Pauline Kael

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751

The worst problem of recent movie epics is that they usually start with an epic in another form and so the director must try to make a masterpiece to compete with an already existing one. This is enough to petrify most directors but it probably delights Huston. What more perverse challenge than to test himself against the Book? It's a flashy demonic gesture, like Nimrod shooting his arrow into God's heaven.

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Huston shoots arrows all over the place [in The Bible]; he pushes himself too hard, he tries to do too many different things. The movie is episodic not merely because the original material is episodic but also because, like [D. W.] Griffith in Intolerance, he can find no way to rhythm together everything that he's trying to do. Yet the grandeur of this kind of crazy, sinfully extravagant movie-making is in trying to do too much…. Huston's triumph is that despite the insanity of the attempt and the grandiosity of the project, the technology doesn't dominate the material: when you respond to the beauty of such scenes in The Bible as the dispersal of the animals after the landing of the Ark, it is not merely the beauty of photography but the beauty of conception. (p. 132)

Huston retains that angry God, and Eve as the source of mischief, and phrases disquieting to modern ears, like "Fair are the angels of God." He hasn't taken the fashionable way out of trying to turn it all into charming metaphors and he hasn't "modernized" it into something comfortable and comforting. He doesn't, in the standard show business way, twist the story to make the hero sympathetic. (p. 133)

The movie may present a problem for religious people who have learned not to think of the Bible stories like this: it is commonly understood now that although the childish take the stories for truth, they are then educated to know that the stories are "metaphorical." The movie undercuts this liberal view by showing the power (and terror) of these cryptic, primitive tribal tales and fantasies of the origins of life on earth and why we are as we are. This God of wrath who frightens men to worship ain't no pretty metaphor.

One of the worst failures of the movie is, implicitly, a rather comic modern predicament. Huston obviously can't make anything acceptable out of the Bible's accounts of sinfulness and he falls back upon the silliest stereotypes of evil: the barbaric monsters who jeer at Noah's preparations for the Flood look like leftovers from a Steve Reeves Hercules epic, and the posing, prancing faggots of Sodom seem as negligible as in La Dolce Vita. God couldn't have had much sense of humor if He went to the trouble of destroying them. Even their worship of the Golden Calf seems like a nightclub act, absurd all right, but not nearly as horrible as the animal sacrifices that God accepts of Abel and orders of Abraham. It is a measure of the strength of Huston's vision that we are constantly shocked by the barbarism of this primitive religion with its self-serving myths; it is a measure of weakness that he goes along with its strange notions of evil without either making them believable or treating them as barbaric. Only in the rare moments when the Bible's ideas of wrong and our ideas of wrong coincide—as in Cain's murder of his brother—can Huston make sin convincing. (pp. 133-34)

Probably the most seriously flawed sequence is the Tower of Babel, and as it is one of the most brilliant conceptions in the work, it is difficult to know why it is so badly structured and edited. The ideas remain latent: we can see what was intended, but the sequence is over before the dramatic point has been developed. And in this sequence, as in several others, Huston seems unable to maneuver the groups of people in the foreground; this clumsiness of staging and the dubbing of many of the actors in minor roles produce occasional dead scenes and dead sounds. It would be better if the musical score were dead: it is obtrusively alive, and at war with the imagery. (p. 134)

Pauline Kael, "Epics: 'The Bible', 'Hawaii', 'Dr. Zhivago'" (originally published in a different form as "Epics: 'The Bible' and 'Hawaii'," in The New Republic, Vol. 155, No. 17, October 22, 1966), in her Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (© 1966 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1968, pp. 131-37.∗

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