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Verily, Jon Voight once set sail as NBC's Noah


Jon Voight fought off pirates at sea in NBC’s Noah’s Ark.

Note to readers: The ballyhooed March 28th big-screen release of Noah stars Russell Crowe in the title role. But other productions of biblical proportions set sail earlier, including NBC’s 1999 Noah’s Ark miniseries starring Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen. It definitely took a few liberties. Here’s the review, originally published on May 2, 1999.

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And so it is written . . .

“For dramatic effect, we have taken poetic license with some of the events of the mighty epic of Noah and the flood.”

And so it comes to pass.

NBC’s four-hour Noah’s Ark all but capsizes from the extreme liberties taken in pursuit of mainstream entertainment. Biblical scholars might be surprised, for instance, to see ugly, filthy pirates attacking the ark early in Part 2. This apparently is the little-known Waterworld portion of the Good Book. Whatever floats your boat.

Ark, starring Jon Voight as stoic Noah, also seems intent on replicating elements of Mortal Kombat, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Alamo, Animal House and even Titanic (watch out for that giant rock!).

Other times this seems to be the Old Testament according to Monty Python. The overall result is a loopy, crazily crafted yet beautifully produced lark. Most of the special effects are splendid, some considerably less so. You can see the money on the screen throughout this lavish production.

But hey, kids, try telling your Sunday school teacher that Noah and his brood encountered a colorful peddler (James Coburn) aboard a pedal-powered mini-boat.

“I’m running a special this week,” he says before selling them a variety of accessories, including a funny little hat for one of the ark’s two resident penguins.

Then again, all of this could have happened. Or as executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. (Merlin, Gulliver’s Travels) said in a recent interview: “A lot of things are unsaid in the Bible. The whole world is unsaid. So it leaves a lot to the imagination and you’re pretty much free to do anything you want with it if you don’t steer the wrong way.”

Ark keeps sideswiping, though, with its laughable efforts to humanize and adventure-ize the story. Even God, voiced by Voight, sometimes sounds like a Catskills comic. Hear the Almighty get off a one-liner after informing Noah that he intends to sink his ark and make a “clean sweep” of the ungrateful human race.

“It was a difficult decision,” He says. “I would have liked a second opinion, but who could I ask?” Hi-yo!

Filmed in Australia, with some of the animal footage shot at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas, Ark also features Mary Steenburgen as Noah’s supportive wife, Naamah, and F. Murray Abraham as rambunctious Lot. His kvetching, unnamed wife, played by Carol Kane, thankfully is fated to be a pillar of salt early in Part 1.

It’s her punishment for ignoring God’s instructions and looking back on his firebolt-powered demolition of Sodom and Gomorrah. Her last words -- “I want some fun!” -- foreshadowed Cyndi Lauper’s clarion call of the 1980s. All lives apparently serve some purpose.

The Bible says -- but what does it know? -- that Sodom and Gomorrah became toast long after God commanded Noah to build his ark. On NBC, the events are reversed. Sayeth Halmi: “We had to do Noah’s Ark in an imaginative way and put the point through that God was really mad at the world and the people. And obviously Sodom and Gomorrah was the time in the Bible when he should have been the maddest. And so we combined the two stories.”

Pish tush. At least Adam and Eve aren’t interjected.

Noah, earnestly played by Voight, is first seen witnessing a bloody, muddy battle between Sodomites and Gomorrahns. It looks more like a self-contained tournament, though, with townies cheering on their favorites as though they were video game combatants.

Noah is repulsed, and God has seen enough, thank you. He declares Noah His “chosen one” and orders him to vacate Sodom, located adjacent to Gomorrah, before the biblical twin cities are torched from on high.

Noah, Namaah and their soon-to-be-strapping sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth (Mark Bazeley, Alexis Denisof, Jonathan Cake), make a long journey to verdant Gerar, where they take up farming. The locals treat them as outcasts, which is OK until they decide to offer Ham’s girlfriend, Ruth (Sidney Poitier’s daughter, Sydney Poitier), as a virginal sacrifice to the pagan rain god Mole. It’s Shem, Ham and Japheth to the rescue, with assists from Noah, a frying pan-wielding Naamah and, of course, God.

“Ya ha, missed me,” says one of the infidels before he’s struck blind. Wah-wah-wah.

It’s become high time for the giant ark to take shape. Noah’s skeptical about constructing a sailing vessel that’s 500 feet long, 83 feet wide and 50 feet high. But the Creator is bullish. “I think big,” He proclaims. “I made the world in six days.”

That God, what a card.

During construction, Lot returns. He’s been running with a bad crowd, but still has a semblance of goodness. When a crumbum exhorts his cohorts to rape and pillage, Lot stabs him in the gut.

“I didn’t expect that,” he says. “I was tricked. You caught me with my britches down. I want to tell you something with my last dying breath.”

Instead, he expires comically during one of Ark’s veers into Monty Python territory.

There’s much, much more, including an apparent TV movie first when a koala bear gently defecates aboard the ark while being held by Shem’s girlfriend, Miriam (Sonya Walger). The actors maintain straight faces, which should qualify them for Emmys.

Much of this is very picturesque, though. And the kiddies surely will enjoy seeing all the animals troop aboard before later helping Noah and company scare off the mean pirates with help from a giant funnel cloud.

For these reasons and many more, Noah’s Ark seems destined to be a goofy, camp classic in league with C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

Still, if a few well-placed lightning bolts hit the homes of certain actors and producers, we’ll have a pretty fair idea where they came from.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net