Yesterday, we featured a fabulous essay by Katherine Sherliker on Delilah’s implicit cultural afterlife in Criminal Minds. Today, Anuja Mitra continues this theme by considering another implicit afterlife for Delilah, this time the character of Vesper Lynd in James Bond movie, Casino Royale (2006). Anuja describes herself as a “more-or-less native Aucklander” going into her fourth year of a Law and Bachelor of Arts conjoint degree here at the University of Auckland. She took the Bible in Popular Culture course because it allowed her to look at pop culture through a different lens – and to write a fun essay! It’s certainly a wonderful essay, so hope you enjoy.
The Curse of a Complicated Woman: Delilah’s Pop Culture Afterlives
By Anuja Mitra
Vesper Lynd: I’m afraid I’m a complicated woman.
James Bond: That is something to be afraid of.
Casino Royale (2006)
The name of the biblical character Delilah immediately evokes a disreputable and traitorous woman, yet her appearance in Judges 16 is shrouded in ambiguity. The films Samson and Delilah (1949; dir. Cecil B. DeMille) and Casino Royale (2006; dir. Martin Campbell) both feature a Delilah figure, addressing gaps in Judges 16 concerning Delilah’s characterisation, her relationship with Samson, and her motives for betraying him. Looking at the worlds within and behind the texts, these films afford us insight into attitudes towards women as well new perspectives on the biblical text.
Judges 16 is silent on Delilah’s core traits, such as her family, personality and national origins. She ostensibly lacks a family, though is able to own her own house (Exum 1996, p.181). Delilah is similarly unattached in Samson and Delilah, with no husband or “master”. This independence makes her a femme fatale; a fatally irresistible woman who leads men to their downfall. The film highlights her irresistibility: Where little can be determined about the manner of the biblical Delilah, the personality of DeMille’s Delilah is rooted in her sexuality. Our first shot of her languidly eating plums is a picture of dangerous decadence, and this overt sexuality is compounded by her exoticism. Judges 16 leaves Delilah’s ethnicity ambiguous, never detailing whether she is a Philistine or an Israelite. In DeMille, Delilah is a Philistine courtesan whose foreignness makes her all the more beguiling for Samson. As a femme fatale who weaponises her sexuality, Delilah represents fears surrounding women’s emancipation in 1940s America (Blyth 2017, p.138). Her foreign status also plays upon post-war ethnic anxieties (ibid., p.126). There is nothing in Judges 16 to suggest DeMille’s rendering of Delilah as a “‘scheming little dame’” (cited in ibid., p.123), but by painting her as such, the film implies that a headstrong woman is nothing but trouble.
Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale is characterised differently. While Samson meets Delilah in the Valley of Sorek (Judges 16:4), the boundary between the land of the Philistines and that of the Israelites, Bond meets Vesper on the train; a similarly liminal space where she appears cloaked in inscrutability. Vesper’s mystery and beauty characterise her as a femme fatale, yet she is not framed as negatively as DeMille’s Delilah. The film emphasises her intelligence as she wittily challenges Bond’s arrogance. Vesper is also courageous, saving Bond’s life twice and finally accepting her death. We are encouraged to admire Vesper for qualities that are condemned in Samson and Delilah, such as confidence and resourcefulness. This perhaps reflects the changed social context between the mid-twentieth and twenty-first centuries. With the increased prominence of feminism, women’s independence is now applauded more than criticised. The positive portrayal of Vesper illuminates Judges 16 by drawing attention to positive aspects of Delilah’s character, like her determination and bravery (Smith 1997, p.46). It displays how misogyny can cause us to judge her harshly instead of acknowledging that she may have personality traits worthy of praise.
An second gap in the biblical text is Delilah’s feelings for Samson. We know that Samson loved Delilah (Judges 16:4), but are unsure whether Delilah loved Samson. This ambiguity is erased in Samson and Delilah. Delilah is madly in love with Samson, insisting, “I’d kill to keep you. You’re the only thing in the world I want.” Delilah’s passion drives the film, and it is suggested that she never truly stops loving Samson. She hesitates betraying him, at first refusing to discover the secret of his strength because she would hate to be “armed with a weapon” against him. Even after she captures Samson, she insists that the Philistines do not physically harm him. Overall, Samson and Delilah frames Delilah’s story as a romantic epic, portraying Samson and Delilah as doomed lovers in a sexual relationship. This heightens the sexual connotations in Judges 16 of Delilah making Samson sleep on her lap (Judges 16:19). It also interprets Delilah’s remark that Samson would tell her his secret if he really loved her (Judges 16:15) as not mere emotional manipulation. Rather, her desire to know his secret may genuinely be driven by her passion for him and desire to win his trust. This is hinted by how she does not immediately call the Philistines when he tells her truth, unlike in Judges 16. Delilah’s unwavering love for Samson in the film potentially lends her a sympathetic edge, yet it also makes her look worse in the light of her betrayal.
Vesper’s feelings are also made clear in Casino Royale. She implies that she reciprocates Bond’s feelings for her, nursing him back to health after their dangerous mission and accompanying him on a romantic holiday. Yet when Bond explicitly tells her that he loves her, her reaction is unreadable. Later, however, her love is confirmed when she kisses his hand to apologise before submitting to her death. Whether Delilah loved Samson powerfully influences our assessment of her character and the depth of her betrayal. In DeMille, Delilah seems condemned because she loved Samson, suggesting that is more heinous to betray a loved one than a stranger. There is possibly a gendered element to this attitude, as a man abandoning a woman may not be considered as deplorable since men are assumed to hold the power in a heterosexual relationship. Women, meanwhile, are expected to be more submissive and accept the love of a man regardless of whether she reciprocates it. Yet thinking of Delilah as in love with Samson can also make her a tragic figure where she deceives Samson unwillingly. In Vesper’s case, she seems reluctant to admit that she loves Bond for fear of hurting both him and herself when she must betray him.
A final gap in Judges 16 is Delilah’s motive for betraying Samson. Various reasons for her betrayal have been proposed, including avarice, national loyalty and vengeance (Exum 1996, p.199). The clearest motive alluded to by Judges 16 is the eleven hundred pieces of silver Delilah is promised (Judges 16:5). In Samson and Delilah, however, this motive is eclipsed by her main goal: Revenge on Samson for leaving her. She tells the Saran that she wishes to punish Samson for the death of her family, but it is obvious that when she actually captures him it is because she believes he is abandoning her for Miriam. She confirms this when she declares, “no man leaves Delilah.” Delilah betraying Samson out of poisonous jealousy imposes a new layer of meaning on Judges 16, in which there is no other female character (and it is unclear whether Delilah loves Samson in the first place). This perpetuates ideas of women as motivated by possessiveness and competition with other women, and reinforces the femme fatale’s volatility: She may love a man one moment and leave him for dead the next.
Vesper’s reasons for betraying Bond are strikingly different, and give us a glimpse into an alternative way of interpreting Delilah’s story. If Delilah were a Philistine, her tricking of Samson may be a patriotic act, causing her people to regard her as heroic (Klein 2003, p.28). Vesper’s motives can also be considered heroic, as it is revealed that she was only working for the enemy because they had threatened to kill her boyfriend if she did not cooperate. She attempts to resist her inevitable betrayal, seemingly commenting on her own plight when she tells Bond, “you’ve got a choice…just because you’ve done something doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it.” Ultimately, Vesper is portrayed as a tragic heroine. Her arc suggests a vulnerable dimension to the femme fatale and to Delilah in Judges 16. A woman living alone in her historical period, Delilah was socially and politically vulnerable (Brenner 1999, p.111) and may have been unable to refuse the Philistine lords’ request. If she used her sexuality to trap Samson, it was because this was the only power her gender afforded to her (Smith 1997, p.46). Betraying Samson would have provided her with social and economic security, helping her rise from a position of relative powerlessness (ibid., p.55). A vulnerable reading of Delilah gives us a less blameworthy portrait of her, challenging us to the see the story through her perspective rather than a patriarchal lens.
Despite appearing only briefly in the Bible, Delilah enjoys a rich legacy in popular culture. The frustrating ambiguities in her story have been filled by artistic works in differing ways: While Samson and Delilah paints her as a sensual and dangerous femme fatale, Casino Royale’s Delilah figure is a feisty and likeable heroine with a tragic fate. Examining the worlds within these texts, we can explore the filmmakers’ creative discretion in how they depict Delilah, while the world behind the texts shows us how these depictions were influenced by certain gender discourses. Overall, the shifting representations of Delilah reveal how she is moulded and remoulded based on the cultural understandings of different eras (Clanton 2009, p.65). This is arguably not only the reason for her power but the power of the Bible itself, as popular culture keeps its tales worthy of revisiting over and over.
All biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Blyth, Caroline. Reimagining Delilah’s Afterlives as Femme Fatale: The Lost Seduction. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Brenner, Athalya. Feminist Companion to Judges. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.
Clanton, Dan. Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.
Exum, Cheryl J. “Samson and Delilah in Film”. In The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and its Reception in Film, edited by Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, 83-100. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.
Exum, Cheryl J. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
Klein, Lillian. From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003.
Smith, Carol. “Samson and Delilah: A Parable of Power?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22, no. 76 (1997): 45-57.
Weiner, Robert, B. Lynn Whitfield and Jack Becker, eds. James Bond in World and Popular Culture: The Films are Not Enough. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011.