• Solomon And Sheba

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: March 10, 2015.
    Director: King Vidor
    Cast: Yul Brynner, Gina Lollobrigida, Marisa Pavan, David Farrar, George Sanders, Harry Andrews, John Crawford
    Year: 1959
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    King David is dying. But rather than the leave the throne to his heir apparent, his son Adonijah, he leaves it to another son, Solomon, instead. Adonijah, however, covets the throne and will do anything in his power to get it, and he isn’t the only one. The king of Egypt also wants Israel under his subjugation, and to that end, he sends the queen of Sheba (believed by modern scholars to have been the nation of Saba in southern Arabia) to ingratiate herself with Solomon. She uses her womanly wiles to lead the new king to worship false gods, and in punishment Jehovah destroys the temple Solomon has built for Him. Though Solomon returns to the one and true God of the Old Testament, forces align against him for possession of the throne. Egypt attacks, Adonijah makes his move, and the queen professes her love for Solomon, a confluence of events that leads to tragedy.

    King Solomon is named in the Bible and the Qur’an as one of the kings of Israel before it split into two kingdoms: Israel and Judah. He was the son of King David, and though he was not next in the line of succession, he was crowned by his father at the behest of his mother, Bathsheba, shortly before his father’s passing. (In the film, it is Jehovah’s will that he be named king.) His older brother had been set to become king, but after being denied his rightful place, Adonijah sought to steal the throne through treachery. Solomon pardoned his brother, but Adonijah continued to seek the throne and was later put to death.

    Solomon was considered a wise king (the film shows him praying for wisdom and receiving it because of his selflessness and humility), yet his wisdom didn’t keep him from marrying foreign wives or turning to false gods, acts that ultimately led to his downfall. In the books of First Kings and Second Chronicles, a story is told of the queen of Sheba (other religious traditions simply call her a “queen of the south”), who comes from far away to see and experience Solomon’s wisdom first hand. She bears much gold, jewels, and spices, which she offers to Solomon as a gift. After probing the king with difficult questions, she is satisfied that his wisdom is real rather than legend and departs, though not before accepting gifts from Solomon. (Some scholars have concluded that the meeting between the two was a trade mission.) And that’s the end of the story…

    At least, until Hollywood got a hold of it. While some critics have blasted the film as an attempt to capitalize on the success of 1959’s other semi-biblical blockbuster, Ben Hur, Solomon and Sheba had actually begun life much earlier, in 1953, with producer Edward Small. The script went through a number of revisions before Lollobrigida came on board to co-finance and star. Tyrone Power was cast as Solomon, but after most of the picture was in the can, the actor complained of a pain in his arm after filming a dual with George Sanders. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died from a heart attack. Because he had yet to film many of his scenes with Lollobrigida—which would provide the backbone of the film—a new actor had to be hired and the film reshot. Enter Yul Brynner. Vidor wasn’t particularly enthralled with the actor’s performance, feeling it too controlled and self-assured in comparison to Power’s more conflicted take on the character, but it got the job done.

    Critics have made much of the film’s lack of faithfulness to its source, stating that it took a few brief mentions of the queen of Sheba and stretched them into a torrid two-hour-plus affair. Yet, the stories of Abishag and Adonijah can also be found in the Bible, as can the story of the two mothers, which was offered as an example of Solomon’s wisdom. While these aspects of the film are certainly embellished, they do have a literary basis. Too bad they serve as padding rather than to create any genuine frisson. There was simply no need to make Solomon and Sheba as long as it is, especially when one takes into consideration its interminable dialogue sequences, most of which are fairly repetitive.

    The film was always intended to have a large budget (around three million dollars), but unavoidable reshoots pretty much doubled its cost. Yet, despite the amount of money spent on it, Solomon and Sheba has a threadbare quality about it: there are few sets (most of the film was shot outdoors), and most of these are limited in space and size, with a stage-bound feel. The special effects border on laughable, particularly when compared to the effects in much cheaper films from the same period. As if to make up for these shortcomings, Vidor opens the film with a violent, realistic battle featuring impalements, slashings, and burnings that would have been more at home in a Hammer swashbuckler, and there’s a nasty stoning at the film’s climax. Finally, rounding out the list of manufactured controversies, there’s a fully clothed orgy during a pagan ceremony. Too bad none of these moves can save the film from its own stuffy, preachy approach.


    Solomon and Sheba comes to Blu-ray with an AVC encode and 1080p resolution in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. For the most part, the image is strong and detailed, particularly in outdoor sequences where the rocky desert locales show off the format’s dynamic capabilities. The transfer doesn’t do any favors for George Sanders’ facial wrinkles or for the makeup some actors wore to appear darker-skinned than they actually were. Colors are good, if slightly unnatural at times, and the grain structure is perfectly natural and never as distracting as some reviews have suggested. There are no issues with contrast, black levels, or crush. The only problem is an occasional visual twitch at the edge of the frame, but these are rare and never last longer than a second.

    Twilight Time has chosen to release the film with DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound, which does well by Mario Nascimbene’s emphatic and triumphant score. Said score is never allowed to overpower dialogue or sound effects, yet it retains its soaring and majestic feel. Thankfully, Twilight Time has seen fit to give the score its own audio track, also in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Considering that the score is the best thing about the film, it’s only appropriate that it can be listened to without the distraction of the silly, clichéd dialogue.

    The only extras are two theatrical trailers (one lasting approximately four minutes, the other a little over three), and a promotional trailer touting MGM’s 90th anniversary. There are also liner notes from film historian Julie Kirgo. As usual, they’re excellently written and offer a fairly in-depth look at the film’s troubled production.

    The Final Word:

    As far as biblical epics go, Solomon and Sheba is weak sauce, especially when compared to the same year’s Ben Hur (which was actually based on a novel rather than the Bible). It’s too long and talky, with middling performances even from actors who were usually reliable (Yul Brynner, George Sanders). It isn’t true to its source, but its liberties aren’t all that creative or interesting either. Thankfully, it has a pretty solid transfer, with detail looking best when King Vidor’s camera moves out of doors. The audio is also good, with the best extra being Mario Nascimbene’s isolated score.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!