The Bible: In The Beginning... (1966)
What film director can resist the idea of playing God? John Huston sure couldn’t, although he was an unusual candidate to direct a big-budget religious movie, given he was an ornery irreligious type. Then again so was Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had made The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964), which suggests the field of religious films made by atheists might be one of the smallest but most vital subgenres in existence. Huston had achieved great respect making films as good as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1949) and The Red Badge of Courage (1951) in the first decade of his career. By comparison, his work in the late 1950s and ‘60s was generally regarded as patchy and disappointing, a phase replete with movies made as working holidays and prestige productions that didn’t live up to their hype. And yet Huston’s restless creative bent in this phase demands reappraisal, from the live-wire portraits of psychic pain in The Misfits (1961) and Freud (1962) to dealing with taboo topics on Night of the Iguana (1964) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).
The Bible: In The Beginning... saw Huston accept an offer from Italian impresario Dino De Laurentiis, to make a film that proved Huston’s biggest-budget effort, one which gained him little critical favour (Pauline Kael was a notable exception) and, whilst a big hit, still couldn't earn back its hefty price tag. Released towards the tail-end of the epic movie vogue, The Bible: In The Beginning... represented an attempt to break away from the codified style of biblical film represented in many minds by the likes of The Ten Commandments (1956). Spurning much standard technique of dramatization, Huston instead worked with playwright Christopher Fry, who had helped pen Ben-Hur without credit, to realise the Bible, or, more accurately, the first half of the book of Genesis, as a series of starkly illustrative vignettes, vignettes that extend the semi-surreal, pointedly symbolic evocations of the dream sequences in Freud into an entire movie. Huston wields them, much like those dreams, as a system of representations, a means of anatomising the mental landscape of contemporary humanity via the potency of their formative parables, recounting the strange, often brutal mythology of Genesis as a series of calamitous clashes between deity and creation that slowly but surely shapes civilisation.
Huston moves through well-known stories, trying to find their connective tissue. Adam (Michael Parks) is created along with Eve (Swedish academic Ulla Bergryd in her only major acting role) and falls from Eden. Cain (Richard Harris) slays brother Abel (Franco Nero) in jealousy when the Lord prefers his sacrificial offering of meat, and is driven into a desolate world to found his own depraved race. Noah (Huston) shepherds his family and the animals aboard the Ark to survive the Deluge. Nimrod (Stephen Boyd) provokes the ire of God by building the Tower of Babel. Abram (George C. Scott) and his wife Sarai (Ava Gardner) find themselves chosen to become parents of nations as Abraham and Sarah, but first must contend with such travails as Abraham’s nephew Lot being captured in battle and then taking up residence in the city of Sodom, earmarked by God for annihilation. Meanwhile Sarah encourages Abraham to father a child with her Egyptian handmaiden Hagar (Zoe Sallis), resulting in the child Ishmael, but when Sarah finally gives birth to her own son Isaac, she becomes convinced the two siblings will repeat the sin of Cain and Abel, and so Abraham casts out Ishmael and his mother. But the bill comes due when Abraham learns he must sacrifice Isaac to prove his perfect fidelity to the Lord.
Huston made a conscientious effort to leave behind the cozy, tony precepts of much mainstream religious cinema, creating a version of biblical myth that exists at once in a zone of dreamy abstraction and earthy realism, with interludes that plunge into a deep zone of atavistic fantasy. Huston's Bible is a place of blood sacrifice and half-glimpsed obscenities, bifurcated animal carcasses and effete wannabe god-kings, benign animal lovers, burning sands, world-trees and raging atomic hellfire, all rendered in terms at once tangibly vivid and subtly stylized by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno. Three angels with the same face (Peter O’Toole) are glimpsed as fluttering, transparent figures across a jagged plain. The film cumulatively gains a similar quality to many a book cover illustration from the period in searching for a mode of totemic conceptualism. The most immediate example of this comes in a scene depicting Abram making his covenant with God by offering up animal sacrifice, laying out the gory results on altar-like stones hovering in the midst of grand blackness, Scott enacting the rite in a series of silent movie-like gestures and postures, Huston's images dissolving one into the next.
Huston and Fry use relatively little dialogue, and what there is of it is derived from the King James Bible, and Huston provides narration that works with his images to tell the story. The force of his pictures communicates a primeval zone of being and becoming, but the dandified elegance of the dialogue promotes an ironic remove. The film opens with a magisterial recounting of the Creation set to Huston’s documentary footage of erupting volcanoes, roiling seas, sun-licked cloud, animals and birds, collapsing boundaries between religious and scientific perceptions of genesis before Adam is seen forming in the midst of a williwaw. Parks’ Adam with sinewy frame and blithe, faintly quizzical simplicity, picks himself up and reaches up to Huston’s craning camera to reproduce Michelangelo’s concept from the creator’s perspective, creation both fair and abiding but also small, out of reach, already lost to a physical existence filled with tantalising mystery. Eve appears and Adam first hides her face before revealing it again, as if shocked by the presence of an equal and opposite form of identity in the face of his own. The serpent in the Tree of Good and Evil is glimpsed lurking in the midst of black branches and white flowers, cut into vague impressions of twisting limbs and hissing mouth, promising divine knowledge to the oblivious duo.
The shape of the tree is the mark stamped upon Cain’s brow emblazoning him to eternity as a murderer but also under God’s protection. Huston extends a dialogue of earth and heaven in his visuals, shooting Cain’s confrontation of Abel through the heads of grain stalks and then sending his camera up into the air on a crane to peer down on the guiltily frantic Cain. Cain’s exile sees him fleeing into grim volcanic wastes, before Huston portrays his descendants as degenerating into human sacrifice, developing Huston’s concept of the story of Genesis as one of pagan sacrificial customs giving way to a new creed. The Noah segment is perhaps the film’s most straightforward and familiar take on biblical material, offering the story with jolts of awe and cruel judgement, but laced with gentle humour, with Huston himself giving a peach of a slapstick performance as the idealised patriarch who shepherds his family and the animals under his care with the same knockabout grace, offering an incidental portrait of the man his daughter Anjelica once suggested liked animals as much or more than people. Huston had apparently asked his own cinematic god Charlie Chaplin to play the part, and took the role after he turned it down. Huston’s later casting as the corrupt titan Noah Cross in Chinatown (1974) depended to a degree upon Huston’s self-invited biblical associations from this film, where he also fills in for the voice of God.
Which, as egotistical as it could seem, is actually one of his best ideas, not only turning the film into a thesis on his place as manipulator of things and people into images but also because his vocalisation, with that inimitable undulating enunciation, is at once authoritative and calm. Huston doesn’t spare the grim side of the spectacle as the wailing of the desperate remnants of humanity clinging to mountain peaks is described by Noah as “the chaff whistling in the wind,” but shifts into studying the benign problems of trying to feed a boat full of rude animal life. The film’s shortest segment is the Tower of Babel sequence, and it’s the most disposable, with Boyd swathed in odd make-up turning up to bark a few tyrannical declamations and fire his arrow at the sky, provoking God’s wrath. But it also offers the most stunning interlude of spectacle afforded by De Laurentiis’ customary production grandeur, with a life-sized mock-up of the tower’s base and cunning use of perspective, with thousands of actors stampeding down upon a dry plain in abstract forms, and Boyd and other actors on the peak of the “tower,” evidently actually a natural landmark. Mid-1960s mainstream movie niceties prevent Huston showing Adam and Eve naked and any proper wickedness from the Sodomites, so Huston goes the other way and renders these semi-abstract visualisations.
The Bible: In The Beginning... is also the closest thing Huston came to making a musical before Annie (1982), relying as it does on the dance-like motions of his actors and gestural intensity to realise their characters — the vague and tentative attitudes of Adam and Eve, Cain’s contorted limbs and loping gait, Noah’s blend of clumsiness and deftness, Abraham’s steady and strident authority. Huston imbues a quality of nightmarishness to his take on scripture that's rather unique, matched only in flashes by the likes of George Stevens and Martin Scorsese in their portraits of Jesus interacting with Satan. The visit to Sodom turns into a kind of orchestrated dance number to suggest unspeakable perversities, the city's weirdo denizens adapting themselves into the shadows or melding into the architecture, faces leering out of the dark and human forms slithering in insinuated obscenity. Only here and there is the occasional direct glimpse of grotesquery, from an obese woman being fed and caressed by a cadre of male and female sex slaves to a woman being forced to kiss a bejewelled goat and going into ecstatic frenzies. Huston makes O’Toole’s eyes of hallucinatory blue, long a point of fixation for his shooters, into an actual weapon of cinematic and magical impact as he glare, turned upon the massing Sodomites, striking them blind.
Huston caps the sequence with a disturbing prophetic echo as he portrays Sodom as obliterated under the shadow of a mushroom cloud, an interpolation reminiscent of his revision of Melville to have the fated meeting with Moby Dick’s (1956) white whale at Bikini Atoll. The transformation of Lot’s wife’s (Eleonora Rossi Drago) into a pillar of salt resembles the scorching ossification under the flash of the atomic bomb. Later Huston has Abraham and Isaac (Luciano Conversi) visit the city’s scorched and shattered ruins, where the patriarch rages in awe of his deity’s judgemental power whilst Isaac stands beggared at the wrath that consumed even the nominally innocent, the ground littered with scorched skulls with snakes slithering out of the eye sockets. Huston’s confrontation with the arcane, inhumane ferocity implicit in so much of the Old Testament’s foundational stories is connected with modernity’s new reach of apocalyptic impact, and the thesis of the film overall is the human propensity for self-annihilation.
The wickedness that sparks the Deluge is characterised by Huston as human sacrifice, helping further his conception of Genesis as a process leading from the blithe innocence of Eden to a desperate attempt to gain control over eternity and being. This is connected with the resolutely human-level dramas of lineage and sexuality played out in the triangle of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, in the search for a pedigree of faithful pillars to found nations: Huston sees in them the roots for the personages and ghost-selves of Freud’s exploration of the family unit as nest of perversity and sexuality as the serpent that will not rest in the foliage (not at all surprisingly, Sallis was to become the mother of Huston’s actor son Danny). Where The Bible: In The Beginning… becomes awkward is when it tries to shift out of its recitative-like structure and offer up more traditional dramaturgy, and the film takes a swerve to more familiar territory as Scott and Gardner try to play love scenes whilst reciting pseudo-olden poesy. Scott however, with his hawkish eyes and shattered granite visage, looks the perfect biblical patriarch.
Huston had a habit of employing interesting composers for his movies, sometimes with little to no previous film scoring experience, as with Philip Sainton who had scored Moby Dick. Here he hired Japanese composer Toshiro Mayuzumi to bring a jolt of strangeness to the proceedings, particularly apparent in the spare, sonorous passages in the Eden scenes. Huston’s labours here seem from today’s vantage very much like the seed for a later breed of religious filmmaking. This film must have been a particularly strong influence on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), in blurring boundaries between distant historicism and post-apocalyptic science-fantasy, and perhaps on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), in trying to reduce much of the onscreen drama to a state of stark reportage drawing directly on the biblical text. The Sodom scenes seem to have had a strong impact on Federico Fellini, whose Fellini - Satyricon (1969) would adopt a similarly drifting, surveying perspective to glimpse human squalor and freakishness in his outsized and dreamlike Rome (and Rotunno would shoot it as well). Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which would more thoroughly translate Genesis into sci-fi, reproduces Huston’s analogy as well as his visual evocation of a questing for knowledge and transcendence entwined with a deadly and marauding sin, the first battles of the apes in his rude and blasted wilderness taking up a tune first whistled by Huston in his Cain and Abel sequence.
Flashes of great visual force continue, as in an astonishingly staged sequence when Abraham leads a raid on an enemy encampment to rescue Lot and other prisoners. Rotunno’s long, dashing camera movements regard backdrops aglow against pitch dark, stampeding animals with brands tied to their horns and charging avengers careening through the night to bring fire and the sword. The film ends with the near-sacrifice of Isaac and the reprieve, with its frightening and debatable statements about faith intact but also with Huston’s inference that the search for a version of human nature resistant to mere impulse and egotism gains at last a fulfilment, measuring the ironic paternal tenderness in Abraham’s binding and proffering of Isaac and the boy’s acquiescence to it and finding likeness to the seemingly contradictory demand that humanism only flourish when human will recognises its own limitations and the looming proximity of death, the entwined acts of adoration and annihilation perceived on both divine and personal levels, mercy only obtainable when the child is bound and the flint knife red from other slaughters ready for the plunge.