Judge David Johnson once bested a hundred men with the jawbone of an ass.
Scratching that Old Testament slaughter itch since 1973!
Today's Bible lessons focus on two pivotal men of God who were single-handedly responsible for the obliteration of many of the Isrealites' scumbag enemies.
Facts of the Case
Great Leaders of the Bible is split into two halves, each telling the story of Gideon and Samson, respectively. What's that? You only know Gideon is somehow connected to those Bibles you find in your motel rooms? And you're pretty sure Samson was a really strong guy with a scruffy haircut? Tsk, tsk, tsk. Let us revisit these stories then, shall we?
Gideon (Ivo Garrani) is a grumpy Israelite farmer, concerned solely with himself and his crops. Israel is currently under attack from the Midianites, but Gideon wants little to do with the skirmish. When a mysterious stranger shows up, claiming to speak for Jehovah, Gideon soon finds himself embroiled in tribal warfare. He is tapped to lead the Isrealites against the Midianites, springing them from the Jewish land, and ending their threat once and for all. Of course, this edict being from God, there are some holy quirks. Gideon must pursue the Midianites with a small force of arms, pared down by an interesting test: At a nearby well, men who lapped up water were discarded while those who drank from their cupped hands got the green light. Despite Gideon's constant griping, he learns that when Jehovah sets His mind on something, it gets done.
Our next leader is the one and only Samson (Anton Geesink), an Israelite famed for his incredible strength. During Samson's time, Israel again finds itself in holy hot water for brushing off God and relying on pagan idols. To punish His idiotic children, God has delivered Israel into the grimy hands of the Philistines. Yet, prompted by the wailing of the Israelites, the Big Man provided Samson to level the playing field, and that he does. One of his studlier acts was wiping out a throng of Philistine soldiers with the jawbone of a donkey. Still, he's a flawed guy, and the Philistines capitalize on this by sending in top-secret operative Delilah, the seductive hottie charged with sapping Samson of his strength (no, not that way). You see, Samson's hair is the source of his super might, and God warned him that if it were to be cut he'd revert to normal Samson. Hard lessons unfold, but a last-ditch plea to On High gives Samson the chance to redeem himself and cause some serious collateral damage.
Great Leaders of the Bible is the English-dubbed version of the Italian film I Grandi Condottieri, filmed in 1966. As such, it looks very dated, the picture quality is fairly dreadful, and the sound is the shallowest of mono tracks. That being said, the film itself ain't half bad. The best thing I can say about it is that it comes across as a real film, not a low-budget morality play. The actors give it their all, the production values are surprisingly robust, and the action set pieces are well done. The costuming and location shooting, not to mention the hundreds of extras, really lend this film credibility as a bona fide Biblical epic. Samson's temple mayhem is especially noteworthy for the set production; it's obvious that lots of effort went into recreating these milieus of extreme Jehovah action.
Gideon's segment is primarily a character study. When we first meet him, he's a selfish, salty rapscallion. But as his improbable victories against the Midianites mount and Israel gains in power, he changes and realizes that he kind of likes power and stature. Of course, humility triumphs in the end, but the arc works. Samson's story is somewhat similar, but with more emphasis on his kicking ass (with an ass, if you will). We see him unload on the Philistines with that jawbone, and then there's the climactic scene in the Philistine temple when he…wait for it…brings down the house. Samson is a profoundly flawed man who, like Gideon, was distracted by his fame but eventually made the tough choice at the end.
As a religious film, the adherence to the scripture is sound. Of course, some creative tinkering is necessary to expand several paragraphs' worth of Biblical narrative into a 110-minute film, but there's nothing included that wildly departs from the original text. If you can get past the age of the film and the obvious dubbing—and of course if you have any kind of interest in Biblical films—Great Leaders of the Bible should satisfy.
Props to VCI for crafting a fairly decent DVD. A slick front end sports a better-quality menu system than can be found in the Ghostbusters Gift Pack. A matted 1.85:1 widescreen presentation accompanies, and while the picture and sound quality certainly betray their age, it's not unwatchable. Trailers and bios for the Biblical characters are it for extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't know who exactly would be the target demographic for this disc. The voice-over narration has the tone of a Sunday-school lesson, as if it were tailored for children, but there are some intense parts in this film—the Midianites' freak-out at the Gideon-led assault, the destruction of the Philistine temple, and some hapless Israelite getting a spear in the gut. If I had to guess, middle-school kids might be old enough to handle the violence yet not feel that the narrator was condescending to them. But would they be willing to sit through a nearly two-hour Italian film from the '60s?
Great Leaders of the Bible does the Old Testament old school well. The film is aged, and the technical merits do nothing to augment them, but the acting and design are impressive. Still, I couldn't tell you the ideal audience for this film.
Divine justice spares the accused.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Actor and Bible Character Bios
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