As the child of devout Seventh-day Adventist missionaries, I wasn’t allowed to watch many movies – a deprivation I’ve been making up for ever since. But even as a tiny girl, the Bible itself provided me with plenty of gory, fantastical and lusty stories: Adam and Eve, naked in the Garden of Eden; Noah’s Ark buffeted by the flood, with all of wicked humanity drowning outside; and of course the spectacular tale of Moses, an Israelite slave baby found by a princess in the bulrushes on the River Nile. Raised in an Egyptian palace, he eventually has an identity crisis and becomes his people’s liberator – after God rains down plagues of frogs, locusts and boils on the evil Pharaoh.
A classic hero’s journey, the story of Moses (found in the religious texts of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but with very little archaeological or historical evidence to support it) is a marvellous one. It’s no wonder filmmakers keep wanting to exploit it, from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent film The Ten Commandments, to Dreamworks’ 1998 animated musical The Prince of Egypt, with Val Kilmer voicing Moses.
Watching Ridley Scott’s latest action-packed, CGI-laden, 3D version of the story, Exodus: Gods and Kings, sent me back to my dog-eared school Bible to the check the original story for comparison. I also re-watched Cecil B. DeMille’s lavish three-hour-40 minute 1956 epic The Ten Commandments (this was DeMille’s second go at the Moses story, so the director was obviously obsessed.) This classic Hollywood-era blockbuster was one of the few films I was actually permitted to see, despite its apocryphal romantic subplots and high camp aesthetics. (My ten-year-old self never quite recovered from the excitement of Yul Brynner’s swarthy, bare-chested arrogance as he strutted around the palace as Bad Rameses, continually spitting out edicts in his Russian-accented English: ‘So it shall be written; So it shall be done.’)
For all its heated romance (Anne Baxter as Nefretiri, purring like a cat on heat and throwing herself at Charlton Heston) and swashbuckling action scenes of slave uprising, the 1956 film solemnly followed the basic tenets of the biblical version, even crediting ‘The Holy Scriptures’ in its opening credits. God appeared variously as a deep voice, a burning bush and a pillar of light, bringing on the plagues and leading the Chosen People through a literally parted Red Sea, with glassy walls of water rising up on either side. By contrast, Scott’s version is an almost scientifically explainable tidal variation, albeit with an impressive underwater scene of ruined Egyptian chariots and poor dead horses suspended in a watery gel.
This is the thing about retellings of old and beloved foundation stories: it’s impossible to come to them fresh, without trying to compare and contrast with previous versions for veracity and style. It’s usually the modern incarnation that comes up short. Joel Edgerton, bald as a baby’s bottom with lashings of bronzer and guyliner, makes a fine Pharaoh in Scott’s version. It’s unfair to compare him to Brynner, but of course I do. As for Christian Bale, playing the sceptical Moses who struggles with the discovery that he’s not only adopted, but also charged with an enormous political mission, well, his performance is as intense and potentially crazy as you’d expect from Bale. But as unfashionable as Charlton Heston is these days, you have to admit he made a muscular and charismatic Moses in DeMille’s technicolour extravangaza.
The real problem I had with Scott’s Exodus however, was with the film’s depiction of God – admittedly never an easy character to get right. Here, God is played as an annoying and petulant child angel, Malak (Isaac Andrews). Perhaps the film’s whole ambivalence towards the vengeful and capricious deity is suggested by the fact that the divine being first appears to Moses after he’s been hit on the head with a rock and nearly buried in a mudslide. Are Moses’s visions the ravings of a schizophrenic? It’s not entirely discounted. As for the plagues (horrifically and satisfyingly rendered, especially a red river writhing with giant crocodiles), well, they’re certainly supernatural in their ferocity, but almost scientifically explainable too, as if the film can’t quite support the idea of a God who would kill innocent firstborn Egyptian children simply to make a point. Yet there’s no real revisionist critique here, and no crazy but delicious reimagining, the way Aronofsky did with Noah earlier this year.
That’s the problem with an Old Testament God. It’s hard to reconcile him with any kind of modern liberal sensibility. And if you want to use the ancient stories with their monsters, wars and miracles, then you need to either swallow it whole, or make it new. Exodus does neither, and the result is another tired old story of two men, Moses and Ramses, who are brothers turned rivals. And it really is a story of men. Unlike DeMille’s version, which was chock full of juicy female characters, this one gives its actresses (including Sigourney Weaver, Maria Valverde and Tara Fitzgerald) about two lines of dialogue each. But, like the internet furore over Scott’s casting of white actors in a Middle Eastern story, that’s another complaint entirely.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is in general release from 4 December 2014.