But movies were about to change, and three huge epics of ancient times chronicle the transition from what was decidedly stagey, Biblical tosh to a breadth and depth unimaginable in 1959. At the pivot is Ben-Hur which stylistically is placed between the old and the new, and immediately before that, Solomon and Sheba, the last of the old style, very dull indeed, despite the efforts of Gina Lollobrigida in costumes far more ravishing than the real Queen of Sheba could ever have aspired to. And I found out why it was so dull, because there was a book of the same name by someone called Jay Williams which retold the story in a fashion far less interesting than the original version in the bible, which at least had the wisdom to confine all reference to the matter to a single line. If there ever was a Queen of Sheba, she certainly would not have resembled La Lolla. For instance, she probably would have been black. It became an object of fascination for painters down through the ages whose images hopelessly place the characters in costumes of their own times. And the 1959 movie was no different.
The main interest centres on the fact that Tyrone Power starred until most of the shooting was done whereby he dropped dead from a heart attack on the set. There are photographs of his last moments, having been felled, in his Solomon costume, gazing down at his body in puzzlement at its betrayal. Yul Brynner donned a matching beard and wig and replaced him, but all the large expensive scenes were retained and are obviously featuring Power and the real fun of the film is spotting when it's Tyrone and when it's Yul.
But despite the general boredom, there are two great scenes. One is LaLolla’s astonishing pagan dance—she had a great body and really knew how to throw it around. The other is the battle scene in which Solomon and his men polish their shields brightly and stand facing the rising sun as the Egyptian chariots charge, the reflection dazzling the drivers into failing to notice the great ravine placed between them and their prey. The accumulating piles of wrecked men, chariots and horses at the bottom of the ravine is an amazing sight, as one overturned chariot’s wheel turns slower and slower.
After my experience with this film, Sign of the Pagan and The Robe, I had concluded (along with many others) that books and films about ancient times were necessary tedious, turgid and unimaginative, as if the effort of the spectacle exhausted everyone such that they had nothing left for the other elements like acting, character development and story-telling. It seemed that the people of the past were blander than they are today. Maybe they were. But, in any case, just when I reached that conclusion, it was about to be blown away. For that was when Spartacus exploded into my life.