• 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


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    Saturday, November 16, 2019

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: The Tower of Babel

    Of all the entries in "The Greatest Heroes of the Bible" series this is the one that is most clearly in the tradition of the Hollywood Biblical Epic. This is partly because the fundamental core of the story - a spectacular act of destruction of an enormous piece of architecture - is the very essence of the traditional biblical epic where, according to Wood, ultimately the excess of human edifices are spectacularly destroyed in order to demonstrate the nations dependence on God.

    That said, it is also because screenwriter is allowed to take the scant basics of the text (a mere nine verses) and more or less create his story from scratch. And the story he creates is the classic Cold War narrative whereby a ruthless dictator attempts to fashion a monument to his own glory only to be opposed by a humble prophet of God, who sticks out tremendous opposition to be finally justified in his stance by God's intervention.

    Here the king is called Amathar and the prophet Joctan (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's Richard Basehart) yet at the beginning they are both simply members of the city's somewhat divided council. Part of the council wants to build a tower; part are opposed to the idea. When Amathar captures a lion using only a net and a dog in the opening scene, he returns home to be appointed by the council as it's leader and gradually he steers his role from a leader of the council, to a king an then ultimately he disbands the council and becomes a dictator.

    What's most interesting about all of this is its contemporary relevance, despite this episode being 40 years old this year. In the US (and to a lesser extent, the UK) there have been accusations of the erosion of democracy and a sense, that was absent from how this was presented in my younger days, that this is something that is facilitated by a sizeable group of the people as much as it is something that an individual seizes. I'll leave assessing the validity of these claims to you, but whether you agree with them or not, it seems undeniable that these are the terms that are being bandied around in certain circles and so it's interesting to see how the path presented in the film corresponds to the concerns being raised about the US's current path. Amathar at first is elected and initially uses spin to get people on his side. Initially he argues building the tower is a way to honour God, and then convinces the people to donate their free time as builders ("do it for free, as a gift"). Once this principle becomes agreed he then increases it, embeds it more in law and begins to turn those who oppose it into enemies of the state. Meanwhile he is also briefing against the council to weaken popular support even for the idea of a council, paving the way for him to remove the very idea of a council.

    All this time both sides are arguing that their path is the one that honours God. Amathar's argument is to build a landmark that honours him and gets as close to him as they can; Joktan attempts to remind the people that the instruction given in the ancient writings of Noah were to spread out to populate the earth. Banding together to build such a monument is not only opposed to that but smacks of arrogance and idolatry. In the midst of all this there is a focus on relationships. Between Amathar and Joktan is the latter's son, Hevet - who starts off in support of Amathar, but eventually comes to side with his father - his fiancé Tova, who always has sympathy with Joktan, even if she is initially cautious about expressing it. not least because of her father, Ranol, who starts as one of Amathar's aides only to switch sides as the dictatorship tightens its grip.

    A key moment in all of this comes, when Amathar's position is portrayed as fundamentally un-American is the moment when he asks the people to "give up their knives, spearheads, axes and anything of metal to be converted into tools to build the tower". Soon after, he tells the people that  "No-one may bear arms", and as if to force home the momentousness of that, the camera hones in on Joktan's horrified reaction. And of course there are accusations of corruption, and those in the king's inner circle profiting from the new administration, and citizens turning one another in ("my spies are everywhere" argues Amathar, just as Ranol flees to join the opposition and is ensnared in a repeat of the opening dog and net scene). Eventually the claim is made that Amathar "thinks he's a god" and he pushes the people too far and loses support. Joktan rallies his forces and they head off for a battle on the tower.

    It's only at this point - a while after the dictatorship has reached it's most oppressive - that God intervenes. Joktan prays "Whatever your will we live only to serve you" and "show them your wrath" and whilst one imagines he might have already made such a plea, it's also presented as a decisive moment. However, it also means that the fall of Amathar is as much as a result of human uprising as divine intervention and begins to feel like God's pyrotechnics are not strictly necessary, which is an odd end point given the basic plot of the story.  That said, ultimately it's a bolt of lightning that accounts for Amathar - a sign of God's judgement on his "vanity" and "arrogance".

    The series is fairly low budget, but the presence of drawn on bolts of lightning (against a blue sky, see above) were fairly well executed for the low budget at the time, and director James Conway relies on a mixture of techniques to convey the moment of judgement. In addition to the animated lightning, there are pyrotechnic explosions, shaking of the camera, and chunks of masonry falling off, with fast cutting between close scenes of imperilled individuals and the bigger picture. However, the tower (which is square based - notably not in the style of Bruegel and Doré) is never really that large, despite the script's protestations to the contrary, so obviously the scene never really creates the kind of spectacle that could be regularly observed in 1950s cinema.

    Bizarrely the closing narration refers to the descendants of Moses, rather than Noah, or Abraham. I'm not sure whether that is just a slip of the tongue/pen, or whether that is trying to link the episode into the series wider basis, but of those that I have seen so far, this is one of the more interesting ones, enjoying the freedom of not being tethered to an in-depth biblical plot.

    N.B. I've written this in something of a rush with quotes written down on a first watch and am unlikely to have time to return to double check them for sometime. Some details in the above, therefore, may well be inaccurate. 
    - Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press p.173-5

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