The First Noah's Ark in Cinema
Ron Seifried | On 28, Mar 2014
The latest attempt of resurrecting the familiar biblical story of Noah’s Ark has alarmed the religious populous to the point that Paramount Pictures has decided to place a disclaimer before Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” as a work an artistic interpretation and not a literal translation from the Book of Genesis.
The partially lost silent/talkie hybrid from 1928 was Hollywood’s first attempt to bring the fabled story to the silver screen. “Noah’s Ark” from Warner Bros. was part biblical, part romantic contemporary war film written by Darryl F. Zanuck that will probably be best known to have John Wayne as both an extra and prop department worker years before his status of movie star. The film starred Dolores Costello and George O’Brien and was directed by Hungarian Michael Curtiz, behind the lens for his first American film.
The future head of 20th Century Fox, Zanuck at this time was in the midst of his career as a screenwriter to at least 40 films. The scenes depicting the war were inspired by his experience as a 16 year old U.S. Army soldier serving in France with the Nebraska National Guard.
“Noah’s Ark” was not just a visual interpretation from the fabled story from the Book of Genesis. One of the earliest attempts of anti-war propaganda produced, it compares with “Four Men of the Apocalypse” and “Wings” as an epic from the silent era, but may seem lost on today’s audience. Mixing the parallel moralistic love story set in war-torn Europe between two Americans bookended with the extended interpretation of Noah and his family may seem out of place today, but it was a common form of storytelling in the 1920’s. Curtiz and Zanuck were clearly attempting to capture the same audience of Nelson De Mille’s hit “The Ten Commandments” by attaching Noah, and the visual epic does not disappoint.
Most of the original 135 minute version has been lost; only a 100 minute cut edited together in the 1950’s from different sources preserved. Despite its double box-office return of a $1 million budget, the mix of silent and talkie scenes utilizing the Vitaphone sound-on-disc technology was nearly obsolete by its premiere in late 1928. The sound scenes may seem a bit disorienting when settling in the silent aspect of the film, it is no less a compelling work from Hollywood’s most transformative period.
“Noah’s Ark” did not just feature turmoil on screen. Three extras’ drowned during filming of the climatic flood scene and one other had their leg amputated due to the horrendous on-set disaster. Several others suffered several serious injuries including broken limbs and star Costello caught pneumonia.
The dictatorial Curtiz (who later directed “Casablanca”), continued filming despite the protests from chief cameraman Hal Mohr, who eventually left the production before completion. Curtiz attitude toward the dying and injured extras was amplified when he supposedly said extras “would have to take their chances.” When watching the overwhelming flood scenes today, you can’t help wondering about the many extras actually fighting for their lives.
The combination of these horrific events paved the way for the film industry’s first stunt safety regulations in 1929.
The year of its release witnessed the most transformative change in cinema history: the technological advancement of incorporating sound with film, and “Noah’s Ark” is one example of mixing silent and sound scenes together for a cohesive story. The brief scenes in war-torn Europe utilized sound while the biblical depiction of Noah and his ark were kept silent. Roy Del Ruth directed the sound scenes.
The building of the Tower of Babel and the worshiping of the golden calf are the first scenes, but then cuts to the parallel story of a bankrupted Wall Street trader, played by Otto Hoffman, who murders his selfish stockbroker. The theme of worshiping false idols ominously start the film; the golden calf in biblical times and greed in 1914. This interesting piece of foreshadowing predates the stock market crash by a year, but the tone strays away from greed and moves toward mass death of World War I and Noah’s Ark.
The film moves to the infamous Oriental Express train, where wealthy American Travis (George O’Brien) and his blue collar friend Al (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) are traveling across Europe. One title card states “Science disproves god”, an early example of cinematic distrust between fervent religious believers and a Darwinian mandate. This draws a line in the sand between the two sets of audience members and the two separate storylines of this film.
On the trip, Travis confronts a rude passenger attempting to steal a seat from a pious minister (Paul McAllister), then the train is derailed attempting to cross a bridge that has been flooded. Several passengers are killed in the accident, but Travis and Al, with the help of recently unhand -cuffed prisoner (Malcolm Waite) manages to rescue Marie, a German Theatrical Troupe member (Dolores Costello).
Several passengers attempt to recover at a nearby lodge, when our hero Travis once again comes to the aid of Marie, who is attacked by a lustful Russian passenger Nickoloff (Noah Beery). This leads to a fight between the American and Russian, severely injuring Nickoloff’s hand, only to be interrupted by French soldiers barging in announcing the start of war. The two Americans and Marie escape to Paris, where Travis and Marie fall in love and get married.
The film moves ahead three years when the United States to enter the war, prompting Al to enlist, later inspiring Travis to join and leave his wife Marie. Despite enlisting at separate times, Travis and Al are assigned into the same squadron on the battlefield. Al manages to capture a German machine gun nest, but unknowingly Travis throws a live hand grenade and fatally wounds Al, who remains alive long enough to say goodbye to his old friend.
The evil Russian Nickoloff later discovers Marie entertaining the troops and threatens to have her arrested as a German spy unless she gives herself to him. Marie is caught trying to get away and is sentenced to a firing squad, with Travis as one of the assigned executioners. The married couple briefly reunites and gets trapped beneath a demolished building during an especially traumatic German attack.
It is in the wreckage of building that the minister tells the story of Noah’s Ark flood and its comparisons to the present war flood of blood.
The film flashbacks to biblical times with the actors playing secondary roles; Paul McAllister (the Minister) as Noah and his three sons (Travis & Al are two of the sons) build the Ark on Jehovah’s command, while King Nephilim (Nickoloff the Russian) worship the pagan god Jaghuth.
Dolores Costello (German dancer Marie in the war) is Miriam, one of Noah’s handmaidens, who is ultimately selected by King Nephilim for a virgin sacrifice to Jaghuth. Noah and his family are the only ones who remain faithful to Jehovah, who commands them to build the Ark, one of the most ambitious sets ever built for film.
Noah’s son Japheth (O’Brien) is blinded and sent to forced labor after attempting to save Miriam. Just as Miriam is about to be sacrificed, Jehovah unleashes his destruction of Jaghuth’s followers, whereby Japheth and Miriam escape to the Ark and safety. King Nephilim attempts to get onboard the Ark only to be stopped at the last minute and suffering the same injury as his contemporary Nickoloff in the war sequence.
“Noah’s Ark” ends back in World War I with Travis and Marie escaping from their temporary prison and the war soon ends.
The first American film directed by Curtiz was an ambitious bit of storytelling with superior editing, special effects, acting and cinematography. Made just a few years after the Great War, it was meant to compare the holocaust of Noah’s Ark to the death and destruction recently witnessed in 1914-1917. The biblical tale of the titled covered less than half the final product, but the movie delivered a heart-felt sentiment for the popular anti-war sentiment at the time.
The visual effects of the burning bush, train crash and devastating flood are outstanding for the silent era, but sadly unappreciated today. The dual narratives was a popular form for film storytelling in the 20’s, with the modern parallel delivering a moralistic bent and the distant past a more decadent tone. The films of this period conveyed hope and understanding for the present period, elements not found in the more popular distant stories of the Bible.
The dual roles of the cast may have been challenging for them individually, especially for some who needed to speak on screen for the first time. They were able to combine sinful motives with pious redemption, carefully retaining the balance of the split personality of “Noah’s Ark.”
Scripture is loosely kept to in the Ark scenes, expanding the brief biblical narrative for a better cinematic experience. The terror taking place outside of the Ark gets more screen-time than inside, and the film opens with pieces of Moses and Samson’s stories.
“Noah’s Ark” ends with bittersweet naiveté. The couple survives aboard the Ark and the end of war, proclaiming that peace can be achieved and love will survive. Moving forward in both the Bible and history tells a different story, but film is escapism with a glossy exterior sheen coating for a more presentable package.
War does not have a moral impact that this film’s message tries to get across. The anti-war message at the end that 10 million dead compares to the destruction of the followers of Jaghuth gives a new meaning of redundancy. When do mass killings end? In the late 1920’s, as in all of history, the answer is always.
And what is Zanuck trying to say about God and man. Was God behind the mass deaths of both tragedy’s or was man complicit in his own demise? Zanuck’s moralizing effort gets muddied in parts, saved mostly by the visual spectacle this film was.
This was an important film in the early years of Warner Bros. Dolores Costello was the studio’s big female star, a direct opposite of their biggest male star Rin Tin Tin. The profit helped the studio stay in the black, before their mega-hit “The Jazz Singer” the following year, propelling Warner’s into the 30’s and beyond.
But it’s difficult to watch the flood scenes and see the terror on the extras. Three people died and the director did not grieve or halt production. Death still happens on set to this day, and will unfortunately always happen. Greed still drives consumerism, which what filmmaking really is. Combine this with the control of mega corporations, the lessons attempted by “Noah’s Ark” (both the bible story and film) will forever be ignored.
Sadly, I could not find the names of the three extra who died onset in 1928. Forgotten casualties of a forgotten era.