The film's theme differs substantially from Biblical sources and is highly fictionalized, most notably in representing the Queen of Sheba as an ally of ancient Egypt in opposition to King Solomon of Israel, and in her having a love affair with Solomon.
Under the rule of King David, Israel is united and prosperous, although surrounded by enemies, including Egypt and its allies. The ageing King favours Solomon to succeed him, but his elder brother Adonijah (George Sanders), a warrior, declares himself King. When David learns of this, he publicly announces Solomon to be his successor. Adonijah and Joab, his general, withdraw in rage, but Solomon later offers his brother the command of the army, knowing that it may be used against him.
Israel continues to prosper under Solomon's rule. The Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) conspires with the Egyptian Pharaoh to undermine Solomon's rule by seducing him and introducing Sheban pagan worship into Jerusalem. Solomon is indeed bewitched by her, and the two begin living together under the pretense of forming an alliance between their two kingdoms. The king's reputation is damaged, but at the same time Sheba begins to truly fall in love with him and regret her plotting. Things come to a head when Solomon recklessly allows a Sheban 'love festival' (in fact an orgy in celebration of a pagan god) to be held within Israel. In an act of divine retribution, lightning from heaven destroys the Sheban altar and damages the newly built Temple in Jerusalem, and the land is beset with a deadly famine. Solomon is publicly rebuked by the people; the High Priest and Nathan the Prophet disown him.
Meanwhile, Adonijah, banished by his brother after an assassination attempt, goes and strikes a bargain with Pharaoh; given an army, he will conquer Israel for Egypt, in exchange for being placed on the throne as a kind of viceroy. The tiny army mustered by Solomon (who has been abandoned by his allied states) is quickly routed, and Adonijah presses on to Jerusalem and makes himself king. Meanwhile, Sheba, now a believer in the power of the God of Israel, prays for Solomon to be redeemed and restored to power as Nathan.
Pursued by the Egyptians, who were sent to finish him off, Solomon thereafter devises a plan. He lines up the remnants of his army on a hill, prompting the enemy to charge. The Israelites, who have arranged themselves to face east, then use their highly polished shields to reflect the light of the rising sun into the Egyptians' eyes. Blinded, the Egyptians are prevented from seeing the chasm in front of which the Israelites have positioned themselves, and the entire army rushes headlong over the edge and falls to its death.
Meanwhile, Adonijah, met with a tepid reaction to his coup, tries to stir up Jerusalem's population by ordering the stoning of Sheba. Midway through this hideous display, Solomon makes a triumphant return to the city. Adonijah attacks his brother, refusing to be deprived again of his throne, but is himself struck down. Joab, in retaliation, attempts to attack Solomon, but was struck down by Solomon's faithful retainers Josiah and Ahab. At Solomon's prayer Sheba is miraculously healed of her wounds; as he resumes his power, she returns to her homeland, now pregnant by Solomon.Yul Brynner as King Solomon
Gina Lollobrigida as Queen of Sheba
Marisa Pavan as Abishag
David Farrar as Pharaoh (Siamun)
Harry Andrews as Baltor
John Crawford as Joab
Laurence Naismith as Hezrai (credited as Lawrence Naismith)
Finlay Currie as King David
Jean Anderson as Takyan
William Devlin as Nathan
Jack Gwillim as Josiah
José Nieto as Ahab (credited as Jose Nieto)
George Sanders as Adonijah
Maruchi Fresno as Bathsheba (uncredited)
Ramiel Peña as Zadok (uncredited)
Edward Small announced plans to make a film about King Solomon as early as 1953. The following year Julius Epstein was writing a script for Small which was going to be produced by the team of Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse (who often made movies under Small's supervision). Small then announced he was developing the project with Arthur Hornblow Jr. and in 1955 Gina Lollobrigida was signed. United Artists agreed to distribute the following year. Small provided 75% of the film's anticipated $6 million budget, with United Artists provided 25%.
Lollobrigida came on board as financial partner, getting a percentage of the profits. The role of Solomon had been turned down by Tyrone Power and Yul Brynner; however, Power agreed to accept the part after the script was rewritten.
Power's involvement meant the film became a co-production with Power's Copa Productions, headed by Ted Richmond. In the interim, Small and Hornblow had made Witness for the Prosecution together which was a hit but they decided to end their partnership. Small went into co-production with Copa Productions, with Hornblow retaining a financial interest.
The film was shot in Madrid and Valdespartera, Zaragoza, Spain. Production began on 15 September 1958, aiming for a mid-December finish.
Two thirds of the movie had been shot and the unit was in Madrid when on 15 November Tyrone Power filmed a duel scene with George Sanders, who played his brother. (The two had also filmed a sword fight in the 1942 film The Black Swan.) The duel had to be repeated several times. Power finally dropped the sword and said he couldn't continue, complaining of a pain in his left arm. He was helped to his dressing room and given brandy. It is unclear what happened next, as stories differ. In one scenario, he was taken to the hospital in Gina Lollabrigida's car and died. Another scenario is that Power died in his dressing room. In order to keep his jaw from dropping, a scarf was put around his neck to "walk" him out of the studio to the car. This was done in part because Mrs. Power was at the hotel and knew nothing about what happened. Ted Richmond gave orders that no press was to be called, and Mrs. Power was not to be called. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. Mrs. Power was escorted to the hospital. A memorial service was held on 16 November at US Torrejon Air Force Base.
Production of the movie was halted. Because love scenes remained to be shot, another actor would have to be cast if the existing script was to be used; battle sequences had been filmed, but most of these could still be used, with close ups of the new actor added. Other possibilities discussed including rewriting the script to use Power's footage, or use Power for the first half of the movie (as "young Solomon"), then recasting another actor as Solomon for the second half. The issue was complicated by the fact that three different parties had full script, star and director approval: Small, Copa Productions, and Gina Lollobrigida.
On 16 November Small offered the part of Solomon to Yul Brynner, a friend of Power, and the actor accepted. This meant Brynner had to delay playing the lead role in Spartacus, to which he had committed. However United Artists had not been told of Brynner's casting and were unsure of the conditions which had been granted to him. Ted Richmond wanted to pull out of producing and for a time there was some doubt if the film would go ahead at all.
Another option was to cancel Solomon and Sheba altogether: the production was insured up to $3 million in the case of the death of one of the six lead players; Lloyd's of London covered the daily $100,000 bill while the film was halted. However, in the end it was decided to proceed with Brynner in the role of Solomon.
The film was eventually completed over ten weeks after much difficulty with an estimated cost of $6 million. It was felt that this was relatively inexpensive, considering the scale of the movie; and Spain increasingly became a basis for Hollywood movies.
The film is probably most noted for an orgy scene (albeit no nudity) featuring Sheba (Lollobrigida) (see the lobby card) which was extremely licentious for Hollywood motion pictures of that era.
Solomon and Sheba received its world premiere on 27 October 1959 at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, where it was presented in 70mm.
Solomon and Sheba received indifferent to negative reviews and Yul Brynner's performance was criticized by no less than the film's director, King Vidor, who stated that Tyrone Power had been much more believable as a conflicted king than Brynner, who apparently played it with too much self-assurance. Variety, however, praised some of the film's sequences as "magnificent production scenes", and described Lollobrigida as showing "the queen to be a woman of sharp brain as well as sensual beauty." The magazine also stated that Brynner "does a fine job in presenting a Solomon who credibly suggests a singer of songs, yet finally is a man of ordinary flesh and blood who cannot resist Sheba."
The film was a box office success, earning an estimated $5.5 million in North American rentals, with a total gross of $12.2 million.Dell Four Color #1070 (December 1959)