When Dino de Laurentiis announced his production of The Bible and told the press he had asked John Huston to direct, some thought the choice an odd one. After all, here was a movie-maker whose canon included bleak, misanthropic adventure films (Treasure of the Sierra Madre), gritty and godless crime molodramas (The Asphalt Jungle), and jaundiced views of Christian proselytization (The African Queen). Huston had shown no particular ecumenical zeal nor even for that matter the least inclination toward recognition that religion played any part in his life at all. Di Laurentiis could have asked George Stevens or even Nicholas Ray to helm the picture: both had done lives of Jesus (the sterile, sometimes downright silly Greatest Story Ever Told and the inventive, often remarkable King of Kings respectively). But De Laurentiis wanted John Huston.

I recall at the time there were rumors that John Huston was a practicing Satanist. This may have been a misattribution: Huston's father, Walter (who won his first Oscar under John's direction in Treasure) had played the Devil (or "Old Scratch") in The Devil and Daniel Webster, a.k.a. All That Money Can Buy. But if John's religious views earlier in his career seemed fairly mainstream Judeo-Christian, his faith had to have been shaken somewhat by his World War II experiences in the Signal Corps, when he did documentaries, including The Battle of San Pietro, the story of one of the most horrific campaigns in the entire war, and the even more harrowing work about wounded soldiers, Let There Be Light. But being anti-war, which he became, does not automatically translate to being atheistic.

Still, when De Laurentiis tapped him to make a movie of the entire Old Testament, according to biographer Lawrence Grobel, it proved "a stimulating challenge for Huston, who considered himself an atheist. 'I'm not an orthodox religious person, and I don't profess any beliefs. The mystery of life it too great, too wide, to do more than wonder at. On occasion I envy those people who have it all down pat.'" Inherent in such a statement is a tendency to parsimonious logic, the application of Occam's razor. If an explanation of anything is unnecessary to its explication, one needn't -- and probably shouldn't -- resort to it. But in the latter part of the statement, the part about "envy," one recalls that Huston was devastated by the death of his father; it is at such times that one's doubt is tested most critically.

Still, Huston declined to attempt anything so ambitious as a full account of the O.T., choosing instead to retitle the project The Bible: In the Beginning and to concentrate on a few select episodes (Adam, Eve, and Serpent; Abraham's abortive sacrifice; the Noah's Ark story, and the tale of the Tower of Babel). All things considered he did them quite well, or as well as superstitious myth can be captured on film. Perhaps his selection to guide the project to completion was not so unusual on De Laurentiis' part as it might have seemed. One thinks of the late Pier Paolo Pasolini, a devout Marxist and atheist, who made what is surely one of the finest life-of-Christ pictures ever: the primitive, neo-realistic Gospel According to St. Matthew, shot just two years earlier.

During his decline, when Huston made some of his best films and when his health was devastated (he had C.O.P.D. and shot his last three films with tanks of oxygen in tow), he shot movies that should have declared his disbelief to anyone viewing them. These included Wise Blood, his trenchant, excoriating satire on cracker evangelicism starring Brad Douriff as a ne'er do well who gets "the calling" (i.e. sees a way to make some bucks) and founds his own religion, the Church of Jesus Christ Without Christ. I laughed all through it, but I was only an agnostic at the time. (I've always loved religious impiety and heretical art, a spirit perhaps awakened in me by my first viewing of the Luis Buñuel film, L'Age D'or, an anti-Catholic diatribe, outrageous by anyone's standards.) Wise Blood was the first Huston film in years to be hailed as a masterpiece and as his "come-back" effort.

Then there is the scene near the beginning of his adaptation of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano when the dissolute consul, played by Albert Finney, finds himself in a cathedral staring up at one of those garish representations of the Virgin, urged by his friend, the appropriately named Dr. Vigil, who tells him, "One cannot live without love. No se puede vivir sin amar." The Consul, slobbering on himself, begs off, saying that he cannot pray because he does not believe, yet he goes through the paces, mumbling, "Bring her back to me, bring back my Yvonne." (When Yvonne turns up the following morning, Huston treats us to the classic example of what the skeptics call "the Barnum Effect" and what I call post hoc reasoning: after this, therefore because of this.)

Very late in life, after Huston had already had some nasty scares and almost died once or twice, he told a reporter: "I hope death approaches me very quickly [it didn't], touches me with a sleeve, says lie down, puts its fingers over my eyes." Grobel quotes the reporter as asking Huston if he had come to terms with religion or an afterlife, to which he replied: "I'm not religious. It would be great solace in believing in Jesus H. Christ. I envy those who are capable of taking such superstition seriously." Mischievously placing a middle initial in a prophet's name and use of the word, "superstition" with reference to Christianity are marks of a confirmed freethinker.

He was one of us.

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Tags: Huston, John, atheist, filmmakers

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