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A star-studded, somewhat kooky dramatization of Genesis 1-22
on 2 August 2004
The Bible ... in the Beginning is a most interesting motion picture. Over the course of almost three hours, the people and events of the first twenty-two chapters of the Book of Genesis are brought to life by a star-studded cast of characters under the direction of John Huston (with Dino Delaurentiis as the producer). It is a strange film; at times it is very moving and communicative of the Biblical message, but at other times it becomes strangely surrealistic or downright comical. It is, with a few exceptions, a pretty faithful reenactment of the Biblical text, however, and that certainly does count for something. The film can basically be broken down into several sections: the Creation, original sin, and the first murder; Noah's flood; the tower of Babel; and the life of Abraham.
The creation of the world is given a slow and sonorous treatment that tends to drag just a little bit. Then we have the creation of Adam and Eve (although there's no mention of the whole rib business). I found it somewhat strange to see Eve drawn to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil almost immediately - the serpent's job was made quite easy, and I must say I rather liked the manner in which the serpent was represented here. The ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden is pretty powerful stuff, as is the later murder of Abel by his jealous brother Cain (played by a young Richard Harris).
Then comes the story of Noah and the Great Flood, which has to be my favorite part of the movie. John Huston himself plays Noah, and it is a remarkable performance that oscillates between seriousness and downright goofiness. The Ark is impressive and truly communicates the immense size of the thing, and one cannot but get a big kick out of seeing all the animals trot in two by two (including lions, tigers, polar bears, elephants, penguins, etc.). I also thought the Tower of Babel was presented in an impressive fashion, and the sight of Nimrod climbing to the top in order to shoot an arrow up into the heavens was a nice touch that more than earned God's anger and resulted in the dispersal of different languages among the people.
I have mixed feelings over the action surrounding Abraham. George C. Scott is one of the greatest actors to ever live, but I'm just not sure he was a good choice to play the Hebrew patriarch. Ava Gardner also did not thrill me with her performance as Sarah, who came off as a cold and rather unbecoming figure. Her first scene is apparently supposed to show the love she and Abraham share with one another, but the whole episode makes Sarah seem wanton and made me feel pretty darn icky long before it was over. Of course, Sarah's wish to have her servant Hagar bear Abraham the child she could not give him has always hurt my opinion of the couple, a feeling only exacerbated by Abraham's abandonment of Hagar and Ishmael after God delivers on His promise that the elderly, barren Sarah would bear a son to be named Isaac. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is of course interesting, and Huston certainly made the point about Sodom being a den of pure evil as the angels of the Lord enter to save Lot and his family (including his wife who would pay for disobeying God's order not to look back as the family is fleeing).
The film ends with Abraham's almost-sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac. Abraham totally wigs out a couple of times, especially as he and Isaac make their way through the ruins of Sodom, but the reaction is understandable. This was the hardest test God could have given to Abraham, and the man's faith cannot be questioned by God or man as the film's credits begin to roll.
This film really isn't that well-known these days, and I think it does have some weaknesses. Ironically, the humor that works its way into the story of Noah makes an otherwise long, dry film much more bearable, however. No other film I know of sets out to do what this film does, however, and that makes it more than worth one's time. I don't think it will necessarily help to convert unbelievers, but those of Christian or Jewish faith may well benefit from this recreation of the earliest stories recorded in the Bible and Torah.