Sunday, February 9, 2014

Silent Sunday: Noah's Ark (1928)


“Oh God have mercy on my children. They know not what they do!”

            I was brought up in a Catholic house. I was never keen on going to church and the idea of going to church got to be too much as I got older. When I was in college for undergrad I had to take a Bible class as an Art History requirement (lots and lot of paintings and works of art have been done about stories from the Bible). I had a great teacher who was himself religious but he studied Judaism and Catholicism and whatever religion there is out in the world. The teacher I had is a practicing Jew but he goes to church every Sunday as well (his mother was Catholic). He taught the Bible almost as literature. He was not preaching he was teaching it in a scholarly way and I enjoyed it greatly. I will always remember him saying that if you believe in all the stories in the Old Testament there is something wrong with you because they are so unbelievable.
            One of the many stories I enjoyed reading for the teacher’s classes (I enjoyed him so much I took his New Testament class the following semester) was the story of Noah’s Ark. I remember even as a kid I enjoyed this story. I could never get my head around such a huge ark with all these animals in it and then only Noah and his sons and their wives were the last humans on earth. Really interesting stuff.
            Since the movie industry began there have been several film tellings of the Biblical flood. I remember watching a cartoon when I was little very vividly. Possibly the first attempt at showing Noah’s Flood was the 1928 Warner Bros. film Noah’s Ark. This version parallels the Biblical story with the way people and the world were during World War I.
            In 1914 people of the world are preparing for war. On a crowded Orient Express a theater troupe, that include a young woman named Marie (Dolores Costello), is heading for Bucharest. Some men get into a conversation about God. One says there is a God people must have faith to believe in God, another says there is the Goddess woman who is also like a devil, another says the military is god, and the last one asks if there is a God why does He not show Himself. As soon as the man finishes his sentence a lightning strike takes out the bridge the train is coming to. The train is thrown into a ditch.
            An American man named Travis (George O’Brien) and his friend Al were traveling on the train. They save Marie when they see her in the wreck. Someone points them to a lodge near the French border. That night all the men that traveled with them try to get to Marie. One man is a Russian secret service officer. Travis fights the man to keep him away from Marie. Just as the men are fighting the police come to the lodge to announce that war has been declared. To get back at Marie the Russian says that she is a German spy (Marie is German) and she needs to be arrested. Travis, Al, and Marie manage to get away to Paris.
            In Paris, Marie is worried she will be caught and arrested as a spy even though she is not one. Travis tells her she has nothing to worry about because her English is well she could pass for an American. Al becomes worried because he and Travis are in Europe on money that Travis’s father had given them thinking they were going to be traveling around studying art while they are really just having a good time. They read that the US  has declared war. Al signed up. Travis does not want to be alone without his friend. He wants to sign up to fight but he loves Marie he does not want to leave her especially because she is German.
            Marie and Travis watch a procession of American soldiers that Al is a part of. Travis feels ashamed he wants to fight with his men. Marie does not want him to go to war she does not want to lose her husband. Swept up in emotions Travis takes a place in the procession and heads to war.
            Travis is placed in the same regiment as Al. Travis tells his friend that he has married Marie but he does not know where she is she has not returned his letters. When the fighting begins Al dies in Travis’s arms.
            Months later Marie is working a theater as a dancer in Belgium. One of the dancers (Myrna Loy) asks Marie why she is always looking at the soldiers. Marie replies that she is looking for an American soldier. The Russian officer is in the audience. He recognizes Marie. When she leaves the stage he grabs her arm and has her sit down. He tells her he wants her to meet him that night. He blackmails Marie that he can question her about her papers which could cause her some embarrassment. Marie tries to runaway but she winds up running into the Russian. He places papers in her bag that make her look like a spy. He has her arrested and sentenced to death as a spy.
            That night Travis’s regiment comes through town. They are given orders to shoot the spies. Travis notices Marie is one of the people that are to be shot and killed. He yells out to his men to not shoot that Marie is his wife. Just as he takes Marie into his arms the town is bombed and the building they are in crumbles. When everyone comes out of the wreckage, the priest that was present at the execution tells them all the story of Noah and how it fits in with the present day.
            Japheth (O’Brien) is in love with his father Noah’s handmaiden Miriam (Costello). A King has sent his men to find a virgin to sacrifice to their pagan god. The men find Miriam and kidnap her. Japheth tries to go to the king to rescue his beloved from being killed. The King has Japheth taken away to be blinded and forced to walk in circles turning a wheel. God summons Noah to the mountains to give him a sign. God tells Noah that Japheth and Miriam will be saved and that he is to build an ark. The people laugh and jeer at Noah and his family as they build the ark. Miriam is finally taken to be sacrificed. Noah comes to the King’s palace to warn everyone what is to come. When the archers are about to shoot Miriam God strikes them with lightning. Soon the great flood is upon the city. Japheth knows the storm is God’s doing and asks Him to guide him to Miriam so he can save her. God does what Japheth asks of him and in return when Japheth returns to the ark with Miriam his sight is restored. As Noah sailed away in his ark God calmed the seas and sent a rainbow as a covenant of peace.
            In the present, the Americans come and save everyone in the crumbled church. The Russian has died in the meantime. When everyone emerges from the church Armistice has been called. The priest tells Travis and Marie that the Armistice is like God’s rainbow the covenant of peace.
            George O’Brien and Dolores Costello were great together. I have never seen Costello in a film before so I was not sure what to expect. She did a great job. George O’Brien was great as this strong Biblical character and an American soldier wanting to fight for his country. Myrna Loy is literally in the film for less than a minute as the dancer in Marie’s act. The film is mostly silent but there are a few speaking parts and Loy has one as her character speaks to Marie about looking for an American soldier. The woman had a knack for being in important films in the late 1920s (she was in The Jazz Singer which is the first sound film and Don Juan which was the first silent with synchronized background sounds).
            Michael Curtiz directed the film. He was amazing. So many of the scenes were beautifully filmed. What I like about Curtiz as a director he was so great at capturing the emotions of the characters. No matter if the scene was silent or had some sound with the characters speaking you could feel their emotions and turmoil and love. To me not many directors are able to really capture their characters in every aspect but Curtiz is one of only a few I believe did.

            I think Noah’s Ark is a wonderful film. I never would have thought to parallel the story of Noah’s Ark with war that, to me, was genius. The reason I like the story of Noah’s Ark from the Bible is because it is about having faith and never letting your faith fail you. Just because I do not believe in going to church does not mean I do not faith. I pray to God every night. Noah trusted God and so did Japheth no matter what they were going through. Even Miriam had faith even though she never says anything to that affect but you can see it in her face as she was lead to be sacrificed. Noah’s Ark is a late silent/early sound film I highly recommend seeing. It is a great piece of cinema.