On a recent icy Sunday I could be found in my old Morris chair, snugly wrapped in a favorite red plaid afghan, watching Bible movies on TV. Close at hand was a big plate of buttery garlic bread, heavy on the garlic. On the screen over the course of the day were Moses, Samson and Ben-Hur. I first saw these movies in the great old Al Ringling theater in Baraboo, Wisconsin with a few hundred other innocent tots like myself. We may have been a little vague about political or religious conflicts in the movies, but we alertly followed orgies, dismemberment, mass execution, torture and assassination with fascinated attention.
It was easy to tell who was good and who was bad. The good were raggedy, but virtuous. They wore burlap bags and worked to exhaustion on the pharaoh's hellish construction sites. Bad people wore glamorous, shiny fabrics and were studded with gems as big as duck eggs. They showed their moral corruption by lying sideways while eating, lounging on marble daises. In The Ten Commandments, Yul Brynner has Psycho Pharaoh written all over him. His oiled chest is garnished with weaponry and fabulous jewels. He glares at his slaves with brutal command, and eyes his fiancee (Anne Baxter) with a carnal leer. He also thinks he is divine--a delusion guaranteed to set off the hair-trigger temper of Cecil B. DeMille's God.
No wonder Moses and his followers flee hotfoot into the desert to get away from him. However, they aren't home free yet. The moment Moses goes up into the mountain to get God's word, the freaky-deaky element among his followers take over. They're fermenting manna, gilding a heifer, exchanging somber robes for rhinestone bustiers and chiffon dancing pants. Where did these clothes come from? These people are in the middle of a desert. They must have packed them earlier in case they felt inclined to bust out later.
At the Al Ringling, we kids knew that wherever you had dancing girls doing high kicks in shiny fabrics, God's wrath was not far behind. It looked like Southern California. We all waited with real anxiety for Moses to come back down. When he did, he was as disgusted as we were and nipped the frenzy in the bud.
These epics specialized in brutal truths. In "Samson and Delilah," one minute Samson is riding high, sweltering in the embraces of the darkly adorable Delilah/Hedy Lamarr. But when he lets her hack his hair off, he's blinded by his enemies in an instant. He finds himself in a show ring being tortured by dwarfs. You may recognize several ex-Munchkins among them. Ten years before this movie was produced, these little people were dancing in tiny lederhosen and singing to Dorothy, "We represent the lollypop guild, lollypop guild, lollypop guild..." but now here they are, tormenting Samson with whip and spur. In the climactic scene, there are dancing girls, graven images, a 4-story pagan god with a nasty sneer on his face and flames coming out of his mouth, the whole can of worms. And a huge mass of evil people are conveniently gathered together, being mean to Samson. For some reason none of them have noticed that Samson's hair has been growing out and his Old Testament 'Fro is quite huge and fluffy again. However, we kids had noticed. And we weren't really surprised at what happened next.