5 April 2011 | Bunuel1976
THE QUEEN OF SHEBA (Pietro Francisci, 1952) **1/2
This early and obscure Italian spectacle was among the first (in a long line of) Biblical films to emerge after the long-dormant subgenre received a massive shot in the arm from the box-office and critical success of the colossal Hollywood remake of QUO VADIS the previous year. Tellingly, it was directed by Pietro Francisci who, 5 years down the line, would himself kick-start (with HERCULES) a seemingly never-ending stream of endearingly hyperbolic sword-and-sandal epics that mostly elicited derision from critical circles but also a solid base of hardcore fans worldwide. Having said that, in the interim there were epics made in Italy – like Francisci's own ATTILA (1954), ULYSSES (1954) and a few more I hope to get to watch in this month-long genre retrospective I embarked upon – but none of them caught audiences' fancy like Steve Reeves' star-making turn did...
While I do not wish to accord the film under review (that also employs the later celebrated names of composer Nino Rota and costume designer/co-screenwriter Vittorio Nino Novarese) any undeserved claims of being a lost classic or something, I have to admit that I was genuinely surprised by how efficiently made and effortlessly enjoyable it turned out to be. Despite being shot in monochrome, it hardly feels half-hearted or cut-rate – in contrast to some of the later efforts in similar vein, I might add – and, while not exactly action-packed, it delivers in that field as well: from the slaying of a snake slithering threateningly down a tree to a skill-testing race between a love triangle(!) and from the wrestling bout in a tavern to the climactic assault on Israel – complete with the be-all-and-end-all duel between the respective champions of the two factions (to which this adds an effective if predictable twist). Then there is even one final arrow-shooting confrontation in a deserted valley between the aforementioned love triangle that also brings true the hitherto-thought impossible Sheban prophecy of their Queen not being permitted to love until the mountain moves (which could be straight out of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" for all I know)!
The cast, then, is a likable mixture of recognizable and new faces: on the male side, we have Gino Cervi (top-billed but his role as a bemused King Solomon is subservient to the younger generation; obviously enough, he is introduced at the start of the film while presiding in his court over the famous "dueling mothers" case), Gino Leurini (as his impulsive son Rehoboam), Franco Silva (as his rival in love and war Kabaal) and Umberto Silvestri (as Leurini's equally free-spirited lieutenant); conversely, the opposite sex is represented by Leonora Ruffo (looking decidedly stunning in the title role and also handling the more sensitive moments required of her quite decently), Marina Berti (having appearing in a key role in QUO VADIS, she is here relegated to the sidelines as the appropriately jilted intended of Rehoboam but, at least, she looks good too) and Dorian Gray (as Ruffo's handmaiden who also falls for Silvestri's charms).
If I had to criticize the film – which also served as a belated tribute of sorts to Gray who, tragically, took her own life earlier this year – it would be in the script department since it tends to repeat itself once too often when it comes to the various romantic intrigues, and is also clearly partial to the cause of the Israelites since it has them rout the spies in their midst immediately but depicts the Shebans taking the longest time to do likewise to our two heroes (despite their incognito names being as Jewish as they come: Abner and Eli)! I don't recall the later Hollywood spectacle SOLOMON AND SHEBA (1959) well enough to say if there had eventually arisen in it an amorous conflict between father and son over the luscious queen but this modest Italian peplum (which ends with the two young lovers' triumphant embrace under Solomon's paternal gaze) should provide a satisfactory alternative to that elephantine retelling of the tale.