Bright Lights Film Journal

Serpentine Evil and the Garden of Eden: On DeMille’s <em>Samson and Delilah</em> (1949)

Samson, meet Adam; Delilah, meet Eve

Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959) was the legendary cofounder of Hollywood, a progenitor of Paramount studios, and a master of the American biblical epic who produced and directed Samson and Delilah (1949). This Technicolor testament based on Judges 13-161  was a watershed film that reinvigorated the moribund beard-and-bathrobe genre, triggered the 1950s-’60s rash of Bible films, and made DeMille millions.2  However, despite his phenomenal box office successes and blatant pop culture orientation,3  DeMille was frequently derided as a pedestrian director who made films that were “generally superficial and … added nothing to film art.”4  He was also accused of being unintelligent, unintuitive, inspirationally and imaginatively sterile, psychologically adolescent, and incapable of aesthetic subtlety.5  Frequently overlooked by critics and the public alike, however, was DeMille’s ability to engineer sacred subtexts into his biblical films (i.e., religion underneath, alongside, and within religion) that generated profound holy resonances for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear (Matt. 13:16). A good example of his aesthetic skill in sacred storytelling was his re-creation of the Garden of Eden within Samson and Delilah, complete with a subtextual female serpent and a walking, talking apple.

DeMille (right) was an avowed Episcopalian Christian and a lifelong Bible student who used the silver screen as his creative palette-cum-sermonizing tool.6  For both scriptural and dramatic purposes, DeMille contrasted his Samson (Victor Mature), the holy instrument of God, with Delilah (Hedy Lamarr), the wicked woman of Sorek, whom he subtextually turned into an archetype of evil slithering around a primordial garden. From a Christian theological perspective, “the great dragon … that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” (Rev. 12:9) is the archenemy of God, Jesus, and mundane humanity. Satan is the living personification of evil, the supreme adversary of mankind, and the father of the lie (John 8:44) whose unholy mission is to harass, deceive, and corrupt humanity. The Devil is notoriously famous as an iconic deceiver, “the serpent [who] beguiled Eve through his subtilty” (2 Cor. 11:3), particularly about the effect of eating the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden (Gen. 3:3, 6, 11); popularly assumed to be an apple tree although scripturally unspecified. This devilish deception caused Eve followed by Adam to willfully transgress their off-limits instruction regarding the forbidden fruit, thus displeasing God immensely (Gen. 3:1-6).

God was so annoyed that he punished Adam and Eve resulting in their expulsion from Eden into a world of pain and suffering (Gen. 3:16-19) and eventual death. God also cursed the beguiling serpent: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). As Elizabeth K. Menon noted: “The association of women with the devil evolved from interpretations of Genesis that identified the serpent as Satan in disguise. What had originally been a dialogue between Eve and a snake became a conspiracy between Eve and the devil.”7  DeMille tapped into this ancient association between women, snakes, and the Devil, and linked it with the archetypal story of evil tainting innocence by subtextually recreating his Delilah as a seductive serpent in a garden; not once but twice within Samson and Delilah.

DeMille’s Eden was located inside Tubal’s (William Farnum’s) house, the home of his two doomed daughters, Semadar and Delilah. His recreational courtyard with in-built garden contained Samson (Victor Mature), Semadar (Angela Lansbury), Delilah (Hedy Lamarr), and Ahtur (Henry Wilcoxon). Subtextually speaking, the courtyard garden is Eden, Samson is the besotted Adam, Semadar is the easily tricked Eve, and Delilah is the cunning serpent/Satan/Devil-figure who used plums instead of apples as her fruit of manipulation, whilst Ahtur is the apple analog. After all, he was desirous (tasty) and Semadar desired him (hunger), both Semadar and Delilah easily manipulated (consumed) him, he was off-limits to Samson (forbidden fruit), and he eventually precipitated both Samson’s and Semadar’s downfall (capture and death). Therefore, when Samson and Semadar left Tubal’s garden (separately, with Samson’s departure more pronounced; see Gen. 3:23-24), it symbolically resonated with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from their garden Paradise into a wilderness full of pain, danger, and death (Gen. 3:16-19).

Samson and Semadar mirrored this biblical event when they left Tubal’s lush garden to go chariot riding and lion hunting in the local wilderness, which was also full of pain, danger, and death. At the initial stages of their wild journey into lion country, Semadar accompanied Ahtur (Eve with apple), whilst Delilah-the-serpent/Satan/Devil-figure clung to Samson’s back like an impish demon, and seemingly “close to orgasm” according to Jan Christopher Horak,8  thereby further underscoring the DeMillean theme of sex, sin, and Satan. This devilish Delilah subsequently became the master of the Philistine-dominated world (Earth) when she became, according to DeMille’s Samson, “the woman that rules the ruler of the five cities,” namely, the Philistine Saran of Gaza (George Sanders). Her career trajectory was just like the scriptural Satan/Devil who was kicked out of Heaven and became master of the Earth (his new home) via his control of earthly kings, and then he prowled around his domain like a roaring lion (1 Pet. 5:8).

Neither Samson (Adam) nor Semadar (Eve) were seen again in Tubal’s garden (Eden), as Philistine swords had barred their entry and consuming flames burned the house to the ground. This event was just like Adam and Eve who never entered the Garden of Eden again when Cherubim barred their entry with flaming swords (Gen. 3:23-24). Samson bitterly regretted Semadar’s misdeed (presumably, like Adam over Eve’s transgression), and both Samson and Semadar suffered greatly at the hands of Delilah when they both died prematurely (just like Adam and Eve who lost immortality and suffered premature death because of Satan’s deception). Both their lives changed dramatically on that fateful day, just as all of Earth’s history was irrevocably changed by the biblical Fall.

Of course, DeMille’s Edenic parallels within Samson and Delilah are not exact given the narrative limits of the Samson saga (and DeMille’s other interlocking sacred subtexts to contend with),9  but it resonated well with this foundational Old Testament myth. DeMille-the-Christian-apologist had tapped into this sacred subtext to enhance the biblical potency of his holy cinema, which surprisingly is missing from the non-religious flavor of the scriptural Samson saga itself (Judg. 13-16).

Following the old adage, “When you’re on a good thing stick to it,” DeMille-the-subtextual-engineer evoked Garden of Eden imagery for a second time during the wedding festivities when Samson is about to marry Semadar, his Philistine-bride-to-be (Judg. 14). DeMille’s Delilah attended the wedding and was as slippery, beguiling, and manipulative as the Edenic serpent, which is often considered to be a “cunning trickster.”10  Indeed, in a Paramount synopsis for Samson and Delilah, she was envisioned by the writers as “a hooded cobra,”11  and much onscreen dialogue reinforced this serpentine association throughout the film. For example, during the earlier lion hunt, the Saran of Gaza claimed that Delilah had “the wisdom of a serpent” when she had mischievously suggested inviting 30 Philistine soldiers to Samson’s wedding feast (thus planting the seeds of its subsequent disaster). Much later at the oasis love-nest/trap, Samson warily said to the seductive Delilah before succumbing to temptation: “your kisses are the sting of death,” and then following his devastating betrayal by her, he angrily said: “your kiss was death” just like a lethal snake bite.

DeMille’s Delilah was definitely a spy on the side of the forces of oppressive evil (represented by the occupying Philistines, the political oppressors of God’s chosen people). She actively sought to manipulate God’s chosen agent (Samson) and disadvantage his chosen people (the Israelites/ Hebrews/Danites). Interestingly, the Bible is actually silent on her presumed racial/ethnic/national identity as a Philistine; after all, “Delilah” is a Hebrew name not a Philistine name.12  Although Delilah’s nationality is not scripturally specified, throughout history, Christendom, and popular culture, she is traditionally assumed to be an enemy Philistine for political, religious, and dramatic contrast reasons, which DeMille-the-pop-culture-professional dutifully followed.

The interpretation of Delilah as archetypal evil was further reinforced by DeMille-the-Christian-apologist when she became the courtesan of the Philistine Saran of Gaza. During one of her muted temper tantrums, the Saran soothingly said: “Delilah, what a dimpled dragon you can be flashing fire and smoke.” This comment thematically linked Delilah with the biblical “dragon” (Rev. 20:2), the “great dragon” (Rev. 12:9), and the pop culture imagining of dragons as fire-snorting beasts, as evidenced in contemporary times by Drago (voice of Sean Connery) in Rob Cohen’s Dragonheart (1996). The “dimpled dragon” dialogue was simply the common touch attempt of DeMille-the-pop-culture-professional to overlay his biblical scholarship in such a way as not to scare off his audiences with excessive academese. However, for viewers accustomed to inspecting only the entertaining surface of DeMille’s films, and of considering him as just a hack director, it deflected serious consideration away from his multi-layered astuteness as an accomplished lay biblicist.

DeMille’s Samson also called Delilah a “daughter of Hell” at the oasis love-nest/trap to confirm her evil female status. For Christians, the word “Hell” subtly resonated with the Hell-heading hypocritical Pharisees whom Jesus had berated (Matt. 23:33). Just as importantly, it is a word not specifically mentioned within Judges 13-16, but well understood by the paying public nonetheless. “Hell” is the traditional underground home of the Devil, the hottest metaphysical property in town, and frequently associated with badness, as indicated by the slang word “hellcat” who is “a wild, devil-may-care person … a witch … a furious or high-spirited girl or woman.”13

Therefore, just like a hellcat, DeMille’s Delilah persistently tried to interfere with and/or possess Samson during the wedding feast, which symbolically resonated with the traditionally harassing function of the Devil. At one dramatic moment, Samson annoyingly retaliated by saying to the crowd concerning Delilah: “Hold this fork-tongued adder before I put a heel on her.” DeMille’s choice of the snake-related phrase “fork-tongued adder” and the “heel” reference was no accident. It symbolically equated: (a) Delilah with the Edenic serpent/Satan/Devil-figure who was a liar; (b) Samson, DeMille’s holy good guy and subtextual Christ-figure,14  with Adam, plus the descendants of the children of Eve; and (c) Jesus, who would use his heel to control an intimate snake-like danger (Gen. 3:15).

To emphasize his Delilah-equals-serpent point still further, DeMille had the Philistine servant, Hisham (Julia Faye) quote Samson’s passionate words back to an emotionally devastated Delilah, who was watching her house burn down and her dreams turn to ashes. Hisham angrily said: “He called you a fork-tongued adder” to which Delilah angrily replied: “He’s going to feel its sting.” Thereby, accepting and enhancing the snake metaphor as well as accurately foreshadowing Samson’s painful fate-to-come using the serpent equivalent of a kiss, which was also Delilah’s sexy tool of trade as a femme fatale. This vengeful act also resonated with the betrayal of Jesus with a Judas kiss (Luke 22:47-48) and reinforced Delilah’s traditional tag as “the female Judas of the Old Testament.”15  In short, it was a very complicated act of subtextual engineering.

DeMille’s overall career shows him to have been a far more skillful, thoughtful, and accomplished filmmaker than has been appreciated to date, and he deserves to be considered the American master of the biblical epic because of it. Of course, his deployment of sacred subtexts did not stop with Edenic parallels within Samson and Delilah. In another bravura act of artistic accomplishment, he also made Samson (Victor Mature) a rustic Christ-figure,16  and his old Story Teller (Francis. J. McDonald) a John the Baptist figure17  to further enhance his sacred storytelling. Not surprisingly, DeMille also made his Moses (Charlton Heston) a Christ-figure within his second The Ten Commandments (1956) and John McTavish (Richard Dix) a Christ-figure within the modern portion of his silent The Ten Commandments (1923) for similar holy effect reasons.18  The engineering of these multiple interlocking subtexts whilst staying fundamentally true to the well-known biblical storylines is another impressive feat of DeMillean craftsmanship that remains grossly unappreciated today. However, that’s another good story to tell about the man George Cukor called a “great, great story teller”19  and who still remains Hollywood’s best-known unknown.

  1. The Authorized King James Version of the Bible (KJV aka AV), which was one of DeMille’s favourite translations, will be used herein. []
  2. R. S. Birchard, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004: 334. []
  3. C . B. DeMille and D. Hayne, ed., The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille. London: W. H. Allen, 1960: 195. []
  4. V. W. Wexman, A History of Film, 6th ed. Boston: Pearson/A and B, 2006: 83. []
  5. J. Green, Dictionary of Insulting Quotations. London: Cassell, 1997: 191-192. []
  6. C. Higham, Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973: ix-x. []
  7. E. K. Menon, Evil by Design: The Creation and Marketing of the Femme Fatale. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006: 227. []
  8. J. C. Horak, “High-Class Whore: Hedy Lamarr’s Star Image in Hollywood.” CineAction, 55, 2001: 38. []
  9. A. K. Kozlovic, “Constructing the Motherliness of Manoah’s Wife in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949).” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 4(1), 2006: 1-20. []
  10. Menon: 230. []
  11. Samson and Delilah Cast and Synopsis, 1959: 3 (gift of Norman Williams). []
  12. J. C. Exum, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)Versions of Biblical Narratives. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993: 69. []
  13. R. A. Spears, Slang and Euphemism: A Dictionary of Oaths, Curses, Insults, Sexual Slang and Metaphor, Racial Slurs, Drug Talk, Homosexual Lingo, and Related Matters. New York: Signet/New American Library, 1982: 199. []
  14. A. K. Kozlovic, “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. []
  15. H. Lockyer, The Women of the Bible. London: Pickering & Inglis, 1967: 43. []
  16. Kozlovic, 2003. []
  17. A.K. Kozlovic (2006a). “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): 1-10. []
  18. A. K. Kozlovic (2006b). “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): 1-26 & 1-9. See also here. []
  19. George Cukor quoted in R. E. Long, ed. George Cukor Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001: 27. []