Wednesday, April 15, 2020

G-d Week: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?


Directed by John Huston
Written by Christopher Fry (based on the book by P, D, and J)

Spoiler alert: oh, inapplicable

Once again, another Passover comes and goes, along with another Easter, and I didn't really notice, since I personally celebrate neither.  It's annoying nonetheless, because going on several years now, I've been meaning to use the holidays as an excuse for a look back at one of my favorite disreputable genres, the Hollywood Bible epic--and now, I really do have the time, though I'm sure I don't need to tell you, time they do take.

Certainly, religious period pieces centered on Judeo-Christian antiquity have always been around, in one form or another, but the phrase "Bible epic" attaches especially to one particular seventeen year span in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, in which American filmmakers (sometimes in combination with Italian ones, who, after all, prototyped the genre back in the 1910s) produced a huge slate of bold, colorful blockbusters that were either based on the Bible itself, or on Christian historical fiction.  Armed with lavish budgets, prodigious runtimes, and as much violence and sex as the mores of the time allowed, the Bible epic perfected the now-lost art of pandering to Christian audiences with something like sincerity, while simultaneously (if, sometimes, only theoretically) managing to entertain.  Indeed, they were some of the most monumental slabs of entertainment ever seen.  I have an inordinate fondness for these things, which is to say, more fondness than most: the Bible epic's reputation collapsed almost the instant the fad for them was over, and their appraisal ever since has been one of nearly-undifferentiated scorn.  But I've often said that one of the most amazing things about the movies is their ability to embody myth, and, at their best, the Bible epics really are myths worth admiring.

Of course, today's subject is not the Bible epic at anywhere particularly close to its best, but let us consider, anyway, Dino de Laurentiis and 20th Century Fox's long-gestating production of The Bible: In the Beginning (a title that we find stylized within the film and on the poster as THE BIBLE ...In The Beginning, and I love it).  In one of the little ironies of film history, despite being an adaptation of the first 22 chapters of Bereshit, aka Genesis, aka the first book of the Bible, ...In The Beginning actually came at the very, very end of the Bible epic wave.  (And I suppose I should explain here that our little adventure shall be based upon the canonical order of their source material, rather than the chronological order of their release.  This is an objectively terrible organizational scheme, but I have a reason: it's because I watched ...In The Beginning purely because I felt like it, and only afterwards realized that this would be my new project.)

1966, then, was the year that the genre suddenly and irretrievably collapsed, victim less of public disinterest than of a growing decadence within itself and within the allied sword-and-sandal pictures; The Greatest Story Ever Told had cost far too much to make money the year before, and Cleopatra was only just now, three full years after its release, managing to break even on its own world-historically absurd budget.  And, at last, the less-egregious but nonetheless-conclusive failure of the also-very-expensive ...In The Beginning effectively snuffed the genre out: it and Cleopatra are the only films in history to top the worldwide box office and still not turn a profit.

De Laurentiis' original ambitions had been even bigger: the bombastic Italian had planned an unprecedented series of films that would stretch from Genesis to Revelation and every book in between (though it's hard to imagine he wouldn't have skipped across several of the less narratively-congenial ones), and while I don't know what Fox thought of this crazy idea, they still helped finance the first one.  British playwright Christopher Fry was retained to adapt the screenplay, and he did indeed start in the beginning, before moving forward through Genesis' Wikipedia-like rendition of the dawn times of our Earth and the comparatively small corner of it that seems to have mattered to God.  John Huston was brought to Europe to direct, which is in keeping with the Bible epic's tendency to be made by some of the last folks you'd expect.  Besides a resume that would not have necessarily recommended him as the director of a hugely-budgeted sword and sandal film (I think the closest he'd gotten was, like, Moby Dick), Huston was also an atheist.  Yes, you can kind of tell.

The film winds up an anthology, five sequences of variable length.  The short ones relate the stories of Adam (Michael Parks) and Eve (Ulla Bergryd); their sons Cain (Richard Harris, unrecognizable) and Abel (Franco Nero); and, more because it's cool than because it's narratively crucial, Nimrod (Stephen Boyd).  The long ones are by far the balance of this film's 174 minute runtime, however, with the tales of Noah (John Huston himself) and Abraham (George C. Scott) each amounting to a feature-length mini-movie bound up inside this one overarching mega-movie.

This anthology is not, I'm afraid, all of a piece, though I could (and will) argue that its inconsistency is at least a little bit thematically productive.  What the sequences all have in common, anyway, is a sense of pictorial grandeur, which is par for the course in the Bible epic, but ...In The Beginning leans towards a noticeably artier sensibility than its 1950s forebears; you'd be able to guess you were watching a movie from 1966 and not 1956 within five minutes, if not thirty seconds.  This aligns nicely with the impression Huston and art director Mario Chiari must have had of ancient Canaan as an abstracted, time-lost wasteland, and it finds good company in Toshiro Mayuzumi and Ennio Morricone's majestic, larger-than-life score, a constant companion that at times had me wondering if it wasn't just classical music that I didn't recognize, which I mean as a compliment.

In fact, the very beginning of ...In The Beginning leans on the score more than usual, as Huston puts together a terrifically reverent ode to the Creation, an impressionistic collage of some reasonably great second unit photography that eventually coalesces out of a formless fog while our narrator (also Huston, and yes, we'll get there) relays to us the activity of God's first week.  Now, it's nothing that Fantasia didn't do much better (and its juxtaposition of geological fire and Biblical water owes everything to Disney's film), but it has weight, and sets the scene for Adam's emergence from the dust, culminating in one spectacular opening gesture: a POV shot from what one supposes is God's vantage point, which recreates Michelangelo's famous painting of the subject from a stunning new perspective.

Now, it will obviously not be useful to point out, every time, "boy, these ancient people in the Middle East sure are Caucasian!"  But Parks and Bergryd might the most aggressively blonde Adam and Chavah you'll ever behold.  As for what use this film has for them, movies set in Eden do lend themselves to a certain prurience, and as the 50s became the 60s this became more and more common.  And thus behind his literal fig-leaf of tasteful representation (and it is, when all is said and done, fairly tasteful), Huston's Adam and Eve sequence does boast a significant amount of butt.  It's also where one of the film's more peculiar qualities makes itself known, as our two nude humans are obliged to clumsily recite Fry's King Jamesish dialogue, which shall remain a permanent fixture even as we move downward from the Fall.  Many a Bible movie has stilted dialogue, but this kicks it up a notch; yet there's something to the mannered dialogue here that gets at their childlike innocence (they really were, after all, born yesterday).  In combination with their distractingly Nordic complexions, it feeds into the feel of a film that is even more pageantlike than is usual in a genre that is above all famous for artificial pageantry.  Incidentally, this is also where we get yet a third role for our director: God.

There's a cheekiness to this that's hard not to appreciate, though Huston's a rather lousy God on the merits, consistently reciting his dialogue in ways that place a tetchy, unvoiced "oh, and another thing..." at the beginning of every single line.  If it wasn't actually intended to make the Lord sound capricious and constantly low-key annoyed with His creation, then Huston fooled me.  There's also an issue inherent to a narrator that is also an active-but-invisible character, as this proves to be actively confusing no later than in the Cain and Abel sequence to immediately follow.  Beyond some interesting "God is always watching" camerawork, this First Murder is disappointingly perfunctory; it's a curiosity, considering that Huston and Harris were personal friends.  (Though maybe that's even an explanation for it, permitting Harris a Roman holiday and a paycheck in exchange for a day's work.)  The Tower of Babel sequence is more like it: grandly-scaled and replete with a lot of well-built sets and well-accomplished matte shots that demonstrate exactly how huge Nimrod's act of hubris is.

Still, I said the meat of the picture belongs to Noah and Abraham.  The Noah sequence sticks out for its frivolity: opening with the prophet hearing God's voice (i.e., his own voice), the very first thing we see this cartoonishly-mugging Noah do is attempt to hide from his almighty God inside a barn.  It comes complete with a wacky music cue, and hardly the last one.  In fairness, this sequence has more raw production value than anything else around: the ark interior was one of the biggest sets ever built, and it represents an incredibly impressive act of animal husbandry (plus some not-quite-seamless but extremely-respectable 60s-era compositing for the more dangerous beasts); even several of the ark exteriors were real, and the optical and special effects used to complete the illusion are almost flawless.  The interesting thing, however, is that the single most perfect process shot in the film is used to effect a sub-Chaplin gag about Noah tripping and sliding down the bow.  I expect this sequence is somehow even less goofy than what Huston wanted: he'd asked the actual Chaplin to play old Noah, and Chaplin had told him to fly a kite.  It was, in any event, Huston's personal favorite part of his film, and it shows, particularly as he indulges his actor with a long montage of Noah playing with all the exotic animals that De Laurentiis could afford.  On the plus side, it's cute and lightly humorous; but that's the minus side, too, for it's jarring as hell in this particular context--a context that ...In The Beginning doesn't even deny--which is, of course, the extermination of all Cain's descendants, such as the ones Noah's family hear shrieking vainly outside their ark.

The story of Abraham, on the other hand, is where ...In The Beginning veers into proper dramatic narrative, and it's fascinating how much it feels like it mirrors Noah's Flood in a darker register.  There is, inevitably, all the Bible history stuff: Abraham's barren wife Sarah (Ava Gardner), and the concubinage of handmaid Hagar (Zoe Ismail), through whom is conceived Abraham's first son Ishmael (Luciano Conversi).  For all that I'm sure all of this is incredibly meaningful to somebody, it's only here because it was there first.  It doesn't amount to much.  The important stuff involves Abraham's nephew Lot (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Abraham's second son Isaac (Alberto Lucantoni); it involves, especially, the angels of God (Peter O'Toole).

The first thing that's striking about this sequence is how Scott heroically attempts to impose his brand of growly, naturalistic humanity onto the patriarch, which works as often as it doesn't in spite of (or even in conjunction with) all the crimped "Biblical" dialogue.  The second is how it reveals, little by little, the extreme discomfiture that Bible epics sometimes had with the actual Bible, which in turn is no less than many priests and rabbis had before them; and to this end do Huston and Fry take Abraham and Isaac up to the sacrificial mountain through the firebombed ruins of Sodom, the town we already watched Abraham impotently plead with God to spare.

The third striking thing, then, is how much more solemnly Huston approaches the Abraham material, with techniques that have no real analogue in anything previously seen in the film, and have more in common with avant-garde theater than Hollywood.  It's especially dislocating to arrive upon a fuguelike montage of an utterly-stagey multi-animal sacrifice--another instance of Huston's God sounding like an insane person, by the way, very close to "bring me a shrubbery!"--but the film is certainly never once more effective than in the cutting and cinematography around the Three Angels that visit Abraham, all notionally played by O'Toole, who arrive in a dissolve shot and whose faces, as they sit to earnestly speak to God's faithful servant on this fine afternoon, fade in and out into an unmotivated darkness, so that only one is ever in light at a time.  It's mystical in a subdued, disquieting way that Bible epics rarely attempted, and it continually underlines the idea of a being whose will is absolute, yet whose thoughts are incomprehensible.  For this, and for Scott's performance--the film's only good one, wracked with confusion and fear and resentment--the Abraham sequence ends ...In The Beginning on its strongest notes.

Of course, it's only by dint of being a Bible anthology that Huston's movie ever gets to insist on itself as more than the sum of its parts--it's frankly doing a lot of uncompensated work on ...In The Beginning's behalf to consider the Noah and Abraham sequences as existing in some kind of interesting counterpoise to one another, rather than just being completely incompatible--but as unwiedly as it is, it's more rewarding than it seems it should be.  For all that it can drag (and it does) it picks itself up in all the right places to make it a fairly worthwhile sit, even if, for much of it, it's more typical than it is exemplary.

Score: 6/10

Reviews in this series:
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)
Samson and Delilah (1949) (שופטים/Judges)
The Story of Ruth (1960) (רות/Ruth)
David and Bathsheba (1951) (שְׁמוּאֵל/Samuel)
Solomon and Sheba (1959) (מלכים/Kings)
Esther and the King (1960) (אֶסְתֵּר/Esther)
The Prodigal (1955) (Λουκᾶν/Luke)
Salome (1953) (Ματθαῖον καί Μᾶρκον/Matthew and Mark)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) (Ἰωάννην/John)
The Robe (1953) (Ρωμαιους/Romans)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) (Κορινθίους/Corinthians)
Barabbas (1962) (Ἑβραίους/Hebrews)
Quo Vadis (1951) (Αποκάλυψις/Revelation)! Ben-Hur (1959)

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