30 May 2010 | Steffi_P
"The soldier and the poet"
In cinema, we have always lost as well as gained. In the post war era we got a load of upcoming sprouts with new ideas. Changing social mores gave greater latitude in the kind of stories we could tell. And yet the older generation, for whom movie making was purer, unpretentious and above all visually orientated, were still alive and, once in a while, kicking.
Now, Solomon and Sheba is a dead-looking production if ever I saw one. Even though it was released the same year as Ben-Hur, one of the most successful ancient world epics ever made, you can still see the format is getting a little tired. This isn't so much Sunday school story come-to-life as cheap and somewhat half-hearted excuse for a bit of bare flesh and erotic dancing of the kind that they really went in for in the 50s. For a production of this kind, it is woefully low budget. The sets look like you could punch holes in them, and the costumes look like they were cut up from old curtains (net curtains in Gina Lolobrigida's case).
The screenplay too is utter trash. Complete changes in character and drive are crammed into single scenes. The dialogue is not bad as such, it is merely bland and unmemorable. And then there are the actors. Yul Brynner, standing in for Tyrone Power (who was dead at the time) giving a reasonably understated performance, but doing little more than sitting around looking thoughtful. Screen brother George Sanders simply looks worse the wear for age, and it appears likely he simply couldn't be bothered any more, especially for something like this. Finlay Currie, now something of a fixture in the biblical flick, makes a brief and fairly run-of-the-mill appearance. The rest of the cast are so dull they are not even worth a mention.
But does any of this really matter? Well, of course yes it does to some extent. We expect a little quality control even in a picture like this. But when you're watching a colourful adaptation of some millennia-old mythology, it's acceptable for realism and dramatic intensity to play second fiddle to the power of the images. And this is where our afore-mentioned old-school approach comes in.
This was the final feature film of veteran director King Vidor. Vidor had been handed one crummy project after another for the past decade or so, and yet unlike Sanders he never lost his professional interest – in spite of a rather troubling experience on this particular production. Solomon and Sheba is packed with the kind of visual splendour that Vidor had been crafting since the early 20s. In the battle sequences he works round the small number of extras by focusing on dynamic snippets of action, often having fighters surge towards the camera for that added impact on the audience. In Brynner and Lolobrigida's boat scene the eerie willow fronds add a layer of atmosphere that makes up for any deficit in the acting. All of this is enhanced by the sublimely moody cinematography of Freddie Young – the only other outstanding name in the production crew. Best of all Vidor does this without resorting to any fancy camera tricks.
Is Vidor's compelling imagery enough to save Solomon and Sheba? Not quite. Nothing could really turn back the tide of paltriness that washes over every other aspect of the picture. But Vidor's efforts at least make it easy on the eye. With that in mind, you can quite happily enjoy this as pretty no-brainer entertainment, just as you can the pictures of Cecil B. DeMille (although Vidor is far more surreal and spiritual then the earthy DeMille). If you keep your eyes peeled for things like that jolly conga line snaking its way through the surprisingly risqué pagan rite, or a soldier getting a round shield pinned to his face like a bronze-age emoticon, you might even find a few laughs in this ostensibly serious feature.