Note: This review contains a few spoilers, although since this is a historical account recorded in Scripture, most people are familiar with many of the details of Samson’s life.
The latest in a string of Bible-based movies opens in US theaters today, and this time viewers have an opportunity to watch the famous strong man wreak havoc on the Philistines. Produced by Pure Flix, the studio that made God’s Not Dead and The Case for Christ, this cinematic version of Samson brings to life the Old Testament hero in a powerful way.
Capturing Samson (on Film That Is)
The movie opens with Samson as an adult who knows God has set him apart to be a judge of Israel and to give Israelites relief from Philistine oppression. He is not sure how to go about this task until a series of events forces his hand and Samson quickly becomes the Philistines’ most dangerous enemy.
All the major scenes from Samson’s adult life are included in the film, so moviegoers will witness his killing of a lion, his tragic (and very brief) marriage, Samson’s riddle, his use of foxes to burn the fields, his numerous battles with the Philistines (including the spectacular jaw-dropping—or jaw-wielding—fight in which he killed 1,000 men), Samson’s disastrous relationship with Delilah, his capture, and his death. The one minor event missing from the film was (thankfully) his encounter with a harlot (Judges 16:1), though the movie did allude to it by showing events from later that evening, when he carried away the city gate.
As with any movie dealing with biblical history, many Christians who are thinking about going to see it will wonder whether the movie gets it right when portraying Scripture. Some may question why Bible-related movies frequently include details that are not found in the text. But it is important to realize that the Bible is not written as a screenplay. If a movie consisted of only the Samson narrative from Judges chapters 13–16, the film would be rather short and would not flow very well. Inevitably, some artistic license must be taken to craft a story that plays well on the screen, filling in with scenes that are not provided in the Bible. (This is similar to the exhibits inside our Ark Encounter, where, for example, we have given names to Noah’s wife and daughters-in-law, which are not recorded in Scripture.) The artistic license will often go beyond the biblical text, but it should never contradict it. The filmmakers did a good job of capturing the spirit of the Old Testament narrative, but not every detail as the text describes.
Instead of portraying Samson as a muscle man who kept messing up, the film gives us a glimpse of a man who might have been faithful during much of his life, which might explain why he is included in the “faith hall of fame.”
Some of the accounts of Samson in the Bible are brutal ones, and if a film detailed everything that went on, it could be rated R for violence and sexual content. The movie handles the violence well. While it is surely too intense for some viewers, it is not gratuitous or gory (with just a little blood here and there). As for sexual content, the film does not depict anything beyond a few kisses.
Samson also comes across in the film as perhaps a more sympathetic character than he does in the Bible, where we only see his great victories and his awful failures. But we know he judged Israel for 20 years, so Samson undoubtedly had many times when he behaved appropriately. The movie shows him praying for guidance on numerous occasions, and it is very clear that Samson’s superhuman strength came directly from the Lord. It also shows him seeking God’s forgiveness and admitting his failures. We also see Samson show forgiveness to someone who betrayed him.
Instead of portraying Samson as a muscle man who kept messing up, the film gives us a glimpse of a man who might have been faithful during much of his life, which might explain why he is included in the “faith hall of fame” recorded in the Book of Hebrews in chapter 11 and verse 32.
Drama, Not Documentary
In a couple of scenes, the biblical timeline was compressed for cinematic, story-flow reasons. The Bible indicates that Samson’s marriage feast took place over a seven-day period where, from the fourth day on, his bride frequently badgered him to obtain an answer to his famous riddle. The film shows this taking place in one evening. We only see one conversation between Samson and his bride about this, and she does not pester him too much. The same thing happens later with Delilah. In Scripture, Samson gives her four different answers when asked about the secret to his strength, but the film limits this to just two responses. It is understandable, from a cinematic perspective, why filmmakers might choose to condense these scenes, since it would be wearisome to watch these women pester him repeatedly.
In the film, Samson is portrayed as someone who wants to make peace between the Israelites and the Philistines, but who is always forced into confrontation almost against his will. But this depiction does not match how the Bible describes Samson’s attitude toward the Philistines and, we think, goes a bit beyond artistic license. For example, after Samson loses his wager and has to come up with 30 tunics, he appears to have no plan in mind, and only obtains the tunics after a garrison of Philistines goads him into a fight over drinking their water. In Scripture, though, Samson stalks off angrily from the wedding feast and goes to the city of Ashkelon (not a wilderness outpost, as shown in the movie) and seeks out and kills 30 men (Judges 14:19).1
Countering Cultural Memory
The film was enjoyable, the scenery beautiful (filmed in South Africa), and the actors performed well. It is always interesting to me (Tim) to see how others envision biblical accounts. I had always pictured Samson’s wife and father-in-law being burned to death in their house because this is what the Philistines threatened in Judges 14:15. When the film did not show their deaths in this manner, I pulled out my Bible to check the wording. Sure enough, Scripture does not necessarily mention that they were in a house at the time.2 I (Troy) also had some “memories” of the biblical account that were not quite accurate, and the film actually portrayed some scenes more faithfully to Scripture than I recalled. For example, I always thought of Samson as a bit reckless when he was angry, but Judges 15:7 shows that this was not always the case.
Giving Glory to God
The battle where Samson killed 1,000 Philistines with a jaw bone was fascinating to watch on screen. When it comes to the “heaps upon heaps” phrase in the Judges 15:16 account, the movie could not have portrayed this in a better way! We have known about this biblical account for decades and read it dozens of times, yet seeing it depicted on the screen in such an impressive way was inspiring and a vivid reminder of our God’s limitless power. This even comes through at the end of the film, where God (not some superhumanly strong man) is given the credit for defeating false gods like Dagon and delivering Israel from their enemies. The filmmakers clearly wanted to (and did) make sure that God, not man was praised.
Overall the movie succeeded (albeit not perfectly) in remaining faithful to Scripture while using only a little extra-biblical backstory to fill out the historical context and the characters. We are pleased to say we can recommend going to this movie with your family, noting the caveat above about some relatively restrained violence.