The subtitle (. . . In the Beginning) was hastily added to warn audiences that this was not an attempt to cram the entire Old and New Testaments into one three hour film. The movie might have been more accurately titled Genesis, but that title would have been familiar only to those who have actually read the Bible rather than bought a copy to place on the coffee table beside a bowl of plastic fruit.
The movie opens with God creating the heavens and the earth. Of course, we don’t see God, only lots of multi-colored mist and fog with a few clouds thrown in followed by shots of mountains and oceans and trees. Today, when more eye dazzling effects can be achieved on a computer, the opening is impressive for director John Huston’s deep-voiced reading of text from the King James Bible. That’s Huston again voicing the unseen serpent in the Garden of Eden who instigates man’s fall. The music, the subtle use of strings and foreboding flutes – the work of composer Toshiro Mayuzumi – adds a lot to this scene in which Michael Parks and Ella Bergryd play Adam and Eve.
Banished from the garden, the couple follows God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, giving birth to Cain and Abel. Cain is played by Richard Harris, but Abel is swiftly murdered and appears too briefly to warrant the presence of a high-priced star.
We soon move on to the story of Noah, and here the movie gets positively surreal since Noah is played by John Huston who continues to serve as narrator. We now have Huston talking to himself. A mob of heathens mock him as he builds the ark, and we can tell they’re heathens because of their colorful garb, quite a contrast to Noah’s dull sackcloth. The ark, though nicely made, looks too small to accommodate one male and one female representative of every living creature, but their entrance is the highlight of the film. Elephants, giraffes, monkeys, tigers, ducks, birds, turtles, and so on, all board the ark in pairs, doing so with none of the chaos found in the hallway of an elementary school when a class lines up to visit the bathroom. This sequence is cleverly and sweetly done, with one of Noah’s daughters running after a turtle that loses its way.
Once the rain falls and the ark rises, Noah remains calm, but then he’s also the director, less at the mercy of God than the film’s budget. Flooding the world has its advantages, but it does not drown out evil. Naughty man builds the Tower of Babel under the direction of Nimrod who “stores up thunder and wears the lightning like a crown.” The tower, more than likely a matte painting or a miniature, is quite a sight, as is Nimrod himself, played with heavy mascara by Stephen Boyd.
Ten generations later, Abraham is born and looks like George C. Scott. His wife, Sarai, looks like Ava Gardner. Scott was allegedly drunk during filming and his inebriated pursuit of Gardner raised the ire of director Huston. The tension may explain why this segment seems longer and slower paced than the others. When three angels appear to tell Abraham to rescue his brother, Lot, from Sodom and Gomorrah, these apparitions are portrayed by an ethereal Peter O’ Toole. Of course, Sodom is a hotbed of sin, filled with homosexuals and scantily clad women, all wearing exotic makeup and cavorting about to the sound of demented laughter and cracking whips. Scott and O’ Toole summon all their acting skills to convince us that they are offended.
The Abraham segment, culminating with the near sacrifice of his son, Isaac, concludes the film.
The screenplay is credited to Christopher Fry who salvaged, without screen credit, the script for Ben Hur. The credits for The Bible say that Fry was “assisted by Jonathan Griffin, Ivo Perilli, and Vittorio Bonicelli.” That seems like a lot of writers for a script built upon words from the book for which the film is named.
The Bible . . . In the Beginning doesn’t overwhelm with either its effects or dramatics, but it holds the attention, entertains, and adheres closely to scripture.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© 2014 Brian W. Fairbanks