Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema is Esther and the King, in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim, starring a very young Joan Collins and Richard Egan (the real star of A Summer Place). It’s not Taylor and Burton, but Esther and the King is one of those bad movies we love.
If you are unfamiliar with the wonderful Purim story, scroll down.
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Most critics disliked the film, the NY Times was no exception, but Crowther does land some zingers.
Screen: Costume Charade:’ Esther and the King’ Is New Film at Palace
But then, they dislike most biblical films. Here’s a more positive review:
Esther and the King
Esther and the King (1960) is a cast-of-thousands epic spectacle set in the Ancient World, of the kind popular in its era. The film is visually gorgeous, with rich color design in its elaborate costumes and sets. Such an immersion in a world of spectacle was typical of such 1960-era films, including Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) and Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). All of these films have huge sets that represent royal palaces. The sets are brilliantly colored, and remote from anything in modern life. They give a dream like feeling to the works, a sense of total escapism from contemporary reality, at least in visual appearance.
Esther and the King has thematic links with previous Walsh works. Like The Yellow Ticket and The Naked and the Dead, it deals with and condemns anti-Semitism. Like the Biblical story of Esther on which it is based, it is impossible to see today without thinking about the Holocaust. One strongly suspects that Walsh consciously intended such parallels. The film is Walsh’s commentary on the tragedy of the Holocaust, and a very firm stand towards ending bigotry against Jews.Esther and the King was made the year after Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959), the smash epic, and probably owes its financing to that film’s success. Both films deal with oppressed Jews in an ancient empire: Rome in Ben-Hur, Persia in Esther and the King. Walsh’s film has a deeper treatment of anti-Semitism than Wyler’s however, and more to say about the importance of fighting intolerance.
Once again, each character in Esther and the King has a world view, which drives their actions. Esther is the biggest force for positive social change. Mordecai is dignity itself, but he is more a defender of core social principles than an agent of the new.
The eunuch, Hegai, is treated most sympathetically by Walsh. This recalls Walsh’s earlier respectful treatment of Franklin Pangborn in The Horn Blows at Midnight. Walsh seems very comfortable with sexually ambiguous men.One might also note that in some ways Hegai is a director-figure. He is in charge of entertainments at the court, including music and dance shows. And he is seen coaching and training the women in the harem just like a 30’s director of Broadway musicals – he resembles Ned Sparks’ director in Going Hollywood! This whole characterization is unique.
A scene in which the King wrestles happily with his soldiers in the palace barracks is pure Walsh. Walsh’s men crave camaraderie. As one of his men points out in the dialogue, “A King with the Earth for his footstool, and yet his only happiness is here with us.” This recalls Walsh himself, and his screen incarnation as a Sergeant in Sadie Thompson. The King also has much male bonding with his friend Simon.
The King is something of a roughneck, who has risen to the top of the Ancient world. He is more a man of action that a courtier, and is played by the macho Richard Egan. He recalls all the other roughneck males in Walsh. He is easily led around, either for good, by Esther, or evil, by Haman – a weakness in his character, perhaps. But also an engine that drives the story.
Esther is somewhat like the refined social worker of Regeneration, being dignified and not at all rowdy, as well as being an outsider at the world of the court. However, it is Esther who tries to improve this world, and protect the weak within it – the role of the male hero in Regeneration. And Esther is also a poor woman, a simple villager, and hardly a representative of the upper classes, also unlike the heroine of Regeneration. In some ways, she takes on in one person both the man and female roles in previous Walsh films. Although she is seemingly the most frail person in this world of powerful people, she turns out to be the most creative and most successful in improving it.
Mordecai makes an impressive speech, hoping that all wars will come to an end. He also advocates taking all the money and resources wasted on war, and using them on building projects instead. This is a key example of the anti-war, pacifist message that runs through Walsh.One building project Mordecai advocates: desert irrigation. This recalls the emphasis on water supply in some Walsh Westerns.
At the end of the king’s battle with a guard, he throws the guard off a platform in the palace. Later, Simon will jump from the same platform, when chased by guards.Simon will taunt the guards, from the top of a high hill. The guards then chase after him up the hill.
Various outdoor steps and staircases appear, but do not involve much true “staging on heights”.
The King, Mordecai and villain Haman discuss the invasion of Greece. They set forth in precise geographical detail how and where they plan to invade, and how this geography will affect the Greek response. All this is done purely verbally, and without maps.
One anachronism: Ancient Persia is depicted as full of fields of what is known as maize by scientists, and as corn (or corn-on-the-cob) in the United States. This plant, whose scientific name is Zea mays, is native to Mexico. It was unknown in the Old World before Columbus. It is impossible to have it growing in Ancient Persia. It is a very beautiful plant, and grown everywhere today in the Northeastern USA, where Walsh is from. According to the Mayan holy book, the Popul Vuh, humans were made out of maize by the gods.
The King gives Esther a lion cub as a pet, remarking that the lion is the symbol of Persia. Lion statues and reliefs are common in the palace.The opening procession features white oxen, who are conspicuous by their color. The oxen briefly return later, midway through the film. The oxen are not really “pets”, however, being used to draw carts.
The men who bear the standards or banners in the opening army march, wear identical breastplates covered with grids of ornamental circles. They are also examples in Walsh of men who dress alike. Simon has circular ornaments on his chest straps. The drums in the same procession have circular tops. Many of the soldiers wear rounded helmets, of various shapes and colors.Later, civilian Jewish men like Nathan wear rounded headgear.
The palace murals show a tree with circular objects on it: maybe stylized fruit or flowers. Some of the clothes people wear in the murals, have circular decorations on them.
Esther’s farm house near the start has many circular objects in front: wheels, an iron ring hook, an object hanging from a circular end.
The traitor general Klydrathes has a round plate in front of him, with round bowls (and a pitcher). In the background is a round brazier with fire, a cylindrical pillar and a round door knob. He is eating round grapes.
The assembled maidens includes “one who plays with the water” in a circular basin. Another maiden has a circular hand-mirror.
Turning objects include:
- The giant winch used to open the city gates.
- The king commands a wrestler twirl a man on his shoulders, as a penalty for holding back in a match. (This is another example of circular imagery in the dialogue of a Walsh film.)
The villain (Sergio Fantoni) in Esther and the King is played by the same “type” as the bad guy (Stephen Boyd) in Ben-Hur. Both are refined looking leading men, who are almost too pretty in their looks. Both are often sneering and looking cruel.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Purim. Chabad tells it here:
A Fateful Party
It all began in Ancient Persia in the fourth century BCE. The Holy Temple that had stood in Jerusalem was destroyed more than 50 years earlier, and the Jews were subjects of the mighty Persian empire that extended over 127 lands.
Three years after King Ahasuerus ascended the Persian throne, when he felt secure in his new position, he celebrated by throwing a grand 180-day-long party for all his subjects. Following this extravagant gala, Ahasuerus hosted a smaller week-long party for the residents of the capital city of Shushan. In the palace’s women’s quarters, Ahasuerus’s wife, Queen Vashti, hosted her own party for the Shushanite womenfolk.
On the seventh day of this party, Ahasuerus’s heart “was merry with wine,” and he commanded his wife Vashti to appear before all the partying men; he wanted to show them all her exquisite beauty. Vashti balked at this request, and at the advice of his adviser, Memuchan, Ahasuerus ordered Vashti’s execution.
The Beauty Contest
The king immediately liked her, and Esther became the new Queen of PersiaWhen Ahasuerus’s wrath dissipated, he was lonely for a wife. His servants suggested that he orchestrate a beauty pageant. Officers would be appointed in all the king’s lands, and all beautiful girls would be brought to Ahasuerus. And the girl who would find favor in the king’s eyes would be the new queen.
The leader of the Jews at that time was a Shushanite resident named Mordechai. He had a cousin, Esther, who was orphaned as a young girl. Mordechai raised her and treated her as a daughter. Though she had no desire to be the queen, Esther was forcibly taken to the king’s harem, to participate in the contest. While all the other contestant beautified themselves with perfumes and lotions, Esther did nothing. But G‑d had His own plans. When Esther appeared before the king, he immediately liked her, and Esther became the new Queen of Persia. But as per Mordechai’s directive, Esther refused to divulge her nationality, even to the king.
Mordechai to the Rescue
Shortly after Esther became queen, Mordechai overheard two of the king’s chamberlains discussing a plot to assassinate the king. Mordechai had them reported, and the traitors were hanged.
The Anti-Semitic Prime Minister
Meanwhile, Haman, one of Ahasuerus’s ministers, was promoted to the position of prime minister. Haman was a virulent Jew-hater; in fact, he was a descendant of the notoriously anti-Semitic nation of Amalek.
Immediately after his promotion, the king issued a decree ordering everyone to bow down whenever Haman appeared. Now Haman would walk around with a large idol hanging from a chain around his neck. When Mordechai, a proud Jew, refused to bow down, Haman was infuriated. He resolved to take revenge against all the Jews and threw lots to determine the “lucky” day when he would implement his plan. The lot fell on the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Adar.
Haman approached Ahasuerus and offered him 10,000 silver talents in exchange for permission to exterminate the Jews. Ahasuerus, who was no friend of the Jews either, told Haman, “The money is yours to keep, and the nation is yours to do with as you please.”
Haman immediately sent proclamations to all the king’s land. These declarations, sealed with the royal signet ring, ordered the people to rise up against the Jews and kill them all—men, women and children—on the following 13th of Adar.
“If you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source!”Mordechai became aware of the decree. He rent his garments and donned sackcloth. He sent a message to Esther, asking her to approach the king and beg him to spare her people. Esther responded that according to the rules anyone who entered the king’s presence unsummoned would be put to death unless the king extended to that person his golden scepter. “And I,” Esther said, “have not been summoned by the king for thirty days already!”
Mordechai sent another message: “Do not think that you will escape the fate of all the Jews by being in the king’s palace. For if you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source, and you and the house of your father will be lost. And who knows if it is not for just such a time that you reached this royal position.”
Esther agreed to approach the king. But she asked Mordechai to gather all the Jews in Shushan, and let them all fast for three days and nights. And after this fast, Esther would put her life in her hands and approach the king.
Mordechai complied with Esther’s request. He gathered the Jews of Shushan, especially the children—22,000 of them—and they fasted, repented and prayed to G‑d.
The First Feast
After three days of fasting, Esther donned royal garb and entered Ahasuerus’s chambers. Immediately, the king extended his scepter. “What is it?” Ahasuerus asked. “What is your request?”
“I would like to invite the king and Haman to a small feast I have prepared,” Esther responded.
So the king and Haman joined Esther for a wine feast. During the feast, the king again asked Esther whether she had anything to request. “Yes,” Esther responded. “I would appreciate if tomorrow, again, the king and Haman would join me for a feast. And then I will tell the king my request.”
Haman left the party a happy and proud man. Oh, the honor he was being accorded! But standing at the king’s gate was Mordechai, who still refused to bow to Haman, and Haman was enraged. When he arrived home, his wife and wise advisers counseled him to erect a gallows, and then to go to the king and request permission to hang Mordechai. Haman excitedly went ahead and put up the gallows.
The Beginning of the End
Sleep eluded the king that night, so he asked his servants to read for him from the Royal ChroniclesSleep eluded the king that night, so he asked his servants to read for him from the Royal Chronicles. They complied with the king’s orders. They read from the Chronicles how Mordechai saved the king’s life when two of his chamberlains hatched a plot to kill him.
“Was he rewarded for this fine act?” Ahasuerus asked. “No, he was not,” the servants responded.
At that moment, Haman entered the king’s courtyard. His purpose? To ask the king’s permission to hang Mordechai! Before Haman could utter a word, Ahasuerus addressed him: “My Haman, in your estimation, what shall be done to a person whom the king wishes to honor?”
Haman, who was certain that the king wished to honor him, responded: “Bring royal garment and a royal horse. And let one of the king’s nobles dress the man and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘So is done for the man whom the king wishes to honor!’ ”
“Great idea,” Ahasuerus responded. “Now go get the garments and the horse and do so for Mordechai the Jew!”
Haman had no choice but to comply. On the next day, he went and honored Mordechai as the king had ordered, and then immediately rushed to join the king and Esther for …
The Second Feast
“What is your request?” a curious King Ahasuerus asked Esther at the feast.
“If I have found favor in your eyes, O King,” Esther pleaded, “and if it pleases the king, let my life be granted me by my plea, and the life of my people by my request. For my people and I have been sold to be annihilated, killed and destroyed!” Esther then identified Haman as the evil person who wished to perpetrate this atrocity.
The king was greatly angered. When he was then informed that Haman had built a gallows for Mordechai, he ordered that Haman be hanged on that very gallows.
The Tables Are Turned
Haman was dead, but his evil decree was still in effectOn that day, Haman’s estate was given to Esther, and Mordechai was appointed prime minister in Haman’s stead.
But Esther was far from satisfied. Haman was dead, but his evil decree was still in effect. According to Persian law, once a king issues a decree it can not be rescinded. But the king gave Mordechai and Esther permission, and they promptly wrote up a decree that countermanded Haman’s edict. The decree granted the Jews permission to defend themselves against their enemies. And by this time, considering that all knew that the queen and prime minister were both Jewish, no one would prevent the Jews from doing just that!
And the Jews in Shushan were oh so happy. Celebrations abounded!
On the 13th of Adar that year, the Jews throughout the Persian Empire mobilized and killed the enemies who had wanted to kill them. In Shushan, among the dead were Haman’s 10 sons.
Esther asked the king’s permission for the Jews in Shushan to have one more day to destroy their enemy—and the king acceded to her wish. On that day, the 14th of Adar, the Jews worldwide celebrated, and the Jews of Shushan killed more of their enemies, and also hung Haman’s sons. The Jews of Shushan then rested and celebrated on the 15th of Adar.
Mordechai and Esther established a holiday to commemorate these amazing events. Jews worldwide celebrate on the 14th of Adar, while residents of walled cities, like Shushan, celebrate on the 15th of Adar. This holiday, called “Purim,” is the most joyous holiday on the Jewish calendar.
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