Preproduction on the film began as early as 1935, but principal photography officially commenced in 1948. The screenplay, written by Jesse L. Lasky, Jr. and Fredric M. Frank, is based on the biblical Book of Judges and adapted from original film treatments by Harold Lamb and Vladimir Jabotinsky.
Praised upon release for its Technicolor cinematography, lead performances, costumes, sets, and innovative special effects, the film was a box-office success. It was the highest-grossing film of 1950. Of its five Academy Award nominations, the film won two for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
Samson, a Danite Hebrew placed under Nazirite vows from birth by his mother Hazelelponit, is engaged to a Philistine woman named Semadar. At their wedding feast, Samson loses a bet with his wedding guests because of Semadar and attacks 30 Philistines to strip them of their cloaks to pay his betting debt. After paying his debt Samson searches for Semadar, only to learn that her father Tubal married her to a Philistine once Samson left the wedding to pay his debt. A fight breaks out between Samson and the Philistines, which results in the death of Semadar and Tubal. Samson becomes a hunted man and in his fury he begins fighting the Philistines. The Saran of Gaza imposes heavy taxes on the Danites, with the purpose of having Samson betrayed by his own people. The Saran's plan works, and frustrated Danites hand over Samson to the Philistines, much to the joy of Delilah, Semadar's younger sister. Samson is taken by Prince Ahtur, the military governor of the land of Dan, and a regiment of Philistine troops. En route back to Gaza, Ahtur decides to taunt Samson. Samson rips apart his chains and ropes and begins to combat the Philistines, toppling Ahtur's war chariot and using the jawbone of an ass to club the Philistine soldiers to death.
News of the defeat of Ahtur at the hands of Samson reaches the Saran. The Saran ponders how to defeat Samson. Delilah comes up with the idea of seducing Samson, thus having him reveal the secret of his strength and then deliver him for punishment. Her plan works; she cuts his hair, which he feels gives him his strength. To fully neutralize him, Samson is blinded by his captors and put to slave work, and is eventually brought to the temple of Dagon for the entertainment of the Philistines and the Saran.
However, Delilah has been in love with Samson ever since his engagement with Semadar, and his blindness and torture make her feel deep remorse over her betrayal. She initially had betrayed him because she wanted to avenge the deaths of her father and sister, which she thought were caused "because of Samson."
Delilah later attends the public torture of Samson wielding a whip which he uses to be guided by her to the temple of Dagon's main support pillars. Once he stands between them, he tells Delilah to flee, but she remains, unseen by him, as he pushes the pillars apart. The pillars give way and the temple collapses, burying Samson, Delilah, and all the Philistines inside alive, including the court. In the end, the temple lies in rubble, and Saul and Miriam, his two closest Danite Hebrew friends, are left to mourn Samson's passing.
It is implied that the disaster has caused utter chaos among the Philistines, who are then forced to give up Israel to deal with their internal crisis.
In 1935, DeMille paid $10,000 to historian Harold Lamb to write a film treatment of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, which DeMille regarded as "one of the greatest love stories of all time." However, DeMille later abandoned the film project in favor of The Plainsman, but returned to it once Unconquered was completed in 1947. DeMille hired illustrator Henry Clive to paint his visualization of Delilah on canvas in spring of 1948. DeMille described his Delilah as "warm, soft, cunning" with a "dangerous capacity for vengeance." He further expressed her as a "combination of Vivien Leigh and Jean Simmons with a dash of Lana Turner."
Adding to his dramatization of the biblical story, DeMille bought the rights to Judge and Fool, a novel by Vladimir Jabotinsky which portrayed Delilah as the younger sister of Samson's wife. He felt the novel "made possible a connected drama" for the film. The final screenplay was written by Jesse L. Lasky, Jr. and Fredric M. Frank, based on the biblical account, Lamb's treatment, and Jabotinsky's novel.
When DeMille first commenced production on the film in 1935, some of the famous women suggested for the part of Delilah were Dolores del Río, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Crawford.
He later claimed front-runners were Miriam Hopkins as Delilah and Henry Wilcoxon as Samson.
Once production restarted in 1947, DeMille and his staff considered dozens of Hollywood actors and actresses for the title roles. He said, "For Samson, I want a combination Tarzan, Robin Hood, and Superman. For Delilah... a sort of distilled Jean Simmons, Vivien Leigh and a generous touch of Lana Turner."
Those considered were Märta Torén, Viveca Lindfors, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Susan Hayward, Ava Gardner, Jane Greer, Greer Garson, Maureen O'Hara, Rhonda Fleming, Jeanne Crain, Lucille Ball, Jennifer Jones, Vivien Leigh, Gail Russell, Alida Valli, Linda Darnell, Patricia Neal, Jean Simmons, and Nancy Olson. DeMille cast Hedy Lamarr as Delilah after screening the film The Strange Woman, which featured Ian Keith (a contender for the role of the Saran). DeMille first wanted Lamarr to play Esther in a biblical film he was planning to make in 1939, but the film was never realized. However, he was content with Lamarr's performance as Delilah, describing it as "more than skin-deep." He also described her as "a gazelle–incapable of a clumsy or wrong move", and she would flirtatiously refer to herself as "Delilah" and DeMille as her "Samson."
Burt Lancaster was the original choice to play Samson, but he declined due to a bad back. Body builder Steve Reeves was also considered and DeMille lobbied long and hard to get the studio to pick up Reeves, but both DeMille and the studio wanted Reeves to tone down his physique, which Reeves, still young and new to the industry, ultimately refused to do. DeMille finally decided to cast Victor Mature as Samson after admiring his performance in the film Kiss of Death.
Phyllis Calvert was originally cast as Semadar, but she relinquished the part due to her illness. Therefore, DeMille cast Angela Lansbury in the role in July 1948. When Lawrence Perry of The Pittsburgh Press interviewed Lansbury on September 24, 1949, he told her that the Bible does not describe Delilah as having a sister. Lansbury replied, "Anyway, if Delilah didn't have a sister, Mr. DeMille has supplied one."
Kasey Rogers auditioned and was screen-tested for the role of Miriam, the Danite girl who loves Samson. But DeMille told her, "You're too pretty and you're too young", and Rogers was cast as a Philistine spectator in the temple scene and credited in the film as "Laura Elliot." Olive Deering was cast as Miriam, instead. She later played the real biblical Miriam, sister of Moses, in DeMille's last and most successful film -- his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.
Principal photography began on October 4, 1948 and ended on December 22, 1948. The scenes involving the plowed field were shot on January 4, 1949, and added scenes and closeups were shot between January 18 and January 21, 1949.
DeMille's legendary status led him to play himself in Billy Wilder's film noir Sunset Boulevard. The film is about a fictional silent film star named Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson) who, no longer active, once worked as an actress for DeMille. For the scene in which Desmond visits DeMille at Paramount, an actual set of Samson and Delilah was reconstructed to show the director at work. The first day scheduled to shoot the scene was May 23, 1949, months after filming on Samson and Delilah had ended. After the scene was shot in a total of four days, Wilder patted DeMille on the back and humorously told him, "Very good, my boy. Leave your name with my secretary. I may have a small part for you in my next picture." Wilder later said that DeMille "took direction terrifically. He loved it. He understood it. He was very subtle."
The film's special effects were supervised by Gordon Jennings. The "money shot" was the toppling of the temple of Dagon, the god of the Philistines. It is the penultimate scene in the film, cost $150,000, and took a year to shoot. The bottom portion of the temple was constructed full-scale. A separate 37-foot high model with a 17-foot high Dagon statue was built for the photographic effects. The model was destroyed three times in order to shoot it through different camera angles. Footage of the full-scale set was merged with footage of the scale model using a "motion repeater system" fabricated by Paramount, which enabled the exact repetition of camera moves.
The film received its televised world premiere at two of New York City's Broadway theatres, the Paramount and the Rivoli, on December 21, 1949, in order to "accommodate the 7,000,000 movie-goers in the greater New York area."
It was successfully re-released in November 1959.
Samson and Delilah received moderately positive reviews upon its release in 1949. Variety described the film as a "lusty action story with a heavy coating of torrid-zone romance." The magazine also appreciated the film's cast by writing, "Victor Mature fits neatly into the role of the handsome but dumb hulk of muscle that both the Bible and DeMille make of the Samson character. Hedy Lamarr never has been more eye-filling and makes of Delilah a convincing minx. George Sanders gives a pleasantly light flavor of satirical humor to the part of the ruler, while Henry Wilcoxon is duly rugged as the military man." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times admired the "dazzling displays of splendid costumes, of sumptuous settings and softly tinted flesh which Mr. DeMille's color cameras have brilliantly pageanted... Color has seldom been more lushly or unmistakably used."
Film critic Leonard Maltin, in his review for Samson and Delilah, wrote: "With expected DeMille touches, this remains a tremendously entertaining film."
Samson and Delilah was enormously successful, taking in $11,000,000 at the box office, making it the top moneymaker for 1950. At the time of its release, it was the third highest-grossing film ever, behind Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It was the second most popular film at the British box office that year.
Samson and Delilah won Academy Awards for Best Color Art Direction (art directors Hans Dreier and Walter H. Tyler and set decorators Sam Comer and Ray Moyer) and Best Color Costume Design (Edith Head, Dorothy Jeakins, Elois Jenssen, Gile Steele, and Gwen Wakeling). It was also nominated for Best Color Cinematography (George Barnes), Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Victor Young), and Best Special Effects (Cecil B. DeMille Productions).
The film was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Color Cinematography (George Barnes).
Cecil B. DeMille won a French film award (the Film Français Grand Prix) for the film.
The Christian Herald and the Protestant Motion Picture Council awarded its December 1949 Picture of the Month Award to DeMille for Samson and Delilah.
Parents' magazine awarded its Parents' Magazine Medal to DeMille for "thirty-five years of devotion to research in the production of historical pictures culminating in his greatest achievement, Samson and Delilah."
Boxoffice magazine awarded its Boxoffice Barometer Trophy to DeMille for producing Samson and Delilah, the "highest-grossing picture of the year."
Samson and Delilah was one of the Best Pictures of 1949 at Look's Annual Film Awards in 1950. DeMille received the All Industry Achievement Award for the film.
Hedy Lamarr's Delilah was voted the year's 10th "best screen performance by an actress" at the British Picturegoer Awards in 1951.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
2005: AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Epic Film
In 2012, a 4K-scanned digital restoration of Samson and Delilah was completed. The restored version received its premiere at Cineteca Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato 2012. Paramount Home Media Distribution released the film for the first time on DVD format (with English, French, and Spanish audio and subtitles) on March 12, 2013. The film was released on Blu-ray Disc (with the original theatrical trailer) on March 11, 2014.