Thursday, February 02, 2017

NOAH’S ARK (1928)

This silent film (with some sound sequences) sets up two stories, a modern one set during WWI and a Biblical one about Noah and the ark, which are supposed to mirror and comment on each other. We start with Noah's ark after the flood, pictured with the rainbow God sent to assure Noah that he would never drown the world again. Then a pictorial comparison is drawn between man's hubris in the past (building the Tower of Babel, worshipping the Golden Calf) and the present (riches being won and lost in the stock market, gambling, suicide). We are introduced to our main characters in 1914, at the onset of war, as passengers on the Orient Express: Travis and Al (young American playboy buddies doing Europe for a lark); Mary (a lovely German girl, part of a traveling acting troupe) who flirts a bit with Travis; Nickeloff, a Russian from the War department (who looks like Rod Steiger in DR. ZHIVAGO), and an itinerant Holy Man. After some philosophical squabbling, during which Nickeloff declares that the only gods are money, science and war, the train derails and our band of travelers winds up at a lodge. Nickeloff enters Mary's room with nefarious intentions but is tossed out by Travis and Al—who frankly seem a lot more interested in each other than in any girls. When war is declared, however, the three stay in Paris—as a subtitle says, "Travis stayed because of Mary and Al stayed because of Travis." Years later, when America enters the war, Al patriotically enlists leaving Travis behind, but eventually Travis does as well, leading to a very lovey-dovey reunion between the two, but during battle, Al winds up dying in Travis' arms. Nickeloff, getting his revenge against Mary, claims she's a spy and puts her in front of a firing squad, but Travis, one of the shooters, recognizes her. Just as he tries to stop the execution, a bomb falls and they all wind up trapped in a cellar with the Holy Man from the train (pictured above).

At this point, a subtitle reads, "As the Ark prevailed upon the flood, so let Thy righteousness prevail in this Deluge of Blood." We now shift to the story of Noah's ark featuring the same actors from the WWI story—Noah is the Holy Man, building his ark at the command of God, and two of his sons are Travis and Al, still looking longingly at each other (pictured at right). The King of Ur (Nickeloff) abducts Noah's family's handmaid Miriam (Mary) as a virgin sacrifice, and Japeth (Travis), in love with her, goes to her rescue but is blinded and put to work in the stone mills. Just as Miriam is about to meet her fate, the Lord brings the flood, and we all know what happens next.

This film is notorious for the fact (which I've never seen seriously disputed) that three extras were killed during the flood sequence. It is indeed an impressive scene, but knowing about those deaths can't help but color your experience of it. Going beyond that, both sections of the film work fairly well, the first as romantic war melodrama, the second as biblical epic, but the meshing of the two is unwieldy and ultimately unsatisfying. The finale equates the God's rainbow in the Bible story with the WWI armistice, implying that there will be no more war, and we all know how that turns out. The acting in the WWI section is good, with George O'Brien as Travis, Delores Costello as Mary, and Noah Berry as Nickeloff;  Guinn Williams, who was a sidekick stalwart in the 30s and a B-western player through the 50s, makes the most of a rare leading role here as Al, though he fades into the background in the Noah story. Myrna Loy has a small but noticeable role in both stories as well. Paul McAllister as Noah and the WWI Holy Man has little to do but look insufferably pious. When God speaks to Noah, it's as a burning bush and with huge stone tablets conveying his message, so I'm guessing that DeMille cribbed from this for his similar scene with Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. The two or three sound sections don't really add anything to the film; they're just there as a gimmick so the movie could be advertised as "talking." Worth seeing for fans of silent film. [TCM]

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