A man, an ark, and a whole lot of critters

Noah is about to sail his precious cargo - all life on earth - right into your living room in "Noah's Ark" (May 2 and 3, NBC, 9 p.m.).

A cast that includes four Academy Award-winning actors, headed by Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen, and a wild and utterly comic approach to the subject, make this made-for-TV spectacle one of the cheeriest offerings of the season.

Filmed in Australia, "Noah's Ark" also boasts the newest member of the Oscar club, James Coburn, who plays an irrepressible peddler of pots, pans, and other paraphernalia.

Biblical spectaculars are a genre unto themselves. Few of them have been successful as works of art, though most of them have done well at the box office. When they appeal to viewers, it's because they speak about the enduring truths illuminated in the original stories.

For "Noah's Ark," writer Peter Barnes ("Enchanted April," "Merlin," "Alice in Wonderland") and director John Irvin ("The Dogs of War," "Turtle Diary," "Widow's Peak," "City of Industry"), both of whom are British, were careful not to follow in the footsteps of filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille. There's no overblown dialogue or pietistic platitudes. Nor do they try the slice-of-biblical-life approach either. Instead, they took many liberties with the story, opting for a bold style - part farce, part fable - that follows in the traditions of Shakespeare and even further back to medieval mystery plays.

"Noah's Ark is the most popular of all the mystery plays, which were all biblical stories," director Irvin says. "It was put on by the shipwrights in York in the 14th and 15th centuries. In that version, the wife was a terrible scold and banged Noah on the head with her frying pan."

In this grand tradition, Mr. Barnes wrote an often hilarious script, embellishing what is, after all, a brief narrative in the Bible. At one point, Noah's wife, Naamah - delightfully played by Ms. Steenburgen as a mischievous, childlike woman - tries to pitch some of the creepy crawlies overboard before Noah catches her. One of the pleasant things about the film is the relationship between the two: Devoted to her husband, Naamah accepts Noah's mission with wonder, fully conscious of his righteous nature.

"The moral is the same [as in the Bible], though it reaches out to the contemporaneous sensibility...," Mr. Irwin says. "We are the stewards of the world and God has entrusted us to take care of each other and the world."

"Humor as a stylistic approach made it possible for us to make this story," adds Jon Voight, who plays Noah with such sweetness of character and gentleness of spirit that the story rings true, even though it is played as a fable. It's funny without being disrespectful. The film also underlines an essential biblical truth - that God and man coexist.

"If we didn't use this stylistic approach to the bad behavior of mankind at that time, a literal picture - in light of what is going on in Kosovo, let's say - would throw us into despair," Mr. Voight says. "Then the other thing was the bold stroke of pulling Sodom and Gomorrah into the story as a way to [underscore] the bad behavior of the times. It's not a literal telling of the story, but it is poetically correct.

The story "is very disturbing in many ways, but it has a great deal of information in it - the drama of life and its meaning.... The story shows you the ramifications of bad behavior. It's about justice in a certain sense: Who we are and what we do matters."

Voight prepared for the role of Noah by reading the account in the Bible and many commentaries. Noah was more than 600 years old when he finished the ark, which took him 120 years to build. It took so long, Voight says, because the building was meant to be a warning to others to change their ways.

"The idea of divine guidance, or divine inspiration, is not as alien to us as our daily newspapers would suggest," Voight says. "The story has a great validity to me. I try to see the deeper meaning in it all."

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