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Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Volume One - Bible's Greatest Stories (Ten Commandments, Samson & Delilah, David & Goliath, Noah)
Thank God. CBS DVD and Paramount have released Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Volume One - Bible's Greatest Stories, a rather awkwardly-monikered single-disc gathering of four episodes of the NBC...miniseries? series? special events? that aired sporadically during the 1978-1979 season (Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Volume Two - God's Chosen Ones and Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Volume Three - God's Power, have been released, and I'll be reviewing those this week). Produced by the legendary Schick Sunn Classic Productions indie (I'm about to faint...), Greatest Heroes of the Bible looks to be an effort by the studio and NBC to hopefully recreate the success of their previous joint effort, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. As far as I can tell--and info is scarce on this series/miniseries--Greatest Heroes of the Bible didn't repeat that ratings victory. However, lovers of all things Sunn Classic (and that would most fervently include me) will absolutely not want to miss these three volumes, even if these episodes appear to be out of air date order, with runtimes all over the map...and with three episodes missing from the group. Transfers are atrocious--which is just what we want with these nostalgic fullscreen discs.
I've written many times before about my childhood love affair with those insanely hyped Schick Sunn Classic Productions from the early-to-mid 1970s--that golden age of whacky pseudo-science/pseudo-history--when the nation's pop culture was saturated with B movies and sketchy documentaries and pulp books and magazines and TV shows and toys dealing with UFOs, Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, crystal power, ESP, the Loch Ness Monster, and ancient astronauts (to list just a few). Certainly in my memories Schick Sunn Classic Pictures was one of the central drivers for all that giddy, hysterical fun, during a time of my adolescence when anything supernatural seemed not only possible but completely plausible...depending, of course, on the marketing skills of whatever company was flogging a product connected with that particular phenomenon. And nobody beat Schick Sunn Classics at marketing and promoting "must-see" family-friendly exploitation entertainment. Based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, indie Schick Sunn Classic Productions compensated for their relative inexperience in actual moviemaking by taking a full-court press approach to pre-production marketing research (to determine target audience and choice of subject matter-- why waste money making a movie nobody wants to see?). This "scientific" approach was then followed by strictly-controlled, low, low-budget production costs for the feature, and then smacked home for maximized profits by "four-walled" releasing schemes (renting the movie theatres outright for 100% of the ticket sales), hyped by ballyhoo-worthy saturation promotion on television, radio and print ads. With an almost foolproof, low-risk method of producing and/or releasing movies that were in essence "pre-sold" to a waiting public, Schick Sunn Classic Productions produced and/or released one insanely profitable family adventure/documentary/drama after another: When the Wind Blows, The Outer Space Connection, The Adventures of Frontier Freemont, The Amazing World of Psychic Phenomena, The Mysterious Monsters (that one scared me), In Search of Noah's Ark, The Lincoln Conspiracy, Beyond and Back, The Bermuda Triangle (same), In Search of Historic Jesus, Beyond Death's Door, Hangar 18, and perhaps their most recognizable title, the 1974 theatrical version of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (which by various accounts pulled in somewhere between 25 to 35 million dollars in ticket sales--most going directly into Schick Sunn Classic's pockets--on a paltry $500,00 dollar investment). I saw them all, and absolutely loved them, and the day someone puts out a widescreen boxed set of those Sunn Classic titles, that's the day I drop dead from the vapors.
With the kind of profit margin success that the mainstream studios could only dream of, it was inevitable that savvy, chintzy Schick Sunn Classic Productions would be approached to produce for television, with the studio's most famous effort being 1977's The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams series. According to what I've read, NBC approached Sunn when a televised airing in 1976 of the same-named 1974 movie won a sizeable chunk of the night's demographics. Third-placed NBC, with nothing to lose, signed up Sunn's one-man-band producer Charles Edward Sellier, Jr. to gather the movie's cast together for a 13-episode mid-season replacement tryout in February, 1977 (in addition to producing the original movie, Sellier also wrote the highly-fictionalized 1972 novel from which the movie was adapted). It was a demographic (but short-lived) hit for the network, so it's not surprising that desperate, struggling NBC would ask for more. And that's where Greatest Heroes of the Bible comes in. Or at least that's what I'm assuming happened, since hard, reliable info on the show is surprisingly scant. Sellier and star Sunn house director James L. Conway are listed as executive producers here (with Conway helming some of the first episodes), while various sources list Greatest Heroes of the Bible episode counts at either 17 or 15 (two episodes are listed as two-parters in the notoriously iffy IMDB, but that may be partially incorrect, since The Story of Noah, presented in this volume, seems complete in one episode). And that's all I could find. Was Greatest Heroes of the Bible initially a miniseries offered in the fall of '78, which led immediately to more episode orders for a quasi-series in the spring of '79 (sort of like ABC's How the West Was Won)? Or was it always an official series that got preempted and bumped around a lot? Or were these episodes "special events" for one of NBC's umbrella titles that were just slotted in and "burned off" to fill in weak spots in the schedule (...which would have been the whole schedule on NBC)? I don't know (and if there are any Greatest Heroes of the Bible experts out there, by all means email me, and I'll amend the review). Hopefully, James Conway will call me, and we'll talk about Sunn for three days straight, and then we'll all know.
I wracked my brain to try and remember either watching Greatest Heroes of the Bible back in '78-'79, or seeing it listed in the TV Guide, but for the life of me I couldn't summon it up. None of the episodes rang a bell, although they did instantly feel as if I had seen them before, owing to their unmistakable--and thoroughly delightful--Schick Sunn Classic house style: amusingly portentous narration, shaky-at-best production values (that's being nice: they're cheap as hell), a certain barely-contained hysteria in the dialogue, and wildly varying performances from the casts of familiar faces. In the spirit of openness: if you've read a few of my reviews, you might think it odd I'm writing about these Greatest Heroes of the Bible volumes in the first place (outside of my affection for Sunn), making no bones about being a non-believer in several other religious-themed reviews (too many critics nowadays shy away from declaring their positions on anything, preferring to keep things fuzzy in the misguided, silly attempts to stay "objective" and not "offend" anyone). Well, this born-and-raised Methodist is now a most reluctant atheist...but one who also wholly supports the continued Judeo-Christian influence on Western civilization (basically, I'm distrusted by every side in the argument). As well, as nostalgic as I am for those days of my youth spent at Southwyck Cinemas and the Maumee Indoor and the Jerry Lewis Twin, where I was plunked down at a Saturday matinee with a bunch of other screaming kids who didn't know what the hell they were watching, either, until Brad Crandall's booming voice scared the bejeezus out of us, I'm also quite sentimental about those long-gone, innocent days at Sunday School, learning about the timeless stories presented here in Greatest Heroes of the Bible. I may not believe today, and I'm certainly no Biblical scholar (according to what I've read, these little adventures sometimes play quite loose with the original Bible texts)...but that doesn't mean I don't see the potential value in these morality plays, or deeply respect the faith that others have in them.
Mawkish, mostly irrelevant (and certainly irreverent) Easter Sunday sermon over. So...how about the episodes of Greatest Heroes of the Bible? How are they? Well...they're delicious crap, that's what they are. The dialogue is oftentimes comically overstated (in that delightfully florid, declarative, faux-Biblical style from so many earlier Hollywood religious epics), the productions are simultaneously outrageously ambitious and incredibly chintzy (who else but Sunn would attempt the entire Flood/Noah story on what looks to be a $143 dollar budget?), and the performances range from quite thoughtful to, um...awful. The disc opens with The Ten Commandments, where we get a credit sequence that looks like "The Wide, Wide World of Biblical Sports," ("...and the agony of self-doubt!"), while a suspiciously similar old-school Battlestar Galactica theme plays as Schick Sunn Classic god Brad Crandall enthusiastically reads the card for tonight's fight. Greatest Heroes of the Bible pretty much got a "highly recommended" from me right then and there, but when the cast was announced, ending with, "...and Anson Williams as Nabar," it took all my willpower not to fall to the floor and speak in tongues in a combined paroxysm of religious mania and Aaron Spelling-ish synergy. What genius decided Potsie Weber would make a believably treacherous, murderous Nabar? And yes, he is Potsie, because they even cast his Happy Days girlfriend, Lorrie Mahaffey, here, too (her orthodontia has been blessed by Jehovah). To be fair, though...Potsie isn't any worse than his more accomplished--but way more hammy--co-stars, including Kojak's Dan Frazer as Araziah, Soap's Richard Mulligan as Aaron (he's so awful here, he should have pulled that finger-snapping "Burt invisibility" shtick for real), and a hilariously literal John Marley as the big man himself, Moses (whom I guarantee was cast strictly for his hair, to save another wig from the budget). Give the moviemakers credit, though: we open right with the Red Sea parting (DeMille made you wait hours). It's comically inept, as are the subsequent "golden calf" scene (it's so tiny, like Stonehenge in Spinal Tap) and the orgy (the "corruption and degradation" mentioned by narrator Victor Jory looks like a few Yahtze games spread out amidst a lackluster petting party). Kristoffer Tabori as Eleazar, and particularly Granville Van Dusen as Joshua, actually achieve performances: the only winners--besides the delighted viewers--here.
Next up is Samson and Delilah. There's a different credit sequence for this and the remaining two episodes, featuring old-timer Victor Jory giving a brief rundown on the Creation (it only took seven days) before we close-in on the Bible, aaaaannnnddddd......cue Brad Crandall with tonight's players. Samson and Delilah is another good example of Schick Sunn Classic's chutzpah (welcome to the Old Testament). A lot of viewers know this story, at least on film, from Cecil DeMille's insanely lavish epic with Victor Mature ("The only thing 'Mature' means to me is 'Victor Mature'") and Hedy Lamar. Sunn, with nothing much more than chewing gum and bailing wire here, doesn't flinch from the highlights, though; we get a downright righteous jaw bone of an ass ass-whompin', some lion 'rasslin' (at least it's a real one...that's real doped up), and an entire foam block temple pushed down like a set of Lincoln Logs (instead of squishing the infidels, the lighter-than-air blocks bounce right off of them, like in a cartoon). The cast is pretty solid, with pro James Olson as Polah working up some friction against beautiful Ann Turkel as Delilah, while Victor Jory (with a hair cut that makes him look like a cross between Ish Kabibble and Edith Head) and Holmes & Yo-Yo's John Schuck goof around in the background (I love referencing that show...). As for our Samson, he of the lantern jaw John Beck, other than a rather disturbing modern-day resemblance to a post-op Bruce Jenner, he's understated and effective as the Mr. Magoo muscle-man...even if he doesn't look particularly big and beefy.
Scrolling down chapter and verse, we come to David and Goliath. Directed by Conway, from Brian Russell's and S.S. Schweitzer's script, David and Goliath is certainly the most ridiculous entry in this Greatest Heroes of the Bible volume...which is just another way of saying it's the most entertaining of the bunch, hands down. A good cast of familiar faces--Jeff Corey, John Dehner, Hugh O'Brien, John LaZar, Lurch the Butler--all vie to strike the silliest poses when reading their outrageously broad, overripe lines, with voice-from-the-tomb Ted Cassidy winning the elocution competition, and swaggering, unintentionally humorous O'Brien nailing the pose-off (a combination of Jack Cassidy, Paul Lynde, and Charles Nelson Reilly couldn't have pulled off a more hysterically fey stance than butch O'Brien's cocked-hip preening when Roger Kern's David grasps his hand in servile fealty). Cassidy as Goliath, still looking like a heathen Lurch (did he actually wear any make-up during The Addams Family?), glowers painfully while spitting out hilarities like, "Is there not one man of courage, you vermin!?" and "You spawn of maggot-eaten carrion!" before Dehner, looking pissed-off at his agent for landing him in Page, Arizona opposite Lurch, wearily warns, "Perform well, you great hulk of flesh...or by Dagon's blood, I'll have you hacked up and rendered for your tallow," (I would suggest a higher yield on the hambone...). My favorite, though, has to be obliviously bad actor Daniel J. Travanti (oh come on--he always stank, particularly on that gawd-awful Hill Street thing) grimacing and screeching and flailing his arms around like he's understudying Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker. That is the kind of thing I live for in these Schick Sunn Classics--thank you, Mr. Travanti.
And finally, as we close our prayer books, we end the day's services with The Story of Noah, a relatively straight-forward rendering of the Flood story that looks like it was padded out with a lot of stock footage from Sunn's In Search of Noah's Ark. IMDB says this was a two-parter, but it feels complete in just one episode, as Lew Ayres conscientiously objects to decadent despot Ed Lauter's immoral, licentious society, and promptly drops-out with God's help, getting his head together on a big 'ol ark...along with two of every species of animal on earth. Lauter, one of my favorite '70s psychos, is strangely ineffectual here (maybe it's that stupid crown of black antler horns), but the comically undernourished representation of his morally debased city at least gets right to it: we only get a shot of some kids chained up, while buyers cackle and poke at them (when typically disgusting Robert Emhardt licks his chops over poor, expressionless cipher
Jan Brady Eve Plumb, we don't know whether to question his morals, or his taste in women). Fletcher from The Guiding Light shows up as Ham (his hair is perfect), while Ayres staggers around in a dirty nightshirt, saying things like, "I am but a voice, crying in the wilderness!" (wasn't that Charlton Heston's line?). All the animals of the world are represented by some goats and does, a tiger, two monkeys and a parrot (watch a clearly terrified Plumb look off-camera at the tiger's trainer, a smile frozen to her face, as she dutifully waits for the beast to devour her). However, the best part is when the toy ark bobs on the completely sea-covered earth...and we briefly see the shore of a lake appear at the top of the screen (nice "Psych!", God). I wouldn't expect anything less--or more--from a Schick Sunn Classic.
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 video transfers for Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Volume One - Bible's Greatest Stories are pretty bad, with second or even third generation VHS copies looking to be the masters here. Grainy, noisy image detail, compression issues, faded color (think "beige" for everything), and lots of scratches and dirt. Runtimes are inconsistent, too (David and Goliath was only 41 minutes--that's a chopped-for-syndication length? Or was it shown with a longer episode for a two hour block?). However, for nostalgia sake...they're perfect.
The Dolby Digital English stereo track is loud and squelchy (I couldn't distinguish any notable separation effects). English and Portuguese subtitles are available.
No extras for Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Volume One - Bible's Greatest Stories.
Bless this mess. All I have to see is that Schick Sunn Classic Productions starburst logo, and you get a minimum "highly recommended" from me. Luckily, Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Volume One - Bible's Greatest Stories embodies all the gamey qualities that I love about that indie producer/distributor, including ridiculous scripts, ridiculous special effects, and ridiculous performances. Straight-faced hilarity, on the cheap. Please, God--put the whammy on some releasing company and get all the Schick Sunn Classic movies out in a box set, pronto. Thank you, and amen. I'm highly, highly recommending Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Volume One - Bible's Greatest Stories.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.