Shortly before his death in ancient Israel King David has a vision from God telling him that his younger son Solomon should succeed him as king. His other son Adonijah is unhappy and vows
"Our father David was a singer of songs, but he was also a mighty warrior."
'Solomon and Sheba' is one of those movies with a difficult shoot that new movies are actually made about. Just about everything that could go wrong for this production did. The biggest issue is widely known, the death of Co-producer and lead actor Tyrone Power who was originally to play Solomon. At the point where he literally dropped dead during the filming of a fight sequence, the vast majority of the film was already shot and in the can. With critical scenes yet to be filmed, the only choice going forward was to recast the role and then reshoot virtually the entire film all over again. Legendary Director King Vidor was apparently left out of this casting decision or had his opinions overruled when Yul Brynner was cast at the behest of the studio. As a result the completed 'Solomon and Sheba' is a bit of an odd duck in the realm of Biblical Epics.
David, King of Israel has two sons, his eldest Adonijah, George Sanders, commands the army with the arrogance that comes from knowing that any day he will succeed his father to the throne. David's youngest son Solomon, the recast Yul Brynner, is more akin to a wise warrior poet, a man who fights when he must and shows wisdom and calm the rest of the time. When David is given a message from God that the younger son Solomon should ascend to the throne, Adonijah is less than thrilled and sets about quietly and patiently scheming to enact a plan that allows him to take back what is rightfully his.
At the same time as this family drama unfolds, the Egyptian Pharaoh, David Farrar, aims to destroy the kingdom of Israel, citing their belief in a single god as a threat to his and other kingdoms in the region. Fighting along his side is Sheba, Gina Lollobrigida. While Sheba is ready to offer troops to the slaughter, she convinces Pharaoh that a form of subterfuge is the best way to tear down the young King Solomon from his throne. Offering herself as bait, Sheba works to ensnare the affections of Solomon and use them against him while others within his own kingdom plot against him.
'Solomon and Sheba' should be one of those great and grand Biblical epics the likes of 'The Ten Commandments' or 'The Robe', but instead it comes off feeling like a lesser older cousin to 1963's 'Cleopatra'. There are parts of this production that feel genuinely grand and beautiful and bare the true marks of a sweeping epic. Then there are parts that just feel like a bunch of kids playing epic with pretty clothes and closed set stage scenery. In one scene you can have grand gigantic sets that are intricately adorned and full of extras in period costume. Then the next scene the stone walls look like cardboard boxes waiting to be shipped by UPS, with long flowing drapes to hide the breaks in the set.
Perhaps it genuinely is because of Tyrone Power's untimely death that this movie turns out the way that it does. Yul Brynner is acting his backside off bringing that signature swagger of his as he attempts to convincingly play a man torn by love and religion. Everyone else in this film looks exhausted. Since the majority of the film was completed when Power died, I can only imagine the difficulty of having to redo so many scenes with a new actor you never got to rehearse with or build that sense of chemistry. That said, the cast does what they do best here. Gina Lollobrigida does a fine job as the sultry Sheba as she wrestles her own devious intensions and her growing love for Solomon. For me, the real star of the show is George Sanders as Adonijah. The guy knew how to play seething evil well. If you've seen 'All About Eve' then you know what to expect of the man here as he pushes the pieces across the board strategically waiting to take advantage of his brother's weaknesses.
At the end of the day, 'Solomon and Sheba' is a film that is intermittently meandering and thrilling. Whether you call it a bad movie or a good movie I think is a matter of taste. Personally, this movie isn't so bad as its reputation suggests, but it's hardly a winner. If nothing else 'Solomon and Sheba' should be one of those movies that is studied. I wish the original Tyrone Power elements existed or were made available. It would be fascinating to see what 'Solomon and Sheba' was intended to be, rather than what it became.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Solomon and Sheba' arrives on Blu-ray from Twilight Time on a BD50 disc. Housed in a standard Blu-ray cast the disc opens to a static image menu.
Solomon and Sheba' for the most part makes an okay Blu-ray debut in this 2.35:1 1080p release. I'll be upfront and say that this transfer is problematic. It would appear that from cut to cut that the image corrects itself as if it were pulling back in the framing ever so slightly as to reveal more image space around the right and left sides to appear closer to the original 70mm Cinemascope presentation. While it only happens a handful of times throughout the runtime, it is a jarring effect and one that is not entirely Twilight Time's fault as they merely licensed the available master from 20th Century Fox and MGM. Since I'm not in on the licensing process, I can only assume they're given these elements as is without prior viewing before signing the contract. Since Olive Films, Shout Factory, and Kino Lorber to name a few have all issued films on Blu-ray with "rough" transfers, this is where any anger should be directed squarely at the studios for being cheep with their catalog titles. At the same time we need to be cognizant of the fact that not every catalogue release can look like a modern film released today. Not every title can expect the same level of restoration effort as 'The Sound of Music,' or even a fresh new 4k scan the likes of 'Journey to the Center of the Earth'.
On the plus side of things for 'Solomon and Sheba,' detail is genuinely very strong here. In fact the big battle scenes can look absolutely stunning. All you have to do is look at the intricate armor worn in the opening and closing battle sequences, the colorful textured clothing, and the rocky craggily Spanish landscape to appreciate the heightened detail levels. Film grain is alive and well, and perhaps a little more present in some places than in others, but I wouldn't call it a terrible distraction and it should be welcomed because to my eyes little to no digital smoothing was employed. Colors for the most part are strong and consistent, while at times they do tend to shift towards the browns here and there making some reds appear a little orange and skin tones look a bit too tan - that also could be a mark of the troubled filming experience rather than the elements themselves. Black levels and shadows are also strong here offering a nice sense of depth with very minimal crush. There might be slight edge enhancement present as the image can look a little crunchy, but there aren't any issues the likes of banding or other compression artifacts to contend with. While problematic, 'Solomon and Sheba' actually makes a pretty good Blu-ray presentation. No doubt it could look better with a fresh restoration effort, but that's also true of so many catalogue titles.
'Solomon and Sheba' offers a fine, if not overwhelming DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track. As the film is largely dialogue heavy, this is fine since sounds only really needs to operate out of the center channels to begin with. Where a little life gets sucked out of the presentation is during the battle sequences. Rather than feeling nice and engrossing, they can actually feel rather flat and unexciting. That isn't to say there isn't a great sense of imaging - there is. Sounds of swords clanging and galloping horses travel around enough to evoke a genuine sense of movement. Quieter scenes also work well throughout as Mario Nascimbene's score keeps to the sides allowing dialogue and sound effects to maintain their presence. Considering the 70mm prints offered a 6-track stereo presentation, it would be something to get that power represented here, but as it is, this 2.0 track offers its own grand presentation and one that should be appreciated.
Original Theatrical Trailers: (HD 4:04 and 3:15) This is where I really appreciate trailers of catalogue releases. If you ever want to see how bad a movie could look if left unattended, watch these trailers. From the outset it helps to appreciate the fine detail levels and pleasing colors the main feature has to offer.
'Solomon and Sheba' is certainly a movie to experience. From its storied, frustrating production history to the final results marking the end of King Vidor's career, 'Solomon and Sheba' is a curious experience. Equal parts meandering melodrama and thrilling epic, it does offer a lot to appreciate, especially from its principal actors who are doing their best to make the most of a difficult circumstance. In the end, 'Solomon and Sheba' is neither a terrible movie, nor is it a grand classic. It's worth a watch, if only once if you've never seen it. As far as Blu-rays go, even with a troubled HD master, 'Solomon and Sheba' offers much to appreciate for the eyes and ears. Perhaps like 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' this one may one day enjoy a fresh 4k scan with some restored footage of Tyrone Power to help round out the extra features? If you're new to the movie, this is a difficult recommend for a blind buy, if you're a fan you should be somewhat pleased with the results.