A Fractured Epic: DeMille's Dual Vision in Samson and Delilah

Even though Samson and Delilah (1949) was one of Cecil B. DeMille’s biggest box office hits, and even though the film kick-started the second golden age of biblical epics (the first occurring during the latter portion of the silent era), the picture has been largely overshadowed by DeMille’s final masterpiece, The Ten Commandments (1956). Seen today, Samson and Delilah almost looks like a prototype for DeMille’s Moses picture, not only testing out giant Technicolor sets and disaster showpieces, but also including bits of dialogue and themes that would be repeated in the later film. For example, a Philistine crushes an old Danite man underfoot, calling him a “mud turtle”; an Egyptian slave master repeats the memorable insult in The Ten Commandments. Samson and Delilah also features a sonorous prologue narrated by DeMille, which similarly Americanizes the biblical story, framing it as a tale of man’s quest for liberty. Paganism leads to superstition and tyranny, the invisible God to individual freedom. The Old Testament tale of Samson and Delilah also seems less amenable to the Hollywood treatment, and DeMille reportedly struggled with the story for years. Sure, it offers plenty of opportunity for sex and violence, but its ambivalent hero, who is both a mighty warrior for God and a foolish hedonist, prevents a good-versus-evil structure as clear-cut as that of the Exodus narrative. Samson might seem like a promising character to generate a complex narrative then, but DeMille is never one for complexity. In Samson and Delilah, DeMille is hard pressed to have us root for the two selfish lovers and still care about the tribe of Dan oppressed by the Philistines.

The movie nicely highlights DeMille’s intense ambivalence though, which, for me at least, tends to make his films, if simple and sensational, sources of endless fascination. While some complain that, for example, DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932) is a work of hypocrisy, with its mix of Christian piety and blatant eroticism, I would argue that the film’s problematic nature is part of its enduring interest. The problem with Samson and Delilah, however, is that DeMille’s ambivalence prevents any coalescent meaning. The Ten Commandments certainly divides its interests between the sensual and the spiritual, but it does so in a way that creates a clear dual vision in the film: though there is a tension between the two, each side of the duality is distinct and well-formulated. This can be seen, for example, in the contrast between Moses’ pious encounter with the Divine on Mount Sinai and the Hebrew people's revels in the camp below. The film’s obvious delight in depicting the orgies is contained by the people’s subsequent punishment: the earth swallows the revelers up. In Samson and Delilah, the tension between pious storytelling and prurient interest disrupts unified narrative or character development. Are DeMille’s Samson and Delilah star-crossed lovers we should sympathize with? Are they tragic figures whose flaws we should avoid? Or is Samson simply a fool and Delilah a vixen? It’s hard to form a response to the characters, and so I only cared about the spectacle.

Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah is sufficiently seductive, and though not engrossing she is at least more dynamic than Victor Mature’s rather-lame strongman, Samson. The film could have used a Charlton Heston, who, with his seemingly inherent, direct strength, remains DeMille’s perfect leading man. Victor Mature crops up in a number of epics (most notably The Robe, 1953, and its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, 1954), but he doesn’t have much lasting appeal.

Samson and Delilah merits some attention in its own right, though, if mostly for the stunning climax: the collapse of the temple of Dagon. It’s one of those sequences in a classic movie (there are several in Ten Commandments) in which the special effects more than just hold up: they actually command our awe, not only for the spectacular events depicted, but also for the skill that went into making them. Seeing the collapse of the temple, its pillars and giant idol falling onto the crowd, it’s hard to imagine that no one was actually crushed. The fractured temple falls to pieces like the film itself.

Cecil B. DeMille’s financially successful 1949 epic is important to both the history of film and an understanding of the infamous American director. If The Ten Commandments is his masterpiece, best representing his dual vision, then Samson and Delilah is perhaps the supreme example of his failed brilliance.

Samson and Delilah (USA, 1949)

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille; screenplay by Jesse L. Lasky Jr. & Fredric M. Frank; starring Hedy Lamarr, Victor Mature, George Sanders, Angela Lansbury, and Henry Wilcoxon.