John Huston made many movies because he needed the money. A gambler and an adventurer, he liked to hunt, he liked to roll the dice, and he liked taking on challenges because they are there. He made an expensive musical (ANNIE), he filmed in difficult locations (THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN, THE AFRICAN QUEEN), and he had a few pet projects he waited years to make until the conditions were right (THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, UNDER THE VOLCANO).
Sometimes he made junk. You can tell he made some of his movies because he needed the cash, something he admitted in his laughably named memoir, AN OPEN BOOK. Sometimes he came up with something that shouldn’t work at all, but which manages to entertain.
THE BIBLE was originally going to be the first in a series of movies adapting the source material, but John Huston ended up directing the first part of the book of Genesis, which includes some of the bible’s biggest hit singles. What was the result? Well, it’s about what you’d expect from an atheist director and the producer of David Lynch’s DUNE, big, loud, and with lots of desert.
The Creation of the world was covered in an opening sequence directed by photographer Ernst Haas. Huston narrates, but Haas went around the world for a year filming volcanoes and water and birds. Toshiro Miyuzumi did the bombastic score, but if you can’t let the orchestra rip for the creation of the planet, what’s it good for?
We get the Cain and Able story starring Richard Harris, who looks like he’s ready to kill his goody goody brother from his first second on-screen, and the Tower of Babel. You can’t say they did this on the cheap.
If this were done today it’d be a limited series for TV, but it’s an admirable, ambitious attempt. But like all anthology movies, we’re rushed along, without being able to settle in and enjoy the scale and depth we get from knowing we’re involved in these characters for a couple hours. We don’t follow Adam and Eve for the evening, we just see them wander around a little; we don’t get a life of Abraham, just his tortured struggle with The God or The Kid?
The Sodom and Gomorrah scenes are like outtakes from middle-era Fellini, with hints of shocking pre-marital sex! Not to mention The Unmentionable Kind…
Without that level of character involvment, we’re left with the sets and miniatures, which are impressive. Lately I’ve seen comments from folks praising CGI and putting down the relatively primitive effects work of past decades. It’s just dumb to dump on either: there are countless artists who create amazing CGI, but there were many artists who made visual magic with models, paint and dirt.
THE BIBLE is a great show of these techniques. A full-scale ark was built for the Noah scenes, as well as an interior set and several miniatures. Seen today on their own, they aren’t ‘realistic,’ but photorealism is merely one style of visual effect. There’s plenty of bad CGI to go around even today, mostly due to poor conception–we have the power to make amazing sights, but we need great CONCEPTS, or they’re just empty flash.
I’m not claiming THE BIBLE is a great movie, but it’s not what many dread when we hear the words “Bible” and “movie” together. But it’s a lot more enjoyable to watch than I expected. Huston treats the story with reverence, because that’s what Hollywood did toward Christian beliefs at the time, and taken one by one, the segments work pretty well. There are plenty of stars packed into the thing, with Peter O’Toole coming off pretty well and George C. Scott leading the troupe with his tortured Abraham.
With its fine photography by the great Giuseppe Rotunno it’s pretty good eye candy, even if you just watch the Haas opening. You could do worse this weekend if you’re tired of watching the old standards but don’t want to be a total heretic.