Judge Norman Short hands down a decision on this made-for-television biblical epic that covers the first few books of the Bible.
The Bible…the first part.
The Bible has always been full of material mined for both the big and little screens, and this latest television mini-series from Hallmark Entertainment goes where pretty much everyone has gone before. From Creation to the entrance of the Israelites to the Promised Land; this two part series takes you there mostly through the stories of the Patriarchs, or those chosen to lead God's people. Beginning with Abraham and ending with Joshua, we are taken through the stories; including Joseph and his coat, Moses and the Ten Commandments, and Abraham and his son Isaac. The series I thought treated these stories too superficially in the time allotted, but a stellar cast makes the most of it. As usual with each Hallmark mini-series, Artisan has released it on DVD with a very nice picture and sound, but with fewer extras than is their custom.
Facts of the Case
If you've read the early part of the Bible, or if you've been to Sunday school when you were a kid, than you likely know these stories. Abraham is the original patriarch; the man spoken to by God and told his descendants would be more than could be counted, though he and his wife were old and childless. The miracle comes when Sarah, his aged wife, gives birth at a reported 90 years old. Isaac is that son, and God orders Abraham to kill him as a sacrifice, then relents. From there the story takes you from Isaac and his sons, through to Jacob, who begat Joseph, who wore a colorful coat in the story. From there came the years in Egypt, ending when Moses brought forth the plagues to convince Pharaoh to let his people go, and the parting of the Red Sea. From there, the rather simple and somewhat stupid Israelites are forced to wander the desert for 40 years because of their lack of faith. Some people just can't take a hint when the voice of God comes from the sky and miracles abound around them.
Hallmark Entertainment generally goes all out when they produce one of these mini-series, and they prove to be among the best of their kind on television. After doing "Jesus," they moved on to the Old Testament, and tried to capture the ongoing history of the Jewish people with their God. Abraham (Martin Landau) is in charge at the beginning of the program, and the Creation story is told by him to his people as they search for their new home. From there we move quickly to his relationship with his wife Sarah (Jacqueline Bisset) and their promise of a child. This story I thought worked the best of all of them, largely on the strength of the performances given by Landau and Bisset. More time was also allotted to give this story more room to develop. Other performances worthy of note were Christopher Lee as the first Pharaoh, Fred Weller as Jacob, and Bill Campbell as Moses. Some roles were played by two people, one young and one old, and Rachael Stirling and Diana Rigg combine to make one very well played Rebekah.
It seems to be the theme in the series to show this as an ongoing history. After Abraham his descendants start young, end up old, and their children carry on. At least they do a good job of allowing us to ignore all those "begats" in the Bible. The main stories are combined and continued through this device, as well as the symbol of Abraham's staff, which gets bequeathed from one to the other. As a moving history the series succeeds, perhaps better than it does at telling the individual stories.
Production values are extremely high throughout the show. From the lush settings, the hundreds of extras, the camels, horses, and donkeys, to the wagons, shrines, idols, and costuming, it all looks and feels very authentic. This had to cost a lot of money to get made.
Artisan typically does a great job with taking these mini-series and bringing them to DVD, and they do it again with the picture and sound quality. The picture is full frame, belying its television roots, but is very clear, with bold colors and little edge enhancement. Detail is typically sharp; you can often count every wrinkle on the old men's faces. A terrific picture. Sound is Dolby Surround, again from its television heritage. While the soundstage isn't very deep or wide, at times the surrounds can kick in for ambiance or to show off the sound from some of the more spectacular miracles. Dialogue is always clear, which is a good thing since Artisan still eschews offering subtitles.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Extra content is sadly lacking on this DVD. Some of these Hallmark series have had extensive behind the scenes footage, documentaries, and production notes; here we have only a six-minute featurette. Considering the breadth of the stories and the extensive production that had to have been done, this was much too little.
I wasn't totally satisfied with the approach to the stories in this mini-series. At less than three hours running length, they had far too much ground to cover. I had the feeling I was watching Cliff's Notes of the Bible. Where whole movies have been made about the Moses story, here it is one short part of the ongoing saga. Characters had children, became old, and died in too short of a time to get to know them. As I said, more time was given to Abraham and his story than any other, and therefore worked the best. If you like your Bible stories short and to the point, perhaps you'd prefer this approach.
Though the production values were quite good in most departments, sadly that does not extend to the CGI effects used to portray God's miracles. They range from pretty good with the parting of the Red Sea to really cheesy with the burning bush. They are definitely the weak link; and only a lot more money could have fixed it. I'm sure money was the holdup since television productions aren't given the budget of major motion pictures.
Though I felt this was a six-hour show crammed into less than three, the series works pretty well, especially as an epic history. Performances were strong, production values typically high, and if you like Bible stories then there is a lot to like. The DVD has it where it counts, in the picture and sound, though is lacking in extra content. If this sounds like your cup of tea, at an online price well below $20 it would make a nice purchase.
The mini series is acquitted of course; I should not like to think of the consequences if I were to find otherwise. Artisan is commended for continuing to bring quality television programming to DVD, but they simply have to get the message about including subtitles for the hearing impaired. This is a true crime for which they are repeat offenders.
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