Published on August 25th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Bible: In the Beginning… 
Summary: A grand staging of some of the greatest hits of Genesis. Huston's film is an epic 3 hours of grandiose set design and lush scoring but nothing in this picture moves you. I've seen shoot-em-up flicks made with more passion than this.
NR | 174 min.
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Christopher Fry (based on “The Bible: Book of Genesis”)
Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
Starring: George C. Scott, Ava Gardner, John Huston
Distribution: 20th Century Fox | U.S. Box Office: $34,900,023
Say what you will about religion, but it has been the inspiration for some of the world’s greatest popular art for at least the last millennium. Da Vinci and Michelangelo’s religious Renaissance paintings remain awe-inspiring, Mozart’s sacred music can still move you to tears and Dante’s “Divine Comedy” continues to be an adapted text 700 years after it was written.
Great films have been made in the name of divine inspiration as well—including Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (the latter of which is a member of our prestigious 5-Star Club).
But there are plenty of middling, uninspired religious films out there as well. So what separates the angelic from the unholy? Passion.
Director John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning has the formula for a cinematic religious experience but fails to evoke any emotional response from its actors, and therefore its audience.
The film’s title comes from the fact that this Biblical adaptation covers only the first 22 chapters of the Book of Genesis, from The Creation to Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac in the mountains of Moriah. Many of what I’ll call “The Bible’s Greatest Hits” are depicted in this movie, including the Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Bible opens as the book does, with darkness and the voice of God (Huston, who also narrates the picture). From these opening scenes you know you’re in for an all-out 1960s studio epic. The Creation is depicted with all the power of a peaceful nature documentary as we’re given images of a sunrise, stars in the night sky and flowing waters. All the while, Huston narrates with “The Bible’s” english translation and composer Toshiro Mayuzumi’s outstanding score move things along.
One of my knocks on this film, and most Biblical features in general, is that it assumes you already know “The Bible.” Let’s face it, if you weren’t already familiar with Genesis, this opening would be completely bizarre and ridiculous.
A fully-grown naked man (Michael Parks, Texas Ranger Earl McGraw from Kill Bill) suddenly appears from the dust followed soon after by an equally nude woman (Ulla Bergryd), save for her perfect, breast-covering-length hair. McGraw’s Adam is a real charmer, as his first words to his mate are, “She is now bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” which I guess goes down as the first pick-up line ever used.
Huston’s filmmaking style in the scenes that take place inside the Garden of Eden is minimalist, bordering on art-house. Parks and Bergryd perform in a distant manner, with laconic speaking patterns. Performances like this are part of what give The Bible such a dead atmosphere. For a film that features stories of lives beginning (Creation), being saved (Noah) and being violently ended (Sodom)—The Bible doesn’t feel alive at all. It’s all very cold and calculated, even if the sets are impressive.
Cinematographer Giuseppe Rottuno, who would later win a BAFTA for shooting 1979’s All That Jazz, clearly has great command of the camera throughout this film. He frames the hell out of the shots, making mammoth set pieces like the Ark and the Tower of Babel seem even larger. But again, it’s the cold performances of The Bible that largely subtract from the end result.
It also must be said that Christopher Fry’s screenplay is horribly boring. I don’t envy anyone having to write an adaptation of “The Bible,” because your every move will be watched with a magnifying glass and a zealot will pick you apart no matter the quality of your work. However, these are great stories—any of the four major plots that fill The Bible could make a solid film of their own—but it’s a shame Fry and 20th Century Fox decided to use the original Biblical vocabulary. The picture is full of “thee,” “thou” and antiquated sentence structure that takes the audience right out of the drama.
Later in the movie, Cain is played by Richard Harris (Dumbledore in the first couple Harry Potter films), who honestly wastes a chance to play one of the most troubled characters ever written. The inner turmoil of Cain should have festered until he senselessly killed his brother Abel (Franco Nero), but instead Harris uses loud interpretive body language and unabashed melodrama. It’s a shame.
We transition to the story of Noah (played by Huston) about an hour into the picture, for the film’s most boring sequence. Again, the art direction is first rate and as the Ark is under construction, it’s intriguing to see this massive ship coming together but once the flooding starts, things really drag. If it weren’t for Mayuzumi’s musical score, I may have fallen asleep during this bit. 80 minutes into The Bible, the music has hardly stopped for a single scene! The sheer amount of music Mayuzumi had to write should have been enough to get him Oscar gold.
After an intermission, which always seems silly when you’re watching at home, The Bible‘s second half begins, where the picture turns very Hollywood. The Tower of Babel story lasts only about 15 minutes before the story of Abraham takes up the remainder of the film.
George C. Scott plays the man who had “many sons,” according to the old tune we used to sing at daycare. This passage is where the film’s top talent are used as the beautiful Ava Gardner is Abraham’s wife Sarah and Peter O’Toole is a mysterious angel, bent on vaporizing Sodom and Gomorrah.
Scott dominates the screen and your stereo with his signature raspy voice but his performance honestly feels so stagey it’s tough to get much out of it as a viewer. On the other hand, O’Toole is striking as always, giving hands-down the best performance of The Bible as the movie’s stone cold killer. His piercing eyes convey more than most actors are able to with their entire bodies, as has been proven throughout the film.
In any other year, The Bible would have been considered one of the top epics from Hollywood. It features A-list talent, outstanding production values and earned a healthy return at the box office. But in 1966, it went head-to-head with The Sound of Music and the insanely popular Doctor Zhivago, which made people forget about Huston’s film pretty quickly come awards season. In the end, only Mayuzumi’s original score was nominated for an Oscar, which it lost.
A good sermon should move you, and perhaps open your eyes to seeing the world in a different light. John Huston’s film adaptation of “The Bible” left me totally cold, with nary a moment of real emotion in its 3-hour run. It was certainly directed with care, but often too much care can be the biggest barrier a movie can have in reaching its audience.