By Beth Nevarez and Lora Stocker
The Bible has long been used as source material for both the big and small screens. From the earliest silent films to the 21st century box office success of The Passion of the Christ, the stories of the Bible have inspired filmmakers and wowed audiences the world over.
A 1903 film entitled Samson and Delilah was one of the earliest films based on Christian narratives. In the 1920s, director Cecil B. DeMille rose to prominence by specializing in larger-than-life biblical films like The Ten Commandments (1923) and King of Kings (1927). Other notable biblical epics of the silent era included Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and Noah’s Ark (1928).
The Hollywood output of these films began to wane in the 1930s due to the Great Depression. This trend continued through the 1940s when wartime efforts created a lack of resources for large-scale film productions. The 1949 release of Samson and Delilah, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, reignited the genre and ushered in arguably its most successful cinematic period, the 1950s. This decade saw hugely successful biblical epics dominate at the box office. Hits of this period included two remakes of earlier silent films both of which starred actor Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur (1959) and The Ten Commandments (1956) again directed by DeMille.
Ava Gardner finally joined in the craze of biblical filmmaking in the late 1960s with the film The Bible: In the Beginning (1966). Adapted from episodes of the Old Testament, specifically the Book of Genesis, the film was helmed by Ava’s dear friend and favorite director John Huston. Huston was already planning and casting the feature while still on location and directing Ava in 1964’s The Night of the Iguana. Notably, Ava’s breakout role in The Killers had also been co-written by John Huston, though he went uncredited on the final production.
Epic in every sense of the word, The Bible was supposed to depict the first 22 chapters of Genesis. Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis originally conceptualized the project as two films with run times of six-hours each. The films’ individual segments were to be shepherded by a series of well-known directors. Ultimately, this plan did not come to fruition, and it ended up being what Ava called “one normal-sized film with one larger-than-life director.”
In Ava: My Story, Ava elaborates on the project’s origins: “Filming The Bible wasn’t John Huston’s idea. Big as he thought, even he couldn’t come up with a picture that included Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark, Abraham and Sarah, not to mention the creation of the whole goddamn world. Only the Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis thought big enough for that, or had the nerve to rent a sign on Broadway, a huge thing that extended for an entire city block and grandly announced that ‘Dino De Laurentiis has reserved this space to announce the most important movie of all time.’”
In addition to his directorial duties, Huston cast himself in the film, performing as the voice of God, the narrator of the film, and in the role of Noah. Because of their close friendship and his legendary powers of persuasion, Huston was able to convince a reluctant Ava to star in the film. She played the role of Sarah, the wife of Abraham who miraculously gave birth to Isaac at the age of 90.
The film was written by Christopher Fry, who Ava considered “a fine playwright;” however, she found the dialogue to be on the “arty side.”
“’John, honey,’ I said. ‘I can’t speak lines like this. They’re not my style. They’re too contrived, too stagy.’ John gave me one of his slow, cunning smiles and said softly, ‘Of course you can, darlin’, of course you can.’” – Ava: My Story
The Bible: In the Beginning was filmed in Rome and Sicily as well as more remote locations in the Abruzzi mountains because Huston favored filming in realistic locations. This meant the cast often had to brave mountain weather conditions and wait for bad weather to pass to resume filming.
Despite the movie’s multi-million-dollar budget and Huston’s creative directing, Ava was ultimately neither a fan of the finished film nor of her performance in it. Although The Bible was the highest grossing film of 1966, its studio, 20th Century Fox, still lost a reported $1.5 million on the production. It was the last biblical epic produced by a major studio for almost 20 years, until Paramount released King David in 1985.
Luckily, the production didn’t sour Ava’s deep personal relationship with Huston. She later worked with him again in his 1972 film The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. She also attended his Life Achievement Award presentation by the American Film Institute in 1983, making a special trip from London to Hollywood for the occasion and sitting as a guest of honor beside Huston at the head table.
Even though Ava’s feelings about The Bible were less than positive, she decided to perform once again in a biblically-inspired production. Switching topics from the Old Testament to the New Testament, Ava appeared in five episodes of the 1985 NBC television miniseries A.D.
The series’ title stands for Anno Domini which means in the year of our Lord. The miniseries was adapted from the novel The Kingdom of the Wicked by the prolific English writer and composer Anthony Burgess. The teleplay covered the Acts of the Apostles in the decades after Jesus’ death, chronicling his disciples’ lives during the reigns of several Roman emperors.
A.D. featured close to 400 actors with speaking parts and filmed on massive sets in the Tunisian desert. Between the large cast, countless props and costumes, and the magnificently constructed set pieces, the massive production cost $25 million. The NBC release of the film was also on an epic scale. Starting on March 31, 1985, the miniseries aired in 12 hours over five consecutive nights.
Ava played the role of Agrippina, the mother of Emperor Nero and seducer of Emperor Claudius. Her co-stars included Anthony Andrews, James Mason, Ben Vereen, Susan Sarandon, and many others in the large ensemble cast. The series was one of only a few television roles in which Ava starred during her later years.
For her performance in the miniseries, Ava received mostly positive reviews. Upon the show’s release, the New York Times television critic John J. O’Connor wrote, “And then there is the truly special appearance, in this instance provided by Ava Gardner as Agrippina, Nero’s scheming mama. Miss Gardner, now 62, remains every inch the star.”
Ava’s roles in these two religious epics are a part of the long history of the entertainment industry mining the Bible for gripping stories. This tradition continues even to the present day. Recent years have seen many more movies based on the Bible including the animated film The Star (2017), a series of pictures spotlighting less-often featured characters like 2018’s Mary Magdalene or Paul: Apostle of Christ, and retellings of more popular personages such as Noah (2014) and Samson (2018).
About the Authors
Beth Nevarez is the collections manager at the Ava Gardner Museum. She has a master’s degree in public history and nearly 10 years’ experience working in museums. A Wilson, North Carolina native, Beth attended UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Wilmington for her studies, focusing on American history. She now operates Beth Nevarez Historical Consulting and specializes in caring for historical collections and sharing history through collections outreach initiatives.
Lora Stocker began volunteering as a social media specialist with the Ava Gardner Museum in 2019 and then joined the Museum’s Board of Directors. She is a professional artist, designer, and illustrator operating her own business Lora Stocker Designs in Johnston County, North Carolina. She received degrees in Studio Art and Visual Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her diverse career in the arts has included commissions from national and international brands as well as those from North Carolina-based businesses and non-profits. When not creating, she likes to spend time traveling and exploring with her husband, visiting the country’s National Parks and sites related to classic film history.