[I do history as my dayjob, so even though it doesn’t quite match the theme of Trash Culture, I thought I’d import the “History vs. Hollywood” reviews, where I compare Hollywood historical epics up against the historical facts they purport to cover, that I wrote for a website. I might do new ones as well in the future. Enjoy!]
Although they haven’t entirely gone, DeMille-esque historical epics can be something of an acquired taste, thanks to the melodramatic, stylized acting, paper-thin characterization, emphasis on atmosphere over substance, and characters spouting twentieth century ideas with abandon. 1959′s Solomon and Sheba is a blueprint guideline for making a film of this genre, right down to the gloriously decadent sets and the promise of pagan orgies alongside austere visuals of God’s wrath.
What breaks the film out of pure extravagant mundaneness is the gorgeous Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida’s turn as the Queen of Sheba, who goes at a rather shallow role with real bite. Unfortunately, Yul Brenner, perhaps much better known for his roles as King Mongkut of Siam in The King and I and the Gunslinger in Westworld and Futureworld – certainly looks the part of a grim, haunted Solomon, but often looks as though he’s not so much King Solomon than a Yul Brenner vaguely irritated at the proceedings. Perhaps this was because the role of Solomon was originally meant for Tyrone Power, who was already well-known for playing the handsome leading man in historical epics like The Black Swan and The Prince of Foxes, and in fact he had almost finished filming when he died from a heart attack. The role was then given to Brenner with the scenes featuring Solomon refilmed. Nonetheless, Tyrone Power can still be spotted in certain shots, even in the middle of the climactic duel with Adonijah.
Beyond the macabre note and being Tyrone Power’s last film (sort of), there is not much else exceptional about Solomon and Sheba. I wish I could say something more in the film’s favor, since it really does deserve some leeway at least for tackling one of the more interesting and complex personas from the Hebrew Bible and trying to forge a historical epic and a romance from a brief episode recorded in Kings and Chronicles. Unfortunately, the most that can be said is that the film, for all its grandiose sense of style, is a C effort.
History vs. Solomon and Sheba
So was there ever actually a Queen of Sheba?
The dull answer has to be, “No one knows for sure,” although there is more certainty about her homeland. The “Sheba” spoken of in Kings definitely existed, but its exact location has been under debate. It existed either in Ethiopia (in the modern day region of Shewa), Yemen (where an Arabic people called the “Sabaeans” lived in the 1st millennium BC), or both, since the two regions could have easily been influenced by the same culture or ruled by the same people. Persia, Somalia, Zanzibar, and Sudan have also been proposed as candidates for the site of Sheba, but Ethiopia and/or Yemen are by far the most likely.
Of course, this doesn’t quite answer the question of whether the Queen of Sheba, named “Nikaule” by a Hebrew legend outside the Hebrew Bible that was cited by the first century AD Jewish historian Josephus, is a historical or mythical persona. In my humble opinion, the strength and persistence of the legends about her and the fact that many figures in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible have been proven to have existed indicate a “yes.” At the very least, though, the Hebrew Bible’s account of Solomon and Sheba can be taken as historical evidence of a friendly relationship between Solomon’s Israel and the rulers of Sheba, whoever they were.
Who’s this Adonijah jerk?
A half-brother of Solomon’s who was supported by Joab, David’s general, and was considered heir-apparent to David since he had become the eldest son after the deaths of his brothers Absalom and Amnon. As the film relates, Adonijah declared himself the next king as David was dying, but David, prompted by Solomon’s mother Bethsheba and the influential prophet Nathan, declared Solomon his successor. Almost everything else about the Adonijah here – even the scene where he tries to start an alliance with the Queen of Sheba and is whipped in the face for his trouble – is complete fiction or speculation, including his ultra-militant stance and rampant assholery.
David says something about how God decreed that only as long as there is peace, not strife, Israel will prosper.
Here’s our first big example example of the film’s rather skewed take on ancient Israel. Like pretty much every major tribal group, kingdom, or state that has ever existed in recorded history, Israel indulged in expansionism, especially by the time of Solomon’s ascension. King David had led the push to seize Jerusalem away from the Canaanites and invaded territories in Syria and Palestine. The kingdom of Israel at its apogee was as much an imperialist power, interested in subduing its neighbors and gaining lands and resources, as its neighbors the Assyrians, the Hittites, the Babylonians, or the Egyptians. I suppose the film can be forgiven, given its naked idealization of biblical history, but this quote is especially clumsy since the Hebrew Bible never blinks at detailing the brutal military campaigns the ancient Israelites launched against the Philistines and the Canaanite city-states.
And, honestly, as anyone who has read or studied Joshua, Numbers, and Judges can tell you, the God of the Torah was not exactly an advocate for peace even on His “good days.”
Just after becoming king, Solomon prays for wisdom and God, happy that Solomon asked for something that will benefit his people, grants it.
This is an accurate recreation of the famous scene from Kings 3:1-15, which is meant to convey Solomon’s benevolent concern for the Jews as much as the origin of Solomon’s exceptional and legendary wisdom. If only contemporary rulers were as dedicated to self-improvement…
They constantly refer to God as “Jehovah.”
Quibble alert: the Jews in the film should be saying “Yahweh” instead of “Jehovah”, since most scholars now agree that “Yahweh” is the most accurate English rendering of the Hebrew God’s name, the Tetragrammaton or YHWH (although one can argue that, for full accuracy, Solomon and the other Jews in the film should be saying “Hashem”, “the Lord”, or “the Name”). “Jehovah” is a very old-fashioned translation of the Tetragrammaton and has fallen out of favor in biblical scholarship, but persists elsewhere. Of course, this might be a really unfair criticism since I’m not sure if Yahweh had become broadly accepted by the time this film was made or not.
Solomon builds the Temple and, while praising God, says, “There is none else.” Nothing historically inaccurate there, right?
Actually…Solomon and most of his subjects may not have been what we would today call monotheists. Instead the early Jews, including Moses and the first person (or people) to write down the oral traditions that would make up the Torah (which is believed to have happened during Solomon’s reign), seem to have been henotheists (worshipers of only one god while believing in a cosmology that still allowed for other gods). Yahweh was indeed the one god of the Hebrew people, their sole benefactor and protector, and they believed that he was the creator of the world, but they most likely believed that the other peoples too had their deities. After all, the First Commandment only states, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” without denying that these other gods may be actual beings. It’s a bit too involved an argument to make here (and for me to do justice), but the idea of there being only one, existing God was something that crystalized over time with help from the later prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the religious reforms of King Josiah of Judah (r. 640 – 609 BC), and developments during the Diaspora under the Babylonian Empire. There are, though, theories that “true” monotheism was a feature of Judaism as early as the Judges or Moses or that the Jews took the idea of one God from the cult of Amenhotep IV or Akhenaten, the twelfth century pharaoh who declared that the sun-god Amun was the one true God. In fact, the Egyptologist Ahmed Osman has written a number of books claiming that Akhenaten and Moses were really the same person! However, there are also strong arguments based on historical and biblical knowledge against these theories. As far as Solomon is concerned, he and David and Saul before him certainly tolerated the worship of Canaanite or West Semitic deities within Israel – a careful reader of Kings may even notice that several of Saul’s sons have “Baal” honored in their names – hence we have the hostility of later, more “purely” monotheistic writers of the Hebrew Bible toward Solomon and the old Israeli monarchy itself.
Before I blather on further, I’ll stop and recommend Mark S. Smith’s The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, which is definitely not for the casual reader, but provides a very comprehensive summary of the arguments and theories over the development of monotheism in ancient Israel. Not nearly as in-depth on the subject, but more reader-friendly, is Michael Grant’s The History of Ancient Israel, which I recommend below.
All that aside, the movie is absolutely accurate in depicting the construction of the First Temple being completed under Solomon after being begun by David. Solomon’s prayer of dedication is also as recorded in Kings and Chronicles.
The Queen of Sheba is invited to a conference of Middle Eastern monarchs, hosted by the Pharaoh of Egypt. The topic is that everyone’s worried about the bad influence Israel is having on their own subjects. Sheba calls out the root of the problem, Yahweh, “a God that teaches all men are equal and none are slaves.” Uh, wait, let me get that copy of Leviticus…
While you do that, I’ll go ahead and point out something about Egypt, which is painted here as the looming superpower, eager and willing for an opportunity to annex all of Solomon’s Israel. At the time of Solomon’s reign, Egypt was passing through one of the low points in its long history, the Third Intermediate Period. There was a power struggle between the high priests of Thebes and the pharaohs, who were then based in the northern Egyptian city of Tanis, that divided Egypt. Although the pharaoh in this film is never explicitly named, he is clearly based on the Twenty-Second Dynasty pharaoh Shishaq, who made a nasty impression on the writers of the Hebrew Bible by being the first foreign enemy to plunder the Temple. However, he did this a few years after Solomon’s death and after the kingdom of Israel had split. Also the stability he imposed on Egypt was very fragile, as shown by the fact that it shattered not long after his death. All that to say is that Shishaq and the other pharaohs at the time had much more to worry about than whether or not Israel was spreading pesky anachronistic ideas about human liberty.
As for the “none are slaves” bit, well, while slavery in ancient Israel or in fact most pre-industrial societies was not as ruthless or dehumanizing a system as it was on the plantations of the modern era, it was still a facet of ancient Hebrew society, neatly regulated by the Torah. To be fair, the screenwriters may have meant to write about “slaves” in a more abstract sense, but even then it just comes across as the blunt hammering in of twentieth century Western and Christian ideals.
Hey, there’s that wacky Solomon, threatening to cut a baby in two!
This is a nice visualization of by far the most well-known anecdote about Solomon, down to his lavish court and Sheba watching from his side.
The relationship with the Queen of Sheba has become scandalous and then she goes and convinces him to allow her to publicly worship her gods.
One of the bad spots on Solomon’s reputation in the Hebrew Bible is his love for foreign women, who lead him into heresy. However, as far as I know, the Queen of Sheba is never explicitly named as one of these mystery women. Also, as pointed out before, Solomon did allow the open worship of gods other than Yahweh.
God gets ticked at the sight of the Queen’s midnight revels with her fellow followers and blows up the Temple.
Now the film is really taking its liberties. The First Temple was not destroyed until 586 BC, centuries after Solomon’s death, and not by an act of God, but by an act of Babylonians.
The prophet Nathan sneers at Solomon, “Because of you, the nation is torn asunder.”
It’s implied that all the tribes of Israel simultaneously just get up and abandon Solomon, which is a strange plot twist, to say the least. To be charitable, I suppose it’s a reference to the division of Israel into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, but that doesn’t take place until after Solomon’s death and, besides, in the film he reunifies the tribes under his kingship.
Solomon’s prick of a half-brother, who had been banished, sets out to invade Israel with the Pharoah’s blessing.
Here Adonijah is being conflated with Jeroboam, who fled to Egypt after he was discovered raising support to have himself declared king. The real Adonijah had already been put to death for treason by this time. Unlike the film’s Adonijah, Jeroboam remained in Egypt until after Solomon’s demise and never invaded Israel with the help of Egyptian troops, but rather was invited back by those Israelites who rejected Solomon’s son and heir, Rehoboam. Nor was he defeated after a long, dramatic duel, but went on to become the first king of a new kingdom of Israel, comprised of the northern portion of the old Israeli kingdom.
Sheba prays and promises to “convert her people” to Judaism if God saves Solomon from Adonijah and the Pharaoh’s army. God agrees and then Adonijah has her stoned just for the hell of it, but, after Solomon fights Adonijah to the death, God restores the Queen to full health. Oh, and then we find out she’s pregnant with a son.
This might seem like the screenwriters stretching history out of shape again, but this is actually a friendly little nod to the founding legend of the Emperors of Ethiopia, of all things. See, according to Ethiopian legend Sheba and Solomon did have a son, who became King Menelik I, the legendary first monarch of the Ethiopian monarchy. Even the claim that she would convert her people is not at odds with Ethiopian legend and history; there is some evidence of Judaic worship taking place in ancient Ethiopia.
Michael Grant. History of Ancient Israel.
It provides both a good overview of the history of ancient Israel and historical contexts for the Hebrew Bible. It’s useful even for those who shun all memory of childhood Sunday school.