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NBC taps the Old Testament for 4-hour `In the Beginning’

LOS ANGELES (BP)–Some of the Old Testament’s best-loved stories will be featured in the NBC Network mini-series, “In the Beginning,” beginning Sunday, Nov. 12 at 9 p.m. ET/PT and concluding the following evening.

The four-hour epic, complete with modern filmmaking’s spectacular special effects, stars Oscar winner Martin Landau (“Ed Wood”) as Abraham, Emmy nominee Jacqueline Bisset (“Joan of Arc,” “Jesus”) as Abraham’s wife, Sarah, Golden Globe nominee Billy Campbell (“Once and Again”) as Moses and Eddie Cibrian (NBC’s “Third Watch”) as Joseph.

Focusing on the books of Genesis and Exodus, the series’ initial night begins 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, as the charismatic figure of Abraham leads his followers to a new land and encourages them to stop worshiping false idols and instead believe in one true God.

Popular Bible tales dramatized include the story of Adam and Eve; the ultimate test of faith that God gives Abraham; the heated rivalry between Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob; and the story of Joseph, his coat of many colors and his jealous brothers who sell him into slavery.

The sweeping biblical epic concludes as Joseph rises from a common Egyptian slave to an adviser to the pharaoh, and Moses struggles to free his people from Egyptian rule, miraculously parting the Red Sea and leading them to Mt. Sinai, where he receives God’s law, the Ten Commandments.

While Southern Baptists have been frustrated in the past with biblical tales that misrepresented spiritual teachings (NBC’s “Noah’s Ark”) or theorized how others influenced Christ’s ministry (NBC’s “Mary, Mother of Jesus”), both the scriptwriter and director of “In The Beginning” are careful to portray these inspirational stories with an integrity and respect for the Word of God.

Earlier this year, purists and theologians were uncomfortable with the contemporary feel of the CBS presentation “Jesus,” with the filmmakers overindulging their artistic privilege. For example, when Jesus meets up with his cousin, John the Baptist, he asks him, “Will you baptize me?” To which John responds, “If you confess your sins and dedicate your life to God, of course.” In Matthew, chapter 3, however, it reads, “But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'” As Matthew makes clear, John recognized Jesus as the Lamb of God. John did not presume to teach Jesus spiritual matters. The production contained several other moments where viewers familiar with the Scriptures scratched their heads, wondering why certain facts were either “updated” or simply omitted. (An edited version of “Jesus” is being released, omitting many of the scenes containing questionable theological content.)

The opening credits for “In The Beginning” denote that some dramatic license has been taken, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the production faithfully recreating the written stories. The script maintains a tone reflecting the declaration of Psalm 145:6: “They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds.”

Filmed in Morocco, the Middle Eastern location had an impact on many cast and crew. Martin Landau, who stars as Abraham, has stated, “It was kind of coincidental that almost every time God talked to my character, or I talked to God, we had a windstorm. Out of nowhere, the winds came up — I’m talking about 60-,70-, 80-mile-an-hour gales.” Landau added, “Being on this location gives you a great appreciation of what these people went through. There were overwhelming hardships, and yet they had this undaunted, undying faith.” The location and people also moved Jacqueline Bisset. “This is the second film I’ve done in that climate with the wind,” she said, “and I’ve started to understand how to use the clothes now. They’re completely relevant to the weather … you see how the women wrap them and go against the wind … . They cease to be fabrics and clothes, and they start to become your little house, in a sense, your protection.” As for the script, she added, “These stories are full of incredible intelligence and depth and life.”

The authenticity of the sets helped Eddie Cibrian, who plays Joseph, get into character. “The scale of this production is huge. The sets are just enormous and the details behind them are what really sets this film apart,” he recounted. “When you walk inside the pharaoh’s palace, you feel like you have really gone back in time and are there.”

Helping to dramatize some of the segments, more than 500 special effects were created by the team who made “Mission: Impossible II” and “The World Is Not Enough.” Veteran set designer Keith Wilson said, “Everyone has attempted to do the Red Sea, but we’re going to do it like it’s never been done before. Cecil B. DeMille did it extremely well in ‘The Ten Commandments.’ But now we have the technology to do it bigger and better, and it will be much more convincing.” Producer Paul Lowin added, “It’s ironic that modern technology is allowing us to recreate conditions from 3,400 years ago as faithfully as we can, certainly more faithfully than was an option for earlier filmmakers.”

Director Kevin Connor, who last year directed “Mary, Mother of Jesus,” energizes the script with well-paced sequences and top-drawer performances. Besides giving the viewer two nights of action/adventure, he has remained true to the biblical recounts. His production is steeped in the inspirational display of unwavering faith and devotion of Old Testament men of God.

Although rated TVPG for mature thematic elements and some violence (not overly graphic or bloody), I found “In The Beginning” to be one of the most engaging versions of the Old Testament brought to the television audience. While the film gives wholesome and spiritually rewarding entertainment to religious families, the production itself acquaints a secular audience with the need for faith. Hopefully, it will generate in both a further interest in Bible study.
Boatwright, a Baptist layman in Thousand Oaks, Calif., provides the synopsis and content of new movies, so you can decide if they are suitable for your viewing, at his Internet site, www.moviereporter.com.

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  • Phil Boatwright