Film Review: “Samson” (2018)

I went into Samson expecting an absolutely dreadful viewing experience. After all, what more could one expect from a low-budget epic from a faith-based studio? I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t the chore to sit through that I thought it would be. It’s far from a “good” film, but that isn’t for lack of trying.

Indeed, on a scale of “awful” to “excellent,” I would have to rate the film at the lower end of “fair.” While some might find this too generous, I do believe in taking films seriously, regardless of how sloppy (or undeveloped) they might be.

While the film lacks the brutal, vicious intensity of DeMille’s Technicolor version (preferring instead the more “realistic” color currently in vogue in filmmaking), there are a few moments that have a certain savage grace about them. Samson’s murderous rampage that sees the death of several thousand Philistines is one such, though it relies more on fast-paced editing than the glam of special effects to accomplish its effect (which, given the budget, was probably a wise move).

Taylor James makes a fine Samson, with his slightly boyish face, overdeveloped musculature, and rakish (almost childish) charm. He is the perfect sort of grand fool, a man a little too fond of the pleasures of the flesh and a little too distracted from the grand destiny that God has decreed for him. In many ways, he’s the high point of the movie, for all that he’s probably the greenest of the actors.

That being said, there is much about this film that could have been so much better. There are some legitimately good acting talents that try to do the most with what they’ve been given–Billy Zane makes a good egomaniac as the Philistine king, and Rutger Hauer and Lindsey Wagner offer up the values of humility and family duty as Samson’s parents. However, it’s hard to shake the sense that the three of them are basically just earning a paycheck, but they do the most with the threadbare roles that they’ve been given.

Unfortunately, the film also has several talents who are less than stellar and are incredibly frustrating to watch. One of these is the villain of the piece, the Philistine prince Rallah, played with overwrought histrionics by Twilight alum Jackson Rathbone. While one might think that such a distinguished-sounding name might grant the role some sort of gravitas, that would be wrong. Rallah is basically a brat prince, with little or no convincing motivation beyond wanton cruelty (and not even interestingly staged wanton cruelty). Billy Zane would have made a far better villain and, had the screenwriters wanted to, they certainly could have played up the political angle. While they gesture toward the greater Mediterranean world with mentions of Persia and Egypt, these are frustratingly underdeveloped.

Oh, and did I mention Samson has a brother? Who’s blonde? And incredibly annoying? He, like Rallah, takes up far too much narrative space that could have been more usefully allocated elsewhere. For some reason that I personally cannot fathom, the writers decided that a brother would make Samson a more interesting character, when in fact the brother is more of a distraction than anything else. Add that on to the abysmally bad beards that everyone decides to grow after a narratively week segue of “many years later,” and you get a good sense of what the weak spots in the film are.

Indeed, Samson wastes far too many opportunities than it should have. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that it tries too hard to be an epic, and it just does not have the budget or the writing talent to make this work. Epics need to be long to be effective, and they should ideally feature truly eye-popping action, spectacles, and vistas. If Samson wanted to go that route, it should have upped the budget. Or, alternatively, it could have made this into more of a political or personal drama. But, by trying to play the game of the epic but not including the elements that go into that particular form, it ends up not succeeding as well as it might have. Which, as I’ve said, really is a shame, as they have some true talented to work with.

Most frustratingly, the film only introduces the Delilah subplot in the last 45 minutes or so of the film, and it lacks the dramatic tension that I suspect most people expect when going in to see a movie about the biblical Samson. After all, it wasn’t an accident that the titan DeMille chose to focus his story on Samson and Delilah, for he understood very well that part of what makes the biblical narrative so compelling is the power of sex. Unfortunately, the makers of this film didn’t seem to get that memo, and so this film is largely devoid of the sex. This Delilah has very little motivation and very little character development, and that really is a shame, as Caitlin Leahy is a fine actress and could really have done something meaty with the role had she been given the chance.

Instead, Samson seems far more interested in the relationships among men and between Samson and his good-girl sweetheart Taren (who is so milquetoast as to be a nonentity. At least the DeMille version had Angela Lansbury in the similar role). Which, while I’m as much of a fan of the homosocial as any queer scholar, that’s only true when the other male actors are interesting to watch. In this case, it isn’t.

All in all, I found Samson easy to sit through, and it was better than I thought it would be. However, I also found it immensely frustrating, precisely because it seems to deliberately not play by the rules of the game it has chosen to play. While I’m more than willing to sit through a “biblical” film, I at least would like it to be a compelling film in its own right.

Here’s hoping for next time.

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Dissertation Days (47): Back to Work I Go

Well, we returned back to work today. The Dissertation is coming along quite nicely, and I am actually confident that I can produce a workable, submittable draft by the middle of September. Not, mind you, that that will be the final version, but I want the Adviser to have seen all of the chapters in some form before I start sending out applications.

And, what’s more, I finally found that missing piece that’s been eluding me for so long. When I wrote this sentence, I knew that, at last, the pieces were sliding into place: “I then turn to each of the films, beginning with Cleopatra, moving to Fall, and ending with The Bible, showing how each can be understood as a form of melancholy utopia, mourning a world that might have been but can never be.”

It’s that last bit that I find to be the most useful, as it helps me to make clear that what I am working toward is an understanding of these films and their affective charge. I have to say, this is the clearest expression yet of the central claim that I’m setting out in this chapter, and that is an amazing feeling.

Tomorrow, I am going to work on setting out some of the important contextual material, particularly the (failed) promise of the United Nations and the increasing disintegration of the old imperial powers and the United States ascendancy. With a 1,000 word goal per day, I think I should be able to knock this section out of the park within the week. What’s more, I might even be able to move into the theory section. We’re picking up steam, folks!

As I’ve said before, I think I’m going to aim for 15K words on this chapter, possibly a bit more. I think that will be enough to do justice to the complexity of the argument. And besides, I really just want to get this thing out of the door as soon as possible.

The Adviser has suggested that I might do a Chapter 5, and…yeah. That’s not happening. Gotta get this shit done!

Also, I’ve been working on job materials, and they are coming along quite well. I am surprisingly excited about being on the job market. It’s a good feeling.

So, tomorrow is definitely going to be a tremendously productive day. I can feel it.

And I can do it.

Dissertation Days (35): Out, Out, Damn Chapter!

I know I keep saying this, but I think I mean it this time. It looks like Chapter 3 will be sent off tomorrow. I’m finishing a few last-minute things–mostly footnotes and bibliographic entries that eluded me–but I’m so damn close! If I can just push myself over the finish line, and if I can just get this sent in tomorrow, I will feel soooo much better. Then I can take a day to catch my breath and then dive full-on into Chapter 4.

I am very happy to report that that Chapter is really coming along. I’m coming to that part in the process where I’m starting to get into the weeds, drilling down into the details that I really need to make it click. Today, I worked mainly on the section of the chapter dealing with The Bible. For some reason, I really find myself drawn to this film.

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily, depending on how you look at it), there is really only one chapter of a book that I’ve been able to find that discusses it at length. This has caused me to lean rather heavily on that one chapter, which is something of a handicap. On the other hand, it allows me to really negotiate and engage with another scholar’s ideas in great detail, something I haven’t really been able to do.

I also started a new book for research, this one devoted to the icon of Mark Antony. While this particular character is only tangential to my argument, I hope to find a few nuggets in the volume that will help me talk about the politics of the 1963 Cleopatra, particularly the way that it deals with politics, imperial stability, and imperial fall and decline. I hope to have that one finished in the next week or so, and then it’s on to another book that provides some context on the politics of containment.

I’m really hoping that Chapter 4 starts to come along a bit faster. I’ve been making steady progress, but I really want to pick up the pace. I tend to get mired down in chapters if I don’t get them done quickly, so I’m hoping to avoid that. Of course, a lot of that hinges on Chapter 3 and its reception, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

Tomorrow may not see a Dissertation Days update, but Friday will be back at it.

Forward, friends. Forward.

Dissertation Days (34): A Glimmer of Light

Well, Chapter 3 is set to be delivered to the adviser on Thursday. I will breathe an enormous sigh of relief once that is finally done. It will feel good just to have it out of my hands. I’m much more confident in this version of the chapter than its previous iterations, so at least there’s that. Now whether it gets approved is another question entirely…

Chapter 4 was in a surprisingly cooperative mood today. I actually spent the entire day working on the section of the chapter dealing with The Bible: In the Beginning. The film has, unfortunately, been largely ignored by both scholars of Huston and biblical film scholars, in large part, I think, because it’s sort of the bastard child for both fields. So, hopefully part of my goal in this chapter is doing justice to a film that has largely been ignored.

I actually managed to produce several paragraphs that I am rather happy with, as they really helped to clarify not only what I think about this film but also how this close reading fits in with both the other readings that I’ve done and with the argument of the chapter as a whole. Still, I’m hopeful.

To that end, I managed to finish 1,000 words in that chapter. At this point, I think I am almost halfway done with this. And, having finished yet another book on research, I do think that the pieces are at last starting to come together. For anyone who has been following this blog, that’s quite the accomplishment. Given these recent breakthroughs, I’m pretty sure that I can get a version of this chapter to the adviser’s desk by the end of August. That might be a bit ambitious, but I do think it’s doable. After all, I do have to keep in mind that this is the year I’m going to finish the diss. Even if it isn’t perfect, there’s no reason that I can’ still defend in the spring.

Tomorrow may not be the most productive day, as I have to get some work done on my car, but I hope to put the final polish on Chapter 3 and maybe even write a bit in Chapter 4. I’ve also begun reading a new volume for research that I hope will add some new layers to the discussion of Cleopatra. We’ll see if I can get that finished by next week.

Onward!

Dissertation Days (31): Work, Work, Work

Overall, I think this was a better work day than yesterday. I actually managed to go beyond my 1,000 word goal for Chapter 4, and my re-reading of Chapter 3 made me feel like it’s not total dreck after all. Of course, that could be the caffeine talking, but I do like to think that this draft shows significant improvement from its predecessor.

If I have one complaint about Chapter 3, it’s that I think it’s still a bit bloated. If my adviser suggests it, I think that I will take out about 10 pages of excess, both in the context and close readings sections. It’ll work for right now, but there’s no question that the project as a whole can be a bit leaner. There is, though, a certain appropriateness to having a chapter about epics be too long. However, I’m not sure that my adviser, or my committee as a whole, will view it in the same light. There is something to be said, after all, for concision.

Chapter 4 is still coming apace. I felt better about the material I produced today than I did yesterday, both in the section about Cleopatra and about Fall of the Roman Empire. I still can’t quite shake the feeling that this will be the least dynamic and original of my chapters, but I suppose that’s an acceptable thing.

I am also not entirely sure how I’m going to fit my discussion of John Huston’s The Bible in there, though there are moments when I see how it fits. If I have to, I may eventually end up moving it to some sort of conclusion, but for the moment I’m going to keep it where it is and continue to hope that its connection to the other parts of the chapter becomes clearer as I go along.

Tomorrow, I am going to start my final read-through of Chapter 3, focusing on smoothing out any remaining rough edges, as well as making sure that the bibliography I have is the updated one (especially since I deleted some entries for this revision). I’ll also have to make sure that I fill out some of the footnotes that are still missing information.

Furthermore, I think I will only write 500 words of Chapter 4 tomorrow. I really want to get Chapter 3 knocked out ASAP, so I’m afraid that has to be my priority.

Onward and upward, as I always say. Onward and upward.

Dissertation Days (21): Roadblocks

I’ve reached that stage in Chapter 3 where I know that the end is in sight, but it’s precisely the nearness of accomplishment that proves more than a little debilitating. Still, it is precisely in those moments that one has to continue onward, pushing past the mental barricades to get to the rich intellectual material beneath.

I did manage to eke out some new material in Chapter 3, both by writing some new stuff and also by importing a paragraph from an earlier draft. The third section still needs a little development to fully cohere, and it’s going to take some doing to make sure that it fits together both internally and with the rest of the chapter, but I think that’s doable, so long as I don’t let myself get bogged down too much.

That being said, I do feel like I made some genuine progress today, and I’m setting Wednesday as the day that I would like to be done with the heavy lifting on this draft. That puts me at just about two months revision which, considering all that’s been going on–pet loss and illness, travel, family obligations–isn’t bad at all. I really do have to keep my momentum going if I want to defend by this coming spring (which I basically have to do regardless). So, any positive thoughts and encouragement y’all could send my way would be much appreciated.

In terms of Chapter 4, I wrote 500 words, mostly in two of my sections that deal with the films. Today, I focused mostly on Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning. At the moment, I’m trying to think through the utopian sensibility that these films express, even as they also acknowledge the rather dystopian realities of history.

Once I settle down again, I am going to need to rewatch both Fall and The Bible. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them, and I need to make sure that I have the type of detail that enables a textured film analysis. Given how much of a stickler I am for sound film criticism, I have to be extra careful to practice what I preach.

On tomorrow’s agenda: keep plodding away at Chapter 3 (as usual). Then it’s on to Chapter 4, and I think I have a rich vein of inquiry ready to be tapped.

Tomorrow is going to be great.