Ranking: #23/111

Director: John Houston (USA)

Genre: Biblical Drama

The Bible has been humanity’s best-selling and most influential book for centuries, but directors and producers have struggled for decades to capture its epic dramatic content in plausible cinematic form. The hard part seemed to be how to portray biblical scale without becoming melodramatic and sentimental. To my mind, Cecil B de Mille, with all the money and power in the world, never succeeded in getting this balance right, notwithstanding the fact that he was the founding father of American cinema and that his movie The Ten Commandments (1956) remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time. I just found the latter to be painfully overacted and consistently over-elaborate.

In my view, this challenge to find the right balance between epic scale and credible realism in a Biblical movie was finally, finally overcome when veteran US director and screenwriter, John Houston, with classics like The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen, Moby Dick and The Misfits already under his belt, took on the immense task of bringing the Book of Genesis to the Big Screen. He captured so beautifully its more primordial and mysterious aspects, like the creation of the world, the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Noah’s Ark, as well as the epic journey of Abraham from Ur to Canaan. Houston’s film is profoundly evocative and transports its audience back in time to the Beginning, and then carries them through several dramas recounted in the first chapters of Genesis with persuasive charm and credibility.

Shot in widescreen format, this is John Houston’s masterpiece. He was the director, the narrator, the Voice of God and he played the part of Noah! Throughout, he made the epic and the primordial all seem natural, palpable. When The Bible – In the Beginning came out, I was a child of ten with very little knowledge of the Bible and I found the film to be beguiling, engrossing and mesmerising. Decades later, as an adult who has read the Bible from cover to cover at least seven times, the film was just as captivating. This is because of the sheer artistry involved in making a production on this daunting scale seem so real and so believable to modern audiences. For example, there were no fewer than five models made of Noah’s Ark for the film, the largest of which was 200 feet long, 64 feet wide and 50 feet wide. 500 workers were employed to create these representations. The sequence depicting the loading of the animals onto the Ark is a joy to watch. The harmony between Noah and the animals is beautifully represented.

In addition to Houston’s down-to-earth, humanistic portrayal of Noah, Richard Harris as Cain, Ava Gardner as Sarah and George C. Scott as Abraham are each simply extraordinary.

This is one of the most underrated films of all time, although it is clearly still very popular, having an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars from well over 3,000 reviews on Amazon.com.

It would be difficult, but not impossible, for any subsequent Biblical epic to ever surpass the level of authenticity attained in this film.