Review: Noah’s Ark (dir. John Irvin, 1999)

Just about every kind of disaster film has appeared on screens big and small in the past few years, so it was only a matter of time before some producer turned to the Bible for inspiration. The result is Noah’s Ark, a two-part mini-series produced by Robert Halmi Sr., the renowned showman who has made it his mission to bring literary classics such as Gulliver’s Travels, The Odyssey and Moby Dick to TV sets everywhere.

Floods, volcanoes, meteors, tornadoes, shipwrecks — Noah’s Ark has it all. The film also begins with a glaring anachronism. In Genesis, the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah are not destroyed until hundreds of years after Noah’s lifetime. But in Halmi’s version, scripted by Peter Barnes, Noah (Jon Voight) is a native Sodomite, albeit a righteous one, who flees the town shortly before its destruction; his best friend Lot (F. Murray Abraham) also escapes, even though he is decidedly not righteous.

Years pass, and Noah’s sons grow into handsome young men — all of whom are despised by the local villagers because, while the town suffers from a drought, Noah and his family seem to live in divinely ordained prosperity on a nearby farm. (It doesn’t help that Noah’s sons interrupt a virgin-sacrificing ritual with the help of some heavenly pyrotechnics.)

Then God tells Noah and his family to build an ark, and so they do. The second part of the film concerns the flood itself, and it’s almost entirely fictitious. Lot returns as the captain of a pirate ship, sporting an eye-patch and a full complement of grappling hooks. James Coburn has a brief cameo as a salesman in a primitive paddlewheeler who mourns the passing of monetary systems and sells Noah some liquor (for which there is at least some sort of biblical precedent).

Mad with boredom

Eventually, in the film’s most bizarre sequence, the ark’s residents begin to go mad with boredom. What’s more, Noah decrees that there is to be no procreation aboard the ark, and hence no sex. Tensions mount. People hallucinate. And then God tells Noah that he’s reconsidered his plans and, well, all humanity is going to have to die after all. Noah, faced with imminent death, responds the only way he knows how — by whistling and dancing. God, amused, decides to keep humans around a while longer.

No, this certainly isn’t the story we heard in Sunday school. Some of the film’s innovations are rather cute, as when Shem (Mark Bazeley) turns out to be allergic to one of the animals. But the filmmakers, including director John Irvin, refuse to sober up even when the material demands more serious treatment. The dialogue is hopelessly modern — “Up the creek without a rudder,” sighs Japheth (Jonathan Cake) when he learns that the ark has been travelling in circles — and the film often seems to wink at its audience, as if to say, “Isn’t this silly?”

Indeed, this just may be the first post-modern biblical epic: shortly after their escape from Sodom, Noah tells his wife Naamah (Mary Steenburgen) that they should get a scribe to write their story down. Naamah balks at the idea. “Scribbling scribes have a very bad reputation,” she says. “They change things. By the time they’ve finished the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, they’ll probably say we weren’t even there.”

This is not to say that Noah’s Ark never takes itself seriously; it does have a few points to make, mostly concerning the need to protect the environment. But these points are couched in a narrative that is often too glib for its own good.

– A version of this article was first published in ChristianWeek.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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