The Old Testament has provided the inspiration for many works of art, from cinema, sculpture and painting, to classical music. In the world of film it has inspired Hollywood epics such as The Ten Commandments and Solomon and Sheba, big budget international co-productions like Sodom and Gomorrah and The Bible…in the Beginning and lower-tier Italian sword and sandal flicks such as David and Goliath and The Old Testament.
In the early 1960s, Marcello Baldi made four films – a short film and three features – depicting various stories from the Old Testament. They were shot on location in Spain and on sets at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, and were Italo-Spanish co-productions.
The short film, Genesis (1963), was 34 minutes and depicted the Creation (via paintings), and then re-reacted with actors the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel.
Jacob, the Man Who Fought With God (1963 – I patriarchi della bibbia) took up the story, with Abraham and Lot in the Promised Land, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the tale of Jacob and his conflict with his wildman brother Esau.
The film’s reverence is closer in atmosphere to Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew than Hollywood epics or Italian pepla. It was shot on location near Madrid – the landscape looks like the area at Alto De Morcuera – and is poetic, realistic, if a bit plodding and longwinded at 105 minutes, in its telling of a story that isn’t exactly brimming with action.
Saul David (1964) is much better and is perhaps the best of Baldi’s adaptations, thanks to its good performances and large-scale battle scenes. Gianni Garko played harpist shepherd David and Norman Wooland played despot King Saul. Wooland is a monstrosity, his overbearing performance brilliantly dominating the film. Future spaghetti western star Garko is good too, as Saul’s rival for the throne of Israel. Interiors and city sets were at Cinecittà, while location work was lensed in Almeria, southern Spain, on the same deserts and sierras used in Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ westerns, which were shot there in the same period. Sergio Sollima (as ‘George Higgins III’) worked on the film’s dialogue, and actors such as Milo Quesada, Antonio Molino Rojo and Aldo Sambrell propped up the supporting cast. It runs 114 minutes, but is never dull.
The Great Leaders (1965 – Il grandi condottieri) brought the series to a close with a 105 minute two-parter. Francisco Perez-Dolz is the film’s credited director, but Baldi oversaw the production. The first episode had Gideon (Ivo Garrani) advised by a mysterious stranger (Fernando Rey) on how to defeat the Midianites and become King of Israel – with a bit of help from Jehovah, of course. Expansive, arid location shooting in Almeria again makes this look tremendous. The second story, the sorrowful tale of Samson (Anton Geesink) and Delilah (Rosalba Neri), is closer in style and content to what we expect from Italian pepla, with location scenes even shot at Tor Caldara, Lazio (as well as in Almeria and Cinecittà). Samson is up against the Philistines, his only weapon the jawbone of an ass. Paolo Gozlino was an excellent villain in Gaza and Ana Maria Noe was well cast as Samson’s mother. If Saul and David is the best film of Baldi’s series, then this one packs the greatest emotional punch.
Baldi’s films were shot on a grand scale, with dozens of extras and convincing sets and costumes. Giacomo Alberione was billed as ‘Biblical Consultant’ and he seems to have carried out his task well. Teo Usuelli provided the music for each film and the magnificent scores to Saul and David and The Great Leadersare tremendously moving, lifting the drama several notches.
These little-seen epics are now available on DVD in a boxed set called, appropriately enough, Epics of the Old Testament. None of them are fantastic picture quality (the blurb claims they are ‘digitally re-mastered’), though they are presented in 1.85:1 widescreen (they should be in 2.35:1 Techniscope). The set also includes Irving Rapper’s Italian-Yugoslavian production Joseph and his Brethren (1960 – Sold into Egypt) which was a retelling of dreamer Joseph and his ‘coat of many colours’. The anglo guest star here is Robert Morley, as Egyptian Potifar. Geoffrey Horne starred as Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery into Egypt, and the cast includes Vira Silenti, Belinda Lee, Arturo Dominici (as usual, the villain) and Terence Hill as Benjamin. It also seems the English language dubbers were having some fun here too. When an Ishmaelite calls over two of his henchmen – ‘Mohamed! Ali!’ – it is perhaps the only instance of a world champion boxer being namechecked in a Biblical epic.
All the titles are also available separately.
And so as to the identity of Solomon King. The stories told in the Old Testament also inspired one of my favourite pieces of choral music, ‘Zadok the Priest’, by George Frederic Handel. After over a minute’s build-up, the opening lyric to this Coronation anthem reveals:
‘Zadok the Priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon King
And all the people rejoiced!’
Read more about Italian Biblical adaptations, including The Bible…in the Beginning, The Gospel According to St Matthew, Esther and the King, Moses the Lawgiver and Sodom and Gomorrah, in Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult.