WP 4: Arousal

“Carefully Posed Thighs”: The Garden of Eden in 1966

Michael Lawrence

“The penis can never live up to the mystique implied by the phallus.”1

“The misfortune of The Bible is that it does not live up to hopes.”2

It is the sixth day in the Garden of Eden. God says: “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness.” Peach-coloured smoke billows over the earth as the camera slowly descends towards a propitious looking clearing. Gradually, a solid form emerges from the dust and takes a vaguely then a definitely human shape. He is lying on his back, his arms at his sides. Strangely, his right leg, the leg nearest to us, is already bent at the knee. His body is burnished with golden light. His blonde hair is blowing in the breeze. His ass is perfect. I am aroused. An orchestra, too, rouses. He opens his eyes. He raises his left arm and reaches over towards his right knee, lifting his head and shoulders at the same time. However, his abdominals are already perfect, I note. I am aroused. The camera moves closer, framing his chest and head, and then rises with him as he rises. I momentarily glimpse the edge of his perfect hip. It is frustrating. I am disappointed. There is a choir now, and the orchestra reaches a crescendo. He stands blinking in the light. His pectorals are perfect, I think. They are burnished with golden light. He turns around and begins to walk away, heading towards the forest, keeping to the shade of a nearby tree. He has a beautiful body, I think. But the camera is already ascending and moving away, in the opposite direction. And I am disappointed.

Adam, perfectly naked, is striding over the dune and into the woods. He meets some animals, lions and so on. He squats beside a bush and peers into a pond and tries to touch his reflection. Then God says: “It is not good that man should live alone.” It is night, suddenly. Adam enters a gloaming and lies down on his stomach. His naked body is burnished by the moonlight. Strangely, his right leg, the leg nearest to us, is bent at the knee again. It is frustrating. Eve appears. She is standing in the darkness, her naked body edged by moonlight. Her hair reaches down to her hips and covers her breasts. It is frustrating. Adam wakes up. The camera moves closer, framing his chest and head, and rises with him as he rises. I am disappointed, again. The choir return. Adam takes Eve by the hand and they turn around and disappear behind a bush and into the woods to meet some animals, leopards and so on.

It is the seventh day in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are naked, walking hand in hand between the bushes beside the lake. The camera is roughly one hundred feet away, on the other side of a clearing. God tells them what they can and cannot eat and so on. That night, Adam and Eve are naked, sleeping beneath a tree, on their stomachs, at right angles to one another. Their bodies are edged by moonlight. The camera is roughly one hundred feet away, high up in the boughs of the tree. God says: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Far below, Adam and Eve inch towards one another, like the hands of a clock meeting at midnight. It is frustrating. I am disappointed.

The next morning, two white horses are cantering about in a meadow. Adam and Eve are naked and sat nearby. Adam jumps up, plants both hands upon the ground, and kicks his legs up in the air, just like the horse. Eve watches, but it’s hard to tell whether she is impressed with Adam’s hi-jinx. The camera is roughly one hundred feet away, on the other side of the meadow. That night, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. Afterwards, God looks for Adam. The camera finds Adam hiding in the forest, kneeling in the dark behind some bushes. Adam explains that he felt afraid because he was naked, and so had hid himself. Eve appears, clutching large leaves against her naked body. She tries to explain that the serpent had tricked her. God banishes them from the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve run off in terror. There is thunder, and the orchestra. Flashes of lightning illuminate their naked bodies as they run through the pitch-dark forest. The Bible: In the Beginning …, John Huston’s three-hour adaptation of the first twenty-two chapters of the book of Genesis is just beginning, but what was without a doubt the most eagerly awaited portion of the film, the Garden of Eden sequence, is already over, after just 20 minutes.

Throughout the Eden sequence, one is particularly and peculiarly conscious of the relationship between the camera and the naked bodies of Adam and Eve, of the distance between the camera and their naked bodies. Sometimes the camera moves towards their naked bodies, and sometimes the camera moves away from their naked bodies. Sometimes they move towards the camera, and sometimes they move away from the camera. Sometimes the camera is dead still, and they are dead still, too. But sometimes the camera is moving, and they are moving at the same time. When this happens, it is particularly and peculiarly exciting and arousing; the stakes suddenly seem higher.3 However, ultimately, the entire sequence, through a miraculous and virtuoso orchestration of movement and mise-en-scene, is resolutely modest, coy, even, more than a little bashful—one might even say prudish. The camera is either so close or so far away that their private parts cannot be seen. They move around so carefully their modesty is maintained (even though, at this point in the story, they themselves have no conception of modesty, or immodesty). Occasionally, when the camera frames their bodies in such a way that their private parts might be seen, some fortuitous foliage in the foreground comes to their rescue. Or, when the camera is closer, they conceal parts of their bodies behind other parts of their bodies. Adam’s leg, bent at the knee, hides his private parts. Eve’s long and honey-colored hair covers her breasts.

After the Fall, Adam and Eve will cover their private parts with giant leaves, because God is looking for them, and they are ashamed of their nakedness. But before they experience their nakedness as shame, the viewer has experienced their nakedness as something that should be hidden, kept from view, from us at least. In other words, the film is from the very beginning ashamed of their nakedness, even though the Bible tells us that Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed. Of course, the film cannot help but present the naked bodies of Adam and Eve from a post-lapsarian state in which nakedness is associated with the shame that attended the first disobedience and its discovery. In the Garden of Eden, shame is first experienced as self-conscious nakedness, in which nakedness is experienced as embarrassing exposure. The film is inevitably conscious of the nakedness of the actors playing these characters, and seems intent on avoiding indecent or undue exposure. Through careful positioning of the camera and of the human bodies framed by the camera, Huston’s film attempts, unsuccessfully, perhaps even embarrassingly, to conceal this consciousness, to conceal, in other words, its own abject obligation to conceal their private parts. The film is a return to Eden, and the lessons learned there, the shame installed there, are apparently irrevocable. The film seeks, however, to pretend otherwise, and to feign innocence. The film is arguably ashamed that it is ashamed, whereas Adam and Eve themselves are, as it were, unashamed that they are unashamed.

For several years, reports in the press had expressed intense interest in—and generated intense anticipation for—the Garden of Eden sequence which was to begin Huston’s film. This was primarily due to the knowledge that the characters, and the actors playing them, would have to be shown in the nude. The critical responses to this sequence focused, inevitably, on the film’s presentation of the naked actors, the representation of naked characters. These responses to the sequence should be understood in relation to the history of nudity in the cinema, while the fortunes of the film itself should be considered in relation to the history of the biblical epic as a genre. In the mid-1960s, after all, nudity in the cinema was on the ascent, while the traditional biblical epic was in decline. The popular reception of Huston’s film, and specifically of his representation of Adam and Eve, reveal the contours of these coterminous historical and industrial trends and the discourses that accompanied them. I wish here to explore the film’s presentation of Adam and Eve in relation to changing attitudes to nudity in the cinema, formalized by the revision of the Production Code in 1966, and in relation to the perceived desuetude of the biblical epic during that decade. Huston’s film is, uniquely, a point of intersection for these seemingly unrelated phenomena. With respect to the film industry’s exploitation of audience anticipation, the epic spectacle, conventionally expected to provide satisfaction through an excessive and overwhelming approach to film form, is momentarily displaced by the pleasures associated with the possibility of a glimpse of the unadorned human form.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the epic genre was associated with commercial success and institutional acclaim. The two highest grossing films of all time were both epic spectaculars set in biblical times or dealing with biblical events: William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959), which had taken $38,000,000 at the box-office, and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), with a respectable $34,000,000. The highest grossing film of 1960 was another epic set in the ancient world, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. In their study of the epic, Bruce Babington and Peter Evans argue that not only must these films depict “world-historical events, the distant myths or more recent turning points of the culture,” but must be realized accordingly, appropriately, “with resources of cinematic style approximating the effects of the epic in literature, great events given the largest scale of treatment; great as in massive, but also connoting grandeur and overwhelming cultural significance … The genre exists only in the superlative mode.”4 Similarly, according to Foster Hirsch, another historian of the epic film, “epics were produced as self-conscious demonstrations of the possibilities of film” and “as a display of cinematic virtuosity.”5 The epic depends upon, and perpetuates, a fantasy that size equals significance. Like an exhibitionist, the epic displays itself with incredible confidence in its ability to provide satisfaction.

Historically, the more dramatic developments in cinematic technology have been popularly associated with the epic genre. For example, Henry Koster’s The Robe (United States, 1953) was the first film to be theatrically presented in CinemaScope. Huston’s The Bible exemplifies this aspect of the epic: it was the first theatrically released feature film to be photographed in Dimension-150, an “extreme wide-angle, single-lens 70mm process which is projected on a huge wall-to-wall deeply curved screen.”6 The D-150 screen was 70 feet wide (compared with the 53 feet wide screens traditionally used to present 70mm) and the image was thus 75% larger than the conventional 70mm image. Audiences watching Huston’s film in theatres that had been fitted with the D-150 screens were presented with an image dramatically larger in scale than had ever been seen before. The unprecedented size of the image provided an experientially overwhelming climax to what had been for many an unprecedentedly extended period of expectation and anticipation.7 The disappointment with the film as a film was perhaps exacerbated by the gigantic size of its image. Bigger was not better; indeed, it seemed there was an inverse relationship between the awesome dimensions of the image and its negligible impact as a film.

As well as providing the self-conscious display of cinematic virtuosity, films set in ancient and biblical times have traditionally offered audiences erotic spectacle, usually involving female nudity. For example, Claudette Colbert takes a luxurious milk bath in a memorable sequence in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), and Susan Hayward enjoys a long and luxurious shower in Henry King’s David and Bathsheba (1951). Hedy Lamarr in DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), Rita Hayworth in William Dieterle’s Salome (1952), and Gina Lollobrigida in King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba (1959) are among the more infamous exotic and erotic heroines of the Hollywood epic. While adaptations of the Bible might offer filmmakers opportunities to present scenes of sensual and sinful spectacle, the expectations of international audiences had to be taken into consideration, given the necessity to recoup the massive costs involved in producing epics. In an article for the British film journal Sight and Sound written in 1963, Penelope Houston and John Gillet discuss the latest biblical blockbusters and note that “for the producer dealing with the Bible’s more explicit pages, there is always the nagging doubt as to whether the adaptation has arrived at an equitable balance between intended licentiousness and the demands of world censorship and markets.”8 It was the unfortunate fate of Huston’s The Bible to emerge at the very moment the “demands of … censorship and markets” were being transformed by an increasing commonplaceness, and institutional acceptance, of nudity in the cinema. It is, then, ironic that Huston’s film coincided with this new chapter in the history of cinema censorship in America. After all, who better to embody acceptable nudity than Adam and Eve? How fitting, also, that audiences should be reminded of the story of the origin of the relationship between nakedness and shame just as this relationship was being challenged, in a fundamental sense, by the newly revised Production Code.

The spectacular scale and significance of the film had been advertised and exaggerated in the popular press from the very beginning. Dino De Laurentiis, the producer, referred to the film as “without doubt the most ambitious ever conceived,” a “daring and unique project” which “should prove to be the most fantastic motion picture experience of all time.”9 Anticipation was intense, despite the dramatic diminishment in scale of the original project announced to the world’s media in 1960. De Laurentiis originally decided to make a film of the Bible in 1960. He asked the English poet and playwright Christopher Fry to work on the adaptation. Fry had written the screenplay for Richard Fleischer’s Barabba (Barrabas, Italy, 1961), which De Laurentiis had produced, as well as part of the screenplay for Ben Hur. Fry agreed, and set to work. De Laurentiis immediately announced that he was embarking on the greatest project ever attempted in motion picture history, a movie that would cancel out all other films on the Bible. The initial plan was indeed ambitious. It was, in fact, unprecedented. The film was to be between nine and twelve hours long. The budget was at one stage reported to be in excess of $90,000,000, over twice that of Cleopatra (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963), which was in production at the time. A dozen or so internationally acclaimed directors would take responsibility for specific parts of the film, including Robert Bresson, Federico Fellini, Orson Welles, Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni. Numerous stars were rumoured to be involved, including Laurence Olivier, Maria Callas, Rudolph Nureyev and Charles Chaplin.

In the autumn of 1962, a gigantic billboard was erected in Times Square between 45th Street and 46th Street. It was twenty feet high and two hundred and sixty-five feet long, stretching for almost an entire block. In letters twelve feet high were the words: “Dino De Laurentiis has reserved this space to announce the most important movie of all time.” At the time, no directors were formally attached to the project. Shooting would not begin for another eighteen months. By the time shooting did begin, in Italy, in 1964, the project was somewhat less ambitious. John Huston was to be the only director. The film was to focus on just half a dozen stories from the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. The budget was now less than $20,000,000. The words “In the beginning …” were quietly added to that gigantic sign on Broadway. De Laurentiis always remained confident that more films would follow, that he would realise his original ambition. But none of these projects were ever to get off the ground. He was nevertheless convinced that the film he and Huston had made was of spectacular significance and would be the most commercially successful film ever released. Twentieth Century Fox acquired the distribution rights for an unprecedentedly large sum. Since the film was announced in 1960, there had been three spectacularly epic ‘disasters’: Cleopatra, The Fall of the Roman Empire (dir. Anthony Mann, 1964) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir. George Stevens, 1965). However, De Laurentiis’s confidence was indefatigable. On Wednesday 28 September 1966 the film had its world premiere at Lowe’s State Theatre in New York, which had paid an unprecedentedly large sum for a single engagement. On the front page of Film Daily, De Laurentiis was reported as saying the film would be the greatest grosser of all time.10

When Huston himself had addressed the Foreign Press Association in Rome on March 15, 1965, he said: “I am making The Bible because I think it can be a picture of rare beauty and fascination. I did not set out to make a spectacle. It bears little relation to any other Bible picture ever made.”11 And in the Production Information Manual, De Laurentiis wrote: “The goal of all who worked on this project was to bring the Bible to life as faithfully as possible. And we also set out to make a Biblical film that is different from anything else ever made. We used spectacle, for example, only when it was suggested by the Bible itself, not simply for spectacle’s sake.”12 While the filmmakers expressed their determination to resist the conventions of the form, to make a spectacular film without relentless or reckless recourse to spectacle itself, it was nevertheless promoted and regarded as belonging to that genre, and, more, as epitomizing everything that was wrong with the genre, or, worse, failing even to provide the pleasures associated with the genre.

Some years later, in 1977, Huston said of his film: “It was very seriously conceived and everything that was done had thought behind it. Some things were more successful than others, but I felt that some sequences were quite extraordinary.”13 In a biography of Huston, Stuart Kaminsky claims (somewhat disingenuously) that The Bible was the director’s most successful film, because it made more money than the others, but of course it also cost much more than the others, and only just broke even.14 In almost all other respects, the film was regarded as a failure. In another biography of Huston, Axel Madsen claims (somewhat unfairly) that the film was “universally panned.”15 While several critics did praise parts of the film, the majority were unimpressed. A critical consensus quickly emerged: the film was a disappointment. It didn’t live up to expectations. It was a major let down. It deserved to flop. The film was depressingly underwhelming. The following year, The Bible was nominated for just one Academy Award (for Best Musical Score), compared with the five nominations given to The Greatest Story Ever Told, the nine nominations given to Cleopatra, the six nominations given to Spartacus, and, of course, the twelve nominations given to Ben Hur. A couple of years after its release, Lotte H. Eisner included the film in her discussion of cinematic kitsch, which she defines in terms of stylistic inadequacy and “unpardonable mediocrity.”16 Here, it is explicitly the film’s ordinariness that is unacceptable; mediocrity, unfairly, binds together the ordinary and the inferior. For Stephen Farber, writing about “The Spectacle Film in 1967” for Film Quarterly, Huston’s film marked a new low in the degradation of the epic genre. Discussing the epics of the mid-1960s, Farber writes: “The Bible is the worst of these recent films, most nearly conforming to what educated audiences have come to expect of movie epics. … It’s not a tasteless movie, but it’s not a good one either. Everything is so terribly bland … The film shouldn’t bother anyone, for most of it has no point of view at all; it simply turns the narratives into the most literal kinds of moving pictures.”17 For later critics, Huston’s film is coincident, even contributory to, the demise of the (biblical) epic genre itself.18

The publicity and press coverage for the film repeatedly privileged the Adam and Eve sequence. For example, the June 1965 edition of the French film journal Positif, which included a 28-page feature on the film, presented Adam and Eve on its cover, as did the November 1966 edition of the British film journal Films and Filming, a magazine which during this time promoted international art cinema by obsessively adorning its cover with shots of naked or semi-naked actors and actresses. Images of a young couple, apparently naked, beneath a tree, or surrounded by flowers, were instantly identifiable and recognizable as Adam and Eve and emerged as the most insistent iconographic emblem of the film, even though both actors were unknown, and represented just one of the half dozen Bible stories dramatized by the film. The disappointment with the Garden of Eden sequence encapsulated the disappointment with the film as a whole; it didn’t deliver the goods. In an important way, the Garden of Eden sequence functioned metonymically for the whole film. It was this section of the film that had aroused the most anticipation during the film’s production, it was this section of the film that had been publicized with the most ingenuity, and it was this sequence of the film that met with the most derision after the film’s release. Several years after the film’s release, in a history of nudity in the cinema and the theatre, Gillian Hanson recalled how “[everyone] waited in eager speculation to see how The Bible would handle the first sequence, In the Beginning, with absolutely foolproof grounds for a nude scene. At Creation, Adam’s leg was cunningly crooked, while Eve’s long hair obscured all. Subsequent views of the couple were all long-shot derrière through the lush primeval grass of Eden.”19 Similarly, in 1975, cultural historian Peter Webb wrote: “Complete nudity appeared of necessity in John Houston’s The Bible … In the Beginning (1966), with biblical authority, but the censors’ guns were spiked, for Adam was created from the dust with one leg artistically crooked, and Eve was provided with an abundance of hair that adequately concealed her breasts. Whenever the couple were shown full-length on the screen, deftly positioned bushes or tree branches shielded their pubic regions …”20 Critics and commentators at the time ridiculed Huston’s film’s modesty. In many ways, these responses to the film sought to expose the film’s faults, its failures, and its shortcomings. It was as if Huston should be exposed for, and made ashamed of, having failed to show Adam and Eve in the nude. The film’s discreet presentation of the original connecting of nakedness and shame becomes itself an aesthetic transgression that is harshly punished. These comments condemn Huston’s film for failing to show more than it did. The knowledge that (at last!) a nude scene was sanctioned by the source material resulted in an experience of eager anticipation and excitement that was ultimately and perhaps inevitably destined to end in disappointment.

The story of Adam and Eve is a story of prohibition and transgression, and is organised around a set of oppositions and distinctions, between innocence and knowledge, naked bodies and clothed bodies, sin and shame. Margaret R. Miles has suggested “[the] evidence and symbol of the fall into sin was Adam and Eve’s recognition of their nakedness … Adam and Eve experienced nakedness as shame and, in spontaneous response, clothing as gratification; the sense of shame and the act of covering their nakedness directly followed and were initiated by the state of sinful existence.”21 For Mieke Bal, moreover, the “semantic field of the story” is “nakedness versus shame.”22 In the beginning, Adam and Eve are naked and unashamed. They are both without clothes and without shame. Being naked is to be without shame; being naked is thus the opposite of being ashamed.23 It is their awareness of their naked state, which follows the eating of the forbidden fruit, which entails shame. But awareness and shame are not “immediately related,” according to Bal. It is the confrontation with God following that first disobedience that generates shame. In other words, it is their being revealed before God as being aware of their nakedness, rather than their nakedness itself, which results in shame. Similarly, for Claire Pajaczkowska, the story of Adam and Eve reveals how being ashamed depends upon being visible, depends, therefore, on being present, or presented, to another. Visibility becomes vulnerability. After they eat the fruit, Adam and Eve are happy. They remain naked and unashamed. She says: “It is only with the proximity of the gaze of the other, the God, that there is the panic-stricken, painful realisation of self-consciousness, and the need to hide … [The] dynamics of shame revolve around the world of sight and of being seen …”24

De Laurentiis and Huston were only too aware of the need to convey the innocence and insouciance of Adam and Eve, but that was clearly going to be difficult. How to present their innocence if that innocence was inextricable from their unself-conscious nakedness? The producer stated at the time that Adam and Eve “must be innocence personified.”25 Huston elaborated: “In the Garden, you know, neither of these kids is supposed to know what sex is all about. They don’t even know how to kiss.”26 But as Derek Elley has argued, “[one] major problem with filming Genesis is that, as soon as its content is translated into images, it begins to lose the innocence of its vision – one may accept an allegory in print but not necessarily when it is thrust before one’s eyes with live actors.”27The story of Adam and Eve poses a distinct problem for filmmakers, since it is explicitly concerned with the loss of innocence, and its allegorical representation of this loss is organized around the opposition between unself-conscious and self-conscious nakedness, between shameless nakedness (or naked shamelessness) and a/shamed nakedness. The problem for filmmakers representing Adam and Eve before the Fall is that the live actors must appear to be both naked and unashamed, despite the cinema’s inevitable re-inscription of post-lapsarian shame when it comes to the undressed human body. According to Mario Perniola, “[in] the figurative arts, eroticism appears as a relationship between clothing and nudity. Therefore, it is conditional on the possibility of movement—transit—from one state to the other.”28 Adam and Eve are naked in the garden, but only for a little while; their destiny is to dress themselves to cover their nakedness. Their naked state, in other words, is relative (and therefore erotic) rather than absolute (and therefore purely metaphysical), to adopt Perniola’s terms.29 The problem, then, is that because something is inherently erotic in the story of Adam and Eve’s discovery of their nakedness, and their attempts to conceal themselves from a literally omniscient gaze, filmmakers must decide whether their Eden is to provide erotic entertainment or no.

So-called ‘nudie’ movies from the 1950s and 1960s regularly had recourse to the myth of Adam and Eve, such as The Garden of Eden (dir. Max Nosseck, United States, 1954) and Adam Lost His Apple (dir. Earl Wainwright, United States, 1965).30 The biblical story of Adam and Eve has been adapted more straightforwardly for the screen by a number of filmmakers during the latter half of the twentieth century, the majority of which have perhaps unsurprisingly exploited the material for the purposes of providing audiences with the pleasures of watching nubile and naked bodies innocently ambling around vaguely tropical beauty spots. Examples include Adan y Eva (Adam and Eve, dir. Alberto Gout, Mexico, 1956), starring the French beauty queen Christianne Martel (crowned Miss Universe in 1953), El Pecado de Adan y Eva (The Sin of Adam and Eve, dir. Miguel Zacarias, Mexico, 1969), starring the muscular Jorge Rivero (later known in Hollywood as George Rivers), Adamo ed Eva, la prima storia d’amore (Adam and Eve: The First Love Story, dir. Enzo Doria and Luigi Russo, Italy, 1983), clearly influenced by The Blue Lagoon (dir. Randal Kleiser, United States, 1980) and distributed internationally as Adam and Eve vs. the Cannibals, and the time-travel sex-comedy Second Time Lucky (dir. Michael Anderson, United States, 1984), with Diane Franklin, star of The Last American Virgin (dir. Boaz Anderson, United States, 1982) and Roger Wilson, star of Porky’s (dir. Bob Clark, Canada, 1982) and Porky’s II: The Next Day (dir. Bob Clark, Canada, 1983).31

These cinematic representations of Adam and Eve, through their reiterative depictions of the first disobedience, the subsequent loss of innocence, and the institution of self-conscious and shameful nakedness, provide a fascinating archive which reveals the historical becoming commonplace of full-frontal female nudity, and the relative rarity of full-frontal male nudity on the screen. In Second Time Lucky, for example, Diane Franklin’s bare breasts are repeatedly exposed for the film’s target audience, which is presumably the frat-house. Film adaptations of the story of Adam and Eve, variously conceived (as serious and religious art, for example, or as erotic entertainment) and promoted, distributed and consumed in multiple ways, also reveal the relationship between the original story’s symbolic account of the emergence of gender, sexuality and shame, and the history of populist representations of the naked or semi-naked body.

In her 1965 feature on the film’s production for the New Yorker, Lillian Ross reported that the paparazzi had had “a number of field days with stills of Adamo and Eva gamboling naked in the Giardino di Eden during their pre-peccato-originale days.”32 Similarly, Time magazine noted how the actress playing Eve “has been accustomed to stalking about in only long tresses while paparazzi keep leaping out of the foliage to take her picture.”33 Axel Madsen suggests that: “Dino milked the nude filming for all its worth, perhaps even egging on the ever-enterprising paparazzi by telling the press he had hired two dozen carabinieri to keep out unwanted visitors.”34 All these reports and rumours helped establish expectations concerning the presentation of nudity in the Eden sequence, and led to an intense and ultimately untenable degree of anticipation amongst critics and audiences waiting for the finished film to be released.

During the film’s production, and after the shoot was complete, in interview after interview, Huston was asked about how his film was going to present Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden sequence. The director regularly made jokes about fig leaf girdles and fig leaf G-strings. In 1965, he admitted that they shot the actors “from unshocking angles.”35 “We naturally couldn’t have outright nudity,” he said, “and we also wanted to avoid any ‘coy’ behind-the-bushes stuff. What we have is in good taste.”36 As noted above, the vast majority of the reviews of Huston’s film were negative. Most critics suggested that the film, after all the anticipation, failed to live up to expectations, and that, in the end, it had not been worth the wait. The film’s presentation of Adam and Eve, however, provoked a range of responses. Some critics expressed satisfaction, others dissatisfaction. Some were pleased, others disappointed. Most of the critics referred to the fact that Adam and Eve were shown in the nude together. It was the way in which their naked bodies were shown (or not quite shown) that divided the critics. The contemporary responses to these sequences are, therefore, extremely revealing. The reviews suggest that critics were addressing this section of Huston’s film in order to reflect on the possibility and propriety of naked bodies appearing on the cinema screen. As noted above, this had become a topic of debate in the weeks following the revision of the Production Code’s prohibition on nudity, immediately before the release of Huston’s film. Due to this coincidence, it is tempting to look at the representation of Adam and Eve’s nakedness in Huston’s film in relation to the history of nudity in the cinema in the United States. The historic revision of the Production Code provides a peculiarly apposite industrial context for the film’s representation of the Biblical story of the origin of shameful nakedness.

The casting of Eve ignited more interest than did perhaps any other aspect of the production of the film. Dino De Laurentiis hoped that his search for an actress to play Eve would incite as much excitement as had Selznick’s search for a Scarlett O’Hara. De Laurentiis and Huston examined thousands of photographs of young women. Three hundred were chosen and auditioned by the producer and the director, many without clothes, according to reports in the press. De Laurentiis said, “For Eve, we will find an actress who can be utterly natural without clothes. Acting in the nude can be upsetting, and Eve must not look upset.”37 Eventually, an unknown Italian actress called Nicoletta Machiavelli was chosen. She signed a contract with De Laurentiis. When this was announced to the press, there was an international outcry, because Nicoletta Machiavelli was a brunette.38 Eve, thousands of letters and articles in the press contended, was, or at least should be, blonde. The search resumed in Scandanavia. Vana Caruso, one of Huston’s assistants, discovered Ulla Bergryd, a Swedish anthropology student, in an art gallery in Gothenburg. In his autobiography An Open Book (1980), Huston describes the casting of Adam and Eve as carefully conceived from the beginning: “Some thought Adam and Eve should be dark, primitive creatures not yet quite human. Eventually, however, I decided to go along with the Renaissance masters. Michael Parks, an American actor, played Adam. He was fair-haired and had a sensitive yet somehow primitive face. A Swedish girl, Ulla Bergryd, played Eve. She was lovely looking, with long, glowing tresses and an appealing simplicity. I stayed with the fifteenth-century painters in rendering Adam and Eve as fair.”39 Ulla Bergryd was flown to Rome. Huston said, “We tested her without clothes—and she looked innocent and provocative, which is just what we wanted.”40 In the Production Information Manual, an entire section is devoted to the casting of Eve: “Eve Still Causing Problems”. “Ulla is now under long-term contract to De Laurentiis and Huston believes he has discovered a new star. She has red-gold hair, blue eyes and is tall and slender. More important, she has that look of wide-eyed innocence so necessary for Eve before she eats of the Forbidden Fruit.”41 In the descriptions of Ulla Bergryd, her “lovely looking” physical attributes are duly noted, but also her naked body’s suggestion of being both “innocent and provocative.” The female body “without clothes” is inherently provocative, it would seem, even though, as the Production Information Manual makes clear, it is primarily, even exclusively, innocence that is necessary for the actress depicting Eve before the Fall.

The widely reported decision to cast a young Swedish woman (and an anthropology student at that) to play Eve, despite the assertions that the filmmakers were simply following the precedents of Renaissance art, inevitably linked Huston’s film to the popular associations that had been established between Sweden, nudity and art- and exploitation- cinema. Peter Webb has noted how “[the] ‘50s brought Swedish films to the attention of American and British audiences, largely due to the work of the great director Ingmar Bergman. Sweden had long accepted mixed nude-bathing in public, and so nudity played a natural part in Swedish films.”42 Films such as Summer with Monika (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1953) and The Virgin Spring (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1960), as well as the infamous I, a Woman (dir. Mac Ahlberg, 1965), when released and marketed in the United States, led to a widespread belief that nudity was a constitutive component of Swedish film, whether it was art cinema or exploitation cinema (distributors in the United States worked to dissolve this distinction, anyway). Vilgot Sjöman’s films, such as The Swedish Mistress (1962), 491 (1964) and I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967), all of which were banned in America, contributed to this popular idea. The nationality of Ulla Bergryd was noted incessantly whenever she was mentioned in reports about, or reviews of, the film; such descriptions of Huston’s Eve, in other words, functioned to tantalise audiences through the popular associations between Sweden, nudity and cinema.

Peter Webb notes that during the 1960s American films became “more adult, more realistic, more progressive.”43 He suggests: “[the] climate of opinion in favour of eroticism in the cinema … was greatly affected by … European imports in the 50s,” from directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni.44 The “serious film-maker,” Webb concludes, “has recognised that eroticism is a vital area in which the cinema can progress as an art form; he has at last claimed the right to stimulate his audience sexually as well as to make them laugh and cry.”45Subsequently, gradually, but increasingly, nudity was becoming commonplace. Throughout the first half of the decade, cultural commentators discussed the increase in nudity in European cinema and its implications for American cinema. For example, in 1964, M. M. Carlin discussed the contemporary “contest in sensation” characterising the new cinema, how since La dolce vita (dir. Federico Fellini, Italy, 1960) films were “intensifying nudity … in the guise of Art.”46 Carlin calls such films “art-sex films,” and writes: “We can of course look forward to the Kamasutra in Panavision and Technicolor starring perhaps some famous husband-and-wife team; (for if they were married, then it would be moral; and if it moral, then it is art). I don’t think that’s merely a joke; the processes are moving with fantastic acceleration.”47

The Catholic Legion of Decency was struggling to maintain a coherent position regarding nudity during this period. In a statement following their condemnation of Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1965), which featured a brief shot of a woman exposing her breasts, the Legion maintained: “The good of the motion picture industry as well as of the national community requires that a marked effort on the part of some producers to introduce nudity into film treatment be discouraged, for such treatment is open to the gravest of abuses.”48 Father Sullivan, the executive head of the Catholic Office, was accused of double standards after his organisation passed films containing rear shots of male nudity, Zorba the Greek (dir. Mihalis Kagoiannis, 1965) and Ulysses (dir. Joseph Strick, 1967). In an interview with Alexander Walker, Sullivan rejected such accusations: “A glimpse of the bare male rear would hardly disturb any normal filmgoer. The general consensus of female viewers is that the male derrière is not titillating to women. But exposure of the female rear risks being pruriently stimulating.”49 Bottoms, and also breasts, were increasingly to beleaguer Father Sullivan and his colleagues during this period. In an article written in 1965, Judy Stone claimed that “the Legion can no longer go on playing the role of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.”50 Indeed, the influence of the Legion quickly evaporated in the latter half of the 1960s.

The Motion Picture Association of America’s Production Code, last revised in 1956, was also increasingly perceived as anachronistic, and out of touch. The “Costume” section of the Code stated: “Complete Nudity, in fact or in silhouette, is never permitted, nor shall there be any licentious notice by characters in the film of suggested nudity. 2. Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.” The “Reasons Supporting the Code” provided for this section claimed: “The effect of nudity or semi-nudity upon the normal man or woman and much more upon the young and immature person, has been honestly recognized by all lawmakers and moralists … Nudity can never be permitted as being necessary for the plot.” Of course, in the Bible, the first story, the first significant plot, revolves around nudity. But the Production Code reiterates God’s demand that man and woman shall cover their nakedness, as a way to remember their sinful state.

Jack Valenti became the new president of the Motion Picture Association of America in May of 1966, four months prior to the release of De Laurentiis’s film. Valenti immediately began planning for a revision of the Production Code. The revisions were first described in detail to the press in early September. A new film classification was to be introduced to in order to respect the artistic freedom of filmmakers: SMA (Suggested for Mature Audiences). The revised Production Code represented a new approach to the presentation of naked bodies on the screen. The revision included the removal of the blanket prohibition on “complete nudity, in fact or silhouette.” While “indecent or undue exposure of the human body” remained impermissible, shots featuring nudity were no longer automatically cause for condemnation or censorious cutting. The popular press covered the revision of the Production Code in detail, particularly during the weeks leading up to the premiere of De Laurentiis’s film, in late September. Indeed, on the day of Huston’s film’s premiere, the front page of Film Daily, dominated by an advert for the premiere, reported in an adjacent column that the National Association of Theatre Owners had “enthusiastically” endorsed the revised Production Code, and had issued a statement describing the revision as “a responsible and constructive effort to harmonize the requirements of creative and mature production with the cultural and moral interests of our society.”51

Bosley Crowther, the film critic for the New York Times, was the only contemporary commentator to reflect on the fortuitousness of the Production Code being revised just two weeks before The Bible … In the Beginning was finally released. As Crowther acknowledges, the irony of the “pure coincidence” of the “virtual conjunction” of the revision and the film’s release inhered in the fact that “[the] old code’s interdiction of the showing of ‘complete nudity, in fact or in silhouette’ might have put up a technical roadblock to the episode of Adam and Eve.”52 In Variety, it was the Catholic Legion of Decency’s response to the film that was of more interest. In June of 1966 a report suggested that if the Legion of Decency gave the film a favorable rating despite the depiction of nudity in the sequences showing Adam and Eve in Eden, filmmakers should feel more confident challenging them about nudity in films in the future. In other words, the depiction in a mainstream film of Adam and Eve in naked innocence would provide an important precedent for the severing of nudity from shamefulness in future motion picture production. However, the report quotes a film producer considering the potential positive outcomes of an unfavorable rating. Had the Legion asked Twentieth Century Fox to make cuts to the Eden sequence, there would have emerged “a perfect chance to challenge their power. Fox would have held out and seen if they could give a condemned rating to the Bible.”53 As it turned out, the Catholic Film Newsletter – prepared by the National Center for Film Study, the educational affiliate of the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures – praised the film, noting: “In the Garden of Eden sequence the camera highlights the scenic wonders of Paradise so effectively that the viewer almost fails to notice how skilfully the camera photographs Adam and Eve from long shots and discrete angles to portray their nakedness before the Fall.”54 Almost, but not quite: what one sees is that what one sees has been artfully, though not quite invisibly, censored.

Several critics praised this section of the film, noting its successful avoidance of inappropriate impropriety. Film Daily thought the Eden sequence “devoid of false sensuality,” due to the “exquisitely misty photography” and the “nice kind of timidness” displayed by Adam and Eve.55 Similarly, Variety thought the Eden sequence was “enhanced by soft focus photography and a general mood of tranquillity, and their nudity, far from being an exploitative gambit, is perfectly natural in context.”56Descriptions of the sequence respond to its reticence by referring to abstract concepts of tastefulness. For Films and Filming, “The garden of Eden sequence, which one has to peer at through a golden haze, is very tastefully done though looking like a better class nature study film, with some lovely soft-focus close-ups of Ulla Bergryd and Michael Parks.”57 More recently, John Solomon has praised Huston’s “delicate and simple” Eden sequence, noting how “the nudity of Adam and Eve is teasingly but tastefully elusive.”58 Other critics were much less impressed. John Gillet, writing in Sight and Sound, wrote: “Adam and Eve in the Garden are frankly ludicrous, dashing about among filtered forests and marshlands looking cold and lonely – and it was certainly a mistake to allow them to speak.”59 Monthly Film Bulletin likened the Eden sequence in Huston’s film to “a disappointingly polite saucy home movie” and derided its “coyly withdrawing camera, misty photography and carefully posed thighs.”60 The review in Time Magazine noted that “questions of taste arise in a gold-filtered Eden, where Adam (Michael Parks) takes shape in the sod, starts poking around Paradise eying Eve (Ulla Bergryd) and her apple while an athletic camera plays now-you-see-it, oh-you-don’t with their anatomy. Such defoliated innocence fills an audience with awe, not the miracle of mankind but for the skill of split-second cutting.”61

Later commentators were able to look back to The Bible from a period in which such reticence had begun to be challenged by the becoming commonplace of nudity on the screen. Gerald E. Forshey, writing in 1992, recalled how “[much] was made of Adam and Eve’s nudity. There was virtually no way to satisfy anyone. Nudity was not yet common in American films. Too much nudity would emphasize their sexuality, and thus undercut their innocence prior to the Fall. Yet too little nudity would have the same effect. The solution was to disguise it by careful placement of the camera, naked buttocks, long hair glued over Eve’s breasts, and so forth”62 What is proposed here, however, suggests that the amount of nudity that would undercut Adam and Eve’s innocence is historically and culturally specific; at the time of the film’s release, nudity was not yet common, and so the “too much” or “too little” that Huston might conceivably have provided is relative to the more general commonplaceness of nudity on American screens at the time. Thus, the film very quickly became a quaint emblem of a period before the revision of the Production Code.

By depicting the biblical account of the origin of shamed nakedness in the Garden of Eden, Huston’s film inevitably reflects its own historical moment’s debates about naked bodies on the cinema screen. The popular expression of disappointment over Huston’s film’s self-conscious coyness represents, I would suggest, an opportunistic and optimistic attempt to instigate a more general reconsideration of mainstream cinema’s traditional refusal to clearly and in close-up present the naked human form. At the same time, the critics’ disappointment with the film as a whole reflected the increasing unpopularity of the epic genre, and this despite Huston’s avowed attempts in his film to avoid spectacle for spectacle’s sake. These responses are strangely comparable: the Adam and Eve sequence is considered a failure because of the film’s refusal to present their naked bodies more clearly, and, at the same time, the film as a whole is considered a failure because of its refusal to fill the screen with exceptionally spectacular images. Despite the magnificence of the Noah’s ark sequence (the film’s single truly spectacular sequence), but perhaps largely due to the rhetoric and scale of De Laurentiis’s preposterous promotion, critics, expecting a spectacle to cancel out all other spectacles, found the film deplorably deficient. The film couldn’t really present its nudity more explicitly than it did, despite the critics’ expectations, and, similarly, the film wasn’t striving for conventional spectacle, despite the critics’ expectations. By way of conclusion, I would like to suggest how these aspects of the film’s reception might be reconsidered through each other.

In failing to show Adam’s private parts, Huston’s film was, and remains, unexceptional. Even today, male nudity in the cinema is rare, especially in American cinema, and so is always remarkable. As Mary Spongberg has suggested, “the penis is rarely the subject of the scientific or the popular gaze.”63 The general invisibility of the penis in culture, she argues, supports patriarchal ideology because “[phallic] power is dependent on the refusal to expose the penis to view.”64 As long as the penis remains invisible in the cinema, for example, the fantasy of the phallus seeks appropriate symbolic expression. Vivian Sobchack has reflected on the Hollywood epic’s operative excess thus: “The purpose of this hyperformalism seems significant … as a perverse and inflated display of autoerotic spectacle—that is, as cinema tumescent: institutionally full of itself, swollen with its own generative power to mobilize the vast amounts of labor and money necessary to diddle its technology to an extended and expanded orgasm of images, sounds, and profits.”65 The epic spectacle is here conceived as a triumphant and phallic erection fantasy. The critics who considered Huston’s film a failure, a flop, sought to deflate the idea of the film that had been sustained for so long. “The misfortune of The Bible is that it does not live up to hopes,” claimed the New York Times.66 “After all the ambitions and promises and pre-publicity … The Bible … In the Beginning turns out to be an Old Testament spectacular like any other,” added Monthly Film Bulletin.67 “The film’s achievement is rather small,” though Sight and Sound.68 Writing a few years later, in 1969, Ivan Butler recalled: “Perhaps because of the high expectations aroused, the fragment (in spite of its three hours’ length, it really is only a fragment) has received some harsh criticism …”69 These comments suggest that the ordinariness of the film was all the more disappointing because of the extended period of anticipation and the intensity of the “expectations aroused.” The actual film couldn’t compete with the fantasy of a film that had fascinated so many people for so long. Moreover, given the critics’ preoccupation with the film’s refusal to reveal Adam’s private parts, these responses might also be understood in relation to the analogy Sobchack proposes. As Peter Lehman has argued, “In a patriarchal culture, when the penis is hidden, it is centred.”70 In dismissing the film for failing to live up to expectations, the critics, as it were, are still talking about Adam’s private parts, by discussing the film as if it were an unexceptional penis that cannot compete with the fantasy of the phallus. Richard Dyer has famously suggested, “the penis isn’t a patch on the phallus … The limp penis can never match up to the mystique that has kept it hidden from view for the last couple of centuries …”71 While it doesn’t (and really couldn’t) present Adam’s penis for the popular and critical gaze, the anticipation for and disappointment with Huston’s film provided a way to reveal the penis anyway, and, specifically, its failure to correspond to the phallus. What the film could not reveal (Adam’s penis), the exposure of the film’s shortcomings as spectacle revealed: phallic fantasies which confuse size with significance will always arouse more expectation than they can possibly satisfy.


Michael Lawrence is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of the West of England.