Bible movie of the week: Slaves of Babylon (1953)

Bible movie of the week: Slaves of Babylon (1953) November 27, 2013

By now you may have figured out that I’m using the “Bible Movie of the Week” series as an excuse, or opportunity, to focus on some of the more obscure films out there, rather than the blockbusters that everyone knows and loves (most of which I have already written about at some length anyway). And so today I come to Slaves of Babylon (1953), a sort of adaptation of the Book of Daniel that I had barely even heard about until very recently.

In fact, I only bothered to go looking for this film a few weeks ago, after I had written a post about the Persian King Cyrus, who is celebrated in the Old Testament (Isaiah even calls him “the Lord’s Messiah”) for letting the Jews return to Jerusalem following their exile in Babylon. Cyrus might not be the most prominent of biblical figures, but he did play a significant role within the history of the Jewish people, and it seems a shame that there haven’t been more than a couple of films about him.

Slaves of Babylon is one of those films. While it dramatizes some of the better-known stories from the Book of Daniel, it also revolves around a mostly made-up story in which Cyrus becomes king of Persia with help from one of Daniel’s followers. I say “mostly made-up” because it seems the film’s depiction of Cyrus’s early life is derived in part from a legend passed down to us by the Greek historian Herodotus. So basically, Slaves of Babylon represents a pop-cultural attempt to bridge religious and secular history — and those are the kinds of films I find particularly interesting, whatever their aesthetic merits may or may not be. (Another example would be the 1985 mini-series A.D.: Anno Domini, which alternated between the Book of Acts and the lives of the Caesars, with a bit of Josephus thrown in for good measure.)

So, without further ado, here are my first impressions of the film, which you can watch (in English but with foreign subtitles) at this website.

Slaves in Babylon? The title is a reference to the fact that the Jews lived in exile after their nation was conquered multiple times by the Babylonians.

But were the Jews actually “slaves” in Babylon? Were they compelled to build the Hanging Gardens and the other great construction projects of that city, as the film’s introduction suggests? Maybe some of them were, but I have never had the impression that this was true of the Jewish exiles as a whole.

The film goes on to say that the Jews were hated by their Babylonian masters for not worshipping the Babylonian god Bel Marduk. Again, I am not aware that any Babylonians concerned themselves much with who the Jews worshipped as a whole.

On a personal, individual level, Daniel and his friends certainly faced their share of religious hostility, but that was because they served in the Babylonian court; they were advisers to the very king who had defeated their people in the name of his gods. And no doubt there were the usual sort of ethnic tensions dressed up in religious language.

In general, though, I suspect most Babylonians were content to know that they and their gods had defeated the Jews and (seemingly) the Jewish God as well.

Daniel, remixed. Leaving out the episodes that are omitted from this film, the chronology of the biblical Book of Daniel goes something like this: Daniel’s friends are thrown into a fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar (chapter 3); Nebuchadnezzar goes insane and then recovers his sanity (chapter 4); Belshazzar sees the handwriting on the wall (chapter 5); Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den (chapter 6).

In the film, however, this order is altered, so that Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, not Cyrus’s; then his friends are thrown into the fiery furnace by Belshazzar, not Nebuchadnezzar; then Nebuchadnezzar goes insane and dies, without recovering; and then Belshazzar sees the handwriting on the wall.

As you can see, the order is mostly unchanged, except that the episode in the lions’ den has been moved from the end of this sequence to its beginning — and if I had to guess as to why, I would say it’s because the filmmakers wanted to include the lions’ den story (which is, after all, very famous), but they also wanted to conclude the film on a happy note with Cyrus’s defeat of the Babylonians.

To put this another way: The mini-series The Bible kept the lions’ den story where it belonged, during the reign of Cyrus, so that it could suggest a connection between Daniel’s miraculous survival and Cyrus’s decision to let the Jews go home to Jerusalem. But Slaves of Babylon wants Cyrus to send the Jews home as soon as he conquers Babylon, so it had no time to sandwich another story of religious persecution in there. So the film moves the story to a much earlier part of the chronology, figuring it won’t matter to the audience which ruler sentenced Daniel to death.

Side note: The film depicts Belshazzar as Nebuchadnezzar’s son and heir. But the real Belshazzar was actually the son of a king who had assassinated Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, so he probably wasn’t related to Nebuchadnezzar at all. But it’s not too hard to understand why the filmmakers might have simplified things here.

Get that boy a throne! While the film borrows heavily from the Book of Daniel, the major narrative thread in this film actually concerns Cyrus, a shepherd boy who ascends to the throne of Persia with the help of one of Daniel’s followers.

The fact that Daniel is not the central focus of this film makes me wonder if the filmmakers were suffering from a reluctance similar to that of the people who made King of Kings (1961), the first major Jesus movie of the sound era; instead of getting too close to the film’s central biblical hero, it was arguably “safer” to spend the vast bulk of the movie’s screen time on the quasi-fictionalized supporting characters.

The film links the stories of Daniel and Cyrus by showing how Daniel deliberately helps Cyrus take the throne so that Cyrus will feel grateful towards Daniel and let his people go home. Much of the legwork, however, is done by a follower of Daniel’s named Nahum (no apparent relation to the prophet of that name), who schemes with various people to trick Cyrus into doing what needs to be done — and who, at one point, gets involved in a love triangle with the object of Cyrus’s affections.

In this film, Cyrus is presented as a shepherd who discovers that he is actually the grandson of the Persian king Astyages, and that his grandfather tried to have him killed at birth because of a prophecy that Cyrus would one day take the throne away from him — but instead of being left to die at the side of the road, the infant Cyrus was taken in by a shepherd and his wife, who raised him as their own.

Once this secret is revealed, Cyrus is officially welcomed back into Astyages’ court, but Astyages still tries to have him killed — so their armies go to war and Cyrus becomes king, in fulfillment of the prophecy. (The battle is interrupted by a solar eclipse, which may be a nod to the so-called Battle of the Eclipse that was fought in 585 BC, which actually marked the beginning of Astyages’ reign and not the end of it.)

And then Cyrus gets the Persian army to march on Babylon because a woman that he is obsessed with, named Panthea, has gone there to be with the Babylonian prince Belshazzar. (This attack is foreshadowed by a scene in which Cyrus says Panthea is beautiful like Helen, the queen whose adultery sparked the Trojan War.)

But what Cyrus doesn’t know is that Panthea has actually gone to Babylon at Nahum’s behest. That’s right: Nahum, a follower of Daniel’s, tells a beautiful woman to feign interest in the Babylonian prince so that her jealous Persian lover will follow her there and conquer the city, thereby putting him in a position to set the Jews free. Cheesy, no? And strangely devious on the part of our biblical heroes.

Femme fatales. Speaking of Panthea, the first time we see her, she is lying on a couch and stroking her pet leopard, which harks back to a similar scene that introduced Mary Magdalene in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927).

Interestingly, though, this film does not punish Panthea in the end, the way that many other Bible films have punished their more overtly seductive female protagonists. (Consider, for example, the fate of the title character in Sins of Jezebel, who lavished her attention on multiple men in a manner not entirely unlike what Panthea does here.) Instead, Panthea is allowed to have her happy ending: she gets to be a real queen sitting on a real throne next to a real king, i.e. Cyrus.

(The actress who plays Panthea, Linda Christian, went on to become the very first Bond girl ever just one year later, when she played Valerie Mathis — the Vesper Lynd character, basically — in the original 1954 TV adaptation of Casino Royale.)

The film also features Julie Newmeyer — better known today as Julie Newmar — as a dancer who turns out to be an assassin working for Astyages. This was one year before she played one of the brides in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and thirteen years before she first played Catwoman on the Batman TV show (1966-1967).

I must confess I was also amused by the way Nahum tries to tempt Cyrus with the prospect of marriage. Nahum tells Cyrus that, as king of Persia, he will have “luxuries like you have never imagined. Slaves, armies at your command. Rich raiment. Every maiden in the land…” He pauses, then adds: “…will be eager to be your bride.”

To this, Cyrus replies, “I can marry whoever I choose?” Um, well, yes he can. Indeed, in that day and age, he could have had as many women in his harem as he wanted. But neither Nahum nor anyone else in the film gets around to mentioning that.

(Incidentally, why is Nahum tempting Cyrus with the prospect of slave ownership, when the whole point of Nahum’s mission is to ensure that Cyrus will set the Jews free from slavery? Is the enslavement of others okay as far as Nahum is concerned?)

I was also amused by the scene where Nahum tells Panthea that he will accompany her on a journey, and she replies, “You and me, together, for five days?” This line is soon followed by the narrator declaring in his usual serious-narrator voice, on Nahum’s behalf, that “the fall of Babylon could not arrive too soon.” Funny.

Jewish identity. This film was made only eight years after the Holocaust, and only five years after the creation of the modern state of Israel, and it reflects these facts in a number of ways.

First, several of the Jewish characters, including Daniel, wear Stars of David — the symbol that appears on the modern Israeli flag — rather prominently.

Later, there is a sequence in which Belshazzar plots to kill the Jews in a fiery act of genocide, but unbeknownst to him, the fire is put out by a sudden rainstorm.

Then, when the Jews leave Babylon at the end of the film, Daniel says, “This captivity is over. There may be others, but now we will be able to withstand all suffering.”

Elements like these would have had special resonance so soon after modern-day Jews had survived an even worse persecution (the word “holocaust” actually comes from a Greek word that means to “burn something whole”), and so soon after Israel became a nation in its own right — thereby, in a sense, ending another period of exile.

Beyond that, it is also worth noting that Daniel’s friends are identified in this film by their Hebrew names (Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah), and not by their more famous Babylonian names (Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego). Interestingly, this was the same approach taken by The Bible mini-series a few months ago.

Bible connections. The film begins by telling us that Jerusalem was destroyed 300 years after the death of Solomon, which is more or less accurate. His death is generally dated to 931 BC, and Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians on three occasions between 606 BC and 587 BC, the last of which resulted in the destruction of the city and its temple. So the gap was arguably more like 344 years, but why quibble.

The characters also talk about how the exile has lasted “almost fifty years”, which suggests that the film is dating the exile to the period between the final destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC and the Persian conquest of Babylon in 538 BC. Daniel himself had actually been in exile for almost seventy years by that point, though, because he was part of the first wave of deportees following Babylon’s first defeat of Jerusalem in 606 BC.

(It is possible, I suppose, that the film is meant to span two decades; the historical Cyrus defeated Astyages in 550 BC, or about a dozen years before he conquered Babylon and was in a position to let the Jews go home. But the film moves pretty fast, and no one ages notably, so the filmmakers probably weren’t thinking about that.)

The film makes a few other references to Israel’s past, as well. For example, Nahum tells Panthea the story of Ruth, and also the story of Joseph and his brothers.

And when Cyrus and Panthea decree that Nahum is free to join the exiles in returning home to Jerusalem, Panthea almost seems to be quoting a prophecy, though as far as I can tell the sentence she speaks does not come straight from the Old Testament but, rather, incorporates bits and pieces from different passages (note in particular how the bit where she says “your God will surely visit you” echoes Jeremiah 29).

The film also borrows elements from other Bible stories that some audience members may subconsciously associate with the genre as a whole. For example, the notion that the Jews were “slaves” in Babylon harks back to Israel’s enslavement in Egypt prior to the Exodus. And as the Jews leave Babylon at the end of the film, a rainbow appears in the sky, which harks back to the symbol of hope at the end of the story of Noah.

Foreign gods. On the one hand, the film takes a dim view of the Babylonian god Bel Marduk and the people who insist on worshipping him. But the film largely gives Cyrus a pass for worshipping the Persian god Mithras.

Odds and ends. The film isn’t exactly made very well. I was particularly struck by the rather lazy way Nahum waves his sword at the enemy troops during the battle scenes. But it’s not the most incompetently made of films, either. It’s just sort of blandly mediocre.

That being said, I did like a few bits, such as the line of dialogue when Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar, “Age has set his levelling hand on both of us,” or the shot at the end of the episode in the lions’ den, when Daniel walks right up to the camera in a way that suggests how imposing he might have seemed to the bewildered Babylonians standing outside.

The film has an interesting pedigree as far as its cast and crew go. I have already mentioned the appearances of Julie Newmar and Linda Christian.

Beyond that, the film was directed by William Castle, who went on to become famous as the maker of gimmicky B-movies like the original House on Haunted Hill (1959), screenings of which were accompanied by a plastic skeleton that swooped over the heads of the audience during one scene, and The Tingler (1959), screenings of which were accompanied by hidden buzzers that vibrated the audience’s seats.

At least three of the actors appeared in other Bible films as well.

Daniel is played by Maurice Schwartz, who played an adviser to king Herod Antipas in Salome (1953), the same year Slaves of Babylon came out.

Daniel’s assistant Nahum is played by Richard Conte, who went on to play Barabbas in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). (Conte might be best-known nowadays for playing the rival mafia don Barzini in 1972’s The Godfather.)

And Belshazzar is played by Michael Ansara, who had already played someone named Zubal in a 50-minute film called Queen Esther (1948), and who also had a bit part as Judas Iscariot in The Robe (1953) the same year Slaves of Babylon came out. After this, he went on to play a taskmaster in The Ten Commandments (1956) and Haman in an episode of Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1979). Most fun of all, for a Trekkie like me, is the fact that Ansara also went on to play a Klingon named Kang in three episodes of the Star Trek franchise between 1968 and 1996!

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  • JodyMorgan

    Michael Ansara also gained another small but loyal group of fans for voicing Victor Fries, aka Mr. Freeze, several times for Batman cartoons in the ’90s.

  • I’m impressed they got right that Cyrus worshiped Mithra and wasn’t Zoroastrian.

    A Femme Fatale being heroic is an interesting change. I’d like to see a film about Marcia.

    They completely removed the point of Daniel 4, were Nebuchadnezzar becomes Saved.