Sincronía Fall 2008

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Forbidden Fruit: Wine and Grape Avoidance Behaviour in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949)

Anton Karl Kozlovic

School of Humanities

Flinders University



Cecil B. DeMille was a co-founder of Hollywood and master of the American biblical epic who produced and directed Samson and Delilah (1949). To the public, Samson is a good guy, but scripturally speaking, he is notoriously bad as the last of the twelve judges overseeing Israel’s religio-political disintegration (Judg. 13-16). As Hollywood’s leading cinematic lay preacher and avowed Christian apologist, DeMille constructed his Samson as a Christ-figure to uprate his sanctity, and then utilised wine and grape avoidance behaviour to buttress his holy design, which was explicated herein. The critical film and religion literature pertaining to the Samson saga was selectively reviewed, and DeMille’s cinematic Samson was closely examined utilising humanist film criticism as the analytical lens. It was concluded that his Samson was artfully constructed, dramatically engaging and scripturally insightful, thus proving that DeMille was a far defter biblical filmmaker than has been realised, appreciated or honoured to date. Further research into DeMille studies, biblical epics and the emerging interdisciplinary field of religion-and-film was recommended.

Introduction: The Scriptural Samson

The Samson saga as recorded in Judges 13-161 of the Old Testament (OT) portion of the Holy Bible is about Yahweh’s ancient strongman, the last and most infamous of Israel’s twelve judges (i.e., charismatic leaders). Although Samson was an earthly mortal, he was a human instrument of the Divine who became especially powerful when "the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him" (Judg. 14:6). As Phillip Lopate described the phenomenon, Samson’s "body itself doesn’t quite belong to him—it’s a sacred weapon for God to inhabit with His spirit when He so desires" (17), or as Thomas Pauly put it, Samson is "a sort of nuclear weapon only to be used when the situation fully warranted it" (477).

Despite his divine selection, incredible physical prowess and high terrestrial office, Samson was a big disappointment. He failed as a religious practitioner, he failed as a spiritual leader, he failed as a military commander, and he failed as an honourable role model for his Danite people; not once, but many times. For example, Samson did not keep his divinely specified Nazarite purity vows (Judg. 13:4-5; Num. 6:1-21), he religiously compromised his parents (Judg. 14:8-9), and disobeyed his people’s endogamy marriage traditions (Judg. 14:2-3). He bossed about his parents (Judg. 14:2, 3) and murdered Philistines unreasonably (Judg. 14:19; 15:8), as opposed to reasonably (Judg. 15:14-16; 16:21-30). He stole from innocent people (Judg. 14:19), gloated (Judg. 15:16), and was a malicious arsonist who destroyed the property of other innocent people (Judg. 15:5). He wrecked city gates (Judg. 16:2-3), lied on multiple occasions (Judg. 16:7, 11, 13), and prayed only for personal vengeance reasons (Judg. 16:28). Therefore, it is not too surprising to find Samson being characterised by Scripture scholars as "a rather mean-spirited, biblical Paul Bunyan" (Higgs 113), "a bully boy" (Vickery 61), and "an Israelite gangster captain" (Simon 157).

If the above behaviours were not bad enough for a chosen emissary of God, Samson was also a sexual suspect and a recidivist. He pursued three scandalous, amatory adventures with religiously undesirable woman, namely: (a) the unnamed woman from Timnath (Judg. 14:1-3), (b) the unnamed harlot of Gaza (Judg. 16:1), and (c) the infamous Delilah of Sorek (Judg. 16:4-31). No wonder the Samson saga has been tagged as "the story of sexy stories…always an entertaining and sacred scandal sheet" (Wurtzel 38). In tragic due course, Samson was cuckolded as a man, he failed as a suitor, lover, husband and father, and he was repeatedly humiliated, outwitted and betrayed by family, friends and foe alike. Nor was his reputation for intelligence enhanced when this man-mountain "voluntarily" revealed to Delilah the hair-based secret of his phenomenal strength (Judg. 16:16-17). Especially after making the same inappropriate disclosure mistake by revealing the unbeatable honey-and-lion riddle answer to his Philistine Timnath wife-to-be, who then relayed it to his adversarial wedding guests (Judg. 14:17), thus instantly loosing his sure bet and ensuring his subsequent humiliation (Judg. 14:18). Both of these important confidentiality lapses involving romantic intimates led to disastrous consequences for Samson and those around him. Some people just never learn.

If it was not for Samson’s inclusion in the New Testament (NT) list of God’s faithful (Heb. 11:32), in any other context, he would be considered a looser par excellence, and quickly dismissed as just a he-man with a she-problem. Indeed, the Samson saga is the biblical equivalent of today’s TV soaps. Not only does that sacred story have "a remarkable contemporary feel. It might have been written by a magazine staff writer based on material provided by a gossip columnist" (Ryken, Wilhoit and Longman III 756) and "which we might almost believe were collected from early copies of ancient Israelite boys’ comics" (Dennis 98). Indeed, Samson has been characterised by biblical scholars as "a huge muscle-bound adolescent" (Hull 11), and his saga does have a strong "boys own adventure" feel about it (which DeMille2 craftily capitalised upon in his page to projector skilfulness).

As a consequence of Samson’s bad behaviours, religious lapses and self-betraying acts, biblical commentators variously tagged him negatively, such as: "Samson, the dodo" (Bledstein 49), "the most foolish champion Israel ever had" (Williams 45) and "perhaps the greatest jackass in the Bible" (Bledstein 48). Others claimed he was "incredibly stupid" (Leneman 148), "dense" (Higgs 120) and "a jerk" (Mary Cartledge-Hayes quoted in Bellis 125). More charitably, he was described as "all brawn, little brain aside from street smarts with riddles" (Bledstein 50), "not necessarily the brightest man" (Laffey 104) in the world, and just "a great big simpleton" (Josipovici 123). Therefore, it is totally appropriate that Samson is the last of the twelve judges recorded in the book of Judges because this sacred text is essentially a condemnatory treatise demonstrating:

…that it was a shameful period in Israel’s history; that Israel was in religious and political decline; that Israel’s judges had feet of clay; and that Yahweh, and Yahweh alone, was the hero of the period, who graciously and repeatedly saved Israel, despite their persistent unfaithfulness (Dorsey 120).

Samson’s existence was therefore just a slow, downward spiral of degradation that had a very promising start and a spectacularly devastating ending. In short, his tragic life was a living metaphor, namely, Israel’s history writ small.

Cecil, Hollywood and the Cinematic Samson

Considering all the above, it is not too surprising to find that this biblical gossip story got the Hollywood treatment repeatedly. If one temporarily overlooks the numerous Italian musclemen epics starring Samson, Hercules, Ulysses etc., or the numerous son of Samson movies (Smith), or the church-based instructional films, biblical TV series and children’s cartoons, then the Samson saga has been filmed at least ten times (Campbell and Pitts). Namely: Samson and Delilah (1903), Samson and Delilah (1908), Samson (1914), Samson (1915), Samson and Delilah (1922), Samson und Delila (1922), Samson and Delilah (1927), Samson and Delilah (1949), Samson and Delilah (1984) and Samson and Delilah (1996). However, it is DeMille’s 1949 version starring Victor Mature as Samson and Hedy Lamarr as Delilah that is the most enduring and interesting, especially because of its contemporary critical reception as "a biblical Basic Instinct" (Kermode and Macnab 62), coupled with DeMille’s reputation as Hollywood’s leading cinematic lay preacher.

Therefore, for the purposes of this piece, the critical film and religion literature was selectively reviewed and integrated into the text to enhance narrative coherence (albeit, with a strong reportage flavour). This was followed by a close examination of Judges 13-16 and DeMille’s Samson and Delilah utilising the analytical lens of humanist film criticism (i.e., examining the textual world inside the frame, but not the world outside the frame—Bywater and Sobchack) to tease out its many secrets.

The legendary Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959) was a seminal co-founder of Hollywood and Paramount studios (Birchard; DeMille and Hayne; Edwards; Essoe and Lee; Higashi Guide, Culture; Higham; Koury; Orrison; Ringgold and Bodeen) who, during its Golden Age, earned his reputation as the "King of the epic Biblical spectacular" (Finler 32), the "arch apostle of spectacle" (Clapham 21), and "Hollywood’s reigning Biblical scholar" (Friedman 16). He took great personal and professional pride in bringing biblical stories to the screen, and was even crowned Lay Churchman of the Year—1958 from the Religious Heritage of America, amongst many other religious awards and civil honours (see Essoe and Lee 245-247).

DeMille certainly made the American biblical epic his very own genre as testified by The Ten Commandments (silent), The King of Kings, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments (sound), all of which became trend-setting exemplars in their respective days. Indeed, his Samson movie was a "watershed film" (Schatz 394) that stimulated the 1950-60s rash of biblical epics, and despite its over half-century vintage, this Technicolor testament is still very popular today and increasingly influential amongst Western biblical scholars. For example, J. Cheryl Exum argued that:

Samson and Delilah offers a good example of cinematic impact on the culture at large. It is not a little-known film; I have seen it at least four times on television in the UK in the past three years. With the kind of promotion television offers, De Mille’s Oscar-winning epic has certainly reached more audiences than when it was first released, and through repeated television showings it continues to be influential in forming people’s opinions about the biblical story. For all its hokeyness Samson and Delilah is a brilliant film (Plotted 13).

Exum elsewhere reiterated her claim by saying that it was "a masterpiece of biblical film making (it gets better after repeated viewings); the 1949 film sparkles in spite of its age, with memorable dialogue and impressive overacting" (Lethal 255). The writer whole-heartedly agrees with this assessment. In fact, the breadth, depth and range of DeMille’s artistic brilliance has still not been fully appreciated to date, although this academic lapse is slowly being corrected (Kozlovic Babylon, Lamarr, Martyr, Joseph, Manoah, Christ-figure, Wicked, John, Strength). Regrettably, many critics were all too quick to ignore, dismiss or devalue his contributions to cinematic art, with some scholars claiming that: "It is no longer fashionable to admire De Mille" (Giannetti and Eyman 40). This is a serious mistake and in need of urgent scholarly correction.

How to Make Samson the "Bad" Boy, "Good"

A core plot problem for DeMille was how to be accurate according to the scriptural Samson with all its unavoidable sex, negativity and nastiness, whilst simultaneously maintaining Samson’s popular reputation as an archetypal hero that jibed theologically with Samson’s inclusion in the NT list of God’s faithful (Heb. 11:32). In addition to making enough money in profit-obsessed Hollywood to allow DeMille to keep on directing, entertain viewers, and minimise the negative connotations associated with the frequently disparaged beard-and-bathrobe genre. DeMille also had to take into account Jewish, Christian, Atheist and other delicate sensibilities (whether religious, historical, archaeological, political, theological or artistic), yet, not loose too much audience credibility when the inevitable pragmatic filmmaking compromises had to be made.

DeMille’s practical difficulties were further compounded because of the inherently volatile passions surrounding religion per se. True believers do not like their most cherished and profound beliefs toyed with, misrepresented or abused, as dramatically evidenced in modern times by the persecution-like reaction to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the religious violence over The Last Temptation of Christ, the Papal condemnation of Hail Mary, and the furore over the violence of The Passion of the Christ. Admittedly, OT epics are subject to less public violence than critical savagery over inane dialogue, inappropriate behaviours or speculative extrapolations leading to incredulity and dullness, as evidence by Barabbas, King David and Solomon and Sheba to name but a few exemplars. This is another reason why the biblical epic genre is both dangerous and difficult to do, let alone repeatedly succeed in. Indeed, this is almost an impossible Herculean balancing act, but fortunately, the critical praise of J. Cheryl Exum (Plotted 13) and her scholarly ilk was not misplaced because DeMille was no ordinary filmmaker. As even his adversarial niece, Agnes de Mille conceded, Cecil "kept sex, sadism, patriotism, real estate, religion and public relations dancing in midair like jugglers’ balls for fifty years" (de Mille Speak 5)

One of DeMille’s many auteur signature secrets was to enhance Samson’s sanctity by deliberately engineering a Christic infranarrative into Samson and Delilah, that is, by subtextually making Samson a rustic Christ-figure (Kozlovic Martyr). By fusing this OT biblical bad boy with an NT Christic subtext, it elevated Samson’s religious reputation far above the scripturally accurate level of "jock football-hero" (Wilson 66), the "national deliverer" who is a "lone ranger" and "brawler" (Ryken, Wilhoit and Longman III 756). Samson could therefore be more easily projected into the sacred hero realms of popular consciousness and Sunday school Bible classes. Doing so was also an astute personal compromise for DeMille, the son of a Christian father and a Jewish mother3 who lived in an ostensively Christian community dominated by powerful Jewish film moguls. Fortunately for DeMille, there already existed a strong biblical parallel between the lives of Samson and Jesus, which he could easily capitalise upon in his Hollywood rendition of Holy Writ.

Structurally speaking, the OT Samson was an earthly agent chosen by God for a cosmic deliverer mission (to free the Israelites—Judg. 13:5), with the Spirit of the Lord upon him (Judg. 15:14). He was subsequently betrayed by his own people (the Judahites—Judg. 15:10-13), and by his Philistine wife-to-be (Judg. 14:17), and betrayed again by the politically indistinct, but presumed Philistine, Delilah (Judg. 16:18-21). Samson subsequently fell into enemy hands (the occupying Philistines lead by their lords—Judg. 15:13-14; 16:20-21), suffered and was made sport of (Judg. 16:25), then died violently in captivity (crushed to death—Judg. 16:30) to ultimately achieve a boon for his kinsmen (relief from Philistine domination—Judg. 13:5; 16:30). Samson’s sacred OT career trajectory closely matched the sacred NT career trajectory of Jesus Christ. For example, this chosen of God was also a divine earthly agent on a cosmic deliverer mission (to save humanity—Luke 4:16-21), with the Spirit of the Lord upon him (Luke 4:18). He was subsequently betrayed by his own people (the Jews via Judas—Luke 22:2-4) and fell into enemy hands (the occupying Romans governed by Pontius Pilate—Matt. 27:2), suffered and died violently in captivity (crucifixion—Matt. 27:27-50) to ultimately achieve a boon for all mankind (salvation and freedom from sin—Luke 4:21).

Although these Samson-Jesus parallels were apt, DeMille needed to go much further to convince his audience of Samson’s sanctity, and so he constructed other sacred resonances that complemented his subtextual construction of Samson as a Christ-figure. In particular, he adopted a holiness-by-association tactic and in epic engineering fashion built another Christomorphic resonance into Samson and Delilah via the deft deployment of wine and grape avoidance behaviour; literally, Samson’s forbidden fruit.

Samson’s Wine and Grape Avoidance Behaviour

The scriptural Samson was God’s chosen earthly agent and required that he "be a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death" (Judg. 13:7), which even his birth mother had to partially observe (Judg. 13:4-5; 13:14). In particular, this holy specification entailed the avoidance of "any thing that cometh of the vine…wine or strong drink" (Judg. 13:14; see also Judg. 13:4). The specification of this holy prohibition was more fully elaborated in Numbers 6:3-4, namely: "wine and strong drink…no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried…eat nothing that is made of the vine tree, from the kernels even to the husk."

This sacred principle of wine-avoidance similarly applied to God’s other chosen earthly agent, Jesus Christ, who at the last supper asserted that he would not drink wine again until coming into the kingdom (Matt. 26:29). Therefore, both the scriptural OT Samson and the NT Jesus Christ were a fascinating prohibitionist group that bridged the inter-Testament divide.4 Consequently, DeMille-the-pop-culture-professional (DeMille and Hayne 195) deliberately capitalised upon this Nazarite wine and grape prohibition during three major events in Samson and Delilah, namely: (i) in his mother’s rustic kitchen, (ii) at his wedding feast, and (iii) in Delilah’s oasis, love-nest. The following is a brief explication of these three fruity incidents.

I. Samson’s Grape Avoidance in His Mother’s Rustic Kitchen

DeMille comically enacted this first incident in the rustic kitchen of Samson’s mother, located in the village of Zorah (Judg. 13:2), when he went to visit her for a family meeting. Samson attempted to grab some luscious red grapes dangling near her outdoor hearth, however, before he could touch these forbidden grapes, he was quickly stopped by his annoyed mother, whom DeMille called Hazeleponit (Fay Holden). Scripturally speaking, she is unnamed, and only referred to as "the woman" (Judg. 13:3), or "She" (Judg. 13:14), or "her" (Judg. 13:14), or Manoah’s "wife" (Judg. 13:2), or Samson’s "mother" (Judg. 14:2), but nonetheless, DeMille gave her a name in accordance with other religious and scholarly traditions (Kozlovic Manoah). On the surface, it looked like Hazeleponit had sprung into action to forestall Samson having a snack and ruining his meal, which she was busily preparing, and on this level it was true and had worked well, dramatically speaking. However, scripturally speaking, since she was divinely tasked with ensuring Samson’s compliance with his Nazarite vow (Judg. 13: 4-5, 7, 14), DeMille had also depicted her still fulfilling this ancient responsibility well into Samson’s adulthood.

Furthermore, DeMille-the-pop-culture professional infused that domestic scene with the popular stereotype of a loving but nagging Jewish mother, no doubt for comic effect, but also for sound religious reasons because of all the biblical mothers in ancient Israel, "she is the most "ordinary" mother" (Exum Mother 82). This is also probably why this scene is set in a kitchen, the iconic domain of ordinary mothers worldwide and throughout history. Interestingly, Hazeleponit had earlier complained about Samson’s carousing behaviours including drinking with the Philistines, so even at this early point in the film, Samson’s holy Nazarite vow was compromised, but without specific details to determine the extent or seriousness of that earlier transgression, but obviously not fatally.

DeMille’s bunch of grapes hanging off of a grape vine growing around a big tree in an outdoor setting appears to have been modelled upon the background details in Andrea Mantegna’s grisaille painting entitled, Samson and Delilah (see Garavaglia plate LVII). DeMille was famous for his pre-production research, especially his consultation of biblical fine arts masters. Whilst the foreground of Mantegna’s painting depicted Delilah cutting Samson’s hair and thus thematically linked grapes, trees and the outdoors with Samson’s downfall. Since grapes equated with "the transgressive" and "the forbidden" in both Mantegna’s painting and Holy Scripture, DeMille’s outdoor kitchen grapes also represented "the forbidden" (and as behaviourally indicated by Hazeleponit physically stopping Samson grabbing them).

Indeed, DeMille’s forbidden physical grapes could metaphorically represent both Semadar (Angela Lansbury) and Delilah, the two luscious forbidden fruits that would be the source of Samson’s future downfalls, but only when his mother was not around to stop his illegal tastings! Indeed, the vine growing around Mantegna’s painted tree and DeMille’s prop tree did so in a natural serpentine fashion. This subtly resonated with the Edenic serpent imaginatively sliding through the Garden of Eden’s forbidden tree, and thus the root cause of mankind’s downfall through Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God (Gen. 3:1-3). Biblically speaking, the vine is also used as a Christian symbol for original sin, wickedness and rebelliousness in people’s hearts (Deut. 32:32; Jer. 2:21; Rev. 14:18), that is, the very same themes that resonated with the Samson saga and DeMille’s cinematic rendition of it. Obviously, DeMille’s deep deployment of biblical themes and symbolic resonances did not stop with just wine, grapes and vines.

II. Samson’s Grape Fondling at His Wedding Feast

and the Theme of His Missing Parents

DeMille capitalised upon Samson’s Nazarite wine and grape prohibition for a second time at Samson’s wedding feast. Seated at the table of honour in all their finery was the love triangle comprising of Samson—the Danite groom-to-be, Semadar—the Philistine bride-to-be, and Lord Ahtur—the Saran’s prince, general and Samson’s romantic rival-cum-best man (Henry Wilcoxon). Significantly, neither of Samson’s parents, Manoah (Charles Evans) and Hazeleponit were seen in attendance anywhere at that sumptuous party. However, this DeMillean omission is understandable and not necessarily a filmmaking oversight as DeMille’s detractors might be tempted to suggest. Why? Because, scripturally speaking, his parents were not a central focus at the wedding, and may not have attended given that they were both very disappointed with Samson’s Philistine bride choice according to Judges 14:3. Namely: "Then his father and mother said unto him, Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren, or among all my people, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines? And Samson said unto his father, Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well." The only hint the reader gets that Samson’s parents may have been present at the wedding is Samson’s passing reference to not telling his parents the secret of his neck-riddle when his Philistine bride-to-be wanted to know the answer (Judg. 14:16). But whether this was just an excuse for Samson-the-acknowledged liar not to reveal the answer to his pathetically whining betrothed, or not, is indeterminate.

Scripturally speaking, nothing is mentioned of Samson’s parents when the Philistine companions were desperate enough to threaten his bride-to-be with arson and death whilst seeking the answer to Samson’s neck-riddle (Judg. 14:15). Nor are they mentioned once Samson lost his riddle bet, and thus a perfect opportunity for the Philistines to gloat before them (or conversely, an opportunity for Samson’s parents to defend or offer comforting words to Samson at this painful time). Nor are his parents mentioned when the physical warring broke out between Samson and the Philistine guests who desperately wanted to hurt him, and presumably get at him through his parents (conversely, Samson’s parents were not there to stop their recklessly rampaging son escalate matters from personal humiliation to multiple murder). The Bible did not mention this harming (or inhibiting) possibility, nor did DeMille-the-filmmaker at this time; however, he did do so later at Delilah’s oasis love-nest. Prior to his second (unwilling) capture, DeMille had Miriam (Olive Deering) verbally refer to Samson’s mother being chained, whipped and crying out his name whilst his father had been stoned by the Philistines (aka Judg. 16:31). When, where or why is never explained in the Bible, nor was it visually referenced in Samson and Delilah, but nonetheless, it was automatically taken as a truthful given by both Samson and Delilah, and especially coming directly from the mouth of DeMille’s virginal good girl and presumed non-liar.

Overall, it was far wiser for DeMille-the-Christian-apologist and DeMille-the-filmmaker not to get his parents involved at the wedding, and thus avoid damaging Samson’s moral reputation even further by having him abandon his parents because he was more intent on repaying debts and seeking revenge (plus other unscriptural plot complexities that would dramatically diminish his film and authenticity reputation). This was a practical filmmaking solution that was also consistent with the internal logic of DeMille’s plot trajectory. For when Samson’s mother was not there at the wedding feast to physically enforce compliance of his Nazarite vows, Samson actually grabbed the grapes and may have actually eaten some if not for Semadar’s timely intervention (see below). As DeMille had flagged earlier in the rustic kitchen scene, Samson had previously been drinking with the Philistines to (allegedly) learn their ways, and no doubt, he was certainly capable of doing so again at his own wedding feast.

DeMille-the-dramatist also indulged in suspenseful teasing to emotionally engage his audience. On DeMille’s wedding table is a container of wine and bunches of luscious green and red grapes waiting to be consumed by its guests. Samson did not drink any wine, but he grabbed a bunch of red grapes and fondled it. However, he did not eat any of the grapes because they were seductively taken out of his hands by Semadar (mirroring Samson’s mother earlier in the film). This left Samson’s hand out-stretched and grasping in the air (mirroring his hand reaching out to grasp the bunch of grapes in his mother’s kitchen).

To link grapes with "the forbidden" yet again, DeMille had Semadar take that bunch of grapes and hang them over her head, thereby, visually linking two sorts of forbidden fruit together, one real and the other metaphoric. These physical grapes were also positioned beyond Samson’s grasp, which Semadar verbally reinforced by saying: "the most desirable grapes are always out of reach." The "desirable grapes" comment was now a fruity verbal metaphor that suggestively referred to Semadar directly, that is, another sweet delight ripe for plucking and sucking. It was also a prophetic telegraphing of events to come by DeMille-the-dramatist for in the end, Semadar was out of reach of Samson’s sociocultural grasp when she was given to Ahtur in marriage instead of Samson (aka Judg. 15:2, 6), and then she was permanently out of intimate reach when she was killed (aka Judg. 15:6). After Semadar’s teasing comment to Samson she then playfully berated Ahtur for waiting too long to pluck her (itself a veiled sexual reference to erotically enhance this wedding scene with hints of the consummation-to-come coupled with the underlying theme of lost love).

On the other hand, Ahtur had no compunction about drinking wine or eating grapes, and he did so eagerly and confidently. Very significantly, he took Samson’s uneaten bunch of grapes away from the tempting Semadar and slowly ate a few juicy individual grapes before both of them. This act was also a metaphoric precursor to the events that would eventually transpire at the party, for after Samson lost his riddle bet he subsequently lost Semadar to Ahtur in a dramatic reversal of romantic fortunes. Not only did Ahtur eagerly take possession of Semadar as his own bride (metaphorically, the bunch of grapes), but later, he would get an intimate taste of the equally juicy and intoxicatingly sweet Semadar in their bridal chamber as his new wife (metaphorically signalled by Ahtur eating a few of the individual grapes previously); much to Samson’s chagrin in both film and holy text.

Because Samson lost his riddle bet due to guile and deception, he angrily honoured the wager terms given his wedding guests by stealing thirty garments from the local Philistine citizenry. Scripturally speaking, Samson actually killed thirty men doing it (Judg. 14:19), but DeMille-the-Christian-apologist toned down this ugly, anti-hero fact to preserve Samson’s Christic sanctity, and presumably because glorifying ancient serial killers would not survive the condemnation of church women and the 1940s censors in a film that aimed at prompting "good" religious values. In the meantime on-screen, DeMille’s Delilah suggested to her worrying father, Tubal (William Farnum), that Ahtur could marry Semadar instead of Samson, and he readily agreed to save both face and fortune (aka Judg. 15:2). Consequently, Delilah’s personal servant, Hisham (Julia Faye), warned Delilah about her cunning mischief, and she did it using an alcohol metaphor, namely: "The trouble you brew today you’ll drink tomorrow." DeMille had thereby constructed a Semadar-grape-erotic desire thematic linkage and coupled it with Delilah as an intoxication source of trouble that would repeat and cause both of them to spew and suffer serious hangovers, metaphorically speaking. Once again, DeMille’s subtextual engineering was deep and deftly done.

III. Samson’s Wine Drinking at Delilah’s Oasis Love-Nest

DeMille capitalised upon Samson’s Nazarite wine and grape prohibition for a third time by making wine a central event in Delilah’s oasis tent, her purpose-built, love-nest trap situated in the Valley of Sorek (Judg. 16:4). During Samson and Delilah’s first encounter there, Delilah asked Hisham to pour wine for Samson, but he dutifully declined. Delilah then asked him if he had lost his taste for wine and Samson claimed that he was content, just before being seduced by her luscious red lips. In effect, Samson was honouring his Nazarite vow, albeit for essentially non-religious reasons. However, Delilah persisted with her wine offering habits and she ultimately succeeded with devastating effect during Samson’s last night there. Although breaking his Nazarite hair vow was obviously the last straw prior to Samson’s physical and spiritual downfall, just before that crucial and now world famous haircut, DeMille had Delilah cunningly trick Samson into drinking a cup of drugged wine (i.e., fortified processed grapes) before he attempted to depart to rescue a troubled parent.

The Bible does not specifically mention Delilah using wine or drugs to achieve her Samson-subduing goal; in fact, it does not provide any hints of exactly how she beat the strongest man on Earth. But if we take a clue from one stream of interpretation for the name "Delilah," then she was "weak" (Leneman 142), "small" (Segert 460), "slight" (Achtemeier 217), "dainty" (Lockyer 293), and an ""impoverished little woman" (paupercula)" (Sota 9b; Midr. Num. 9:24)" (Richardson and Vance 194). In short, she was no physical match for Samson. All that the Scripture states is that "she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his hair" (Judg. 16:19), thereby, leaving it to the reader to imagine possible subjugation scenarios between these two unevenly matched opponents.

As such, many interpretations are possible. For example, it could be said that Samson was just sleepy and treated Delilah as a human pillow, mother-like. Indeed, Robert Tanitch argued that Victor Mature was "a bit of a mother’s boy" (51) which DeMille reinforced on-screen when Hazeleponit said of her son Samson: "You’re not all bad" (i.e., the motherly defence for all bad boys immemorial). However, Samson’s sleeping had to be deep enough not to wake him during his presumably uncomfortable position, and then with his hair being cut off by a strange hand, which is harder to justify than for "normal" sleeping, and especially considering that Samson was a desperately wanted fugitive still on-the-run having become the "Che Guevara of the Sinai Peninsula" (Wurtzel 47). Alternatively, the scriptural passage was a veiled, metaphoric reference to the sexual missionary position (i.e., face-to-face or knee-upon-knee sex) followed by deep (exhausted?) post-coital recuperation for the already acknowledged sexually active judge (Judg. 16:1). This sexy interpretation is just as plausible, if not more so given Delilah’s infamous reputation throughout Christendom as "a witch, a bitch, a termagant, a whore" (Wurtzel 47). However, even if Delilah’s biblical eroticism was unequivocally true, DeMille would not have been allowed to film it in the church-monitored, censor-controlled Hollywood of the 1940s, which is why he often resorted to the art of sexless sex instead of pornography, even if pornography was aesthetically legitimate and biblically valid (Kozlovic Babylon).

Samson’s Drugged Wine: Plausible?

At least DeMille’s unscriptural but imaginative use of drugged wine instead of athletic sex was a safer interpretation of events. It was also thematically consistent with the common sense notion of how a weaker woman could overpower an exceptionally strong man, indeed, the strongest man in the world, and not wake him during a critical haircut. More significantly, DeMille’s practical filmmaking decision theologically jibbed with the forbidden wine and grape trajectory patterned throughout Samson and Delilah. For when his watchful mother is not around to help ensure forced compliance to his Nazarite vows at the oasis love-nest (and because his motherly acting wife-to-be Semadar was dead—Judg. 15.6), Samson-the-weak-willed willing drank the forbidden wine and again deliberately broke his Nazarite vow. This in turn led to the breaking of the even more serious hair-cutting vow at roughly the same time and location. Therefore, Samson suffered a very severe penalty because of his double desecration. His earlier admission of drinking with the Philistines whilst "learning their ways" was apparently only a single vow-specified misdeed, and temporarily assuming it really was wine and not some other beverage. (Samson’s accompanying dice-throwing gambling habit was not a proscribed Nazarite vow item, and so presumably it did not count). Consequently, Samson never made it out of Delilah’s oasis tent a free man; and like Jesus from that point onwards, he would not drink wine ever again on Earth having now become a prisoner of the Philistines (Judg. 16:21) and then the subsequent architect of his own crushing death in Dagon’s temple (Judg. 16:28-31).

DeMille’s plausible wine extrapolation also thematically gelled with the Bible’s use of wine as a symbol for the wrath of God (Rev. 14:10; 16:19). After his double desecration, Samson intimately suffered God’s wrath when He functionally abandoned him, or as DeMille had his Samson say: "The shield of my God has gone from me." Indeed, Samson previously admitted to Delilah at the oasis love-nest that: "many of the vows I have broken, but one I’ve kept" (i.e., not cutting his hair). Even this DeMillean phrase was cunningly engineered because it gave two simultaneous impressions. Firstly, some vows were broken but obviously not all or near all (i.e., Samson was not all good but also "not all bad" as his own DeMillean mother claimed). Secondly, all his sacred vows were broken except one (i.e., Samson was also a Nazarite disaster), but it was cunningly packaged to imply that this one firmly upheld vow was an extremely powerful virtue, indeed, the Samson-saving virtue to date. DeMille had therefore told the bitter truth about Samson-the-failure (which was scripturally accurate and authentic), and then he sweetened it in his spin-doctor, Christian apologist mode by implying strong piousness to again uprate Samson’s sanctity and hero status in the public’s eyes.

Samson’s Progressive Transgressions as Cinematic Art

and Other Wine-Related Resonances

Overall, DeMille employed the wine and grape avoidance issue in three progressively graduated steps that arose dramatically as his transgressions increased in seriousness from looking, to touching, to consuming. For example, when his mother stopped him from touching a bunch of grapes in her kitchen, Samson was well and lived to fight another day. When he succeeded in actually fondling a bunch of grapes at his wedding feast, he lost a bet, a bride and the Philistine-Danite peace. When he first avoided Delilah’s wine offer at the oasis love-nest he lived to love again, but when he finally and wholeheartedly drank a cup of drugged red wine with Delilah at the oasis love-nest, he lost God’s support, his strength, his freedom, his respect, his eyesight, and ultimately his life. DeMille had therefore brilliantly fused the secular with the sacred, the esoteric with the mundane, and the scriptural with the imaginative that was deeply satisfying on multiple levels (e.g., scriptural, theological, emotional, aesthetic subtextual, narratological, dramatic). However, DeMille’s subtextual engineering in Samson and Delilah did not stop here.

The film’s wine trajectory also evoked other interesting theological and aesthetic resonances. For example, metaphorically speaking, wine jibbed with Delilah as a personified poison to Samson, with Delilah herself stating: "The wine of parting is bitter Samson" (as was Delilah at her failure to emotionally control him). DeMille even had Delilah equate Samson’s parting wine (drugged) with her own heart (poisoned by evil?) because prior to Samson’s immanent departure from the oasis love-nest she ordered him: "Drain this cup [long pause]…as you have drained my heart." Therefore, when Samson fell into the deepest, most intoxicating love with Delilah (as indicated by him willingly giving away his hair secret and planning to runaway to Egypt with her), it spelled his doom just as surely as his passionate last gulp of (drugged "bitter") wine ended his personal freedom and spectacular career as judge of his people.

Even the virginal good girl, Miriam, was equated with wine. During the Zorah village streetscape scene at the beginning of Samson and Delilah, one of the thuggish Philistine soldiers menacingly approached her stating that she was "a jug of Danite wine we haven’t tasted." This verbally tagged Miriam as desirable and a good girl by virtue of her unmolested, non-fraternising, non-collaborator status (the "we" being a royal "we" and not an "I" since the Philistine soldier was not talking about his own intimate experiences with Miriam, but rather, his potential desire to "drink" her). Later, at the oasis camp site, Miriam got Samson to leave Delilah’s love lair, but this brave, wise and strong-willed Danite individual (as demonstrated by her handling of the three brutish Philistine soldiers in the village; and herself a dramatic mirror of Delilah) did not stay around to physically ensure Samson’s departure. And despite her on-screen acknowledgment of Delilah’s treachery and bad influence using, not surprisingly, wine imagery, namely: "this woman of Sorek makes you drunk with her kisses." If only Miriam had stayed behind, Samson could have been saved from his folly. Indeed, Miriam’s own wine drinking may have been critical here, for when she first arrived, Samson gave her a cup of wine to calm her down (mirroring Delilah’s hospitality with Samson earlier), and thus sealing Samson’s own fate once again (whilst simultaneously prefiguring his own immanent demise via wine drinking). Indeed, Miriam’s own wine drinking can partially account for her subsequent lapse in judgement by leaving him alone with Delilah (i.e., the universal effect of alcohol, especially on Hollywood’s good girls).

Samson did not fancy Miriam as his wife or lover, whom he considered was an "angel" and out of his league stating: "you’re further above me than the moon," and so presumably they did not kiss, canoodle and other erotic things. Therefore, Samson did not get drunk on this angelic "jug of Danite wine," but which may have been his salvation if he had accepted this virgin, just as his mother wanted. Iconographically speaking, Miriam at the oasis resembled, in costume, demeanour and props, a Virgin Mary-figure sitting on a donkey wearing Jesus-blue colours when she departed them, just as DeMille had deliberately designed her to be (Koury 231). Indeed, as a Virgin Mary-figure, Miriam was truly further above Samson than the moon, and so their union could not happen. As Samson and Delilah’s scriptwriter, Jesse L. Lasky Jr. concisely summed up the situation, Miriam was:

…the home-town-girl-next-door, the honest Hebrew maiden that Samson should have married. She had to look what any Jewish mother would choose for her son, practical, religious, unglamorous and marvellous about the house. Miriam, the good girl, marriage with whom would have deprived the Bible of its most spectacular love story (221-222).

Nor did DeMille devalue that romantic story feature for scriptural, dramatic and audience pleasing reasons.


Far from being a biblical illiterate, a religious hypocrite, or a cinematic fraud, DeMille was a brilliant lay biblical scholar, a committed Christian apologist, and a master filmmaker with a strong, pop culture flair. Yet, how else could DeMille-the-American-businessman keep nearly everyone happy (or at least the bulk not disaffected), and still make enough money in cutthroat Hollywood to keep on making films decade after decade? Indeed, what other American biblical filmmaker has had more successful biblical epics than Cecil B. DeMille, let alone produce indelible exemplars that have withstood the test of time and numerous voracious critics to be increasing honoured by both secular and sacred scholars?

The engineering of complex NT religious infranarratives and sacred symbolism into his OT biblical epics is not only an important auteur signature sign and an essential DeMillean trade secret, but it is also indicative of a master filmmaker worthy of the honorific tag: "auteur of auteurs" (Vidal 303). It also helps explain DeMille’s phenomenal box office successes that propelled him far beyond his directorial peers and into the realms of genius. None of Hollywood’s rival biblical filmmakers could hope to match DeMille’s auteur uniqueness or commercial success because they were missing his breadth, depth and range of religious understanding and biblical knowledge gleaned over decades of study, and so they could not translate what they did not have onto their own screens.

Because genius had met genre, no wonder DeMille became the master of the American biblical epic. He exuded religion through his very pores that could not help but spill over into his films whenever the paying public would allow him to do so. As Martin Scorsese claimed concerned Samson and Delilah: "De Mille presented a fantasy, dreamlike quality on film that was so real, if you saw his movies as a child, they stuck with you for life" (63). He truly was that good! Further research into DeMille studies, American biblical epics and the emerging interdisciplinary field of religion-and-film is warranted, recommended and certainly long over due.


1. The Authorized King James Version of the Bible (KJV aka AV) will be used throughout, unless quoting other translations, because it was frequently used by DeMille, especially in his early days (Higashi Culture 180). Furthermore, most of "the biblical phrases that are embedded in our culture are from the King James Version" (Taylor ix), and today, it is still "the most widely used English translation of the Bible" (Taylor 71).

2. Many scholars have spelled Cecil’s surname as "De Mille" or "de Mille" or "deMille" however, the correct professional spelling is "DeMille" (DeMille and Hayne 6), and so this spelling will be used herein, as appropriate.

3. DeMille was the biological son of a Christian father, Henry Churchill DeMille, an "Episcopal lay reader" (de Mille Portrait 161) who studied for the church but was never ordained (DeMille and Hayne 12-13), and a "Sephardic" (Edwards 14) Jewish mother, Matilda Beatrice ‘Bebe’ DeMille nee Samuel (Edwards 14), an "English Jew" (de Mille Portrait 161). Consequently, Cecil has sometimes been academically described as a "half-Jew" (Herman 18).

4. John the Baptist was another wine abstainer who could legitimately join this biblical prohibitionist group (Luke 1:15).

Works Cited

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Bledstein, Adrien J. "Is Judges a Woman’s Satire of Men Who Play God?" A Feminist Companion to Judges. Ed. Athalya Brenner. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993. 34-54.

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Clapham, Walter C. The Movie Treasury. Western Movies: The Story of the West on Screen. London: Octopus Books, 1974.

de Mille, Agnes. Speak to Me, Dance with Me. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

----------. Portrait Gallery. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

DeMille, Cecil B., and Donald Hayne, ed. The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille. London: W. H. Allen, 1960.

Clapham, Walter C. The Movie Treasury. Western Movies: The Story of the West on Screen. London: Octopus Books, 1974.

Dennis, Trevor. Lo and Behold! The Power of Old Testament Storytelling. London: SPCK, 1991.

Dorsey, David A. The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

Edwards, Anne. The DeMilles: An American Family. London: Collins, 1988.

Essoe, Gabe, and Raymond Lee. DeMille: The Man and His Pictures. New York: Castle Books, 1970.

Exum, J. Cheryl. ""Mother in Israel": A Familiar Figure Reconsidered." Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Ed. Letty M. Russell. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985. 73-85, 156-157.

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Finler, Joel W. The Movie Directors Story. London: Octopus Books, 1985.

Friedman, Lester D. Hollywood’s Image of the Jew. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982.

Garavaglia, Niny. The Complete Paintings of Mantegna. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1967.

Giannetti, Louis, and Scott Eyman. Flashback: A Brief History of Film, 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996.

Herman, Felicia. ""The Most Dangerous Anti-Semitic Photoplay in Filmdom": American Jews and The King of Kings (DeMille, 1927)." The Velvet Light Trap 46 (2002): 12-25.

Higashi, Sumiko. Cecil B. DeMille: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co, 1985.

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Higgs, Liz C. Bad Girls of the Bible and What We Can Learn From Them. Sydney: Strand, 2000.

Higham, Charles. Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973.

Hull, John M. In the Beginning There was Darkness: A Blind Person’s Conversations with the Bible. London: SCM Press, 2001.

Josipovici, Gabriel. The Book of God: A Response to the Bible. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Kermode, Mark, and Geoffrey Macnab. "Video: Samson and Delilah." Sight and Sound 5.5 (1995): 62.

Koury, Phil A. Yes, Mr. De Mille. New York: Putnam, 1959.

Kozlovic, Anton K. "The Whore of Babylon, Suggestibility, and the Art of Sexless Sex in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949)." Sex, Religion, Media. Ed. Dane S. Claussen. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002a. 21-31.

----------. "Hedy Lamarr and the Deep Focus Characterisation of Delilah in Samson and Delilah (1949): A Cecil B. DeMille ‘Rule of Analogy’." Organdi Quarterly 4 (2002b): 1-25. Online. April 23, 2002.


----------. "Have Lamb Will Martyr: Samson as a Rustic Christ-Figure in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949)." Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 3.1 (2003): 1-23. Online. August 23, 2007.


----------. "The Deep Focus Typecasting of Joseph Schildkraut as Judas Figure in Four DeMille Films." Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 6 (2004): 1-34. Online. August 23, 2007.


----------. "Constructing the Motherliness of Manoah’s Wife in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949)." Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal 4.1 (2006a): 1-20. Online. August 23, 2007.


----------. "The Construction of a Christ-figure within the 1956 and 1923 Versions of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments." The Journal of Religion and Film 10.1 (2006b): 1-26 & 1-9. Online. August 23, 2007.

[] &


----------. "Making a "Bad" Woman Wicked: The Devilish Construction of Delilah within Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949)." McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006c): 70-102. Online. August 23, 2007.


----------. "The Old Story Teller as a John the Baptist-Figure in DeMille’s Samson and Delilah." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture: A WWWeb Journal 8.3 (2006d): 1-10. Online. August 23, 2007.


----------. "Creating the Cinematic Illusion of Samson’s Phenomenal Strength in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949)." Belphegor: Popular Literature and Media Culture 6.2 (2007): 1-37. Online. August 23, 2007.


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Leneman, Helen. "Portrayals of Power in the Stories of Delilah and Bathsheba: Seduction in Song." Culture, Entertainment and the Bible. Ed. George Aichele. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000, 139-55.

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Lopate, Phillip. "Samson & Delilah & the Kids!" Books & Religion 16.3 (1989): 1, 15-18, 21-23.

Orrison, Katherine. Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s epic, The Ten Commandments. Lanham: Vestal Press, 1999.

Pauly, Thomas H. "The Way to Salvation: The Hollywood Blockbuster of the 1950s." Prospects: An Annual Review of American Cultural Studies 5 (1980): 467-87.

Richardson, Brenda E., and Norman Vance. "Delilah." A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Ed. David L. Jeffrey. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1992. 193-194.

Ringgold, Gene, and DeWitt Bodeen. The Complete Films of Cecil B. DeMille. Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press, 1969.

Ryken, Leland, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity P, 1998.

Schatz, Thomas. History of the American Cinema. 6. Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1997.

Scorsese, Martin. "Martin Scorsese’s Guilty Pleasures." Film Comment 14.5 (1978): 63-66.

Segert, Stanislav. "Paronomasia in the Samson Narrative in Judges XIII-XVI." Vetus Testamentum 34.4 (1984): 454-61.

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Smith, Gary A. Epic Films: Casts, Credits and Commentary on over 250 Historical Spectacle Movies. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991.

Tanitch, Robert. Blockbusters! London: B. T. Batsford, 2001.

Taylor, Mark D. The Complete Book of Bible Literacy, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1992.

Vickery, John B. "In Strange Ways: The Story of Samson." Images of Man and God: Old Testament Short Stories in Literary Focus. Ed. Burke O. Long. Sheffield: The Almond Press, 1981. 58-73, 119.

Vidal, Gore. Palimpsest: A Memoir. London: Andre Deutsch, 1995.

Williams, Michael E., ed. The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible. Vol. 3. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

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Barabbas (1962, dir. Richard Fleischer)

Basic Instinct (1992, dir. Paul Verhoeven)

Hail Mary (1985, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

King David (1985, dir. Bruce Beresford)

The King of Kings (1927, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, dir. Martin Scorsese)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979, dir. Terry Jones)

The Passion of the Christ (2004, dir. Mel Gibson)

Samson (1914, prod. J. Farrell MacDonald)

Samson (1915, dir. Ben Lewis)

Samson and Delilah (1903, dir. Ferdinand Zecca)

Samson and Delilah (1908, dir. unknown, Pathe)

Samson and Delilah (1922, dir. Edwin J. Collins)

Samson und Delila (aka Samson and Delilah) (1922, dir. Alexander Korda)

Samson and Delilah (1927, dir. H. B. Parkinson)

Samson and Delilah (1949, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)

Samson and Delilah (1984, dir. Lee Philips)

Samson and Delilah (1996, dir. Nicolas Roeg)

Solomon and Sheba (1959, dir. King Vidor)

The Ten Commandments (1923, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)

The Ten Commandments (1956, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)

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