• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, July 21, 2006

    Huston on making The Bible

    I realised the other day that I haven't blogged on a film about the Old Testament since the 5th June when I posted about the planned, Ten Commandments spoof, The Ten to star Paul Rudd. This is, of course, partly due to having time off for becoming a father, as well wanting to cover Radio 4's Silverscreen Beats series on the music of various Jesus films, as well as there being a fair bit of news about forthcoming Jesus films such as The Nativity Story, and the BBC's Passion. Anyway, it's clearly time to redress the balance.

    Recently, I picked up a copy of John Huston's auto-biography "An Open Book" (which you can search inside at Amazon). My main point of interest was of course his discussion of his 1966 film The Bible: In the Beginning which is one of my favourite Old Testament films, and which I discussed briefly in my review of films about Genesis. Huston, as the title suggests, is fairly open about the various comings and goings, and is much more interested in telling stories surrounding the production that giving a careful shot by shot analysis of every scene. Although he later denied any similarity with Cecil B. DeMille, they do, at least, have this in common.1

    Huston raises a number of interesting points. Firstly, he clearly has a love for animals, and readily gives the impression that the part of the film he enjoyed most was the scenes of Noah's Ark. Of course, ultimately Huston himself played Noah, and incorporated into the final film several of the quirky habits of some of his four legged friends such as the elephant that uses his trunk to force Huston to stroke him some more, the hippo who would open his mouth as soon as he heard Huston approach, and the giraffes that would block his path until he fed them sugar. Despite his love of animals, and the high level of care and personal attention he gave to them before and during filming, Huston originally had wanted Charlie Chaplin for the role.
    It would have been a strange choice, although perhaps it explains the strangely anachronistic scene where Noah gets a bucket of pitch stuck on his foot, and slides down the ark's sloping deck. That scene has always felt so out of keeping with the feel of the rest of the film. The other actor Huston wanted for the role was Alec Guinness who was at the time, popularly known as much for his (Ealing) comedy as his more serious work.

    My favourite sequence of the film is the creation scene, and Huston explains how they spent quarter of a million on these opening few minutes alone. The scenes were not shot by Huston, but by stills photographer Ernst Haas, who had no experience of motion picture photography and had to go on a crash course before flying to the far corners of the globe to get his footage. Huston explains how he wanted these scenes to be shown...
    ...not as a single event at the beginning of time, but as a continuing, eternal process. Each morning is a new creation - something now and forever.
    What is impressive about these, in addition to the jaw dropping beauty of the images, is the way they so skilfully plot a course between a seven-day literalist interpretation on the one hand, and more metaphorical readings on the other. Just like the written text, the viewer looks at the raw material and is able to apply their own interpretation. In fact, the whole film works in a similar way. the great strength of this film is how it manages to be rigidly literal to the text, whilst simultaneously suggesting a mythical reading.

    When interviewed about the film, Huston was almost always asked if he believed the bible literally, and he obligingly includes his stock response that

    Genesis represented a transition from Myth, when man, faced with creation and other deep mysteries, invented explanations for the inexplicable; to Legend, when he attributed to his forebears heroic qualities of leadership, valor and wisdom; to History, when, having emerged from Myth and Legend, accounts of real exploits and events of the past were handed down from father to son before the written word.
    The reading of Genesis marking a movement from myth to legend to history is not uncommon, in fact CS Lewis expressed a similar view in his essay "Is Theology Poetry" for "Screwtape Proposes a Toast":
    The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical - hanging in the clouds: but gradually the truth condenses, becomes more and more historical. From things like Noah's Ark or the sun standing still upon Ajalon, you come down to the court memoirs of King David. Finally you reach the New Testament and history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate.
    (You can read more of this here)

    Huston does reveal a few of the tricks of the film. The tower of babel was shot on two sets in two different countries. The base was built on the studio's back lot (presumably in Italy), whilst the summit was built on the top of a steep slope outside Cairo. However, to give the impression of a tall tower whilst filming at the base they used a glass shot (painting the top of the tower, in correct perspective, on a piece of glass positioned in front of the camera). He also discusses in some detail the process used to create the (seemingly unedited) creation of Adam sequence using three clay casts built by sculptor Giacomo Manzu.

    There are also a few interesting quotes. He recounts, for example, what is probably his most famous cry during filming "I don't know how God managed, I'm having a terrible time". It would appear that this was caused more by George C. Scott and the Egyptian authorities, than by animals behaving as they shouldn't.

    There are also a number of quotes on the nature of his faith. Perhaps the most extensive is his answer to the question "Do you believe in God?"
    in the beginning, the Lord God was in love with mankind and accordingly jealous. He was forever asking mankind to prove our affection for Him: for example, seeing if Abraham would cut his son's throat. But then, as eons passed, His ardor cooled and He assumed a new role--that of a beneficient deity. All a sinner had to do was confess and say he was sorry and God forgave him. The fact of the matter was that He had lost interest. That was the second step. Now it would appear that He'd forgotten about us entirely. He's taken up, maybe, with life elsewhere in the universe on another planet. It's as though we ceased to exist as far as He's concerned. Maybe we have.

    The truth is I don't profess any beliefs in an orthodox sense. It seems to me that the mystery of life is too great, too wide, too deep, to do more than wonder at. Anything further would be, as far as I'm concerned, an impertinence.
    You can read more of Huston's quotes on religion, faith and God here.

    1-Madsen, A., John Huston: A Biography, Doubleday and Company: Garden City, New York (1978), p. 212

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    • At 4:15 am, July 22, 2006, Blogger Unknown said…

      I love "The Bible. . . In the Beginning" too. Everytime I imagine how Adam and Eve, the mark of Cain, Noah's ark, Nimrod and the tower of Babel, Hagar, and the angels who visited Lot looked like, the images that come to my mind are the images from this film. How I wish John Huston extended the story up to the time of the Maccabees!

    • At 8:31 am, July 25, 2006, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Yeah that would have been great. Huston did say in the book that Dino De Laurentiis wanted to do the whole thing, (hence the title "The Bible" but I don't think this made enough money for him to produce the rest.


    • At 4:09 am, July 28, 2006, Blogger beepbeepitsme said…

      "Properly read, the BIBLE is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived." Isaac Asimov


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