In 1967, the film's score by Toshiro Mayuzumi was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures included the film in its "Top Ten Films" list of 1966. De Laurentiis and Huston won David di Donatello Awards for Best Producer and Best Foreign Director, respectively.
The film consists of five main sections: The Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah's Ark, and the story of Abraham. There are also a pair of shorter sections, one recounting the building of the Tower of Babel, and the other the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The sections vary greatly in tone. The story of Abraham is somber and reverential, while that of Noah repeatedly focuses on his love of all animals—herbivorous and carnivorous or omnivorous. Cats (including lions) drink milk, with Noah's relationship with the animals being depicted harmoniously. It was originally conceived as the first in a series of films retelling the entire Old Testament, but these sequels were never made.
Ulla Bergryd was an anthropology student living in Gothenburg, Sweden when she was discovered by a talent scout, who photographed her in a museum there, and then promptly hired to play Eve. In an interview for The Pittsburgh Press, Bergryd recalled the experience:
I was especially surprised by the fact that I started to work four days after signing a contract. Although I've always been interested in movies and the theater, I'd never seen any actual shooting, and it was all very exciting.
Huston originally considered Alec Guinness (who was unavailable) and Charlie Chaplin (who declined) for the part of Noah until he finally decided to play it himself.
Ava Gardner was reluctant at first to play the part of Sarah, but after Huston talked her into it, she accepted. She later explained why she accepted the role:
He (Huston) had more faith in me than I did myself. Now I'm glad I listened, for it is a challenging role and a very demanding one. I start out as a young wife and age through various periods, forcing me to adjust psychologically to each age. It is a complete departure for me and most intriguing. In this role, I must create a character, not just play one.
Anglo-Persian actress Zoe Sallis, who was cast as Hagar, was originally known as Zoe Ishmail, until Huston decided that she change her name because of its similarity to the name of Ishmael, her character's son.
The film marks the debut of Italian actress Anna Orso, who portrays the role of Shem's wife. It also introduced Franco Nero to American audiences; Nero, who was working as the film's still photographer, was hired by Huston for the role of Abel due to his handsome features. At the time, Nero could not speak English, and Huston gave him recordings of Shakespeare with which to study.
The scenes involving the Garden of Eden were shot at a "small zoological garden" in Rome instead of a "beautiful place of trees, glades and wildflowers" which had been demolished shortly before the shooting began. Ulla Bergryd, who was cast as Eve, later recalled, "Paradise was, in fact, an old botanical garden on the outskirts of Rome."
There were five reproductions of Noah's Ark built for the film. The largest reproduction, which stood on the backlot of the De Laurentiis Film Center, was 200 feet long, 64 feet wide, and 50 feet high; it was used for the long shot of Noah loading the animals. The interior reproduction, which was one of the "largest interior sets ever designed and constructed," was 150 feet long and 58 feet high and had "three decks, divided into a hundred pens" and a ramp that ran "clear around the ark from top to bottom." The third reproduction was a "skeleton" ark, built for the scenes depicting Noah and his sons constructing the Ark. The fourth reproduction was "placed at the foot of a dam" for the inundation sequences and the fifth reproduction was a miniature for the storm sequences. The cost of building the five reproductions was more than $1 million. The building took months and more than 500 workers were employed. The animals were delivered from a zoo in Germany. The whole segment of Noah's Ark had a total budget of $3 million.
The Bible: In the Beginning... premiered at New York City's Loew's State Theatre on September 28, 1966. The day after the premiere, Ava Gardner remarked, "It's the only time in my life I actually enjoyed working—making that picture." She actually said that while Working in The Night Of The Iguana; not The Bible.
The Bible: In the Beginning... received generally positive reviews from critics. Variety noted that "the world's oldest story—the origins of Mankind, as told in the Book of Genesis—is put upon the screen by director John Huston and producer Dino De Laurentiis with consummate skill, taste and reverence." It also commended the "lavish, but always tasteful production [that] assaults and rewards the eye and ear with awe-inspiring realism." However, in Leonard Maltin's annual publication, "TV Movies," the film is given a BOMB rating, its review stating, "Definitely one time when you ought to read the book." It also states, "Only Huston himself (as Noah) escapes heavy-handedness."
The film earned rentals of $15,000,000 in North America during its initial theatrical release, and $25.3 million worldwide, though Fox posted a loss of $1.5 million. Total domestic box office is by now almost $35,000,000.
20th Century Fox released the film on Blu-ray Disc on March 22, 2011.
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: