Movie Epics

When the announcement was made that Norman Mailer’s An American Dream was to be made into a movie, my reaction was that John Huston was the only man who could do it. And what a script it could be for him! But Huston was working on The Bible.  A quarter of a century had passed since The Maltese Falcon, it was a long time since San Pietro and The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Red Badge of Courage and The African Queen. It was a decade since the stirring, often brilliant, but misconceived Moby Dick, and Huston had gone a different route—away from the immediacy of men testing themselves and the feel and smell of American experience. He had become a director of spectacles. Possibly, because of the way that big movie stars and directors live in a world of their own, insulated and out of touch, he might not even recognize that An American Dream was the spectacle of our time; was, even, his spectacle.

It turns out he was, at least, testing himself as, earlier, he had attempted to do in Moby Dick, and, even after that, in parts of The Roots of Heaven. If, in making The Treasure of Sierra Madre he risked comparison with Creed, and if with The Red Badge of Courage, he risked comparison with The Birth of a Nation, The Bible risks comparison with Intolerance. It is a huge sprawling epic—an attempt to use the medium to its fullest, to overwhelm the senses and feelings, for gigantic myth-making, for a poetry of size and scope.

In recent years the spectacle form has become so vulgarized that probably most educated moviegoers have just about given it up. They don’t think of movies in those terms anymore because in general the only way for artists to work in the medium is frugally. Though there might occasionally be great sequences in big pictures, like the retreat from Russia in King Vidor’s War and Peace, those who knew the novel had probably left by then. But if you will admit that although you may have gone to see Lawrence of Arabia under the delusion that it was going to be about T. E. Lawrence, you stayed to enjoy the vastness of the desert and the pleasures of the senses that a huge movie epic can provide, the pleasures of largeness and distances, then you may be willing to override your prejudices and too-narrow theories about what the art of the film is, and go to see The Bible.

For John Huston is an infinitely more complex screen artist than David Lean. He can be far worse than Lean because he’s careless and sloppy and doesn’t have all those safety nets of solid craftsmanship spread under him. What makes a David Lean spectacle uninteresting finally is that it’s in such goddam good taste. It’s all so ploddingly intelligent and controlled, so “distinguished.” The hero may stick his arm in blood up to the elbow but you can be assured that the composition will be academically, impeccably composed. Lean plays the mad game of super-spectacles like a sane man. Huston (like Mailer) tests himself, plays the crazy game crazy—to beat it, to win.

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.

Huston shoots arrows all over the place; 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 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. We tend, now, to think of the art of the film in terms of depth, but there has always been something about the eclectic medium of movies that, like opera, attracts artists of Promethean temperament who want to use the medium for scale, and for a scale that will appeal to multitudes. I don’t mean men like De Mille who made smallminded pictures on a big scale, they’re about as Promethean as a cash-register. I mean men like Griffith and Von Stroheim and Abel Gance and Eisenstein and Fritz Lang and Orson Welles who thought big. Men whose prodigious failures could make other people’s successes look puny. This is the tradition in which Huston’s The Bible belongs. It’s one in the eye—a big one in the eye—for those who talk about how artists should strive for excellence.

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 scenes in The Bible, it is not merely the beauty of photography but the beauty of conception.

The stories of Genesis are, of course, free of that wretched masochistic piety that makes movies about Christ so sickly. Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew was so static that I could hardly wait for that loathsome prissy young man to get crucified. Why do movie-makers think that’s such a good story, anyway? If He could save Himself, why didn’t He? Did He die just to make everybody feel rotten? The only thing that gives the story plausibility is, psychologically, not very attractive. And whether it’s told the De Mille way, loaded with hypocritic sanctity, or the Pasolini way, drabness supposedly guaranteeing purity and truth, it’s got a bad ending that doesn’t make sense after those neat miracles.

The legends that Huston uses are, fortunately, more remote in time, are indeed, all “miracles” and we are spared sanctity. The God who orders these events is so primitive and inexplicable that we may indeed wonder and perhaps be appalled. From Eve, whose crime scarcely seems commensurate with her punishment, on through to Hagar cast into the wilderness, and the cruel proof of obedience demanded of Abraham, it is a series of horror stories, alleviated only by the sweet and hopeful story of the Ark, where, for once, God seems to be smiling—no doubt, because we are taken inside the boat rather than left outside to suffer in the Flood. Huston tells it straight and 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. Only with Peter OToole’s three angels do we get the stale breath of the New Testament with the familiar skinny figure and that suffering-for-our-sins Look.

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 night-club act, absurd all right, but not nearly as horrible as the animal sacrifices that God accepts of Cain 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.

This movie has more things wrong with it than his Moby Dick, but they’re not so catastrophic. Though Huston might conceivably have made a great Ahab himself, Gregory Peck could not: that nice man did not belong in the whirling center of Melville’s vision. In The Bible it’s questionable if that Ahab-character Huston belongs in Noah’s homespun on the Ark. He plays it in the crowd-pleasing vein of his cute, shrewd Archbishop in The Cardinal: his Noah is puckish old innocent, a wise fool. He indulged his father Walter Huston in one scene of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, when the grizzled, toothless old prospector, tended by native lovelies, cocked an eye at the audience. Huston’s Noah keeps asking the audience’s indulgence, and Huston as director extends it. What was a momentary weakness in Huston Senior is the whole acting style of Huston Junior. His air of humility and wonder isn’t so much acted as assumed, like a trick of personality—a doubletake that has taken over the man.

The early part of the Abraham and Sarah story is poor: it looks and sounds like acted-out Bible stories on television. But then it begins to unfold, and we see that gentle, intelligent man Abraham raised to nobility by suffering. I mean we really see it. George C. Scott has the look of a prophet, and he gives the character an Old Testament fervor and splendor. Its a subdued, magnificent performance.

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.

Now that Huston has done the Old Testament version of the beginnings of life, why doesn’t he do the story of evolution? I’m serious: I can’t think of a better story than how life probably developed on earth, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the public is ready for it.