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Movie Review: How John Huston Killed the Biblical Epic



It was the age of the epics. Movies that lasted four hours shown in 3,000 seat movie palaces with screens so big you had to sit at least ten rows back to see the whole picture. The movies were usually based on bible stories or stories that were improbably associated with the bible. “El Cid” wasn’t a bible story, but  it was about religious wars, and neither was “Cleopatra,”  but it had Romans and  Egyptians and a story that wasn’t far removed from David and Bathsheba.  At least it seemed that way to an twelve year old kid who had to lie his way past  the censorious box-office girl who insisted that the movie was not for kids although there were no “Adults Only!” signs in the foyer. You have probably seen these movies on television back in the days before cable delivered high definition pictures, or you might have seen some of them more recently on a Blu-ray that looked gorgeous even though it completely misrepresented the original colors and textures of the 35 or 70 mm original theatrical prints.  There is no way to recapture the experience of seeing an epic movie in a 3,000 seat movie palace in the years 1949-1961.  You had to have been there.

I only caught the tail end of the era that began with the arrival of cinemascope with “The Robe” in 1949 and ended with Cinerama’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in 1965.  I saw Ben Hur, The Big Fisherman, and Solomon and Sheba in 1959,  Barabbas and King of Kings in 1961,  El Cid and Sodom and Gomorrah in 1962, Cleopatra in 1963, and The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965.   That was the extent of my religious education. At least until   sometime in the early seventies when I subscribed to a  Luis Bunuel series at the University of Washington.  That’s when I really got interested in religion.  But in 1965 I was through with religious movies, and epic films in general.  I didn’t even go to see The Sound of Music, although it played at my favorite downtown Seattle theater for two years.

So you can probably guess that I had zero interest in John Huston’s “The Bible..in the beginning” when it came out in 1966. And I wasn’t the only one.  That Greatest Story at the Cinerama had tired out the whole city, and nobody wanted to see another religious epic. Their butts were still hurting from the last one. Huston’s take on the opening chapters of Genesis  received bad reviews all around the table, and killed the biblical epic for the next couple of decades.  It never did make a full return to its former glory.  When King David was released in 1985, the film-going public shrugged its collective shoulders and asked, “Who wants to see Richard Gere in a diaper?”

Since the turn of the century, biblical stories have provided either fodder for preposterous CGI revisionism or ultra sincere made for television schmaltz.  Movies like Noah and Son of God make one long for Richard Gere in a diaper.  So I was wondering if Huston’s “The Bible” was as bad as its reputation would have it, and was determined to watch the whole thing from start to finish. I had made several past attempts at watching it on crummy videotapes but had never made it past the garden of Eden.  Now I had a Blu-ray and, what I hoped was, an open mind.

After watching the whole thing, I told myself that the only explanation for such a fiasco was that Huston had challenged himself to recreate the grandeur of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epics.  It was all voiced-over pantomime and tableau, with Huston playing God, Noah, and narrator.  The dialogs between the off-screen God and on-screen Noah were particularly dysfunctional.  But some of the shots of the animals entering the ark were pretty grand, and later, the ascent to the top of the Tower of Babel, its stairs littered with corpses, was inspired. But mostly it was sanctimonious shit.  Why are actors so knee-bent holy when it comes to enacting biblical passages?  Ava Gardner is one of Hollywood’s most sensuous actresses, yet here when she should be enraged at her handmaiden for giving birth her husband’s bastard son, she shows no passion at all.  It is hard to believe this is the same director who directed her in “The Night of the Iguana,”  where she was fit to kill poor little Sue Lyon for looking twice at Richard Burton’s defrocked priest, and here, where she should be rooty tooty hysterical, she barely raises her voice.

I kept thinking of how much life Pasolini brought to his trilogy of Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights, and The Decameron. Now here comes John Huston with these tales that have lasted thousands of years, and they are moribund.  Would anyone who had not heard these stories be impressed with them as they are told here?  I don’t think so.  It’s no wonder the stories in the bible were no longer considered suitable for screen adaptation after this.  Huston’s  Reader’s Digest abridgements  were more suitable for comic books than the big screen