwing herself at Brynner and cranking the “sultry” meter up to 11, while Brynner is staring off into the distance. Brynner can be a terrific actor in the right role, but he's hilariously wooden here, delivering the sort of performance that looks impressive in still photographs but embarrassing in action.
The unintentional hilarity extends to the battle scenes, particularly the massive final sequence in which Solomon's army uses mirrors to destroy thousands of Egyptian forces. We're treated to shot after shot after shot of plastic/stuffed horses and soldiers falling off a cliff, and the footage is repeated so frequently that the film begins to feel like an extended Monty Python gag. I realize that one must grant a certain measure of leeway to the special effects of yesteryear, but even audiences of 1959 must have been chuckling and shaking their heads.
Finally, there's the film's big orgy scene. How do you film an orgy in a 1959 studio blockbuster? Well, you have a bunch of bikini-clad women do some kind of expertly-choreographed jitterbug dance while having fully-clothed extras wrestle with each other in the background. It's one of the tamest portraits of debauchery you'll ever witness, but it still feels a little odd within the confines of a movie that turns weirdly pious in its closing act. Solomon ends up converting Sheba to Christianity, and we get an overwrought scene of Sheba apologizing to the One True God for her wicked polytheism. Like the gangster movies of the 1930s, Solomon and Sheba revels in sinfulness before reinforcing rigid moral codes.
Solomon and Sheba certainly isn't one of the better biblical epics of its era, but it isn't a dull movie. Vidor brings a measure of sweeping energy to the film, and the whole thing might be campy fun for those who have a soft spot for this sort of thing. Still, it's hard not to feel that a deeper, more interesting movie was lost when Power passed away. Only a few minutes of Power's performance as Solomon are available online, but those clips show a far richer, more complicated performance than the stiff posturing Brynner turns in. Power was playing Solomon as a man, while Brynner chose to play him as an icon. It's amazing what a difference such a decision can make.
Solomon and Sheba
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Year: 1959