Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: George O’Brien, Dolores Costello
Duration: 133 minutes
Availability: Released as burn-on-demand disc by Warner Archives (Region 1)
Noah’s Ark isn’t quite the biblical epic you might expect it to be, not least because most of it is set during World War I! For the first hour or so this is a relatively straightforward war film. However, following an explosion, a number of characters find themselves trapped underground, which is the cue for a religious minister to read to his captive audience the story of Noah’s Ark, which takes up much of the second half of the film.
In the World War I section, George O’Brien and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (we won’t ask how he got that nickname) play two friends, Travis and Al, who find themselves in a train wreck on the night that war is declared. They rescue a young German girl and take shelter just over the French border. When the news reaches them that war has been declared, they take a horse and cart and escape into the night before the authorities reach them. The narrative takes a number of unlikely twists and turns, but suffice to say that Travis marries the girl, who persuades everyone that she is American as she happens to speak English perfectly (very convenient), but Travis is made to feel guilty by Al for not helping in the war effort when Al joins up. The (relatively small) part of the film which tells the story of Noah’s Ark itself finds the same actors playing similar roles to those in the modern day story, thus helping the audience to draw parallels between the two narratives.
The film works much better in the modern day sequences. The story here is more compelling because, unlike the biblical narrative, we don’t know how it is going to end. It relies a great deal on coincidence, but we care enough about the characters that it really doesn’t matter, and we are happy to just sit back and go along for the ride. That said, the biblical section contains some great set-pieces, most notably the terrifying flood itself, and the costumes are also noteworthy – or the lack of costume in the case of George O’Brien who, as usual, takes time to show off a body that most of us can ever dream of!
The sound sequences haven’t fared as well, but must have been a logical idea at the time, as Hollywood quickly moved from silent to sound film. This was a prestigious production, and costly in more ways than one: it is said that three people lost their lives during the filming of the flood scenes, although this remains unverified and may well have just been a story concocted as publicity. Eighty-eight years after it was made, it remains remarkably good entertainment, and a good example of a film that you quickly forget is silent.
Michael Curtiz, who directed the film, was the directing equivalent of a chameleon, and during his fifty-year career was willing and able to direct practically anything that was thrown at him. He directed one of the great horror films of the 1930s, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, and also one of the great adventure movies of all time, The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn. A few years later, he directed the classic romantic drama Casablanca, and in the 1950s turned his hand to musicals as different as White Christmas and King Creole, the latter starring Elvis Presley.