Review of the New Film “Samson”

Review of the New Film “Samson” February 23, 2018

The 1949 Hollywood film directed by Cecille B. DeMille and entitled “Samson and Delilah” was the highest grossed film of 1950. It is a love story drawn from a biblical story about lovers with those names. This fascinating and lengthy story in the Bible, which is much more than a love story, is recorded in Judges 13–16 in the Old Testament. Now, this same idea is being tried again, but on a comparatively smaller budget. And since it is a Christian film, it somewhat whitewashes the story of Samson regarding his lovers, that is, according to the Bible. Yet this is an movie worth seeing.

A week ago yesterday, the film “Samson” was released in 1,200 theaters in the U.S. Its title indicates that it is focused more on Samson’s personal and victorious battles with the Philistines. These people–who migrated to the Levant from the region of the Agean Sea–were the arch-rival of the Hebrews after they escaped from slavery in Egypt. They settled on the eastern border of the five city-states of the Philistines in the former land of Canaan. Being a Nazarite, Samson’s secret to his physical strength in battle was the long hair on his head and that at critical moments “the spirit of the LORD rushed on him” (Judges 15.14). But as with many a great men, Samson’s love of women was his undoing.

This movie “Samson” was produced by Pure Flix Entertainment in association with Boomtown Films. Pure Flix is the largest distributor of faith-based films in the world. In fact, it recently entered into a business relationship with Netflix. Pure Flix also has increasingly been producing its own films, now at almost a monthly clip. Their top successes are “God’s Not Dead” followed by “The Case for Christ.” Pure Flix’s stated goal is “to influence the global culture for Christ through media.”

British actor Taylor James plays the role of Samson. He looks pretty good and is obviously a bodybuilder. The film starts with Samson as an adult. He is told by Israel’s elders that God has raised him up to be a judge for the nation. This setting was during the period of Israel’s judges, who rose up to rule and serve as the leader to defend Israel from its enemies. It immediately preceded Israel’s period of kingship that began with Saul, David, and Solomon during the 10th century B.C.

At the time the film depicts, Israel was under subjugation to the Philistines. This scenario changed back and forth during many decades, so that Israel sometimes had ascendancy over the Philistines. But during this time, the Israelites suffered excessively in paying tribute to their oppressors. So, the elders anointed Samson, who was somewhat reluctant on his part, to defend them before the Philistines.

Ancient Philistia consisted of five, walled city-states located in the Mediterranean coastal plane. Each had their own king. During the time depicted by this film, Gaza was foremost of these cities. I would have liked for the film to have shown a map of the region at least once, in the beginning of the film. But then, I’m a map guy.

The film next portrays Samson escaping as a slave from Gaza to the nearby Israelite tribe of Dan. (The nation of Israel consisted of twelve tribes, in which each had their own territory.) Philistine soldiers are present in the land of Israel, mostly to extract tribute. One of their preeminent warriors challenges Samson to a fight. Samson wins, is given a bag of silver coins as a prize, and the other Philistine soldiers kill their own warrior for losing. (In this review, I sometimes with include in parenthesis the biblical text upon which a particular scene in this historical film is based.)

Throughout the film, the walled city of Gaza is viewed occasionally at a distance. A statue of the Philistines’ god Dagon emerges above all of the other stone buildings. The theme of Dagon versus Yahweh, the God of the Israelites-Hebrews is prominent in the film. Samson occasionally prays to his God, especially when he is engaged in battle.

Samson sees a beautiful Philistine woman and later tells his father, “I saw a woman in Timnah; get her for me as a wife.” (See Judges 14.2 in the Bible.) This one hour, fifty-minute film sometimes depicts accurately, as here, the biblical account. And, of course, you can’t make a biblical epic without taking some license regarding the Bible. It is necessary in order to make a nearly two-hour film and one that flows with a story line. One such addition is the strained relationship between the king of Gaza and his eldest son, who eventually slays his father to become king.

Samson’s parents object to his request, complaining that he should not “take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines” (Judges 14.3). But the biblical text then says, “his father and mother did not know that it was from the LORD, for He was seeking an occasion against the Philistines. Now at that time the Philistines were ruling over Israel” (v. 4).

The film then presents the hero, Samson, going to Timnah to find this woman who “looked good to Samson” (Judges 14.7; cf. v. 3). On his way, unarmed, a lion attacked him. With Samson’s strength he grabbed the lion by the jaws and broke them, killing the lion. I thought the film’s depiction of the lion was larger than it needed to be. It looked more like an African lion than a smaller one that would be typical of the Levant.

Upon Samson’s return home, he sees the dead carcass of the lion that he had killed. It unnaturally had a hive of bees in it. As Samson scooped up some honey and ate it, he thought of a riddle. Then Samson’s father arranged a feast at Timnah for Samson and the woman to marry. Samson told the Philistine young men there that he had a riddle for them. Men in that culture used to tell riddles as a game. Samson included a bet. He said if they guessed the riddle before the feast ended, he would give them thirty tunics (clothing), and if they couldn’t guess it, they would have to give him thirty tunics.

Here was the riddle: “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet” (Judges 14.14).

In the meantime, the Philistine men told Samson’s Philistine fian’ce, named Terrin, to find out from Samson the riddle and tell them or they would burn her and her family to death (Judges 14.15). In an intimate moment between the two lovers, Terrin says something that movie-goers will take as a contrast to Samson’s supposed beliefs. She says something like “destiny in life is what you make of it.” Samson tells her that he wishes to be “a husband and a father.” This is not how Samson’s life will go.

Samson and Terrin stay together for the seven days of the feast. Terrin pesters Samson to tell her the riddle. Annoyed, Samson finally tells her, and she tells those Philistine men. So, the men tell the riddle to Samson: “What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?” Samson then alleges that they must have learned it from his fian’ce Terrin. In anger, Samson tells them he will be justified in what he is about to do. So, he goes to Ashkelon, one of the other Philistine city-states, kills thirty men, and brings their tunics to these Philistines of Gaza as payment.

The prince of Gaza then had Terrin thrown from the city wall to her death. This is an addition to the biblical account, which says her father gave Terrin to Samson’s friend (Judges 14.19-20; 15.1-2). Apparently, Pure Flix did this to enhance the script’s story line about the evil prince who would be king. A prominent theme in the film is the king of Gaza and this crown prince. And the prince’s mistress, it seems, is a Philistine woman named Delilah. All of this is not in the biblical account.

Angered at the loss of Terrin as wife, Samson came upon a den of foxes. He took 300 foxes, tied the tails of two apiece together with torches in between, and then released them into Philistines wheat fields at night. The scene viewed from the sky, with the foxes running about leaving blazing paths, was really neat I thought. When the Philistines learned why Samson did it, the biblical account says they burned Terrin and her father to death (Judges 15.3-6).

A large contingent armed Philistine warriors then came upon Samson at Lehi to kill him. He grabbed “a fresh jawbone of a donkey” for his sole weapon and killed “a thousand men” with it (Judges 15.15). This was the most dramatic part of the film, with mighty Samson constantly swinging his unlikely weapon with such speed and thus force. When the fight ended, the landscape was strewn with all those bodies, and only the handsome Samson was left standing.

One slight departure of the script from the biblical text regards one night when Samson lay with a prostitute in Gaza (Judges 16.1). The script then has him discovered by the people as they trap Samson at the main city gate about to kill him. I didn’t think this scene worked well, since the crowd just stood there, giving Samson time to do his thing. He then rips apart the whole gate from the city wall–doors, two posts, and metal bar–and carries the whole thing on his back to deposit it on a nearby hill. The biblical text says the people learned that Samson was there, so they purposed to wait for him til daybreak. But Samson arose at midnight and then tore lose the city gate to carry it off, apparently undiscovered (vv. 2-3).

Another departure of script from text regards Samson’s last lover–Delilah. The film seems to make her the mistress of the evil prince of Gaza. But she eventually becomes Samson’s woman. The prince threatens her to learn the secret of Samson’s strength. The biblical account says “the lords of the Philistines” (Judges 16.5) did this, meaning the five kings of the Philistine city-states. A constant dialogue then occurs about the secret of Samson’s strength, this time between him and Delilah (Judges 16.4-17).

The film presents Delilah as a true lover even though she tries to deceive Samson to tell her his secret. Samson finally relents by saying, “A razor has never come upon my head; for I have been a nazarite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me: I would become weak, and be like anyone else” (Judges 16.17).

Delilah then told the Philistine prince. She then lay with Samson, he fell asleep in her lap, and she cut off some of his braided hair. Then she exclaimed, “The Philistines are upon you.” He awoke, and the Philistines lying in wait overcame him and put out his eyes with a hot rod or sword. Delilah then was paid many silver coins for her betrayal, though she afterwards suffered remorse for doing so. This will remind many movie-goers of Judas betraying Jesus for thirty silver coins.

For the first time in Samson’s life, he was without his strength. But the hair on his head was growing back. Gaza holds a feast to its god Dagon. The mighty Samson, now blind and supposedly weak, is brought out for sport. The elite are located in the upper story of a stone building suspended by two large pillars. Samson is placed between the pillars. He then calls upon God for renewed strength, and pushes mightily with his two outstretched arms against each pillar. The upper story, with the prince-now-king and his royal family and dignitaries inside, come crashing to ground upon Samson as all come to their death. So, the story of Samson and his strength comes to a tragic end, although Samson had achieved what was surely his greatest victory over the Philistines.

The film has an unseen moderator who occasionally provides needed information. The movie ends with the moderator briefly telling about the ensuing period of Israel’s judges to be superseded by the period of kings, with King David as foremost.

That reminded me of the last scene in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” in which the resurrected Jesus walks out of his tomb. Why? I thought it suggested a sequel. Now, fifteen years later, Gibson and Randall Wallace are getting around to making that sequel now, it being about Jesus’ resurrection.

So, I wonder if Pure Flix intends to do a sequel to this “Samson” film, it being about King David. He was perhaps the most outstanding figure in Israel’s history between the time of Moses and Jesus, at least from a Christian perspective. The Bible has a really big story to tell about David. Foremost is when he slew the nearly ten-foot tall, armor-clad, warrior and Philistine named Goliath with only a small stone and a sling.

As for the film “Samson,” I think it is well worth seeing. I will probably will never forget the scene of the foxes running through those wheat fields at night, setting fire to it. Just the idea of it is one of the fascinating stories about the Hebrew Samson with his long hair the secret of his mighty strength that allowed him to slay a lion with his bare hands and a thousand soldiers with the jawbone of an ass.

(I wrote a book that includes some history of conflict between the Philistines and the Israelites. It is entitled Palestine Is Coming: The Revival of Ancient Philistia (1990). The book’s purpose is to presenrt a new proposal for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of biblical prophecy. The main part of this book is presently available for free reading as an e-book at my website kermitzarley.com.)

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