This is a big topic and Hollywood has given it a menu of movies rivaling ancient Rome, or the recent World Wars. My plan is to practice the art of distillation and lay out a chronology of the stories in the Old Testament highlighting the movies that best capture their time and place. The three Abrahamic faiths, which today define Western organized religion, mark their trackable history from the moment when the patriarch, Abraham, departed from the pagan lands of the ancient world with his nomadic tribe and migrated toward the west where it was promised by God that they would build a world Abrahamic society.
The history and geography of the early books of the Bible are difficult to pin down on maps or timetables. Nobody knows with certainty the extent to which the familiar characters in the stories ever existed or are the products of embroidery by much later biblical authors. Clearly, there is no historical or archaeological record of Adam and Eve or their offspring, and this is generally true of all of the other figures appearing in the book of Genesis. The only records we have of their existence come from the Bible, which is often suspected of filling in what cannot be known with creative writing. Nonetheless, the landscapes on which the stories play out are real and identifiable and their content has a life of its own, whether historical or metaphorical. The primary geography of the Old Testament can be marked out in a rough triangle with Haran (Turkey) at the top, Ur (Iraq) at the east corner, and Jerusalem (Israel) at the west corner; Egypt is appended under Israel.
The first movie in my memory that set out the key points of the biblical Middle East was John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning (1966). It’s a monumental vanity project, though it ends strongly with George C. Scott’s portrayal of Abraham. Covering the first 22 chapters of the Book of Genesis, the movie spans the creation of the heavens and the earth, the family dramas of Eden’s first citizens, the partnership between God and Noah, and the rejection of human sacrifice in the story of Abraham and Isaac, about 4,000 years ago.
It has been said that Michelangelo, when he painted the Sistine Chapel, identified himself with God creating the world. I think that John Huston held the same conceit when making this movie on the Book of Genesis. The trailer says it is as magnificent as the Book; Time magazine says skip the movie, read the Book. Huston plays the broadly comic Noah; he also plays God as a disembodied voice. On a more serious note, the last sequence in this movie, which concludes with the story of Abraham and Sarah, is played with some intensity by George C. Scott and Ava Gardner. Nominated only for its music, this film took home no Academy Awards.
Noah’s Ark (1929)
Noah’s Ark (1999) – TV Movie
The one immutable landmark associated with Noah is Mount Ararat, at the eastern end of Turkey. It is a majestic volcanic feature on the horizon, and there have been many claims to discoveries that Noah offloaded his cargo of humans and animals on this spot. There has been no conclusive evidence, however, that the ark set down on these slopes. Noah is more elusive than most of those who came after him in the genealogy of the Bible. There are many legends of the Flood from the various Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures of antiquity. As I was writing this page, the DVD of the most recent Noah movie arrived in my mailbox from Netflix.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, this film takes his mix of assets and liabilities to the critical level. In medieval times, it was popular to portray Noah as a buffoon, a drunkard, and a henpecked husband. This tradition survived into the 20th century with the self-indulgent rendition by John Huston. In Aronofsky’s take, Noah is a complex, troubled, strong and misguided man. For those in search of a more mature treatment than was found in familiar children’s stories, this was a hopeful change, but Aronofsky swings too far in the opposite direction. No doubt he thought of himself as startlingly original with this work, but it is in fact thunderingly derivative. If I had been asked who directed this, with no advance knowledge, I would have guessed Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and King Kong). It has the same shortcomings: overuse of special-effects and an inability to end a film while it is ahead. It begins with a kind of life-in-the-shire family drama quickly interrupted by the call to adventure. Perilous challenges await these simple folks who have been chosen by God, not for their heroism, but for their goodness. They are advised by the very old wizard, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Supernatural assistance appears almost immediately in the form of “the rock creatures.” Looking like stone Transformers, they are grotesque holdovers from the time of giants, and they are willing to help Noah and family bring the world back to the way it ought to be. They will do the heavy construction work and defend the family against the rage of those who are to be left behind. None of this is in the Bible.
The ark is a very large, box-like affair. The loading of the animals is accomplished entirely through CGI effects and leaves much to be desired in the way of verisimilitude. Partly for this reason, I suppose, the animals are never shown in their pens on the lower decks. The leader of the angry horde that claws at the ark as it rises on the flood manages to get inside and hide among the stalls. He will cause trouble later. Just before departure, Noah ventures into the nearby city to find a wife for his middle son, Ham. He witnesses scenes of cannibalism and is dissuaded. The only women on the ark are Noah’s wife (Jennifer Connelly), and their adopted daughter (Emma Watson) who will marry the oldest son, Shem.
The end brings a cruel plot twist. Noah develops an obsession with the idea that God wanted all human beings erased from the earth. When Shem’s wife gives birth to twin daughters, he proposes to kill the babies on the spot, forestalling the perpetuation of his bloodline. Knife in hand, he is about to slay the innocents when his thrust is halted not by an all-knowing God, but by his unexpected feelings of love. The ark bumps into a mountaintop and all passengers are put ashore. Noah is next seen drunk in a cave where he is visited by family members and persuaded that he is not evil. There is reconciliation and the movie ends with Noah in the loving embrace of his family. Absurd. I don’t object to innovation, but I really dislike arrogant distortion. Taking a cue from Huston, this film should have been called Aronofsky’s Noah.
There was a much earlier film called Noah’s Ark (1929), which also attempted to graft modern concepts onto the biblical tale. The style was different but the results were similar. The New York Times called it ridiculous.
Abraham and the Spiritual Nomads
Abraham (1994) – TV Movie
In the Beginning: From Creation to the Commandments (2000)
There is no plaque to mark the house at Ur, in the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley where it is said that Abraham was born, ten generations after Noah. But among the ruins, there is massive evidence of life in this city 4000 years ago. After his marriage to Sarai, the Bible says that Abraham and his extended family moved to Haran (archaic spelling) on the southern border of today’s Turkey. Not a significant stop for modern tourists, the remains of Haran are there to be seen, so long as warfare in the surrounding areas does not inhibit travel. When Abraham received his mandate from God to build a new nation, he led a caravan the long way around across the top of Syria and down to Canaan (later Israel). This reversion to nomadism involved a rejection of the old gods and a journey to a promised land where his tribe would increase. Stopping in a place called Shechem, they pitched their tents and tended their herds. Today this is the area of Nablus on the West Bank, not hospitable to tourism, see the movie The Attack, (2012), in Movies About Modern Israel.
Despite the occasionally vaudevillian qualities of the Huston movie, he did give us the first definitive Abraham in Technicolor. George C. Scott applied his signature gruff humanity to the role and gave a credible performance. The 20th century gave us three strong movie representations of Abraham. After Scott came the more nuanced version by Richard Harris; It is Harris in Abraham (1994) that gives us the complexity of the character and the most detail on his fatherhood of both the Hebraic tradition and the Islamic tradition.
Finally, there is the middle-of-the-road Abraham of Martin Landau in the TV miniseries, In the Beginning: From Creation to the Commandments (2000). Landau’s Abraham moves with dispatch through the critical events of the desert caravan, the embarrassment of Egypt where his wife is given up to Pharaoh, the fathering of two sons, and the drama of the near-sacrifice. This movie continues with the stories of the Hebraic family tree from Abraham to Moses. It pivots on the life of Jacob, son of Isaac and father of Joseph. From Abraham to Moses (about 1200 years), it is Egypt that provides the oppression through which the Jews forge their oppositional identity. There is an emphasis on the parallels in the lives of Joseph and Moses.
No trailers available for the 1994 and 2000 movies.
Having arrived in a time of desiccating drought, the caravan did not stay long in Shechem but moved on to Egypt. Here Abraham used his wife to bargain for favor with Pharaoh, just as his nephew, Lot, would do with his daughters in the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s transgression happened along the caravan route to Egypt, in the area of the Dead Sea.
Children of Abraham
The enshrined rock at the top of Temple Mount in Jerusalem is traditionally the place where Abraham was called upon to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It has been difficult to visit this site in recent decades. The shrine, called the Dome of the Rock, is a Muslim structure commemorating an important event in the life of Mohammed (see The Realm of Islam).
Isaac, Abraham’s second-born son, survived his brush with death and lived to beget Esau and Jacob. It was Jacob who fulfilled his destiny in the course of his journey from Canaan to Haran, and back again, by founding the nation of Israel. Isaac’s half-brother, Ishmael, went south into the Arabian Desert to become the progenitor of the Arab people, and many generations later, the religion of Islam. See below for movies on Abraham’s Children and generations that follow.
There are no Hollywood movies devoted to the lives of Isaac and Ishmael, sons of Abraham. However, Jacob, son of Isaac, gets movies of his own. Jacob’s legend follows him from the tents of his father, Isaac, to the homeland of his grandfather, Abraham, at Haran. He is in search of a wife and will have a great deal of trouble winning the hand of his beloved Rachel before returning to Canaan with a mandate from God to found the nation of Israel. His twelve sons will become the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes. Unlike most ancient nomadic people, who eventually settled within national boundaries, these tribes would continued to wander the world.
Hard Times in Egypt: Joseph
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999)
Joseph: King of Dreams (2000) – Animation
Jacob’s son, Joseph, would come to Egypt and acquit himself more honorably than his great-grandfather Abraham had done. The Book of Genesis, attributed to the authorship of Moses, ends with the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt. Joseph’s legendary success in the Land of the Pharaohs, after he had been sold into slavery by his envious brothers, makes a bridge between the first migrations to Canaan and the time of Moses. Joseph was joined in Egypt by his loving father, Jacob, and his repentant brothers. They lived well under the Pharaoh’s patronage. But after Joseph’s death, the attitudes of subsequent administrations changed toward the Jews and they were placed in bondage, building Egyptian architectural wonders.
Toward the turning of the millennium, there was a series of films about Joseph each in a distinct modern movie idiom. The made-for-TV movie, called Joseph (1995), features Ben Kingsley in the pivotal role of Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. He buys Joseph as a household slave and provides him with the opportunity to relate his family ancestry from Abraham to the present moment. Wikipedia has an exceptionally long write-up on this movie, and at the time of this writing it is available on YouTube. I could find no trailer.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999) is the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular stage musical, which debuted thirty odd years earlier as a school production in 1968. This movie, which went straight to video, is set in a school auditorium recalling the humble origins of the show. Donny Osmond plays the title role with youthful exuberance. Suffice it to say that there is a climactic scene where Pharaoh turns into an Elvis impersonator. The trailer lasts a minute and a half.
Joseph: King of Dreams (2000) is an animated feature that, typical of its time, is unable to trust the art of animation and must resort to retooled show tunes to ensure its appeal. The story begins with the birth of Joseph to the aged Jacob. His adoring brothers sing “Our Baby Brother.” His father sings “Miracle Child” as the boy grows to young manhood. He is clearly better than everybody else, and his father rewards him with a Coat of Many Colors. He sings of being special, while his brothers gnash their teeth. The rest is the predictable cartooning of the familiar story (see above). Joseph’s early dreams look like Van Gogh paintings. He dreams he is above the crowd, and suffers the consequences (voice of Ben Affleck). His entrance into Egypt, led by the slavers, is striking. The many songs are uniformly distracting and add little of value to the advancement of the parable. This was a DreamWorks production that attempted to build on the success of The Prince of Egypt (1998). It had its troubles, and was released straight-to-video.
Israel: Old Testament Related Posts:
- Movies About the Old Testament: Genesis
- Movies About the Old Testament: From Moses
- Movies About Modern Israel