Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Bible: In the Beginning (1966)

Director: John Huston                                   Writers: Christopher Fry & Orson Welles
Film Score: Toshirô Mayuzumi                     Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Ava Gardner and John Huston

As Biblical epics go, this is not one of the more exciting. John Huston’s take on early stories from the book of Genesis suffers from the attempt at literal translation rather than a more creative approach to the tales. At the same time, the familiar fifties style production quality is abandoned in favor of a mid-sixties approach that now seems hopelessly dated. Still, there is a likable quality to the film that manages to maintain minimal interest throughout. The Bible: In the Beginning was an American and Italian co-production headed by Dino De Laurentiis, and was intended by the producer to be the first in a series of films that would work their way through the Bible, but clearly the vision that Houston offered was not one that audiences were keen to return to. The film boasted a number of firsts, however. It featured one of the largest interior sets of the time, the inside of Noah’s ark, which was a hundred and fifty feet long and over fifty feet high, with three decks and pens for the animals. The exteriors were filmed in Rome, Sicily, Sardinia and Northern Egypt. It was also the first studio feature film to contain full-frontal nudity, though these scenes with Adam and Eve were obscured enough that it’s difficult to make the case for that today.

The film begins with Huston as the voice of God, reading the first chapter of the book of Genesis. The visuals are a bit murky at first, but when sky and water and earth are created there is some terrific nature photography--for the time--that goes along with the narration. Adam and Eve are portrayed by Michael Parks and Ulla Bergryd, as stereotypical blond, Arian progenitors of all life on Earth. The Garden of Eden is not quite as lush as one would imagine, and the tree of knowledge is also underwhelming, but the actors do what they can. They eat from the tree and are cast out of Eden, producing Cain and Abel. Richard Harris plays Cain, who killed his brother, and goes through some rather bizarre choreography before being branded by God and cast out himself to roam the earth as the first homeless person. How Adam and Eve people the earth with their own children is glossed over to get to the story of Noah and the Ark. Adam’s race has become vicious, human sacrifice is common place, and in an amusing scene John Huston as God tells himself, John Huston as Noah, to build the ark. What’s fascinating is that the sequence about Noah is performed tongue in cheek by Huston and as a result it’s the most charming part of the entire film.

After the intermission Nimrod, played by Stephen Boyd, builds the Tower of Babel and as a result of God’s anger he gives different languages to the people of Earth so that they cannot understand each other. From there the story moves on to Abraham, played by George C. Scott, and his wife Sarah, played by Ava Gardner. Though the land of Cannan is promised by God to Abraham’s descendants, Abraham is mystified as he and his wife have no children. But God gives a command to Abraham to sacrifice and though he impregnated Hagar, played by Zoe Sallis, she was sent away by Sarah though she bears him a son named Ishmael. As time goes on, however, Peter O’Toole comes in the form of three separate angels all bearing his likeness and when he blesses Sarah she becomes pregnant in her old age and Isaac is born. Though it’s incongruous to see George C. Scott as a Biblical hero, he gives a credible portrayal of the Jewish patriarch, especially in his later years. Ava Gardner gives a subdued performance as Sarah, and Peter O’Toole is equally stoic. It’s interesting to see these performers taking their roles so seriously that they almost constrict themselves in their desire to be reverential, but one wishes that they could have taken the more whimsical approach that the director allowed himself.

The climax of the piece is when George C. Scott is called on by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, played by Alberto Lucantoni. Scott is able to generate some real anger toward the incomprehensible divine being, as only Scott can. But it’s really too little, too late. Just when the picture is actually picking up some steam, it ends. By far the biggest flaw in the film is the approach to the screenplay by Christopher Fry, with some uncredited help by Orson Welles. The only dialogue that Houston allows is that contained in the Bible itself, which is very minimal. Other than that, the performers are limited to actions alone, which doesn’t make for great cinema. Houston’s original plan called for the great Igor Stravinsky to compose the film score, but that never came to fruition. Nevertheless, what today seems a merely serviceable score by Japanese composer Toshirô Mayuzumi was the only Academy Award nomination the film received. In the end, one thing is clear, unlike most directors who would have balked at taking on the Bible, on can see Houston almost relishing the task. But despite an entertaining section containing the director himself, The Bible: In the Beginning is little more than a bloated, uninspiring version of an overly familiar tale in desperate need of inspiration rather than reverence.

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