Today’s entry in “Screening History” is John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning, the last of the truly-great biblical epics that were such a part of the midcentury film landscape. It’s very easy to mock the historico-biblical epic. Often, even the most devout of epic films can slip easily into the ridiculous, but somehow this film manages to avoid that trap, deftly straddling the sacred and the savage, pointing out how our deepest myths also express our darkest fears and most destructive tendencies.
The film covers several of the most important moments in the book of Genesis: the Creation and expulsion from Eden; Noah and the Great Flood; the construction of the Tower of Babel; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and the saga of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael. In fact, the film ends with this last, particularly God’s sparing of Isaac’s life on the altar.
The expulsion from Eden is a truly evocative moment in the film, one that brings out many of the apocalyptic undertones that seem to always hover at the edge of the biblical epic. One can feel the terror pulsing through the veins of the first humans, as they face the rage of the God they have disobeyed. The conflict between Cain and Abel is also suitably disconcerting, in large part because of Richard Harris’s strangled, inarticulate portrayal of the first murderer, who is ultimately branded for the slaying of his brother.
George C. Scott, scenery-chewer that he is, nevertheless conveys a great deal of the tortured and tormented patriarch that Abraham undoubtedly was, pulled in multiple directions by both the women in his life and by the many tasks and tribulations visited upon him by the God that has, allegedly, taken him under His wing. We can also see the ways in which the years weigh heavenly upon him, until by the end of the film he appears as more of a skeleton than the proud and overbearing patriarch that we normally associate with his countenance in biblical illustration. And his partner in crime, Ava Gardner, simmers as the embittered Sarai/Sarah, her faith tested just as much as her husband’s by God’s ongoing delay in providing them the son they so desperately need.
The scenes involving Lot and the ultimate destruction of Sodom are shockingly visually compelling while also intensely problematic and repugnant. Whereas the feature-length film Sodom and Gomorrah preferred to depict the sins of Sodom as being centered around the (admittedly rather generic) cruelty and sadism of the queen and her cronies, this film certainly buys into the idea that it was the sins of homosexuality and gender deviance that led to God’s wrath and the ultimate destruction upon the cities on the plain.
There are a few points of slight ridiculousness, particularly the part of the film dealing with Noah and the destruction of the world by water. Surprisingly, this part is openly played for comedy, with Noah becoming more of a buffoon than an Old Testament patriarch. There is also the unfortunate fact that Huston is also the voice of God and the narrator, which results in a doubling that it is sometimes difficult to take entirely seriously. Equally silly is the portion dealing with the construction of the Tower of Babel, which features a heavily-made-up Stephen Boyd as the King Nimrod. While visually intriguing, it remains something of a mystery why exactly this portion of the film appears as it does.
For all that it is a “biblical” film and thus suspect to charges of ahistoricity, the film does seem to want to address, if in a metaphysical way, the beginnings of man and the questions and crises that continue to haunt us, even in our supposedly more rational and explicable world of modernity. Why do men continue to seek out knowledge, with no thought to its brutal consequences? Why do people suffer? What is (or should be) the nature of our relationship to the animal world? Why do humans continue to destroy one another, even though it will bring about his own destruction? And why does he continue to hope, even in the face of all of this, for a world beyond his own temporal and embodied existence?
The film raises these questions, but ultimately it does not have the language to answer them, for the God of the Old Testament is a terrifying and capricious entity, raining down his wrath on the unsuspecting humans who serve him. What’s more, the world that The Bible depicts is one full of brutality and human sacrifice, of animality and cruelty, and the God that reigns over it all does little to actually provide the answers that his human servants seek. While the film ends optimistically with the binding and saving of Isaac, even this bears with it the inscrutability of God’s desire to see Abraham sacrifice the son for which he has hoped. The film suggests that there might be an answer, somewhere in our collective psyche, but it’s a fool errand to attempt to find that answer in the book from which the film takes its name.
Although George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told is usually accorded the dubious honor of killing the biblical epic once and for all, and for being the last cinematic production of its kind until Gladiator reignited the genre for the new millennium, I actually think The Bible deserves the latter distinction (though not, I think, the former). It is, all told, a quite uneven film, but it is not quite as ponderously reverent as The Greatest Story, and it seems that American audiences liked it well enough. It is a truly haunting and in many ways bleak film, a sign perhaps of the growing sense that the old ways of making sense of the world, so proudly trumpeted by the earlier iterations of the genre, no longer held the same sort of authority. For those interested in the ways in which the epic film responds to the pressures of its time, The Bible: In the Beginning serves as a fascinating case study