Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Book is Better Than the Movie: "The Bible" (1966)



Having avoided this film for years, I finally took a deep breath and rented it. John Huston's version of the Bible is full of pretty pictures, Hollywood stars, and no heart.

At almost three hours, the film is divided into four major sections or stories. The first concerns the Creation, as Adam and Eve are introduced into the Garden of Eden, eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and are banished. Later, their first two sons are involved in the very first murder. The Creation opening does have a lot of scenery, as the narrator takes us, slowly, through all the days God took to create the world. Adam and Eve are all wide eyed wonderment, and strategically naked. The Garden of Eden, however, looks like your backyard after a hot day. There is fake greenery here and there, but I kept waiting for Adam to invent the lawn sprinkler. The entire eating of the apple is glossed over as if Huston was in a hurry to get on with the film (or at least his turn as Noah).

After Cain kills Abel, Noah happens along and begins building the ark. But wait, this is not your Noah of the Bible or epics past, this Noah is "funny." Huston mugs for the camera as if he were in a Pink Panther film. As Noah and his three sons build, there is an awkward scene where Noah falls, gets his foot stuck in a bucket of pitch, and slides down half the deck of the ark, hitting his sleeping son in the head with the bucket. The light musical score tells us that Noah is just a clumsy regular guy, but if God told me to build an ark because of the watery end of mankind, I would be a little more careful. No, Noah's three sons are not played by Moe, Larry, and Curly. Other "funny" scenes involve Noah's wife trying to feed some of the exotic animals in the ark and not doing very well. Why didn't the cast just wink at the camera and grin? Poor special effects also kill this section, as Huston tries to fool us with bad footage of animals getting on the ark.

The shortest scene in the film revolves around King Nimrod and the building of the Tower of Babel. This section is all too brief as Nimrod climbs the Tower, shoots an arrow into heaven, God becomes angry, knocks a few things down, and no one can understand their coworker's language any longer. Without any connection to the three longer stories, you will wonder what Huston was thinking, maybe he had a bigger budget than he thought.

The final, and longest, section involves George C. Scott as Abraham, and Ava Gardner, doing her best impression of Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra," as Sarah. Abraham fathers a son with a slave after Sarah becomes barren. Angel(s) O'Toole tells Abraham of Sarah's impending pregnancy, and then moves on to Sodom, ready to take the city down. This scene provides many creepy moments, as O'Toole is led by Lot through the city of sin, which we see samples of in the dark. Lot and his family escape, Lot's wife becomes the world's largest salt lick, and Abraham is told to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. As Abraham and Isaac wander in the desert to the sacrificial altar, they pass through Sodom's ruins. Here, Scott is given a bunch of scenes they probably expected to repeat when his Oscar nomination came through. Scott, always a fine actor, is awful, all groans and blank stares, as if he cannot get a handle on this character and director Huston will not help out. The film ends with Isaac's reprieve, and more pretty scenery. I took three days to watch this movie, and I congratulate anyone who sat through it in one sitting. The cinematography is lush and gorgeous. Every scene is like a painting, pardon the cliche.

The biggest problem here is the complete lack of spirit in the film. Everyone goes through the motions, and yet there is no magic or excitement in the characters' eyes. The actors say all their "thou"s and "wherefore"s with appropriate nobility, but I never believed that they were awed by the spirit of God. I have seen more emotionally appropriate reactions to mistaken lunch orders at Burger King than Scott's over the top portrayal of Abraham. He groans, hisses, and acts his wig off, but that was all there was- an act. A young Peter O'Toole, with an angelic face, plays the three angels wonderfully. He was the only actor here who seemed to understand the importance of the work without resorting to theater tricks to make the audience happy. The script, by "Barabbas" screenwriter Christopher Fry, is all over the place. It is too bad he could not concentrate on one area or event. He spent too much energy cramming everything in, and overwhelming the film.

I have seen better Sunday school pageants cover the same material more effectively. I cannot recommend "The Bible." (* *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: The Bible: In the Beginning