Those Philistines were such jerks.
Just ask any Old Testament denizen of ancient Israel, and they’ll tell you. Every time the Hebrews start to make waves in the Fertile Crescent, here come the Philistines to spoil the party. Collectively, they were like that sand-kicking bully from those old Charles Atlas ads—constantly kicking sand in Israel’s face.
Thankfully, God had Israel’s back. Whenever the Philistines got too big for their B.C. britches, He’d select a hero—sometimes a judge, sometimes a king—to show these pesky pagan worshippers who was really boss.
But some of these divinely selected champions had problems of their own. Take Samson: a guy so strong that if he’d kicked sand in Charles Atlas’ face, good ol’ Chuck would’ve sheepishly picked up his blanket and moved down the beach.
Samson’s been a big deal from birth: God told his parents he was to be a Nazirite, which came with an important set of conditions: He couldn’t drink alcohol. He couldn’t touch corpses. And he could never, ever cut his hair. He was, literally, born to be a hero.
But Samson’s not sure if that’s who he wants to be.
Oh, sure, he doesn’t like his Philistine overlords: King Balek can be pretty ruthless. His son, Rallah, is seven times worse: Rallah makes the Joker look well-adjusted.
But hey, the Philistines aren’t all bad. Why, Samson knows of a cute little Philistine girl named Taren—a lady he’d like to get to know better. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)
As his people clamor for someone to snatch them from the grasping fist of the Philistines, Samson just wants to shake hands. Can’t we all just get along, he wonders.
“We do not need a judge,” he says. “We need peace.”
Because really, how much can one guy do? Samson may be pretty strong, but it’s not like he can take on the whole Philistine army with a donkey jawbone or something, right?
Samson may have some faults here and there in this Pure Flix depiction of his life, but mostly he’s a well-meaning chap. Indeed, his desire not to shed unnecessary blood would often be, in this space, called out as a good thing. And even though he’s a reluctant judge, he still wants what’s best for his people, and he does his utmost for them. Toward the end of his life, he becomes progressively more self-sacrificial—giving himself up at one point for the sake of his brother (seemingly an intended nod to Jesus’ sacrifice for us).
The women in his life, Taren (his first wife) and Delilah, both come across reasonably—and perhaps surprisingly—well, too. Taren genuinely loves her well-muscled husband. And Delilah plays her part in the story unwillingly, a reluctant pawn in Rallah’s Snidely Whiplash hand in this telling of Samson’s story.
Given that Samson is a biblical story, it shouldn’t surprise us that Samson would be rich in spiritual content.
As mentioned, he’s been set aside for God since birth, though he sometimes bristles at the fact that his whole life has apparently been scripted for him. “It is His will” someone tells Samson. “But it is not mine,” Samson retorts. He prays that God might give him a sign that he’s really on the track that God wants him to be on.
He’s not the only one with doubts: Samson’s own brother has wondered, too. “For years I pleaded with God,” he tells him. “I asked Him if you were truly the one to deliver us all.” He says he received his answer in a “still, small voice,” an allusion to 1 Kings 19:12.
The movie emphasizes that Samson’s great power comes from God, that his impressive locks are purely secondary. (The cutting of Samson’s famous hair, however, does render him painfully vulnerable, in harmony with the biblical tale.) Whenever he needs to do something seriously impressive, Samson prays, and he’s filled with God’s power.
The Philistines are confirmed Dagon worshippers, and we see them worship a statue of that pagan god on occasion. They mock the Israelites for their own religious beliefs. “You people are weak!” one of them says, goading the Israelites to send someone out to fight a really big Egyptian warrior. “And you serve an even weaker god!” And when some Israelites decide to pay lip service to the national false deity, they’re mocked for it. “Look how easily the Hebrews forsake their God and worship Dagon!” a priest taunts.
King Balek doesn’t even buy into his own kingdom’s cult. He explains to his son that gods are “symbols. They have no power. For us they are a means of control. I am Dagon, you can be Dagon.” And when Samson threatens him with God’s wrath, the king is nonplussed, dismissing that wrath as “freakish acts and … the weather.”
But Rallah, who’s seen mighty Samson in action for himself, ain’t so sure Samson’s divine power is so meek. “If gods were mortal, he would be one,” he says. Rallah eventually rejects Dagon and comes to appreciate Samson’s powerful God—but for all the wrong reasons. He sees that God has made Samson powerful, and he wants that kind of power for himself.
The Philistines also become dutifully impressed with Samson’s strength once they witness it for themselves. “His God is with him!” someone shouts when Samson starts swinging his donkey jawbone. “He’s invincible!”
Samson’s presented as a bit of a womanizer at the beginning of his adventure. He ogles women gathering water by the well, telling his brother that he is simply “appreciating God’s creation. What could possibly be more important than that?” Israelite men grumble about how Samson chases after women, saying that few young women are “safe from his advances.” Samson’s brother, Caleb, reminds one such grumbler that Israelite women “would not have their virtue [intact] if not for the protection of my brother.”
But Samson seems to settle down a bit when he meets and marries Taren. Admittedly, the union was not approved of by Samson’s parents: “A daughter of the enemy?” his father says. “Have you lost your mind?” But their love is shown to be true, and their hearts clearly go all a-flutter when they’re near each other. They smooch and hug each other at times.
Alas, their relationship does not end well. It’s suggested that while Samson’s out trying to gather payment for an ill-advised bet, Rallah takes Taren for his own (without the movie getting too explicit about it). Thus, Samson later has even more reason to grieve.
We don’t see Samson pursue women with the same alacrity after that. Yes, he does visit a brothel; but in the movie, he winds up there by mistake. “What manner of inn is this?” he gasps, clearly appalled. (Judges 16:1 would appear to be less forgiving of Samson’s fleshly motivation.)
Delilah eases his grief, and at least semi-sincerely in this depiction of her relationship with Samson. She and the Israelite fall in love (though Rallah still forces Delilah to help him bring down her lover), and we see them kiss and hold each other.
Samson’s brother Caleb evades capture by dressing up as a woman. Samson goes shirtless frequently.
When you craft a story around a hero whose most notable achievements involve thousands of dead Philistines, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s going to get a bit bloody.
To be fair, Samson the movie pulls its punches (even if Samson the hero does not). Most of the blows that Samson and others land are obscured; and despite the story’s high body count, the gore is mostly kept in check.
Still, the scene with the jawbone goes on for, roughly, ever. Wave upon wave of Philistine warriors attack our brave and mighty hero, who fights them off with an increasingly bloodied bone. We hear plenty of suggestive sound effects, see plenty of blood and—by the time the battle is done—witness hundreds of dead bodies scattered across the field of action. (Didn’t count to see if there were an even thousand, but let’s give Pure Flix the benefit of the doubt.) He also slices up Prince Rallah’s face pretty good during the battle, and Rallah bears a scar for the rest of the film.
Not all of Samson’s life is spent slaughtering Philistines, though. He’s eventually captured and beaten severely. Rallah blinds him with the point of a red-hot sword. (The actual deed is obscured by the back of Samson’s head; but we see the resulting wounds, and they’re not pretty.) He’s dragged off into slavery, where he works until Rallah—now king—chains him up in Dagon’s temple.
Bad idea, that: Samson breaks the chains and pushes the temple’s columns asunder, literally bringing the house down and killing scads of people. (We see some get thumped with stones and gigantic falling statues.)
We also see other scenes taken from (or based on) the Bible: Samson kills a lion by pulling its mouth apart (again, the true horror of that statement isn’t fully conveyed on screen). Later, he comes across a carcass with some delectable honey inside. Samson kills 30 soldiers in order to take their bloody tunics to pay off a bet. (He essentially punches them to death, and he steps on someone’s face as well. Once the melee’s done, Samson’s fist is stained with blood.) He also cunningly eyes a group of foxes, and later we see (from some distance) those same canines—torches tied to their tails—tearing through the Philistines’ fields. In retribution, Rallah pushes Samson’s wife, Taren, and her father, off a wall and into the flaming fields to their deaths. (The Bible simply says both were burned to death.) Samson tears open a city’s gates and throws them.
But the movie draws in non-biblical moments of violence and carnage, too. Samson rumbles with a gigantic Egyptian warrior. (He nearly brings down an enormous rock on the guy, but he’s prevented from doing so. No matter, though: The Egyptian is later killed via a volley of arrows.) Several people are stabbed to death, sometimes bloodily. Guards are pushed down. Threats are issued. Samson has his nose bloodied several times through various blows. He’s shot with arrows, which he breaks off in order to continue fighting. Someone smashes his face with a pot.
Samson drinks a bit of wine at his wedding party—a no-no for a Nazarite.
Samson and Caleb steal vegetables from the temple of Dagon and evade Philistine authority in what’s meant to be a comical scene. We see some subterfuge, but most is a part of the original biblical story. Samson gambles on riddles.
Pure Flix obviously put a great deal of effort into Samson. And in an age when so many action movies push the content envelope, I love the idea of a movie striving to tell an epic, heroic biblical story. That said, I still felt conflicted after watching Samson. And I think it comes down to a difference of opinion about who the tragic biblical character really was.
This movie tells us that Samson was “a man whose heart was as vast as his strength.” It seems to take its cues from Braveheart, turning its titular hero into a Hebrew version of William Wallace. Yes, Samson has his vices, but the movie seems to suggest that they’re the result of youthful exuberance more than anything—headstrong arrogance that he outgrows once his wife dies.
The film gives Samson the benefit of the doubt. I have a harder time doing so.
When I think about most of the Bible’s heroes, the thing that stands out in my mind is how unlikely they all were: David was an afterthought shepherd. Moses was an outcast. Jesus’ disciples were fishermen and rough-hewn blue-collar workers before Christ plucked them from obscurity. And because they were overlooked by the day’s society, God’s glory was able to shine all the brighter through them.
Samson was different: From the beginning he was special. He was set apart from birth and given amazing gifts. He was a prodigy of sorts—and at times, his prodigious talents paid off.
But in my reading, Samson wasn’t a particularly heroic guy for much of his life. He ignored God’s directives. And he generally acted like he was special. Or, rather, entitled. He’s like a high school quarterback from an ’80s coming-of-age flick: The guy who throws 50-yard strikes on Friday nights, then stuffs freshmen in lockers during passing periods. Samson was given all the advantages and nearly squandered them until his final moment of redemption.
The film acknowledges this side of the coin at times, too. But it wants it both ways. It wants Samson to be both Captain America and Tony Stark, and that leaves us with a bit of a muddled protagonist. As such—like Samson himself, perhaps—the movie falls a bit short of its potential.
Setting aside all my musings on the titular character, Pure Flix has made a serviceable adventure story here. It’s got some content issues, but you’d expect that considering the source material. Indeed, Samson throttles back the sex and violence from what it could’ve been, making this a PG-13 movie that a good chunk of the family might be able to watch—and hopefully talk about afterward—together.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.