Esther and the King (1960) ***

Taking a Biblical tale as a starting point, veteran director Raoul Walsh (White Heat, 1949) stirs up heady brew of intrigue, rebellion, politics and romance. Returning home victorious, King Ahasuerus (Richard Egan) discovers his wife Queen Vashti (Danielle Rocca) has committed adultery and that his minister Klydrathes (Renato Baldini) has been squeezing the people blind with punitive taxes, hanging them for non-compliance.

Casting his wife aside, the king seeks a new bride. Since he has conquered all the known world except Greece, marriage to make a political alliance is not an option, so, given women are treated as mere chattels and the king is all-powerful, all the likely virgins are rounded up including Hebrew Esther (Joan Collins) on her wedding day.

Her husband-to-be Simon (Rik Battaglia) kicks off, attacks Klydrathes and becomes a wanted man. The queen’s lover and the king’s chief minister Prince Haman (Sergio Fantoni) attempts to fix the bridal selection, inserting his hardly-virginal choice Keresh (Rosalba Neri) into the proceedings while attempting to murder clear favorite Esther. When that fails, Haman plots to usurp the crown. With the Hebrews facing possible annihilation, Esther is put in the position of giving in to the king in order to save her people. As her serenity soothes the savage beast, her initial hate turns to growing attraction.

Meanwhile, Simon is on a rescue mission and Prince Haman cooks up a devilish plot that will see the Hebrews blamed for passing on military secrets to the king’s enemies. Naturally, all hell eventually breaks loose.

More a drama than a typical big-budget DeMille offering, with battles taking place off-screen, action is limited to a few chases and skirmishes. There is a fair amount of sin on show what with a tribe of concubines at the king’s disposal, a whipping, a striptease by Vashti in a last gasp attempt to win back the king, and some very seductive dancing routines by female slaves who, at times, look as if they were coached by Busby Berkeley. Substantial amounts appear to have been spent on costumes and production design, so historical atmosphere is well captured.

Once you realize there’s not going to be any kind of big battle or major action centerpiece common to the Biblical genre, it’s easy to sit back and enjoy the political machinations, the initial torment of Esther, introduced as a rebellious soul, and the king, more at home with soldiers, shaking off his despondency at marital betrayal as he responds to Esther’s coaxing.

It was 1961 before it reached Britain.

Top-billed British actress Joan Collins (Seven Thieves, 1960) has a difficult role. Normally, you would expect expressions of passion or depths of anguish, but the rebellion she displays at the start soon disappears when she enters the palace and is helpless to change the situation except by, initially against her will, accepting the king’s desires. In that sense, her portrayal is understandable but the understated performance gets in the way of a woman who is supposed to be devastated by the loss of her husband and then trapped by the needs of her people into making the marriage.

Taking second billing, Richard Egan (300 Spartans, 1964) makes a thoughtful king, showing very little temper, possibly because he doesn’t need to with everyone, beyond the conspirators, cowering in his presence.   Regal and stately suits him fine rather than the more common explosions we are accustomed to seeing from people in that line of work.

Both stars were in need of box office redemption. It should have been a screen pairing made in heaven, both Collins and Egan coming to the fore in the mid-1950s, and if they had sustained their early promise, it would have been a star-studded picture. As it was, Collins had been billed above Richard Burton in The Sea Wife (1957) and above Jayne Mansfield in The Wayward Bus (1957) but had gradually drifted down the pecking order, in her previous outing credited behind Edward G. Robinson and Rod Steiger in Seven Thieves (1960).

Egan’s career had followed a similar trajectory – top-billed in pictures as diverse as drama The View from Pompey’s Head (1955), western Tension at Table Rock (1956), film noir Slaughter on 10th Avenue (1957), and romance A Summer Place (1959) but for his previous film, Pollyanna (1960) billed behind both Jane Wyman and Hayley Mills.

While Egan would enjoy a career resurgence it was the end of the line, at least temporarily, for Joan Collins. She was coming to the end of her seven-year Twentieth Century Fox contract but fell out with the studio after being rejected for Cleopatra, and on the evidence here you can see why. After leaving Fox, she only made five more films during the decade. This was the final picture for Irish actor Dennis O’Dea (The Fallen Idol, 1948). Director Raoul Walsh made only another two.

Sergio Fantoni (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) excels as the spurned lover and Rik Battaglia (The Conqueror of the Orient, 1960) as the schemer. Rosalba Neri (Top Sensation, 1969) and Danielle Rocca (Behold a Pale Horse, 1964) both make striking appearances. Look out also for Gabriele Tinti (Seven Golden Men, 1965).