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One of the many Hollywood biblical epics that enjoyed a vogue in the '50s, Solomon And Sheba (1959) is best remembered as the final project in the long and distinguished career of director King Vidor. This expensively mounted Bible saga, however, is also marked with the unfortunate distinction of having a major leading man become a production casualty.
In November 1958, after six weeks of filming in sweltering Madrid locales and with 75% of Solomon and Sheba in the can, the project's originally-cast Solomon - Tyrone Power - squared off with co-star George Sanders to shoot the story's climactic swordfight. At one point, a suddenly wan Power begged off for a rest; in his dressing room, he shrugged off the pains in his chest and arm as bursitis. Cooler heads rushed him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead within the hour. The handsome star, who had recently warned of the dangers of overexertion in a short made for the American Heart Association, and whose actor father died in his arms on a movie set in 1931, was taken by a heart attack at age 45.
Regrouping after the tragedy, the filmmakers elected to recast and to re-shoot Power's scenes. Yul Brynner, who had declined when he had previously been offered the role, agreed to the million-dollar payday offered for completing Solomon and Sheba. Brynner made a rare screen appearance with a full head of hair, and existing long shots of Power were matched where possible. Even factoring in the seven-figure insurance proceeds on Power's life, the then-considerable production costs of $4 million wound wind up swelling to $6 million.
It's not as if the lavish budget isn't reflected onscreen. The freely adapted story opens with an impressive sequence wherein an attack by Egyptian forces is handily thwarted by Israelites commandeered by the warrior-prince Adonijah (Sanders) and his contemplative younger brother, the poet Solomon (Brynner). On the news that their father David (Finlay Currie) lies mortally ill, Solomon rushes to his side; Adonijah's response is to assume the crown on the spot. As his first kingly duty, he confronts a royal expedition from Sheba moving through the territory; Sheba's beautiful and willful regent (Gina Lollobrigida) responds to the overture by lashing him in the face.
It worsens for Adonijah on his return to Jerusalem, where a recovered David announces to his court a revelation from above that Solomon should be next to wear the crown. The embittered eldest eventually takes grudging acceptance of Solomon's offer of command of the nation's armies, and the opening years of the poet king's reign are marked by prosperity and the construction of the Great Temple.
Wary of Israel's growing influence and strength, the heads of the neighboring nations convene to address the potential threat posed by Solomon. Sheba proposes that feminine wiles would accomplish much more than armed might in bringing Solomon down, and she mounts a gift-laden caravan to Jerusalem on the pretext of fostering peace. With great persistence, she eventually breaks down Solomon's adherence to protocol; the king begins to allow Sheban icons to be erected, to the dismay of much of the populace.
Solomon's tolerance leads to his sanction of a celebratory orgy (all props to "Orgy-Sequence Adviser" Granville Heathway); as Sheba's seduction is completed, the Great Temple is destroyed in a paroxysm of heavenly wrath. Between the anger of his people, a new incursion by Egypt, and Adonijah's recognition of the moment to grasp power, Solomon is brought to the ultimate low, and Sheba, whose manipulation has given way to genuine love for the embattled king, is prepared to make amends via the ultimate sacrifice.
While much expense went into the production design of Solomon and Sheba, one aspect of the filmmaker's homework was notoriously slipshod. The Star of David appears throughout as a motif in clothing and architecture, although its recognition as a Judaic icon antedates Solomon's reign by approximately two and 1/2 millennia. Still, the craftwork in the film has much to commend it; the climactic set-piece concerning Solomon's ambitious military gambit with onrushing Egyptian hordes remains a compelling spectacle.
The project's salvaging was not remembered fondly by either the director or his substitute lead. Vidor felt that Brynner's reading lacked the threads of self-doubt that Power brought to the role. "Tyrone Power had understood the dualistic problem of the anguished king," the director recounted in Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon's King Vidor, American. Brynner, he continued, "fought the idea of a troubled monarch and wanted to dominate each situation without conflict. It was an attitude that affected...the integrity of the film."
Brynner's attitudes were reflected in his son Rock's memoir Yul: The Man Who Would Be King (Simon & Schuster). The younger Brynner deemed the film "on an aesthetic par with Steve Reeves as Hercules...George Sanders, in his fifties, appeared so feeble in battle that he turned to camera as if soliciting comfort from the audience." Although critics of the period were indifferent at best to Solomon and Sheba, the film's global grosses still ensured a multi-million dollar profit despite the on-set disaster.
Producer: Ted Richmond, Tyrone Power
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Anthony Veiller, Paul Dudley, George Bruce
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Film Editing: Otto Ludwig
Art Direction: Richard Day, Luis Pz Espinosa, Alfred Sweeney
Music: Mario Nascimbene, Malcolm Arnold
Cast: Yul Brynner (Solomon), Gina Lollobrigida (Sheba), George Sanders (Adonijah), Marisa Pavan (Abishag), David Farrar (Pharaoh), John Crawford (Joab).
C-142. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg