‘Don’t you ever draw a blade in my council chamber, or I will kill you myself!’
King Ahasuerus of Persia returns home after a long but successful military campaign to reports of his queen’s adulteries and the political machinations of Prince Haman. Bound by law to chose a new consort, he picks the virtuous Esther, unaware that she is a jew…
Cinemascope epic that tells the Biblical story of Esther and her relationship with the King of Persia. The project was directed by legendary filmmaker Raoul Walsh and dates from a period generally known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. This was a short time when American studios exported stars and directors to make films in Italy where projects could be delivered with the expertise of local crews at a markedly cheaper cost than back home. It was a practice that came to a sudden end with notorious money pit ‘Cleopatra’ (1963) which lost a ton of money for 20th Century Fox, despite being one of the biggest box office draws of the year.
Here we find All-American beefcake Richard Egan struggling manfully to be a credible King of Persia opposite very English starlet Joan Collins in the role of the Biblical heroine. As the film begins, Egan is arriving home, ears full of stories of his queen, Vashti (Daniela Rocca) and her less than abstemious behaviour in his absence. One of her lovers has been ‘snake in the grass’ Prince Haman (Sergio Fantoni) who unsurprisingly has his own plans for the throne. Accompanying Egan is loyal lieutenant and brother in arms Simon the Judean (Rik Battaglia) who is stopping off at his local village first so he can marry childhood sweetheart Collins.
By the time he reaches the palace, Egan is in a pretty foul mood and the usual endless entertainment of dancing girls and karaoke singers does little to cheer him up. When Rocca treats everyone to an inappropriately suggestive dance routine, Egan’s had enough. She’s on the outs, and his minions search the kingdom for a new queen. Unfortunately, this involves kidnapping unwilling nubiles (no Tinder back then) and Collins gets snatched on her wedding day. Not knowing she’s promised to his friend Battaglia, he picks her to be his consort, of course. Although I can’t help thinking that he might have chosen differently if a young Rosalba Neri hadn’t disqualified herself by snatching Collins’ cloak.
From there it’s the usual court intrigues with Fantoni having a ball as the duplicitous Haman while Dennis O’Dea gets to act all wooden and noble as Egan’s Jewish adviser Mordechai. Plots and counter ploys result in a predictable finish with lots of extras driving chariots and waving swords in the air. Still, it’s nice to see a big scene like that realised with hundreds of living and breathing extras, rather than soulless and unconvincing CGI.
So right about now you may be wondering what this film is doing on this page. Two words: Mario Bava. Yes, with ‘The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday’ (1960) in the can but not released, it was back to the workaday world for the Master of Horror. Here, he’s credited as the cinematographer, but on the Italian release print, he gets the director nod. Now, this was part of the agreement that allowed Hollywood to film on the cheap in Italy: local talent had to get prominent credit in their own country.
How much work Bava did on the film is, of course, hard to know after so much time has passed. He was the director of photography, of course, and no doubt helped to provide liaison between Walsh and the Italian-speaking crew. But did he do any actual directing? Well, he was experienced at handling large scale battle scenes, so he was no doubt involved there and there is a repeated shot of slaves turning a wheel to open the castle gates which has a touch of his painterly style and colour palette. Any more than that, it’s hard to say.
Actress Hedy Lemarr had initially optioned the screen rights to the story as a possible star vehicle, but this had not worked out. A writer’s strike in Hollywood meant the project was eventually rushed into production and Walsh had to co-write the screenplay (with Michael Elkins), a job he hadn’t tackled since 1936! Not surprisingly, there’s the usual overblown dialogue that makes it sound as if everyone is speaking in capital letters and a lot of faintly pompous speechifying.
If Collins seems like a strange choice for Esther, she often played such roles early in her career. It was almost twenty years before she would have sex in a glass elevator with Oliver Tobias in ‘The Stud’ (1978), follow that with ‘The Bitch’ (1979) and then achieve global superstardom as Queen Bee Alexis on TV soap juggernaut ‘Dynasty.’ She does fine as the heroine here, and if her delivery seems a little too mannered at times, it was perfectly in keeping with the acting style of the era.
This is a fairly typical Biblical epic of its day; straight-jacketed by the need to play it straight with its source material, but somewhat entertaining to its target audience.