Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures
Cast: Dolores Costello (Mary/Miriam), George O'Brien (Travis/Japheth), Noah Beery (Nickoloff/King Nephilim), Louise Fazenda (Hilda, the tavern maid), Guinn "Big Boy" Williams (Al/Ham), Paul McAllister (minister/Noah), Nigel De Brulier (soldier/high priest), Anders Randolf (The German/leader of soldiers), Armand Kaliz (The Frenchman/leader of King's guards), Myrna Loy (dancer/slave girl), William V. Mong (the innkeeper/guard), Malcolm Waite (The Balkan prisoner/Shem)
Travis and Al are two Americans traveling Europe in 1914 on Travis' family's money. They are involved in a train crash and rescue German dancer Marie who is traveling with her performing group. War breaks out, and Marie continues to stay with Travis and Al hiding the fact that she is a German. She and Travis fall in love and get married. When America enters the war, Al joins, but Travis still does not feel the call of patriotism. However, one day in Paris as he is watching a parade of American soldiers, which includes Al, he tells Marie he must join or consider himself a traitor. He and Marie lose touch from one another, and Marie returns to entertaining. One evening, she encounters the Russian Nickoloff. Travis had bested Nickoloff in a fight following the train crash when Nickoloff had tried to sneak into Marie's bedroom at the inn where they were recuperating. Nickoloff, now working for the Americans, tells Marie she must meet him later that evening or he will reveal she is a German and claim she is a spy. She tries to sneak away late in the evening with her bags, but Nickoloff is outside on the street and catches her. He slips some important papers in her bag and has her arrested as a spy. She is about to be shot by a firing squad when Travis, one of the members of the firing squad, rescues her just as the area is bombed. They are entombed in an underground room with Nickoloff, a priest who was on the train with them, and others. The story switches to the story of Noah's Ark drawing many parallels to the war and the modern work with the Flood and the people of Noah's day. Japheth and his two brothers help their father, Noah, build the ark. However, King Nephilim needs a virgin to sacrifice to his god, Jaghuth, and Japheth's betrothed, Miriam, is kidnapped. When Japheth goes to rescue her, he is captured, blinded by a hot poker, and chained with other prisoners to a stone mill pushing a large grinding wheel around and being whipped by the guards. Parallel stories take place as Miriam and Japheth need to be liberated from their bondage and Travis and Marie must be delivered from their underground tomb.
The idea of portraying parallel stories from different periods in time had been done before - most notably in D.W. Griffith's failed spectacle "Intolerance" (1916) and the year before, in Cecil B. DeMille's "King of Kings" (1927), which was a success. Warner Brothers did it the next year with "Noah's Ark" (1928 - general release in 1929), and although it doesn't garner the same praise from historians as the two previously mentioned films, it stands as a stirring and gripping story with much to its favor.
Director Michael Curtiz is recognized as a top-flight director
from the Golden Age, essentially for the outstanding sound films
he made such as "Captain Blood" (1935), "The Charge
of the Light Brigade"
(1936), "Casablanca" (1942), "Mildred Pierce"
(1945), and Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942). "Noah's Ark"
was directed by Curtiz on the doorstep of these great successes
and shows much of the genius that was yet to be fully realized
on film. Jack Warner saw Curtiz' gift in the films he made in
Vienna, particularly the Biblical epics "Sodom and Gomorrah"
(1922) and "Die Sklavankonigin" (1924), titled "Moon
of Israel" for release here. Warner wanted the Hungarian
to direct a film of this type for Warner Brothers, and "Noah's
Ark" was born.
Another major name in cinema history is connected with Noah's Ark - Darryl F. Zanuck, credited as the writer of "Noah's Ark." Having served with Mack Sennett and Carl Laemmle, Zanuck came to Warner's and had great success as a writer on the Rin Tin Tin series. Of course, his greatest fame came not too long after "Noah's Ark" when he secured backing to form Twentieth Century, which eventually absorbed Fox. During the great era of the studio system, Zanuck is remembered as one of the top studio bosses who ruled his "empire" for nearly 40 years.
Although titled "Noah's Ark," one mustn't be misled that this is a lengthy retelling of the Biblical story. Actually, the majority of the narrative is a World War I romance with the Great Flood as a rousing and very effective climax. So how are a World War I romance and the Biblical story connected? Rather loosely, it must be admitted, but the analogy certainly must have tugged at the sensibilities of the 1928-1929 moviegoer, particularly after the stock market crash of October 1929. Opening scenes are Biblical with intertitles, for the most part, composed of Biblical passages. We see the worship of the Golden Calf during the Exodus, then a scene of stock market pandemonium. The intertitle reads, "And throughout the ages, the worship of the Golden Calf remains man's religion."
The building of the Tower of Babel from Genesis is compared to the skyscrapers of modern times. "Towers of Babel multiply throughout the world," we are told. Then, "And brother wars with brother . . ." and we see a distraught old man who has lost all in the stock market shoot his broker.
Many other parallels are evident throughout the rest of the film. For example, Travis and Al are trying to remove the unconscious Marie from beneath heavy railroad ties following the train crash. Al (Williams) shouts to an escaped convict (Malcolm Waite), "Help us, brother!" In the Biblical story, the two of the brothers are dragging a huge log when one of them shouts to the third one who is working on another tree, "Help us, brother." Another example is Marie requiring rescue from the firing squad and, in the Biblical story, requiring rescue from being sacrificed by a "firing squad" using bows and arrows, of course.
Following the series of "parallels" to introduce the film, the story begins with a night on the Orient Express, the train racing through the dark, storm night in 1914 from Paris to Constantinople. The train is crowded with humanity from all parts of Europe, and we are, one by one, introduced to the players who will portray our characters in the modern story and their counterparts in the Biblical story, as well.
It is Dolores Costello whose name stands by itself above the title. George O'Brien, our hero, falls underneath the title in smaller type as a "with." O'Brien had been a very successful and capable actor for several years at this time with "The Iron Horse" (1924) being his greatest success, but Costello was the queen of the Warner Brothers' lot, and it was her beauty and popularity that would serve as the bigger draw for the film.
The strong cast, coupled with Curtiz' direction, is what makes the production more than just another high budget film. Along with Costello and O'Brien, The ever-likable Guinn "Big Boy" Williams starred as O'Brien's buddy, Al. Louise Fazenda appears as the comical Hilda, the Tavern maid. Myrna Loy, in a very early role, is a member of Costello's performing troupe. Malcolm Waite is perfect as the convict who escapes during the train wreck but stops long enough to help O'Brien and Williams rescue Costello from underneath some debris. Paul McAlister is excellent as the priest on the train and as Noah. Nigel de Brulier and William Mong are excellent "baddies," however, no one did it better during the silent era than Noah Beery who play a Russian military officer who lusts after Costello and portrays King Nephilim in the Biblical portion.
O'Brien as Travis and Williams as Al are two Americans who are traveling freely throughout Europe on the wealth of Travis' family when fate puts them on a train that is headed for destruction with Marie (Costello), a dancer. They rescue her, and Travis and Marie fall in love. During the course of the next three years, they marry; however, the face of Europe has changed after three years of war. One of the greatest challenges for the young couple has been to conceal the fact that Marie is German, which has been helped by her excellent command of the English language. Yet, when America enters the war, Travis begins to feel pangs of patriotism. He is shaken when Al enlists, and his failure to answer the call causes him even more angst, even though Marie begs him not to go. One day, as they are watching American soldiers march through the streets of Paris, he can't stand it any longer. He pulls away from Marie and joins the parade ready to enlist.
At this point, the film becomes a war story (no, there aren't
any great battle scenes), as we are shown an intertitle, "After
Chateau Thierry, came the quiet before the Argonne drive."
Travis walks into a bunker below the trenches and finds Al. A
close-up of O'Brien shows the tears in his eyes, and the two actors
do succeed in playing an effective emotional scene without becoming
maudlin or overdone. The two have some "catching up"
to do, and Al learns that Travis and Marie were married two weeks
after he left. Travis opines, "I've tried to find her - I've
written dozens of letters but never received an answer."
Al confides, "If I get bumped off, there's a girl that's
gonna cry about me, too," and shows Travis a picture of his
mother. The light interplay quickly comes to an end as the two
are sent out on a mission to take out an enemy machine gun. After
the previous banter between the two, it doesn't take a genius
to figure out what's going to happen - and when it does, O'Brien
plays the part well. The scene is very similar to the death scene
in "Wings" (1927) between Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen,
and although not nearly as gripping, O'Brien and Williams do it
The next intertitle tells us it's months later near the Belgian front, and we see Marie reunited with her performing troupe dancing in a chorus line in a nightclub. The Russian Nickoloff (Beery) has not been heard from since the train wreck; however, very opportunely, he appears at Marie's club, apparently having been employed by the Americans. He tries to coerce Marie into meeting him after the evening's performance with the threat of revealing her as a German spy if she doesn't. She agrees but has no intention of meeting him. When she tries to sneak out with her luggage late that evening, he is waiting for her in the street. Surreptitiously slipping some secret plans in her suitcase, he calls for the guards and has her arrested as a spy.
This sequence is a gripping one, made so by Beery's cool,
lecherous pursuit of the delicate Costello. Actually, the encounter
is one of a few talking sequences in the movie, and, although
Beery's delivery is stilted (probably protracted as it would be
for a silent film), his voice is perfectly suited for sound films
and a very menacing villain with a deep tone. The dialogue is
nothing exceptional either, but, as noted, Beery's appearance
and lecherous advances make him a most dislikeable villain. Costello
does fairly well with her lines, and her voice is very pleasant
and well suited for sound.
The rest of the World War I story has her nearly executed by a firing squad when Travis rescues her during a sudden bombing. The rescue is short-lived, however, as they, along with the priest from the train, Nickoloff and some others are trapped in a room below ground as a result of a cave-in. The story moves back to the Biblical portion.
The transition is made by the priest - with the analogy of the War to the Flood sometimes a bit strained, but the intertitles attempt to validate the comparison. For example, the priest prays, "As the Ark prevailed upon the flood waters, oh, God, so let Thy righteousness prevail in this Deluge of Blood!" He goes on, "The Flood and the War - God Almighty's Parallel of the Ages." A verse from Genesis then leads to the story of the Flood.
However, anyone looking for a literal Biblical recounting of the story of Noah can forget it - actually Noah is almost forgotten in favor of a love story between one of Noah's sons, Japheth (O'Brien) and the handmaid, Miriam (Costello). Zanuck's story takes many liberties with the Biblical narrative beginning with the fact that although Noah did, indeed, have three sons - one of whom was named Japheth, - all three had wives.
The drama from this point, although totally created by Warners,
does engage the viewer, but the modern story is much more engrossing
and satisfying. Beery plays the evil King Nephilim ("Nephilim"
being a generic term used in the Bible to denote a race of large
people, possibly giants - not a specific king) who seeks a virgin
to sacrifice to his god. Of course Miriam is found and kidnapped.
Japheth comes to rescue
her, but is captured, blinded by a hot iron poker, and sentenced
to work with other blinded and chained men at the stone mill pushing
a huge stone wheel around.
As noted, much of what we see in the final Biblical sequence leading up to and during the flood is not found in the Bible. Miriam was the older sister of Moses, and is not found in the story of Noah. There is no King Nephilim, and the story of Japheth's rescue of Miriam is, obviously, a Warner's creation.
As with the name of Miriam, the film often borrows from
another Bible story to fit the drama they wished to create in
their so-called "Biblical" narrative in this film. For
example, Noah goes up a mountain to hear from God whom he sees
in a burning bush. We are shown direct passages from Genesis related
to the story of Noah, and they are burned into stone tablets on
the mountainside. God speaking from a burning bush on a mountain
and inscribing words on stone tablets is the story of Moses during
the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt - the story of God delivering
the Ten Commandments, to be exact. Although the film proposes
to tell a Biblical story, a very basic story about the destruction
of mankind by a divinely created flood has been greatly embellished.
This doesn't take away, though, from the impressiveness of this closing portion of the film. One can't help but feel the epic proportions of the city of Akkad by the sets and the huge number of extras for the scene in which King Nephilim is carried through the streets and decrees that a virgin sacrifice will be made to the god Jaghuth. A parade through the courtyard with hundreds of extras waving branches, elephants, camels, large numbers of soldiers holding their shields and waving spears, and long shots that show the scope of this set are awe-inspiring - not only by the number of extras, but other impressive features such as the towering city walls with trumpeters atop them. The vastness of the set and size of the walls, structures and sculptures are a tribute to Griffith's "Intolerance." Of course we are also shown the torture of captives, the debauchery and over-indulgence in food and other pleasures to portray the godlessness of Nephilim's subjects. In completed contrast, we are then taken to the serenity of Noah and the peaceful countryside in which he resides.
The set showing the ark is extraordinary, too, as it appears to be incredibly huge with spines reaching skyward as it nears completion (although we know miniatures and mattes were used, nothing on the screen betrays this). A long and steep dirt walkway has been constructed to lead to the doorway in the side of the ark. This, more than any other scene or set in the final portion of the film appears as one would imagine from the Biblical story.
As noted, when the rains begin, Japheth is blinded and chained
to the stone mill, and Miriam is only minutes away from being
sacrificed by King Nephilim's archers. The strong winds and rain
that whip through the temple strike terror into the people. Panic
ensues when lightning strikes the huge statue of the god Jaghuth,
and it falls to the ground along with many of the pillars holding
up the temple. People are running amok as the torrential rains
pound them - these shots being interspersed with a miniature of
the city of Akkad showing the flood rushing among the structures.
Again, the Warner's production of the flood is outstanding. For example, we see people trying to climb a steep slope - which resembles beneath their feet - and the water rising behind them as they scramble not only to escape, but to maintain their footing on the rock. Much cross-cutting takes place showing unbelievable torrents of water entering the frame from the side throwing people to the ground - while another shot depicts a huge rush of water pouring over a hillside on top of people below. In the temple, which is falling apart, large amounts of water fall from the top of the frame as people try to keep from being knocked to the ground and wade through the knee-deep water at the same time. Superimposed shots are done very effectively showing a great number of people rushing down the many steps of a temple (or some other structure), engulfed by the flood of water washing in behind them and throwing the huge pillars and stones on top of them.
The storm has destroyed the stone mill and freed Japheth, however, he is still blind. By Divine intervention, he feels his way forward until he is able to locate Miriam in the temple amongst all the debris and rising water. George O'Brien possessed one of the best physiques of any silent player, and one can only assume that his amazing strength enabled the filming of Japheth's blind trek to the ark possible - fighting against rising water and constantly being beaten by blasts of water from above - all the while moving forward with eyes closed to give the appearance of blindness. While carrying Costello in his arms, he amazingly trudges through knee-deep and waist-deep water, surrounded by a mass of people trying to get to the ark, as well. The real thrill and amazement comes as he attempts to walk up the ramp to the ark's door. He emerges from water chest deep onto the ramp, and after taking just a few steps, such a huge deluge of water falls from above that we see O'Brien quickly change his stance to brace himself just as the screen goes white from the amount of water that has come down. When we see O'Brien again (there is no cutting at this point - the camera runs continuously), Costello is sagging in his arms, obviously almost knocked free of his grip.
Once inside, the amount of water to which the extras - who are trying to climb the walls of the ark - are exposed is unbelievable. The dangers of the filming are all too evident on the screen. The sequence is truly one of the highlights of the silent era.
Biographer David Menefee quotes George O'Brien, "I lost both my big toenails in the flood scene. He (director Curtiz) had me tied up. I was blind and chained to this thing when the first flood started, and rock and debris and wood from the top of the chutes fell down. Several boards tore into me and ripped two of my toenails off. Dolores Costello, who was wet so much, caught pneumonia from all the water. She fainted by the sheer force of the water hitting her into the stomach. She was out of the film for two months after that. Every day after that, my toes were bandaged. They were completely raw. It took months for the nails to grow back." (1)
O'Brien also noted a scene in which he was to be stabbed in the side by a retractable spear, but, unfortunately, the spear did not retract as it should inflicting a severe wound to his side. Of course, these incidents paled by the fact that there were lives lost during the filming of the flood sequence.
Indicative of the production's universal praise is Variety's tribute to the film. "Warner Brothers have turned out in 'Noah's Ark' more spectacle and thrill than any producer has ever achieved in 14,000 feet of film or less dealing with a subject applicable to this type of production. They have in it touches reminiscent of 'Ten Commandments,' 'King of Kings,' 'Wings,' 'The Big Parade' and quite a few others screen epics that have been leaders and money getters in their class. . . They show everything conceivable under the sun - mobs, mobs, and mobs; Niagaras of water, train wreck, war aplenty, crashes, deluges and everything that goes to give the picture fan a thrill."
All aspects of the film come together to make it a thrilling and enjoyable viewing experience - superb production values, a gripping story, near perfect casting and performances by veteran performers, and first-rate direction. Maybe "Noah's Ark" has not received its due praise in retrospect because it came during a transition year between silents and talkies - and maybe because it contains talking sequences that are ineffective and add nothing to the film, and maybe it's because the recorded soundtrack makes it less appealing to the silent film purist. Nevertheless, "Noah's Ark" deserves to be included in the same class as DeMille's "Ten Commandments" and "King of Kings" and only slightly behind "Wings" and "The Big Parade." It's a fine picture and a credit to the filmmaking excellence that epitomizes the great silent era.
A NOTE ABOUT THE TALKING SEQUENCES:
There are several interspersed throughout the film; however,
three talking sequences stand out. In the first, Travis and Marie
are on a bench in Paris. The sequence gives Marie opportunity
to talk about her fear of being discovered as a German, and Travis
reassures her she has no worries as her English is impeccable.
Another talking sequence is later, after America has entered the
war, Al tells Travis how he feels about traveling around Europe
carefree while other American boys are fighting for their country
- and, much to Al's dismay, Travis tries to downplay his sentiments.
More dramatic is the interplay between Nickoloff and Marie as
he tries to coerce her into meeting him later that evening or
he will reveal her as a German spy. Certainly all three would
have been equally effective as silent sequences; however, only
one is definitely hindered by being a talkie - the bench scene
between Travis and Marie. For the viewer, it slows down the film
and provides no little dialogue that is not a total "throw
away." In this writer's opinion, the greatest annoyance of
these early part-talkies and/or sound-synchronized films is the
inclusion of a song during a key sequence. For example, when Travis
and Al meet in a bunker on the battlefield, it is an emotional
scene played well by the two and emphasizing their deep friendship.
Although the early sound is a far cry from the clarity of today's
recordings, the singer's sentimental warbling actually detracts
from the sequence.
(1) Menefee, David. George O'Brien: A Man's Man in Hollywood. Bear Manor Media, 2009.
(2) Variety, November 7, 1928
Copyright 2011 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
Return to the "Noah's Ark" page