As a high school student, I remember being unimpressed with John Huston's attempt at mimicking Cecil B. DeMille in The Bible . . . In the Beginning (La Bibbia). Not even a belching hippo or Noah's whimsical zoo feeding scene was enough to keep the 174-minute project afloat. With Easter approaching and on the successful box office heels of Mel Gibson's Marquis de Sade version of Christ, 20th Century Fox has rushed a bare bones DVD release of the 1966 film to retail shelves. Hopefully, savvy film lovers will quarantine this lame attempt at religious commercialism, as it still plays like a plague of unimaginative and lifeless Bible stories. The passage of time does not make for pleasanter memories, nor does the film deserve kudos for courage. It's strictly formulaic Biblical work with an all-star cast that ranks as the most embarrassing directing work that John Huston ever undertook.
In a sense, Huston plays homage to DeMille with his own "Godlike" narration, intermission, and large Tower of Babel set design, but he has no sense of the legendary director's epic scope and the fine detail that went into his craft. A slide show would have sufficed for the opening few minutes, as predictable lighting effects and clouds accompany Huston's bellows about God's creation of the firmament, seas, light (day), dark (night), and land. Things pick up a tad with a wind swept crane shot of a lump of reddish-brown dirt that transforms into Adam through not so tricky time lapse photography. He's appropriately naked, but long shots and air-brushed buttocks preserve the film's G rating, so only the most immature audiences will titter. Adults will wonder why both Adam and Eve are more modestly composed than National Geographic indigenous photos. Weren't they supposed to be innocent of their nakedness before inevitably eating the forbidden fruit?
Gamely covering the major stories of Genesis—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Nimrod and the Tower of Babel, Abraham and Isaac—Huston only manages a few entertaining moments with Noah and the Ark, but it's hardly provocative. Although Sunday school children will be fascinated with Noah's methods of keeping all the animals well-fed during their 7 month ordeal, Huston provides childlike solutions and leaves plenty of holes. We're expected to believe that tigers and lions will content themselves with milk instead of pouncing through their wide-open quarters for red meat. Noah (Huston) reminds us that they are, after all, nothing more than cats. If the rest of the film equaled this Noah section, the project would be tolerable, but the other stories sink to triteness that induces sleep and provides ample opportunity to hit the pause button and take necessary breaks if you're determined to sit through the whole thing. (It was a two-day ordeal in my case).
Seeing that George C. Scott is cast as Abraham and Ava Gardner as Sarah, I expected this longest segment to bring a lively finale to the pedestrian Sunday school project. Alas, no mad as Hell ass-kicking this time around as a very contrite and dutiful Scott practically sleepwalks through his scenes. Huston doesn't even bother to get a real performance from young non-actor who plays Isaac (Alberto Lucantoni), a non-performance that immediately dashed any fantasies he may have had about an acting career.
I'm not sure who put Huston up to this ill-conceived project since it contains none of his wicked sense of humor or dramatic flare. He could've had a real field day with all the sex and violence so prevalent in the Old Testament, but Huston hardly hints at these even with the Sodom and Gamorrah, ignores the lascivious leanings of Noah's children, and his Hagar (non-actor Zoe Sallis) uses only lame dried figs and dates metaphors to insult Sarah. Michelangelo provokes far more controversy in his Sistine Chapel imagery than the banal oatmeal served in Huston's The Bible . . . In the Beginning. It's not that he can't do it—his rendition of Moby Dick shows that he can weave spiritual themes with obsessed characters and whale hunting, but he had a great book to work with there. Come to think of it, the Bible's got some great stories as well. It certainly deserves a better cinematic interpretation that what Huston delivers, however. Movie audiences shouldn't have to possess the patience of Job to endure a Biblical presentation.