• 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


    Thursday, June 14, 2007

    Noah's Ark (1928) - Review

    Noah's Ark came at the end of two distinctly different eras in the cinema. Firstly the age of the silent movie was drawing to a close. The Jazz Singer had opened everyone's eyes to the potential of talking pictures and both cinemas and studios alike were making the necessary changes to take advantage of the new technology.

    In the meantime studios were stuck with the problem of what to do with half finished films which had been, thus far, shot as silents, but risked being seen as outmoded unless drastic action was taken. The solution that many studios took was to complete some of the remaining scenes with sound so that the films were part silent but also part talking. Hitchcock's The Lodger, where only the opening sequence is silent, is one famous example, particularly because it's so innovative with its use of sound.

    In Noah's Ark, however, sound occurs more haphazardly. Characters talk, but then go back to miming again moments later. The soundtrack takes advantage of the new technology more effectively using sound effects to complement the action to good effect.

    It was also the end of the first golden age of the biblical epic, which, despite the popularity of bible based films since the dawn of cinema, had peaked during the 1920s. The director of Noah's Ark, Michael Curtiz, had already made his name with a string of biblical films including Sodom und Gomorrah, Samson und Delila1 (both 1922) and Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel - 1924). The following year DeMille's The Ten Commandments had been a huge success and the great showman has followed it up four years later with his version of the life of Jesus in The King of Kings.

    DeMille's movies, as well as others such as Ben Hur (1925) set new benchmarks for production scale, and Noah's Ark certainly follows suit. The size of some of the sets, and the impressive special effects are truly awesome. The scenes of the flood, complete with a storm and torrents of water appearing from nowhere, are truly impressive. Tragically the quest for drama went too far and several extras were drowned during the filming of these scenes.

    The problem with the ever-growing spectacle of the biblical epics was that the depression was just around the corner - something that, bizarrely, this film seems to predict. The combination of reduced cash flow, and the birth of the Hays Production Code brought the end to the first golden age of the biblical epic. The trend would not really get going again until the 1950s. By then Curtiz had moved into more film making including now classic films such as Casablanca and White Christmas.

    It's actually the modern story which is overarching in this film. Whilst there is a brief prologue which features footage of Noah, a statue of Jesus and a montage of stock market clips, the story proper starts in 1914. In the first of the film's three catastrophes, a train carrying the major characters crashes and a young, blond German girl (Mary) is pulled from the wreckage by buddies Travis and Al. Travis and Mary fall instantly in love, but their relationship is threatened by the outbreak of the first world war and a Russian spy who had also been aboard the train. Despite getting married the couple are separated due to the war, and are not reunited until Mary finds herself in front of Travis' firing squad. An explosion intervenes and leaves the couple trapped by the rubble along with an old preacher who tells them the story of Noah.

    This then forms the context for the Noah story. The actors from the first part of the film take similar roles in the Noah story (à la The Wizard of Oz): so Noah is played by the same actor as the old preacher; Travis and Al pair up with Japheth and Ham; Mary doubles as Japheth's sweetheart, Miriam; and the Russian spy is the evil, idol-worshipping King Nephilim. The minor actors also double up in a similar fashion.

    However, the story of Noah is just a pretext for a re-run of the Travis-Mary story. Miriam is chosen at random to be sacrificed to King Nephilim's God Jaguth. When Japheth comes to her rescue he is enslaved only to be freed by the arrival of the flood. Once the pair are safely aboard the ark, the script reverts, almost immediately, to the end of the modern story.

    It's difficult to know quite how much Curtiz was influenced by DeMille and vice versa. Around the early 1920s both men borrowed D.W. Griffith's idea of paralleling a biblical story with a modern melodrama. Curtiz's Sodom und Gomorrah and Samson und Delila seem to have come out slightly before DeMille's The Ten Commandments, but Curtiz's Moses film
    Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel) definitely came out afterwards. But given the time taken to film such large scale films, and that the two men were working in different continents at the time it's certainly possible that the two were almost completely unaware of what the other was doing.

    What is clear, however, is the way in which Curtiz draws on aspects of all three of these previous films in making Noah's Ark. There are a myriad of visual and textual references to other biblical stories, especially those he had already filmed, as well as some to the story of Jesus. So there are people crushed under golden calves, climbing up mountains, burning bushes, lightning writing on tablets, people being blinded and forced to drive a mill, falling temples, water falling lava like from above engulfing those in its path, stabbings in the side, references to Golgotha, and words taken from the Lord's prayer.

    Unfortunately, in the midst of all these biblical references the actual story of Noah is lost. The old preacher's story gets so taken up in pagan temples, dramatic floods, and the love between the protagonists that it's unlikely it helped those he'd sought to illuminate. The film never gets behind the character of Noah and has precious little to say about the events that occurred once everyone was on board.

    It's a shame because some of the film's sequences are incredibly well executed. In particular the scene where the animals rush towards the ark, capturing the urgency and the chaos of the scene is masterful. DeMille would have shown animals marching in in precise double file. Here Curtiz is more than happy to adhere a little more loosely to a literal reading. This makes the scene far more natural and realistic, as well as putting it in line with idea of the animals being sent by God rather than gathered by Noah.

    Unfortunately the film's weakness detract from such merits. The modern story is mediocre and overly melodramatic, whereas the Noah episode gets lost in its own technical proficiency. It was the last time Curtiz made a biblical epic, and the last time a film solely about Noah made it onto the silver screen.

    1 - The extent to which Curtiz was involved in Samson und Delila is unclear some sources list him as only the costume designer, whereas others list him as supervising director and credit him with the film's success.

    Labels: , , ,


    • At 8:29 am, May 21, 2009, Blogger arnel said…

      One of the good scene in this film, were a pastor and a russian secret service officer debated about the existence of God inside the oriental express, until the train fell on the bridge. beautiful background music. good acting of Dolores Costello.

    • At 9:53 am, May 21, 2009, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for your post.

      It's been a while since I saw this, but I have to agree that this is a very interesting scene, although the details of it are somewhat lost on me now.


    • At 1:30 pm, May 22, 2009, Blogger arnel said…

      I first saw this film in 1977 during Holy week in the Philippines,after 32 years I saw it again at youtube, but some scenes are deleted (The opening Credit are not Included).


    Post a Comment

    << Home