Anyone making a film of the epic story of Moses and the Ten Commandments must inevitably deal with the 600-pound gorilla that is Cecile B. DeMille. DeMille invented and perfected the biblical epic in the early days of Hollywood, and brought it to the pinnacle of success with his 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. That film featured a princely Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh Rameses in the same year he won the Academy Award for his memorable performance in The King and I, opposing a young and vital Charlton Heston in the role that made him famous. Those who remember only the crusty old Heston and his unsettling NRA rhetoric tend to forget what a towering screen presence he could be in epic roles like Ben-Hur and Moses. I remember as a child (yes, I really am that old) seeing lines of people stretching around the block waiting to get in to see DeMille’s four-hour extravaganza. The Ten Commandments is still, when earnings are adjusted for inflation, the seventh top grossing film ever made, in the company of Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, Titanic, and The Sound of Music. And despite its admittedly corny story and silly dialogue, it is inevitably televised annually during the season of Passover/Easter, and thus remains one of the best-known of all classic films.
So the first question that might be asked about Ridley Scott’s new epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, is why would he want to make it? It was done with phenomenal success 58 years ago, so why not just declare victory and move on? Why revisit it now? Is it the director of that most successful of modern epics, Gladiator, challenging the master on his own home field? Is it a cynical ploy to lure evangelical Christians into the movie houses with something that could be a great cash cow? Is it a search for faith on the part of the avowed agnostic Scott, exploring the material as a kind of personal exploration (as Lew Wallace did in writing the original novel Ben-Hur, only to find himself converted in the end)?
If Scott wanted to out-epic DeMille, the one area that seems fair game in 2014 is in special effects. DeMille’s film won its only Academy Award in the area of visual effects, and it was well-earned: the spectacular Red Sea crossing was a technological marvel in 1956, and is still remarkably effective for a film from the pre-Star Wars era. But what DeMille achieved with a cast of thousands Scott is able to surpass with computer generated graphics that produce a cast of hundreds of thousands. The battle scenes in Exodus: Gods and Kings are worthy successors of the kind of spectacle created in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the plagues of Egypt are presented in realistic horror, while the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the sea is a true modern technical marvel.
If only that was all it took to make a great movie, then Avatar, for instance, would truly have been the “game-changer” that the hype said it was in 2009. But as it turned out, it was The Hurt Locker that ran away with the Oscar that year. Why? Because it’s great writing and great acting that make a great movie. Everything else is window dressing.
And there is some great window dressing in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Aside from the stunning visual effects, Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is lovely to look at, Janty Yates’ costumes are gorgeous, and Alberto Iglesias’s music is appropriately epic without overwhelming the visuals. But let’s talk about the story for a moment.
Although the film is entitled Exodus, it dismisses much of that ancient text in favor of borrowings from DeMille and his non-biblical sources (Moses and Rameses are raised together and so their competition is a kind of sibling rivalry; Moses is a general in Pharaoh’s army), from misunderstandings of what the bible story actually says (in Exodus, the Israelites have been in Egypt for 400 years, but become enslaved only when a pharaoh rises who “knew not Joseph”; Scott’s film insists repeatedly that they have been slaves for 400 years), and from the screenwriters’ own imaginations (Pharaoh hangs a Jewish family every day that the Israelites don’t surrender Moses to him; Moses trains a faction of Israelites as guerilla fighters to attack Egyptian strongholds)—presumably such additions are to make the story more appealing to modern audiences. Here’s a news flash: the story has been around for nearly 3,000 years and people have always found it moving. Changing it to make it into a modern action movie is not making it more effective.
Which brings me to the question of why the writers—it takes four of them (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian) to botch the story up this badly—chose to leave out what they did: the most dramatic part of the story has always been in the suspense created when Moses visits Pharaoh time and again while the plagues are occurring, reminding him that the Hebrew God demands that he “let my people go,” only to have Pharaoh rebuff the plea, thereby ensuring another plague. Not once does this happen in Scott’s film—although he adds a non-biblical scene in which Moses (Christian Bale) visits Pharaoh (Joel Edgerton, from The Great Gatsby and Zero Dark Thirty) at night and essentially threatens his life. Instead of this series of confrontations, Scott, or his writers, choose to present the plagues as a set of natural disasters that essentially follow logically from one another—the frogs leave the river once it has turned bloody; the flies are created by maggots in the dead frogs; the diseases are the result of the flies. And so on. It is as if the agnostic Scott wants to present the plagues as natural occurrences rather than sent by God. But when it comes to the deaths of the firstborn of Egypt, there is no other conclusion possible but that God has sent this plague. So what was the point of presenting the earlier plagues otherwise? Even the Red Sea crossing is depicted as if it were the result of a natural weather phenomenon—until the tidal wave that comes in along with four great waterspouts in tow that create a virtually apocalyptic catastrophe that comes a little too coincidentally just in time to save the Israelites from slaughter.
Another of the most dramatic parts of the Exodus story is the institution of Passover. Scott has his Moses order the Jews to slaughter lambs and smear the blood over their doors, but the frightening picture of the Israelites having their meal of unleavened bread as they huddle in their homes praying that the angel of death will pass them by and spare their firstborn is not presented. We do see Pharaoh’s reaction to his own child’s death, but the Jews are invisible in the disaster. This systematic rejection of the parts of the story that are in fact the most dramatic, and the replacing of them with newly imagined extra-biblical events achieves something that DeMille never even dreamed of: it manages to make the story of the Exodus remarkably boring. I had to shake myself to stay awake in the long “plagues” section, when there was virtually no human interaction and only some computer generated shenanigans going on.
In the Bible, God first speaks to Moses through a burning bush. It is the bush itself that is the “angel” or messenger of god. Scott is not content with that. First, he has Moses caught in a landslide and hit in the head, so that we are never sure whether Moses actually speaks with God or whether the encounter is in his imagination. This could be an interesting approach, replacing the certainty of Moses’ story as it stands with a story of a true test of faith. But that is not what Scott does. He makes God’s spokesman a preadolescent boy (played by Isaac Andrews), about the same age as Moses’ own son. The child appears several times to Moses, though when Joshua observes these conversations from afar, he sees only Moses talking to himself. The real problem, though, is that God comes off as a petulant child at times, wanting to show himself as mightier than Pharaoh While there is a hint of this in Exodus itself, the character of this child-god is questionable: He constantly taunts Moses sarcastically for no apparent reason.
One aspect of this is worth talking about: early in the film, Moses remarks that the name “Israel” means “one that wrestles with God,” and the sometimes argumentative relationship between Moses and the 11-year old God in the film is contentious in that way. It remains contentious through the film, and part of the reason for this is Moses’ stubborn ego. He consistently believes that he can rely on his own strength, on his skills as a soldier, to gain Israel’s release from bondage, rather than trusting solely in God’s power. He ultimately throws his sword away, into the sea—has he, at that point, learned to trust in God?
Perhaps. But this brings us to the characters and the actors who play them. I’ve just told you all I could make out of Moses’ character in this movie. Bale shows a range of feeling—anger at how his people are treated, love for his family and sorrow at leaving them (which, of course, he does not do in the Bible), regret at making an enemy of his adopted brother, and the like. But we see him chiefly on the surface. We don’t really know what’s inside of him; most importantly we don’t know what his faith is. And for this story, that’s pretty significant.
Edgerton is given perhaps the most sympathetic role here. Far from being a simple villain, Pharaoh is jealous of but sensitive to his brother, but dominated by his mother, and apparently truly grief stricken at the loss of his son. But as with Moses, he seems all surface. His face remains impassive through the entire film. One feels compelled to ask him, if you had an emotion, what would it look like?
Much of this is in the writing. The actors are just not given much to work with, and what they do has to be shoehorned in between special effects and quirky twists in the plot, while being denied the most dramatic parts of the story. John Turturo manages to get a little bit of mileage out of his small role as Rameses’ father, the Pharaoh Seti, and subtly manages to imply to the audience and to Rameses himself that he prefers Moses to his own son. Ben Kingsley as Nun is the face of the Israelite slaves, but aside from looking appropriately frightened or concerned at times, has little to do. Even worse is the use of Sigourney Weaver as Pharaoh’s mother Tuya, who has two brief snatches of dialogue where she appears to be the force behind the throne, but otherwise is invisible. Perhaps her best scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, and perhaps they would have provided a little more insight into Rameses’ character. But alas, all we have to go on is the final cut.
And admittedly it’s not as bad as many critics have suggested. At the time of this writing, the film has a paltry 28% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. That score may reflect not the overall quality of the film on its own, but more the disappointment at what seems largely a failure to being this oh-so promising material to life. And perhaps, a failure to live up to DeMille’s legacy. I had high hopes for this film myself, but I’m afraid I can only give it two Jacquelyn Susanns. If I were you, I’d go to see The Homesman this week instead.