Noah – biblical epic for the modern age?

Jennifer Connelly as Naameh and Russell Crowe as Noah
Jennifer Connelly as Naameh and Russell Crowe as Noah
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Film Critic Tony Earnshaw asks if Noah has reinvented the Bible movie for the modern age or killed off a beloved cinematic tradition?

“Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” That quote is attributed to Cecil B De Mille, the king of the biblical epic and the man who, from the 1920s to the 1950s, set the standard for sweeping cinematic spectacle.

There were others who set foot in the distant past and put their interpretation on biblical tales and other associated fables. Henry Koster made The Robe. William Wyler filmed Ben-Hur. John Huston tackled The Bible and George Stevens presented The Greatest Story Ever Told, arguably the last of the great Christian epics until Franco Zeffirelli did Jesus of Nazareth for TV.

But it is De Mille who has carved his name into the history of film as a larger-than-life figure who created giant stories on an enormous scale. He knew the value of Bible stories and he knew the way to tell them was to place the biggest stars on a vast backdrop.

And he was respectful. Movies like The Ten Commandments, De Mille’s last film as director and probably his best known, treated the story of Moses with reverence. This was a Hollywood interpretation of an Old Testament tale but it was enacted with awe and a sense of the cinematic. And it had Charlton Heston as Moses.

I once asked Heston if those old-fashioned epics that had made his reputation were possible in 1990s Hollywood.

“It would be impossible ever again to make films like Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur or El Cid. Ben-Hur, at the time the most expensive movie ever made, cost $14.7m,” said Heston in 1996. “To make Ben-Hur now would come close to $140m.

“Nor could you make Spartacus or the big musicals. One can lament that. From my point of view at least I made the movies, they still show them and I still get the cheques!”

What Heston realised, along with the likes of Victor Mature who starred in The Robe, is that people like De Mille did it for real. The script was deferential and written to impress, not offend. And when it came to crowds of people running from God’s wrath it meant the casting agencies worked overtime to supply thousands of people.

That overwhelming sense of deference, reverence and piety is what gives The Ten Commandments its timeless appeal. No one is mucking about with the story. It was the approach favoured by De Mille, and it worked.

Clearly no-one appears to have told Darren Aronofsky, whose film Noah starring Russell Crowe seems to have pleased very few. It doesn’t help that posters for the movie depict a bulked-up Crowe as Noah clutching an axe.

The artwork hints at a very different story to that told in the Bible. Crowe himself has been on a publicity tour-cum-charm offensive to talk up the picture. In a series of interviews he has offered up some at times rambling thoughts on what Noah represents.

“It’s an undeniable thing that we’ve changed the planet. There’s a lot of damage involved. And if you don’t want to admit to that damage – if you don’t want to see climate change as a real thing – then I think that’s being a little bit irresponsible,” he said, drawing an awkward parallel between God’s Great Flood and global warming.

Thus Noah becomes a $125 million disaster movie. And with several nations banning the film for its alleged blasphemous content – they include Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – it’s clear that Crowe and co are on the back foot.

Content that may have caused offence represents a modern phenomenon. Think Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or Mel Gibson’s visceral The Passion of the Christ.

De Mille would never have countenanced Gibson’s proselytising approach.

In fact De Mille may have been happier with the 30-year rule, operated by the British Board of Film Censorship (BBFC, now known as Classification rather than Censorship) that rejected any film that featured a materialisation of Christ on the grounds of blasphemy. Still, Gibson’s film was not harmed by the apparent blessing by Pope John Paul II who, following a private screening at the Vatican, was alleged to have commented, “It is as it was” over the film’s frequent and unflinching scenes of 1st century violence.

What may have happened with Noah is that the traditional sense of what makes for a biblical epic was abandoned in favour of spectacle. Yet this is spectacle based upon action, stunts and special effects a la Gladiator, not a combination of elements that compliment the story. Aronofsky himself helpfully described it as “the least biblical biblical film ever made”.

Aronofsky and Crowe have not received the papal approval they craved. Pope Francis cancelled a scheduled meeting with Crowe who then went so far as to tweet a message to the Holy Father. In another interview he said the Pope would be “fascinated” by the film.

“I’m not Catholic; I’ve never felt any connection to the Pope before but I think one of the coolest things about this new fellah is that the message is still the same but the tone’s changed,” announced the 49-year-old New Zealander.

“He seems to be a little bit more open to discussion [about] the realities of our lives and how our lives and faith mesh. You don’t go into this expecting everyone to be super pleased with the fact that you’ve taken on a biblical story. You expect a certain amount of criticism. What I’ve been surprised about is the volume of the criticism and the nature of it. It seems to me to be very odd to put out an opinion without you actually seeing what you’re complaining about. Now that people are seeing the film the balance is coming back the other way.”