And suddenly the winds blew: The biblical epic is back, with Richard Harris stepping into Abraham's sandals. But, he tells Linda Joffe, they won't be stamped 'Made in USA'

Time seems to have overlooked this remote region on the edge of the Sahara. Camels and goats are tended by barefooted herders. Women bake unleavened bread in the age-old fashion. Remarkab1y little here, in fact, has changed for thousands of years. It's somewhat surprising to learn, therefore, that the nearby monasteries have united in devout supplication - rain for the parched land? A year of good crops?

Not quite. They were praying for the success of a new international TV production, the filming of which began in the area last spring. Fifteen years in development, it's the retelling of the Old Testament. Pooling German and Italian financial resources, in association with America's Turner Network Television, to the tune of some dollars 120m, the result will be more than 30 hours devoted to the stories of the Bible.

The massive project will be split into self-contained parts. The just- completed filming of the story of Abraham, starring Richard Harris (with Barbara Hershey and Maximilian Schell), will emerge as two 90-minute movies. As each section of the Old Testament is finished, so it will be released, a process that is intended to span several years.

Abraham is intended as the model for subsequent instalments: while executive producer Gerald Rafshoon makes it clear that 'there hasn't been any attempt to sell a particular religious point of view', the films are intended to be biblically accurate. A team of biblical scholars drawn from the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths has been close at hand to advise and approve both the script of Abraham and the subsequent filming.

An early draft, for example, called for Abraham to first meet God while he was tending a field. The Bible specifically states, cited by Dr Riccardo di Segni, the film's resident rabbi, that Abraham was - somewhat less exciting, cinematically speaking - sitting in front of his tent. 'And every detail in the Bible has a meaning,' says the rabbi. 'Abraham had just had a circumcision, which is the sign between Abraham and God, part of the covenant of him and his children as followers of God. That is why Abraham was sitting.'

'But the person who really kept us on the track of biblical accuracy,' says Rafshoon, 'was Richard Harris.' According to the producer, Harris relentlessly sought out the scholars 'with phone calls in the middle of the night and meetings every morning' to ensure that he was getting it right.

Sitting, on the last day of shooting, in the sweltering Sahara sun under a tiny scrap of shade provided by a single umbrella, Harris is clearly delighted with how the filming has gone. He is also convinced that the cast and crew were not working entirely alone. He cites the previous day's shooting of Abraham's attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac. The drama of a strong wind was required. As usual in this part of the world, however, it was a very warm, still day. 'Yet, when the camera turned with me holding the child up - a hurricane,' recounts Harris, shaking his head. 'I don't know. Coincidence? I kind of think: Maybe it was a gift. Maybe it was. Who knows? But, I'll tell you, it was frightening.'

Divine intervention, Harris suggests, may also have allowed the director to move in mysterious ways. Filming the scene when God comes to Abraham and promises him and all his descendants the land of Canaan, the three wind machines that were on hand to blow a nearby tree simultaneously broke. They decided to continue regardless. 'And when the camera was turned on,' says Harris, 'the winds howled down from the mountains and blew that tree, not to mention the whole area. And when the director said, 'cut' it stopped. And when he said 'action' again, it went. Now I know people reading this will say, 'Ah, come on, Hollywood rubbish.' But it's absolutely true.

'Abraham has definitely changed me in my private life. After the kind of Rabelaisian life I've lived, you get to the stage when you realise you are not indestructible. And you begin to think. So the part caught me at a very good moment. It's been a terrific spiritual influence, very deep and very moving. I can't tell you how. All I know is that I'm totally uplifted by it . . . Mostly, in movies you get 60 or 80 per cent of it right. But, in this one, it seemed to have been like somebody was on the phone to me, telling me what to do. It was very strange. Actually, it was very weird.'

In a movie career that spans more than three decades, Harris has done only a single film for television. He says he decided to accept Abraham because it is light-years from 'Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston romping in the desert in Palm Springs'. Having done John Huston's The Bible, which he dismisses as 'very Hollywood', Harris makes it plain that if Abraham had been a purely American film, he wouldn't have touched it.

In fact, American Emmy award- winning director Joseph Sargent, co-star Barbara Hershey and producer Rafshoon aside, the rest of the team is largely European, with a strong Italian contingent. 'There is no American influence on the film - at all]' says Harris. 'Let's get that quite clear. The artistic side of this picture is Italian; the designers are Italian; the cameramen are Italian. Let's just say they have put the right teams together, and this is the correct temperament to make the Bible. This is not a spaghetti Bible, I can assure you.'

The depiction of God is always tricky. Harris is at pains to emphasise that the film's biblical scholars are agreed that, despite past celluloid incarnations, God did not address the patriarchs in direct anthropomorphic fashion. 'It's like you go into meditation,' Harris explains. 'Abraham was endowed with a spirit . . . and he speaks to himself. There is no Hollywood crap of lights on trees - bollocks] I wouldn't have done the picture if they did that. That's special effects God.'

Harris truly believes that Abraham has a good chance of making a significant spiritual, as well as artistic, impact. However, the rest of Abraham's crew, it's safe to assume, would be happy to settle for high ratings on prime-time television if a reward in the next life is not on offer. We're talking entertainment, not enlightenment. 'The story of Abraham is full of violence, animal and human sacrifice, wars, smaller skirmishes, you name it,' director Sargent observes. 'Apart from everything else, it's a helluva story.'

THOU SHALT OBEY THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF MAKING A BIBLICAL EPIC . . .

1) Thou shalt not use your own sonorous tones as the voice of God. As did Cecil B DeMille in The Ten Commandments (1956) and John Huston in The Bible (1966). Huston also impersonated Noah.

2) Thou shalt not run the credit: 'Orgy-Sequence Advisor - Mr Granville Heathway.' (Solomon and Sheba, 1959.) In fact, thou should not have orgies: a cliche that cynically blends uplift with the down and dirty.

3) Thou shalt not allow Anne Baxter to slink about Ancient Egypt saying 'Moses] Moses] You splendid, adorable, stubborn fool]' (The Ten Commandents, 1956.) Very King James version . . . not.

4) Thou shalt not misinterpret the song title 'Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam' to mean that the presence of the Lord Our God can be reduced to a shaft of light and random dust motes: Solomon and Sheba (1959).

5) Thou shalt not make cheesy biblical epics in which 'the leading man has bigger tits than the leading lady': Groucho Marx watches Victor Mature's D cup runneth over in Samson and Deliah (1949).

6) Thou shalt miscast. Rita Hayworth as Salome (1953)? Still, Rita could dance. More than Richard Gere was capable of as King David (1985), his victory jig into Jerusalem hampered by the world's first Cosifit nappy.

7) Thou shalt have scene after scene featuring old duffers in bed gowns with beards down to their ankles proclaiming the Lord's approaching wrath (invariably pronounced raft). See every biblical epic ever made.

8) Thou shalt know the ages of the biblical epic as BC (Before Cecil) and AD (After DeMille). Cecil mangled the Good Book, injected huge doses of sex and sin. The Word Made Flesh, so to speak.

9) Thou shalt claim 'rigorous historical research' and 'new standards in authenticity' while permitting Lana Turner to flaunt false eyelashes, stiletto heels and lipstick in The Prodigal (1955).

10) Thou shalt use the tape recordings and transcripts of your negotiations with the studio to retell the story of the Tower of Babel. You will never be sure if this is a parable about Heaven or a parable about Hell.

(Photograph omitted)

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