This is a very disappointing effort by producer-writer Darryl F. Zanuck and Michael Curtiz in his American directorial debut. The film is obviously an attempt to replicate the DeMille formula of selling pre-code cheesecake in a biblical package. Which is OK if you have some original ideas. But this film has very little new to offer, and steals not only from DeMille, but from Rex Ingram's THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE and Frank Borzage's SEVENTH HEAVEN.
The WWI story is blatantly derived from FOUR HORSEMEN, and carries over some of that film's problems. The idea that war can have a moral impact and yet remain immoral in the abstract doesn't cohere; and the portrayal of Travis (played by George O'Brien) and his buddy Al (played by Guinn Williams) as untroubled by moral misgivings about taking part in an apocalyptic war undercuts the anti-war message Zanuck seemed to be striving for.
The maudlin sentiment - Al has a picture of "Mother" in his helmet - and facial mugging of the actors gives NOAH'S ARK the appearance of a film made ten years earlier. And the scene in the biblical section of a sightless Japheth divinely led to his lover Miriam (Dolores Costello) works no better than Charles Farrel's blind search for Janet Gaynor in SEVENTH HEAVEN.
However, criticism of the incompatibility between the the modern and biblical sections is not valid. Both stories have apocalyptic themes; the comparison of God's decision to destroy "all flesh" in the flood, and the endgame specter of ten million dead in WWI would not be lost on audiences of 1929. Also the melodramatic tale of lust that leads the villain Nickoloff to condemn Travis' German wife to execution as a spy does roughly parallel King Nephilim's determination to sacrifice a virgin to an idol in the biblical section.
More jarring than the parallel stories - or the ridiculous leopard skin costumes worn by Noah's sons - is the inclusion of spoken lines in the modern section. The actors' slow, careful, halting enunciation, and the drivel that come out whenever they open their mouths, kills the pace of the film and shows why Murnau believed the transition to sound was premature.
The saving grace of the film is the spectacle of the ancient city and the flood itself, but the sets in the biblical section bear more than a little resemblance to the Babylonian sets in Griffith's INTOLERANCE, and the flood could not help but be realistic since Curtiz saw fit to let loose tons of water on extras who didn't know it was coming.
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